With the 2018 midterm elections coming down the pike, many continue to reflect on Trump’s victory in 2016, searching for answers about what drove Trump’s base to the polls, and wondering whether a similar mobilization is likely to occur this year.
The latest attempt to analyze Trump’s rise to the presidency comes from three sociologists who have released a new report documenting the central role of Christian nationalism in animating Trump’s supporters.
According to the report, “Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election,” published in the journal Sociology of Religion, by sociologists Andrew L. Whitehead, Samuel L. Perry and Joseph O. Baker argue that voting for Trump “was, at least for many Americans, a symbolic defense of the United States’ perceived Christian heritage.”
Moreover, the report found, “Data from a national probability sample of Americans surveyed soon after the 2016 election shows that greater adherence to Christian nationalist ideology was a robust predictor of voting for Trump, even after controlling for economic dissatisfaction, sexism, anti-black prejudice, anti-Muslim refugee attitudes, and anti-immigrant sentiment, as well as measures of religion, sociodemographics, and political identity more generally.”
Whitehead, Perry and Baker’s report comes in the footsteps of numerous other papers published by sociologists trying to explain the electorate’s choice. These reports have covered a broad swath of issues including economic anxiety; sexist attitudes; anti-Black prejudice; anti-Muslim and Islamophobic beliefs often couched in terms of concerns about “terrorism” or “refugees”; and racist, xenophobic and anti-immigrant attitudes.
Religious Right leaders made their political bed and are determined to lie in it — even if they have to share it with porn stars and centerfold models.
The new “Make America Christian Again” report does not disregard or disparage these overlapping factors, but it zeroes in on “the extent to which Christian nationalist ideology represented a unique and independent influence leading to the Trump Presidency,” arguing that, “Christian nationalism operates as a unique and independent ideology that can influence political actions by calling forth a defense of mythological narratives about America’s distinctively Christian heritage and future.”
Andrew Whitehead, one of the authors of the report, said he believes Republicans and Trump will continue to draw upon Christian nationalist rhetoric in order to energize their base this November.
“It proved helpful to them in the 2016 elections and so there is no reason they should move away from it now,” Whitehead told Truthout. “I think that Trump has delivered on some of the promises made to Christian nationalists, especially concerning his pick for the Supreme Court. I don’t think we’ll see any reduction in the importance of Christian nationalism in upcoming elections.”
Trump’s Alignment With Christian Nationalism
While Trump has never been a particularly religious man, and he has consistently displayed what might be seen as “anti-Christian behavior and beliefs,” he has been embraced not only by mainstream conservative Christian evangelical leaders, but also by a host of Christian Dominionist leaders. And, thus far during his presidency, he has delivered on some of the promises he’s made to evangelical Christians.
In addition to opening the doors of the White House to religious right leaders, he has appointed several cabinet members closely aligned with the religious right, including Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and the vigorously anti-choice Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price, who was forced to resign over his extensive use of taxpayer-funded charter flights. In addition, Trump pleased the religious right through his appointment of Neil Gorsuch to the Supreme Court. He may yet have the possibility of nominating more Supreme Court justices in addition to ushering in a host of Gorsuch-like federal judges.
In January, Mark J. Rozell, dean of the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University, pointed out additional moves that Trump has taken to please the religious right, including reinstating “the global ‘gag rule’ prohibiting federal funds from supporting international family planning agencies that provide either abortion-related services or advice;” incorporating a “special dispensation for persecuted Christians” into his original travel ban executive order; and creating a new “conscience and religious freedom office in the Department of Health and Human Services to protect medical professionals who refuse to provide services that violate their religious principles.”
These moves by Trump have encouraged Christian nationalists to continue supporting him despite mounting scandals.
Christian nationalism, is not synonymous with “civil religion,” in that Christian nationalism expresses a severely prescribed sense of religious mission. The sociologists’ report explains:
Civil religion, on the one hand, often refers to America’s covenantal relationship with a divine Creator who promises blessings for the nation for fulfilling its responsibility to defend liberty and justice. While vaguely connected to Christianity, appeals to civil religion rarely refer to Jesus Christ or other explicitly Christian symbols. Christian nationalism, however, draws its roots from “Old Testament” parallels between America and Israel, who was commanded to maintain cultural and blood purity, often through war, conquest, and separatism. Unlike civil religion, historical and contemporary appeals to Christian nationalism are often quite explicitly evangelical, and consequently, imply the exclusion of other religious faiths or cultures.
