“Complicated” is one of the most overused words in America today. Almost any problem, institution, or person can be “saved” from harsh judgment or condemnation by the magical get-out-of-jail-free card that is the word complicated. This appears to not apply, however, to white evangelicals, who increasingly take up the space typically reserved for comic book villains.
Most other challenges call for context and multiplicity of meanings. Last summer, NPR reported President Joe Biden’s options in Afghanistan were “complicated.” Unlike Vietnam or the Balkans, Afghanistan has been “its own unique conundrum for a long time,” it said.
Last month, CNN reported on the challenges surrounding the supply chain by observing Biden’s struggle to make America normal again after the pandemic is proving to be far more protracted and complicated than first thought.”
When it comes to white evangelicals, however, the lines are straight and the categories stark. Robert Repino is one of the most recent examples of someone who simply reduces evangelicals to cardboard cutouts. In response to journalists who try to explain support for Donald Trump from Christians as an aberration, Repino doubles down on white evangelical deplorability. “Here on Earth,” he writes, “being a devout Christian is a reliable indicator that a person has supported Trump at his most craven.” These voters will be “happy to tell you they did it because they’re Christian.” Repino adds that Christianity has been political since Constantine, meaning Trumpism isn’t some “recent” shift but has roots in “slavery, segregation, anti-women’s rights movements, anti-LBGTQ movements, and all of the other wring-side-of-history issues.”
It doesn’t seem to occur to Repino that, for many Christians, the vote for Trump was complicated. Indeed, it very well may have been for two important reasons above all.
First, many evangelicals voted for Trump not for religious reasons but because they identified with his policies on economics, immigration, and foreign affairs. What happened in Virginia with evangelical voters who turned out in greater numbers for Youngkin than Trump could also apply to evangelicals in the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections.
If analysis of white evangelicalism used the sort of calculus that people typically bring to election analysis, they may well have concluded that evangelicals voted for Trump for economic and foreign policy reasons, as in this commentary from January, 2020:
You have to be a very idealistic democrat not to realize that elites drive society. The question is whether they drive it well or poorly — and with America’s elite, the answer is clear. … Whatever else Trump has done, even his worst enemies will concede that he has injected back into the national conversation fundamental questions about economics, national cohesion and grand strategy that had been treated as closed for a generation. Voters who dissented from the grand consensus had no party and no voice in the media until Trump provided both.
In other words, for a quarter of a century, evangelicals backed Republicans who wound up governing in ways similar to Democrats (even if Republicans sang a different tune on the stump). Trump and Trumpism represented an alternative. Indeed, since when do Americans ignore rebels or nonconformists?
The second reason evangelical support for Trump was “complicated” is that voting for anyone is rarely a neat-and-tidy easy call. For instance, Trump’s opponent in 2016, Hillary Clinton, likely used her clout to “steal” the nomination from Bernie Sanders. When Democrats who favored Sanders in the primaries went to the polls in November, 2016, if they threw their support behind Clinton, were they were also guilty of hypocrisy like white evangelicals?
Repino points up the thinness of identity politics when he alleges that Christianity creates a psychology in its adherents ripe for “authoritarianism.” The idea that race, gender, sexual orientation, or faith enables others to predict the actions of those who possess that identity is a form of profiling typically forbidden.
Reducing people to demographic traits is also hardly the way most people live. When the great historian, Leo Ribuffo, explained the religious syncretism of the average American voter, he was thinking of evangelicals as much as unbelievers. People think about politics much more in “response to everyday needs than doctrinal dispositions”:
Without any sense of contradiction, millions of Americans check their horoscopes after attending church or synagogue, express equal admiration for Billy Graham and Mother Teresa, watch Shirley MacLaine recounting her past lives on a late night television talk show, and then peruse Hal Lindsey’s predictions of imminent apocalypse before turning out the lights and sleeping soundly in the knowledge that they live in God’s country.
If critics of white evangelicals could refuse to hold these Americans to standards that rarely apply or make sense of other groups, they might admit that “complications” go all the way down, even to those people who sidestep complexity. If that refusal also included declining the demonization that follows from black-and-white judgments, white evangelicals might enter the ranks of ordinary Americans.
D. G. Hart is a distinguished associate professor of history at Hillsdale College and writes about Christianity in the United States. He is the author of several books, including most recently, Benjamin Franklin: Cultural Protestant (Oxford University Press).
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