Thursday, April 28, 2016

Once Again, Why Are White Evangelicals (and Working-Class White Catholics) Gung-Ho About Trump? — "A Form of Identity Politics That Has Always Tied Together Jesus, America, and Whiteness"

The discussion about the (by now, clearly demonstrated) fact that Donald Trump is mopping up in the evangelical voting market continues, with Tobin Grant offering statistical analysis at Religion Dispatches a few days ago of this phenomenon in several recent primaries, and noting,

Trump did well across the traditional Bible Belt. Outside the South, Trump did well in the many mini-Bible belts in which evangelicals dominate the local religious market.

As Grant notes, outside the bible-belt South, where Trump is clearly winning huge support from white evangelicals, he's doing exceptionally well in "mini-Bible belts in which evangelicals have a greater share of the religion market." Those evangelicals are also, it should be noted, overwhelmingly white.

These data continue to baffle media commentators as well as evangelicals who had thought that their evangelical faith stood for something different from, well, the following: this is from an angry Facebook posting that conservative blogger Matt Walsh posted back in February when Trump swept the heavily evangelical state of South Carolina:

The man won Evangelicals. The man who -- JUST THIS WEEK -- praised Planned Parenthood, and who fishes for applause lines by cussing out his competitors and mocking disabled people, and who can't name a book in the Bible, and who said he doesn't need forgiveness from God, and who brags about sleeping with married women, and who said he'd love to date his own daughter because she has a hot body, and who supported the murder of fully developed infant children, and who blatantly lies and then lies again about lying, and who has encapsulated literally the exact opposite of anything that could remotely be considered a "Christian value," won with the indispensable assistance of Christians. The anger I feel towards those Christians in this moment cannot be put into words. They should be ashamed. I will pray for them.

As Libby Anne Bruce says, commenting on Walsh's posting, having grown up in an evangelical, Republican-voting family, she sort of understands — and at the same time, she concludes that she doesn't understand at all. She recites a litany of rationales staunch (white) Republican-voting evangelicals are giving for voting for Mr. Trump, from the "God works wonders through bad men" meme, to the "Well, the Christians we've elected have disappointed us" meme, to the "But he's so bold!" meme (which should be read, "But he's such a real man, the kind God wants to appoint to rule over godly people!").

Media commentators just don't get all of this because, as Neal Gabler recently reminded us, the mainstream media are dominated by affluent youngish (median age: 41) white males (I'd add, by affluent youngish white heterosexual males) who live in a bubble of economic and regional privilege set apart from the rest of the nation, and who, as a result, have nothing in common with the people out in the heartland whose "rage" they're now trying to decipher in the 2016 election season. Trying to decipher from a haughty distance . . . .

Media commentators also choose not to get what's going on (and evangelical gurus who profess shock at Trump's strong appeal to white evangelicals also choose not to get it) because they do not want to deal with the elephant in the living room — which is the extent to which racial resentment has driven the political choices of white evangelicals (and white working-class Catholics in the North allied with white evangelicals) for a long time now. In this respect, the work of Billy Graham biographer and former evangelical Randall Balmer, which I've cited here (and here) a number of times in the past, is illuminating.

As Balmer reminded us in a Los Angeles Times op-ed piece published not long after Trump swept South Carolina,

When evangelicals organized in the 1970s to defend the tax-exempt status of racially segregated schools, they cast their lot with the far-right fringes of the Republican Party, and thus began a series of theological and cultural compromises that led them first to a film star and lately to a reality TV star.

As Balmer has cogently demonstrated in his book Thy Kingdom Come, an Evangelical's Lament: How the Religious Right Distorts Faith and Threatens America (NY: Basic Books, 2006), the political turn of the religious right — of the movement that began distinctively to call itself "the evangelical" movement in American politics at this juncture — began with the controversy regarding the "right" of Bob Jones University following the 1964 Civil Rights Act to continue receiving federal funding while flouting federal non-discrimination laws. Bob Jones asserted that it should be allowed to receive federal funding while prohibiting interracial dating among its students and citing religious conviction as the basis for the prohibition.