During the campaign, Trump made an obligatory stop at Liberty University where Jerry Falwell Jr. embraced him, despite the candidate’s well-documented biblical verse confusion. At Liberty, Trump claimed he would “protect Christianity,” bellowing that Christians were “under siege.”
At Oral Roberts University, Trump told the crowd,
You know that Christianity and everything we’re talking about today has had a very, very tough time. Very tough time…. We’re going to bring [Christianity] back because it’s a good thing. It’s a good thing. They treated you like it was a bad thing, but it’s a great thing.
During a stop at Great Faith International Ministries, Trump said, “Now, in these hard times for our country, let us turn again to our Christian heritage to lift up the soul of our nation.”
In May of last year, Trump returned to Liberty University, where he told the graduates:
In America we don’t worship government, we worship God … America is better when people put their faith into action. As long as I am your president no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith or from preaching what’s in your heart. We will always stand up for the right of all Americans to pray to God and to follow his teachings.
Christian nationalists framed the election as being a battle between preserving the US as a Christian nation and bowing to the “godless” candidacy of Hillary Clinton. Evangelical leaders like Focus on the Family founder James Dobson said that Trump would “restore America to its past glory.”
Make America Christian Again points out that, “The 2016 election was repeatedly labeled as conservative Christians’ ‘last chance’ for citizens to protect America’s religious heritage and win back a chance at securing a Christian future. As Trump told conservative Christian television host Pat Robertson, ‘If we don’t win this election, you’ll never see another Republican and you’ll have a whole different church structure … a whole different Supreme Court structure.'”
Whitehead, Perry and Baker write: “Christian nationalism operates as a set of beliefs and ideals that seek the national preservation of a supposedly unique Christian identity. Voting for Donald Trump was for many Americans a Christian nationalist response to perceived threats to that identity.”
The authors go on to “hypothesize that Christian nationalism will continue to predict voting for Donald Trump even when other important and interrelated factors are held constant, as well as under empirical contexts that allow for the potential interplay between Christian nationalism and various forms of ethnic resentment.”
Looking Toward November
During a 2016 campaign stop in Sioux City, Iowa, Trump said: “You know what else they say about my people? The polls, they say I have the most loyal people. Did you ever see that? Where I could stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay? It’s like incredible.”
While evangelical Christian leaders are loyally standing by Trump despite unfolding sexual scandals, bullying tweets and other crude and violent behaviors, the question remains, will rank-and-file evangelicals vote in the midterm elections?
At this time, while some conservative Christians are expressing fear about whether their base will vote in the midterm elections, many analysts are projecting that Trump’s white Christian nationalist base will turn out in force in November.
Last December, Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and author of “The End of White Christian America,” projected that they would. In a Religion News Service column, Jones wrote: “2018 will likely see white evangelical Protestants remaining locked in for Republican candidates in the midterm elections. According to the exit polls, 81 percent of white evangelical Protestant voters pulled the lever for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, and they strongly supported the president throughout his first year in office.”
Frederick Clarkson, a senior research analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank in Somerville, Massachusetts, agrees. “I think that the Christian nationalists will stand by their man,” he told Truthout. “Midterms usually mean losses for the party in power — but this year’s dynamics are extraordinary. It is reasonable to expect both a strong pro-Trump and anti-Trump vote. The Christian Right remains a well-organized and highly motivated faction that has been defying the death that has been declared so many times over so many years.”
Meanwhile, in late January, OneNewsNow, a news service of the fundamentalist Christian organization, the American Family Association, argued that Christians could play a “pivotal role” in the 2018 midterm elections, “if they show up.” Jason Yates of MyFaithVotes, told OneNewsNow that his statistical projections estimate “about 51 million Christians … will opt out [of voting] in 2018.”
In a Facebook post dated April 5, Christian evangelist Franklin Graham unhappily pointed out that progressives had recently won a Wisconsin Supreme Court seat, and he argued that Christians “need to pray and we need to vote, even in off-year elections.” In ginning up supporters, Graham warned his Christian conservative supporters that a “progressive is generally just a code word for someone who leans toward socialism, a person who does not believe in God, and someone who will likely vote against Godly principles that are so important to our nation.”
Rob Boston, director of communications for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, told Truthout that he doesn’t expect to see any serious erosion of Trump’s support from the religious right in advance of the midterm elections, regardless of what happens politically between now and November.
“Religious Right leaders know that if the Democrats take control of even one chamber of Congress, Trump’s agenda will be dealt a serious blow,” Boston told Truthout. “The plain truth is, these folks made their political bed and are determined to lie in it — even if they have to share it with porn stars and centerfold models.”