Tuesday, April 17, 2018

Tuesday Long Reads: Trump and White Evangelicals; New Book on Trump and Evangelicals; How to Alienate Millennials from Pro-Life Movement

Three long-read excerpts from essays I've read today that I think are very good reads — and which I'd like to recommend:

A new poll suggests that President Donald Trump's base of white evangelical support was not hurt at all by his lawyer’s hush money to Stormy Daniels, nor by allegations that the married president had a yearlong affair with a former Playboy bunny shortly after first lady Melania Trump gave birth to their son, Barron. On the contrary, as reports of the president's infidelities and shady business deals have piled up, white evangelical Protestants—among the nation's most socially conservative, law-and-order voters—have only come to hold more favorable attitudes about him. 
Social conservatives' support of the man evangelical candidate Ted Cruz once decried as possessing "New York values" looks counterintuitive. And it once was. 
During the 2016 primary season, white evangelicals were largely divided in their opinion of candidate Trump, with roughly equal numbers holding favorable and unfavorable views, according to Robert Jones, whose Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) regularly polls Americans about politics and religion.   
But once Republicans nominated him, his favorability among white evangelicals jumped to 61 percent in September 2016. Once elected, Trump packed his Cabinet with members of the political God squad and made items on their agenda—anti-gay and anti-choice—a priority. 
White evangelical Protestants have only grown more Trump-drunk since the election. In October 2017, 73 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump. 
Now, according to a poll conducted in late March, after the Stormy Daniels story was widely discussed, support has risen to a record 75 percent. The new poll, to be released today by PRRI, also shows Trump has the lowest unfavorable ratings—22 percent—among evangelicals in any survey since PRRI first asked the Trump question in 2015. 
Solid support for the president, however, comes as white evangelicals find themselves on the decline. 
Large-scale polls conducted over the last 10 years by PRRI indicate that white evangelicals as a percentage of Americans have been on a downward trend for at least a decade, as they steadily decline as a percent of the population. In 2006, they accounted for 23 percent of those surveyed, but as of 2017, they represented just 15.3 percent of the population.   
Evangelicals’ fervent support of Trump is not universally shared by a crucial, and rapidly evaporating, subset of the white evangelicals—their children—who are leaving the faith in droves over its anti-LGBT and anti-science positions. . . .
Historian and writer Christopher Stroop, 37, and an instructor at University of South Florida, was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community. He has spearheaded a number of social media hashtags, including #EmptyThePews and #RaptureAnxiety, to provide an online platform for ex-evangelicals to share experiences on everything from being forced to go on "mission trips" to evangelize indigenous peoples, to having to deal with what they call "rapture anxiety"—the belief, drummed into them from a young age, that God will swoop down at any moment and take all the good people away to heaven, leaving nonbelievers to die in the horrible, Biblically predicted Apocalypse. 
"I have seen evangelicals say they left after Trump," Stroop said. "I see people distancing themselves from the label." 
"The ex-evangelicals support group continues to grow," he added.

2. Greg Carey, "New Book on Trump and Evangelicals Gets It Mostly Right," reviewing John Fea's Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2018):

In Fea's analysis, three tropes—fear, nostalgia, and power—primarily account for Trump's appeal to evangelicals. A sense of cultural disorientation tinged with racism plays into the long-standing conservative strategy—the appeal to fear, nurtured by Trump more effectively than any other candidate. . . . 
The question of race figures prominently in Fea's analysis, but it does not rise to the level of the Big Three: fear, nostalgia, and power. I weigh racism as a larger contributor in white evangelical Trumpism. Our respective backgrounds may account for our differences on this point. I grew up in the South; Fea did not. Perhaps historians need to take greater account of the divergent histories within evangelicalism. 
Fea repeatedly notes evangelicals' mixed (at best) history with respect to race relations. He devotes nine pages to the history of racial fear in the evangelical South, but he never gets messy with the most telling factor: that no other religious group even remotely approaches white evangelicals’ preference for Trump. Race proved one of the most decisive predictors of Trump support, and white evangelicals were the most loyal Trump voting bloc of all. 
At one point Fea flirts with a pointed analysis of racism. He discusses how the Hart-Celler Act changed immigration patterns in the United States, bringing more people of color and more non-Christians into the population than had ever come before. The Act, he argues, instilled fear in white evangelicals. Fea locates immigration in the context of evangelical fear that Christianity was losing its hold on American culture. 
But the caution of his argument fails him. When he takes up the ambiguous (again, at best) engagement of evangelicals with the Civil Rights Movement, he rehearses "the relationship between race and evangelical opposition to 'big government' intervention in state and local affairs." But here's the problem: for a long period of time, evangelical resistance to activist government emerged out of resistance to civil rights. It has no other meaningful origin. Prior to the Civil Rights Movement and the Reagan Revolution, white Southerners had voted Democrat, supporting organized labor, government infrastructure programs, and investment in education. The big government argument is precisely the point at which Republicans values united with Southern racism to transform American politics.