The U.S. Supreme Court begged to differ in its ruling in Bob Jones v. United States. From the time this controversy began in the late 1960s and early 1970s, evangelicals — white evangelicals — began to organize and cry "religious freedom," a story Balmer tells well in this Politico essay which argues that the real origins of the religious right lie not in Roe v. Wade and opposition to abortion, but in Brown v. Board of Education and opposition to racial integration. 

In both the South, among white evangelicals, and the North, in areas dominated by white evangelicals but also in those dominated by working-class white Catholic voters, racial resentment — outright opposition to the emergence of African-Americans as independent actors on the stage of American history — remains the unacknowledged force driving the Republican party since the late 1960s, and, today, Trump's rise to power. As Matthew Yglesias has just noted, Trump mopped up in the Northeast this week because, though the area is culturally and in very many other ways the polar opposite of the South, "one important area in which they are kissing cousins is white racism."

White Catholics, in other words, who are strongly represented in the areas in which Trump just won strongly in the Northeast, are helping to fuel his campaign. What is now happening with Trump in areas of the country historically dominated by working-class white Catholics strongly suggests that the alliance the U.S. Catholic bishops made with right-wing white evangelicals in the final decades of the 20th century is as much about racism as it is about abortion, women's rights, and gay rights — though we will not find either many Catholics or many media commentators seeking to discuss that topic.

As Adam Kotsko has noted, it is more accurate to speak of the rise of (white) evangelicalism in the U.S. as occurring simultaneously with the development of the religious right than it is to pretend that there was some theological-cultural congeries called "evangelicalism" predating the origins of the religious right. Kotsko writes, 

Evangelicalism in the contemporary American sense of the term has always and only been a political movement — a form of identity politics that has always tied together Jesus, America, and whiteness.

And so, as he concludes, contra evangelical leaders and media gurus who express total bafflement that evangelicals are going for Trump, of course evangelicals support Donald Trump. In large percentages. White evangelicals, that is to say . . . . 

As Fred Clark maintains in a significant statement yesterday at his Slacktivist site, Mahroh Jarangiri points us to statistical evidence reminding us that, when the March on Washington occurred in 1963, a sizable majority (some 60%) of white Americans disapproved of it — and of everything associated wtih the Civil Rights movement. Fred notes that pollsters at that time did not break down data according to subsets including the term "evangelical" or anything akin to that term. As he observes,

Actually, white evangelicals weren’t even "evangelicals" yet. In 1963, they were still either just fundamentalists or else a mostly indistinct subset of Protestants. But this is where white evangelicalism was born.

Fred explains:

Over the following two decades, that 60 percent rebranded itself as the "silent majority," or "Reagan Democrats," or "pro-lifers," or "values voters." This is how and when they became white evangelicals — the new name and new religion for people who were discomfited by Freedom Riders and the March on Washington, by the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, by Brown v. the Board of Education, by the Fair Housing Act, by Engel v. Vitale* and Loving v. Virginia, and by the rise of feminism. . . . 
"The social upheavals of the 1960s" that prompted white evangelicals to transform themselves and their religion into the partisan voting bloc they constitute today doesn’t refer to Woodstock or to Sgt. Pepper's any more than it refers to the Apollo program. That's never been what this is about. It's about feminism and the Civil Rights Movement and the desire of that 60 percent to stand athwart history and yell stop. 
"The social upheavals of the 1960s" — or, simply, "the '60s" — means Civil Rights and feminism. Full stop. White evangelicals were the people who opposed those things back then. And who oppose those things today.

Of course white evangelicals are gung-ho about Donald Trump right now. To quote Adam Kotsko again, Evangelicalism in the contemporary American sense of the term has always and only been a political movement — a form of identity politics that has always tied together Jesus, America, and whiteness. And from the point that the U.S. Catholic bishops chose to climb aboard this very same train with their alliance with conservative white evangelicals in the final decades of the 20th century, the same may well be said — unfortunately, especially considering the agenda of the right-wing Catholic men sitting on the Supreme Court — of American Catholicism.

With his strong support among white Southerners and working-class whites in the Northeast, Donald Trump is the rotten fruit of that very alliance — though the bishops would never admit this, as their centrist defenders in the Catholic academy and journalistic sector also would not do.

(I'm grateful to Fred Clark for linking to Adam Kotsko's essay yesterday.)

*Fred Clark's essay has a footnote connected to the asterisk, which I encourage readers of this piece to consult. 

No comments: