Politics

The Trump presidency was a catastrophe for American Christianity

"I would like to die in this fight. … This is a fight for everything."

That is what Eric Metaxas, a well-known Christian radio host, said to President Donald Trump in a radio interview a few weeks after the 2020 elections. If the hysteria in those words surprised you, you probably haven't paid close attention to how evangelicals have reacted to Trump over the past four years. In fact, evangelicals were one of Trump's most loyal constituencies.

Even after it became apparent that Trump had lost, many Christian leaders doubled their support for Trump and joined a legal effort to overthrow the elections and disenfranchise millions of Americans. And just two weeks ago, Franklin Graham, a public face of evangelical Christianity, compared GOP officials who voted for Trump's impeachment to Judas Iscariot, the biblical character who sold Christ for 30 pieces of silver.

This is where American evangelical Christianity resides right now.

David French is a senior editor at Dispatch, a columnist at Time, and most recently the author of Divided We Fall: America's Threat to Secession and How We Can Restore Our Nation. French is also a constitutional attorney and Conservative Christian who has followed evangelical politics as closely as anyone else in recent years.

I turned to French to talk about how Trump became a pseudo-champion for millions of American Christians, why conspiracy theories are so appealing to religious fundamentalists, and why he believes Trump's evangelical base poses a serious threat to the rule of law in the US represents.

The following is a slightly edited transcript of our conversation.

Sean Illing

They call this moment a particularly "dangerous time for Christianity". What makes it so dangerous?

David French

There are a couple of things. I think when you see such a large segment of American Christianity, especially white evangelicalism, associate so closely with a political party and a man, Donald Trump, you don't exactly tie faith to virtue. That is obvious enough.

There really is some fascinating research done by Ryan Burge, a statistician and religious scholar at Eastern Illinois University. He showed how differently the religious strands of the USA, whether black Christians, Mormons, atheists or Catholics, keep their ideology at a distance from the party to which they belong most. However, this does not apply to white evangelicals. It's an exact overlap. The identification between white evangelicals and the GOP is almost perfect.

This is a problem because it means that your beliefs are now tied to a whole range of personalities and political positions which, of course, do not follow biblical ethics. Every time you bind belief in ideas and people that neither embody nor emerge from biblical ethics, you create a real problem. They have essentially politicized their beliefs.

Sean Illing

But why Trump? Is it just a random but convenient vehicle for Christians? Or is there something special about him – his fame, for example – that fits him perfectly with the modern Christian ethos?

David French

Man, that's a big question. Part of it is easy. White evangelicals are Republicans, and Republicans are white evangelicals, which has long been the case, and Trump was just the Republican candidate, so he had to work incredibly hard to lose their support.

Sean Illing

I'd say he worked damn hard to do just that, David-

David French

Right, you could say he worked hard on it, engaging in all kinds of behaviors that are obviously unchristian, that contradict Christian ethics, and that are deeply harmful to other people. But this is where things get complicated. I tell people who live in other parts of the country, in non-MAGA parts of the country, to remember where white evangelicals tend to get their information about the world.

When it comes to politics, most evangelicals don't get their information from the pulpit. I think it's a misunderstanding that a lot of people outside of the evangelical world have that they get a lot of politics in the church. No, but what is happening is that a lot of Republican Christians are catechized into politics by the conservative media, Fox News, talk radio. As I've told a lot of people, if you had the flow of information that many of my neighbors have (French live in Tennessee), you would be MAGA too. Much of this is just a product of information that doesn't make it that hard to endorse Trump if that's your information flow.

The other thing is, many of these people really believe the country is in an emergency that justifies Trump's extremism because they are getting their information. They believe that they need someone willing to be very aggressive against the left, their so-called enemies. Trump was also very smart about giving access to evangelical supporters and downright grapples and opportunists. That's a big part of what happened too.

Eric Metaxas speaks during the 44th Annual March for Life in Washington, DC on January 27, 2017. Tasos Katopodis / AFP via Getty Images

Sean Illing

I had a conversation with Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a historian at Calvin University, last year, and she argued that evangelical Christianity has steadily subsumed into popular culture and increasingly become a masculine, more militant, and nationalist political religion. Does this reading seem correct to you?

David French

I would say that there is a perverse version of masculinity that is common in southern evangelical circles and that leaves the church vulnerable to Trumpian influence. I've seen it with my own eyes. There is a deep-seated uncertainty about masculinity in the Church for many interesting reasons, some of which have to do with how secular culture describes traditional masculinity as "problematic."

There is a real struggle in many areas of evangelical Christianity to articulate and live out a biblical masculinity that is not too influenced by a secular culture that either falsely denigrates tenacity or falsely increases tenacity. I think that created a lot of confusion.

One of the things that was so bizarre to me was this equation of Donald Trump with virtuous masculinity. We don't need to go into all the details, but this is a man who has evaded military service, who has cheated on wives on a series, who is terribly out of shape, and who is so cowardly in many of his personal interactions that he delegates the task to people to dismiss to others. There is so much that it would be the opposite of it if you found out who the pre-Trump male leader archetype is.