Polls in recent years have noted that millennials "are less supportive of legal abortion than their demographic profile would suggest," as the Public Religion Research Institute put it in 2011. Such findings have given hope to the pro-life movement that the new generation could change the debate in time. 
But a new poll from the same non-partisan organization now indicates otherwise.  Even though overall public opinion on the legality of abortion remains stable, opinions are shifting among adults aged eighteen to twenty-nine. 
"The pattern among young Americans…is unique," the PRRI report says. 
"Approximately one-third of young Americans say their views on abortion have changed in recent years, and nearly three times as many say their views have become more supportive of abortion rather than more opposed to abortion (25% vs. 9%)."
I will venture that this sharp shift is at least partly a reaction to the embrace that Christian conservatives and the allied pro-life movement have given to President Donald Trump in return for his pledge to appoint anti-abortion justices to the Supreme Court. The Trump connection is a sure turn-off for many millennials, who gave a majority of their votes to Hillary Clinton in the 2016 general election and whose views of Trump have grown more negative since then. (Trump’s approval rating among eighteen to twenty-nine-year-olds is just 25 percent, according to a poll the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government released on April 11.)  

Some bits of commentary on each of the preceding:

1. It's possible to read the entire horrific presidency of the moral monstrosity occupying the White House as the result of a huge snit fit of U.S. white Christians, white evangelicals leading the way, who imagined — under the two terms of Barack Obama — that they had lost control of "their" country.

Why an African-American president whose moral and family life was so eminently more traditionally Christian, whose policy decisions so frequently mirrored traditional Christian values, would be demonized in this way as a symbol of the loss of Christianity in the U.S. is something we should think about, isn't it? Hint: it's white Christians who began having a snit fit during his presidency. Hint: Barack Obama is black.

They're actually enjoying the presidency of the moral monstrosity and all the damage it does to the world and the harm it does to their "enemies" and everyone else — themselves included. Because the lust for power is a powerful lust: it's a very addictive drug. They adore feeling as if they are — at last, they say — in the driver's seat of this presidency, and are thoroughly enjoying the thrill of seeing the car just about to careen over the cliff.

2. #1 leads to #2: it's critically important, as Greg Carey's review of John Fea's book suggests, to understand the framing role racism plays in the political decisions Southern white evangelicals — who constitute the backbone of the Republican party as it's now configured — have been making for years now. But the media and too many scholars of religion with little understanding of Southern culture, evangelical ones included, want to overlook or downplay that racism.

When I tweeted out some of Greg Carey's analysis of John Fea's book from the preceding excerpt, and then had a conversation about this topic with someone who, like me, grew up Southern Baptist in the 1950s and 1960s, John Fea responded with a snippy (and ungracious, considering that I was implicitly recommending his book by tweeting about it) question about whether I had read his book. That snippy question underscores for me the imperative need for media types and influential religion types outside the South, the latter with great influence on the media, to listen carefully and respectfully to the testimony of those of us who do know Southern evangelical culture. From the inside. 

That culture is now affecting the political course of the U.S. in a very significant way. People who think that they can ignore it with impunity — and not address it critically and proactively — are, in my view, deluding themselves.

3. The so-called "pro-life" movement as it's currently constituted has revealed a demonic face to American culture in the Trump era. Period. It's not about defending the values of life at all. Far too many Catholic scholars, intellectuals, and media types choose to deceive themselves about this fact.

Younger Americans are increasingly undeceived.

The photo by Richard Peter of a boy reading by candlelight and lamp is in the collection of Deutsche Fotothek in Dresden and has been uploaded to Wikimedia Commons for online sharing.

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