Boston University professor Stephen Prothero writes in Politico Magazine that evangelical voters breaking for Donald Trump have let their political identity trump their religious identity.
White evangelicals helped to send Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush to the White House, so courting them early and often has become perhapsthe great art of running for office as a Republican. For decades, Republican politicians have gone on pilgrimage, Bible in hand, to Bob Jones University and Liberty University to court the Jesus vote. Even nominal churchgoers like Reagan have done what no European politician would ever do: pledge their prayerful allegiance to Christ. Along the way, they have repeatedly promised to restore school prayer or stop gay marriage or overturn Roe v. Wade.
What they have delivered, however, is defeat after defeat in the culture wars. Cultural conservatives failed to pass constitutional amendments on school prayer or abortion. They lost on Bill Clinton’s impeachment. They lost on pop culture, where movies and television shows today make the sort of entertainment decried by the Moral Majority look like It’s a Wonderful Life. And same-sex marriage is now the law of the land.
Today, when born-again Christians hold up posters at rallies that read, “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for President Trump,” when they say they are sick of false promises from supposedly pious presidents on abortion or gay marriage and just want a strong man in the White House who can stop illegal immigration or keep us safe or just “smash things,” what are they saying? They are saying that their political identity has trumped their religious identity. They are saying that they are conservatives first and Christians second.
The Trump candidacy is no outlier. He has not hypnotized evangelicals into forgetting the foundations of their faith. He is simply revealing the fact that their faith is now more political than theological. The white evangelicals who flock to his rallies like their parents once did to Billy Graham revivals know that he lives a life comically at odds with teachings of the Bible and the examples of the saints. But his political theology resonates powerfully with their narrative of decline and revival. Classically that narrative ran from sin in the Garden of Eden to redemption on the cross. Today it takes place in an America that has fallen from its founding glory yet will, by God’s grace and Trump’s hand, be made great again.
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