Is there a line Trump could cross that would cause white evangelicals to abandon him? Don’t bet on it
As Donald Trump, aided by the attorney general, Bill Barr, orchestrates a militarized, armed-to-the-teeth crackdown, terrorizing lawful protesters of racism and police brutality, much of Trump’s white evangelical base is cheering him as a courageous, godly leader facing down protesters falsely depicted as “professional anarchists”, “cultural Marxists” and “domestic terrorists”.
For Trump’s Christian partisans, his Monday night photo op in front of St John’s Episcopal church in Washington DC, after Barr ordered the park between the White House and the church cleared of protesters with teargas, is just another illustration that Trump is a mighty protector of freedom – the freedom of his white Christian supporters, anyway.
A common refrain in white evangelical circles is to condemn the police murder of George Floyd as, in the anodyne words of the evangelist and Trump ally Franklin Graham, a “terrible tragedy that should not have happened and should never happen again”. In this all-too prevalent way of thinking, there’s only one cure for racism. As Dan Patrick, the Republican lieutenant governor of Texas, told Fox News on Wednesday, the country could only be “healed” by people accepting Jesus Christ.
But when it comes to the systemic change demanded by lawful protesters all over the country, from its largest cities to its small towns, Trump’s defenders draw the line. “We cannot heal through commissions and blue-ribbon panels and more laws,” Patrick told Trump’s favorite network. Graham wrote in a Facebook post, “New laws and more government give-away programs are not the answer. It’s a heart problem, and only God can change the human heart.”
This white evangelical opposition to laws and policies addressing systemic racism is nothing new. At other similarly transformative moments in recent American history, white fundamentalists and evangelicals viewed the advance of civil rights in America as the nefarious work of leftist outsiders, and opposed laws and policy designed to promote equal rights.
In 1964, the late Jerry Falwell Sr, the founder of the Moral Majority and the father of Jerry Falwell Jr, one of Trump’s most steadfast evangelical defenders, called the 1964 Civil Rights Act “a terrible violation of human and private property rights” and said it “should be considered civil wrongs rather than civil rights”.
Falwell delivered one of his most notorious sermons, Ministers and Marches, in 1965 after Bloody Sunday, when state troopers, sheriff deputies and a white civilian posse beat and teargassed civil rights activists marching from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. “I do question the sincerity and non-violent intentions of” the Rev Martin Luther King Jr and other civil rights leaders, Falwell said, “who are known to have leftwing associations”.
Although 15 years later Falwell purported to repudiate the sermon, its ugly sentiments reverberate in Trump’s America today. The president and his allies, both in and outside of government, defame protesters as disingenuous, violent, un-American, and even criminal. Meanwhile, they hail the law enforcement officers who are violating protesters’ constitutional rights and inflicting horrifying violence as America’s heroes.
In the early days of the modern religious right, school desegregation animated white fundamentalists and evangelicals to mobilize in opposition to government policy they claimed violated their religious freedom. In the 1970s, the Internal Revenue Service tried to require private Christian schools, even those without explicitly segregationist policies, to adopt measures to diversify their student body, by making their tax-exemption contingent on such improvements. For these early religious right activists, this was a sign that the government, acting as a promoter of equal rights, was the enemy of the religious freedom of Christians.
Religious right activist and Left Behind author Tim LaHaye accused the government of “harassing” Christian schools. “Doesn’t it seem strange that the US government is lenient on communists, criminals, drug pushers, illegal aliens, rapists, lesbians, homosexuals and almost anyone else who violates the law, but is increasing its attacks on Christians?” LaHaye wrote in 1979.
Today, Trump’s base echoes similar claims of persecution – claiming that LGBTQ+ rights, for example, infringe on Christians’ religious freedom, or that state governors’ restrictions on large gatherings during the Covid-19 pandemic infringe on the first amendment rights of churches. Throughout his candidacy and presidency white evangelicals have stood behind Trump because, many of them say, he is “the most pro-religious freedom” president in history.
Their ongoing support for Trump – as he cracks down on protesters and hijacks the front of a church to pose with a bible – is, unfortunately, another chapter in this long history, one in which Trump has emerged as their dedicated strongman, unafraid to defend their “freedom”, no matter the cost to other Americans.
Sarah Posner is a reporting fellow at Type Investigations. Her new book is Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump