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The Trump Revolution Among U.S. Evangelicals

Hidden Hills, CA

December 22, 2033

An article from theWSJ that I found interesting:

As evangelicalism becomes a ‘bottom-up’ religion, congregations are pressuring their pastors to offer a more hard-edged political message.

WSJ, Dec. 21, 2023

No political issue over the last half-century has mobilized evangelical Christian voters more effectively than abortion. Yet going into next month’s Republican presidential caucuses in Iowa, where evangelicals are a strong presence, the candidates with the strongest anti-abortion stances are lagging in the polls. Former President Donald Trump, who called Florida’s ban on abortion after six weeks “a terrible mistake,” retains a large lead.

Support for Trump despite his hedging on abortion may be largely a question of gratitude, since he named three U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to overturn a constitutional right to abortion. But it also suggests that many evangelicals now support Trump for reasons other than that longstanding priority.

Evangelical Christianity is undergoing a populist revolution. Long in the making but catalyzed by the rise of Trump, this shift has inspired many evangelicals to reject their own elites and take a more militant posture against perceived enemies. At a growing number of churches, evangelicals hear sermons on a range of controversial political subjects, from border security to gun rights.

Preaching to a flock of several dozen people this summer in eastern Tennessee, pastor Shahram Hadian denounced vaccine mandates, voiced doubts about the results of the 2020 presidential race and said that Trump’s poll numbers were rising, despite multiple indictments, because a remnant of people still loyal to God were finally waking up.

“Here we are ramping up for 2024 and another crucial election, if they don’t steal it or try to indict their way out of it,” Hadian said. “Our response must be, we will not comply. Amen!” An increasing number of people who support such positions now call themselves evangelicals even though they aren’t members of any church, or attend rarely.

Trump “detected and tapped into an enormous anxiety, quite legitimate anxiety, about the culture and quite understandable frustration in the political process,” said R. Albert Mohler Jr., president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. “The immediate attraction is Donald Trump saying, ‘All these other guys have sold you out, all of them. I’m not going to sell you out.’”

The term “evangelical Christian” traditionally refers to a form of Protestantism emphasizing certain theological principles, including the inerrancy of the Bible and the experience of personal conversion or being “born again” in Christ. Twenty-four percent of U.S. adults described themselves as born-again or evangelical Protestants in 2021, according to the Pew Research Center, and the nation’s largest Protestant denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is considered an evangelical church.

Evangelical involvement with politics didn’t begin with the 2016 election. Billy Graham advised presidents of both parties, from Harry Truman to Barack Obama. In the 1970s, Jerry Falwell founded the Moral Majority to promote conservative social policies, including opposition to abortion and to gay teachers in public schools. President Ronald Reagan courted evangelical support, as did President George H.W. Bush. Evangelicals reached the peak of their political prominence when one of their own, George W. Bush, won the White House on a platform of “compassionate conservatism.”

It was a tribute to evangelical prestige that Obama invited the Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren to pray at his first inauguration, in 2009, despite the two men’s differences on the key political and cultural issue of abortion.

During the Obama administration, however, conservative Christians experienced a setback to their agenda after Vice President Joe Biden and then Obama himself backed same-sex marriage, followed by the Supreme Court’s recognition of the practice in 2015. Moreover, after decades of supporting candidates who campaigned on their opposition to abortion, access to the procedure remained a constitutional right. Frustrated evangelicals responded to Trump’s promises to defend them, said Philip Gorski, a professor of sociology at Yale University.

Some prominent evangelicals deplore their community’s support for Trump, notwithstanding the Supreme Court victory on abortion. “Voting for someone who is an admitted sexual abuser in order to hopefully see pro-life laws put in place is a Faustian bargain,” said Karen Swallow Prior, a literary critic and anti-abortion activist, referring to the 2005 “Access Hollywood” recording in which Trump used vulgar language to describe sexually assaulting women.

Timon Cline, editor in chief of the American Reformer magazine, a publication associated with a movement called the New Christian Right, said Trump set an example for evangelicals with his defiance of elites. “It was cathartic to see someone at least be disruptive of the status quo,” he said.

Cline’s magazine has followed that example with an activist arm that avowedly aims to “reform and revitalize” church-associated institutions. He says they campaigned for the SBC to affirm its prohibition of women serving as pastors at the denomination’s annual assembly in June. That position prevailed overwhelmingly despite the appeals of Rick Warren, who remains one of the country’s most famous evangelicals but whose Saddleback Church has been expelled by the SBC over the issue.

“Evangelicalism has become a bottom-up religion, more than a top-down religion,” said Ryan Burge, a professor of political science at Eastern Illinois University. “There is no one who speaks for evangelicalism like there used to be. There’s no Billy Graham, there’s no Falwell, there’s no [Pat] Robertson.” He noted that Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham, was excoriated on social media when he encouraged people to get vaccinated against Covid. “His dad was the pope of modern evangelicalism. And he’s super conservative, and he loves Trump,” Burge said. “Even he can’t guide the evangelical flock anymore.”

“I do not speak for all evangelicals, and my father Billy Graham would have said the same thing,” said Franklin Graham in response to a request for comment. “While evangelicals may not completely agree on every social, political, or cultural issue, we unite around what matters most—the authority of God’s Word and sharing the hope of Jesus Christ.”

According to Kristin Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, “this is a populist moment, and so it’s hard for anybody to lead evangelicalism today…What we see happening is leaders trying to run out in front of this movement.”

Churchgoers leave a Baptist church in Luverne, Ala. At a growing number of churches, evangelicals hear sermons on controversial political subjects.

Pastors are under pressure to take a more polemical line in preaching, said Russell Moore, a former official at the SBC. He left the denomination over disagreements that included friction with other leaders over his criticism of Trump, and has written a critique of contemporary evangelicalism entitled “Losing Our Religion.”

“It’s not enough that one’s church didn’t stay closed during the pandemic; it was also that the pastor didn’t castigate the churches who did or talk about the government conspiracy to shut down the churches,” Moore said. “Most congregations have a faction that is like this, and the congregations who don’t are holding their breaths waiting for one.”

Mohler, the SBC seminary president, speaks of “MAGA churches,” where “the Gospel has been eclipsed by political messaging.” He says he can foresee such churches developing into a “post-Christian, explicitly nihilistic” ideology like the far right in some European countries.

“I’d be very interested to find out how many of the MAGA folks really are committed to stopping abortion,” Mohler said, stressing that evangelical voters must press Trump to clarify his stand on the issue.

One of Trump’s most ardent evangelical supporters, Robert James Jeffress Jr., pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, says that the former president is still committed to opposing abortion and that his recent comments merely reflect a realistic legislative strategy to that end.

But Hadian, the pastor in Tennessee, says the matter calls for vigilance. “We need to pray for him, because I see he’s a different man than he was in 2016 when he was the outsider,” Hadian said recently to followers online. “We’ve got to be careful not to put all our hope and trust in one man.”

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