Sean Illing

Going back to something you said earlier about faith and partisanship, I would argue that Christians in this country sacrificed the credibility – and substance – of their faith as soon as they leaned into politics and the GOP as their vehicle of power assumed. and that's something that preceded Trump by decades.

Do you think this is unfair or inaccurate?

David French

The embrace of political power brought with it a number of dangers that the church could not ultimately avoid. I've heard a number of people think about the beginning of religious law and this decision not only to get involved politically, but to get involved politically almost exclusively through the GOP. You can get involved in politics and you can be intellectually independent, but getting involved in politics through the GOP in order to gain political power was a big mistake.

Sean Illing

Why?

David French

Because the right may have gained political power, but the left has been much more effective at gaining cultural power, and if, like me, you believe politics is downstream of culture, the pursuit of pure political power has always been limited. Religious law lost culture and with it its ability to influence the world as they had imagined.

The Trump years sums this up perfectly. The right went all-in to Trump. White evangelicals went all-in on Trump. You won the presidency. You won the house. You won the Senate. They had justice. Will anyone say the United States of America will be more fundamentally Christian in 2021 than it was in 2017? I do not believe that. Most people would say that the cultural left has been strengthened during these years. So religious law got what it wanted politically in many ways, but I don't think they achieved their long-term goals in any way.

Sean Illing

Why do you think so many American Christians are caught up in conspiracy theories?

David French

Well, so many of these conspiracy theories use religious and prophetic language. For example, if you watch a QAnon video and I've watched a lot, you get messages like "Where we go we all go" and "Put on the full armor of God," and it's that mixture of scripture and scripture Prophetic style images that appeal to a specific type of religious person on a deep level. The conspiratorial message is like a gateway drug that attracts people.

And it all happens in such fertile soil in a time of fear, insecurity and death. We are literally in the middle of a plague. I think people put their hope and trust in Trump in times of fear because that's what they had and Trump cleverly took advantage of it. And again, religious law has been conditioned by decades of conservative media telling them that the ungodly left wants to destroy their way of life. They have been told for 20 years that the left hates them and wants them dead. They have been told that the Democratic Party wants to kill the Church. And from all of these big lies, countless smaller, supportive lies were supported.

So it's not difficult to understand why conspiracy theories take root in these communities. It's not hard to see why they believe the Democrats stole an election or that they are perverted pedophiles who deal in children. The ground has been prepared for a long, long time.

Shawn Thew / EPA / Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sean Illing

I keep wondering where this is going from here and it's not encouraging, David. With so much at stake now, when religious law is fully convinced that their way of life is threatened with extinction, how can this ever stop escalating? Aren't they a serious threat to the rule of law in this country?

David French

I've written a lot about how Trump's hardcore evangelical base threatens our constitutional rule of law. People on my side have long told me that I am exaggerating the threat, that I should stop clinging to pearls. But now we have seen a direct violent attack on the US Capitol, right on the seat of American democracy, and it was supposed to prevent a peaceful change of power that happened at exactly the same time as the attack.

And we are seeing false attempts across the country to create legal doctrines to overthrow a presidential election. People go to court with fabricated evidence, fabricated jurisprudence, to try to reverse an election. You enter legislatures trying to find a way how to overthrow an election. Then, when all of that failed, they tried to start a revolution to overthrow an election. I think this poses a pretty sweeping top-down threat to the rule of law.

Sean Illing

I now live like you in the deep south and don't think people outside of these areas understand how ubiquitous this kind of paranoid, alarmist thinking really is. These are not marginal beliefs. Millions of people believe an election was stolen, and if you really believe it, you are already mentally prepared to justify extreme countermeasures.

David French

I don't think you can understand how deep conspiracy thinking has gotten into the GOP unless you're in the middle of Trump Country interacting with grassroots Republicans. I don't think you understand the ferocity of Trumpism. One of the reasons more lawmakers aren't more dramatic about Trump, and let's face it, is because they fear for their lives and that of their families. Some stories about it have leaked, but I really think it's worse than most people suspect.

Sean Illing

How do we withdraw from the brink, David? Do you honestly see a way forward?

David French

I dont know. To say that there is no hope is completely wrong. I think there is hope. The fact that I don't see a definite path in the short to medium term doesn't mean there is no hope. I think the attack on the Capitol was a wake up call for some people.

My personal hope is that if we move forward without Trump's tweeting and searing tension, when the pressures of the pandemic and politics feel less existential, people will have a chance to breathe. This is my hope. If we can overcome this flash of insurgent spirit, maybe we can all breathe and slow down. If people can spend more time in restaurants with their families, they may have a chance to breathe.

Our only hope is that the general atmosphere of the country feels less like an existential crisis and more like a normal life whatever that is because I don't think things can get up to without the stress and fear of the pandemic escalating that point would burden us all. There has been so much death, fear and unrest and it has exacerbated our social dysfunction.

I have to believe that as the pandemic recedes and some of the pressures it is putting on us, things will get better. This is my best shot at optimism.

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