Friday, April 8, 2016

Trump's Christian Supporters

Ross Douthat, a conservative Catholic, wrote a column a few weeks ago about Trump's rather puzzling degree of support among people who call themselves Christians. He noted that Trump's strongest support comes not from regular church-goers but from people who don't go to church regularly yet still consider themselves Christian:
He’s winning in what I’ve previously termed the “Christian penumbra” — the areas of American society (parts of the South very much included) where active religiosity has weakened, but a Christian-ish residue remains.

The inhabitants of this penumbra still identify with Christianity, but they lack the communities, habits and support structures that make the religious path (somewhat) easier to walk. As a result, this Christian-ish landscape seems to produce more social dysfunction, more professional disappointment and more personal disarray than either a thoroughgoing secularism or a fully practiced faith — which makes it ripe territory for Trump’s populist appeal. And his occasional nods to religious faith — like, say, his promise to make store clerks say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” — are well tailored for voters for whom Christian identity is still a talisman even when an active faith is all but gone.
Very interesting. But Trump does draw support even among the most fervent believers. Douthat speculates that some of them feel that Christianity is losing in America, and they are willing to support a strongman if he protects them from cultural changes that they find threatening:
And the lure of the strongman is particularly powerful for those believers whose theology was somewhat Trumpian already — nationalistic, prosperity-worshiping, by turns apocalyptic and success-obsessed.

With the steady post-1960s weakening of traditional Christian confessions, the preachers of this kind of gospel — this distinctively American heresy, really — have assumed a new prominence in the religious landscape. Trump, with his canny instinct for where to drive the wedge, has courted exactly these figures. While more orthodox Christians have kept him at arm’s length or condemned him, he’s wooed televangelists and prosperity preachers, and pitched himself to believers already primed to believe that a meretricious huckster with unusual hair might be a vessel of the divine will.
One of the reasons to read religious columnists and bloggers is to get a sense of how divided and weak American Christianity feels from the inside. Some of my secular friends seem to regard Evangelicals (for instance) as a monolithic and threatening block of devout believers determined to thwart liberalism. But as you can see, many of America's most intense believers are not impressed by their fellow church-goers, and do not at all expect those weak reeds to really be on their side.


Unknown said...

Based on your earlier comments, I want to ask, do you tend to read Catholic bloggers more than Evangelical? I wonder if that weak and divided feeling comes more from self-consciously retro Catholics like Douthat than other conservative Christians. Retro Catholicism it seems to me is based in part, virtually by definition, on an identification with archaic things like hierarchy, elaborate ritual, and scholastic theology. I wonder, in fact, if it tends to attract folks who like feeling like they belong out of their own time.

Meanwhile much evangelical American Christianity is essentially triumphalist, baptized American capitalist nationalism by its very nature. There may be within it a core of insecurity, and it certainly likes to use the rhetoric of defensive embattlement, but without its triumphalist and aggressive side it seems to me contemporary American evangelism would hardly exist.

John said...

I do read Protestant commentators, but they are also intellectuals uncomfortable with glitzy, mega-church Christianity. I read people who are either skeptical of "God Bless America" nationalism or outright regard it as idolatry. (There are such people among Baptists and Methodists, even in the South.) I mean, I can only stretch my understanding so far. Thinking it over, I believe my doorway into religious blogging and journalism came through conservative Catholics, especially Douthat and Rod Dreher, so I mainly read Protestant commentators they have recommended.

My wife always says I would have been a great Puritan, because I take religion so seriously.

Thomas said...

Douhat is being meely-mouthed here. These are Christians only in a tribal sense, and this is a tribalism that Republicans have been encouraging for ages. It is the nature of Ted Cruz's "New York values" attack on Trump. It's the nature of Sarah Palin's "real Virginians" line. It is the nature of the rails against elites.

Trump is only appealing to what Republicans already created. They don't "lack support and communities" to become mature Christians. They just don't see their Christianity as anything more than a tribal identity.

Trump pretty nakedly appeals to that tribalism. The "truthiness" behind "Obama was born in Kenya/ is s secret Muslim" lie is that Obama is not in their tribe. The facts don't matter, because that exclusion is for reasons other than Christianity or American-ness, but they dare not explicitly state the reason because of the evil political correctness that they rail against so often.