Donald Trump has never been known for displays of Christian humility. The first few minutes of his remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in February were no exception. He thanked the creator of Celebrity Apprentice and, pronouncing Arnold Schwarzenegger a “total disaster,” asked the audience to pray for the show’s ratings. Trump went on to remind everyone that he is a billionaire, “somebody that has had material success and knows tremendous numbers of people with great material success—the most material success.” Later he acknowledged that his mission to stop terrorism “may not be pretty for a little while,” and promised that his administration would confront threats “viciously, if we have to.” Trump’s signature swagger makes many Christians wince, but it has deterred few white evangelicals. Eighty-one percent of those who voted last year cast their ballot for him.
That figure has become one of the most discussed statistics of the 2016 election. How could so many conservative Christians have voted for a thrice-married casino mogul who has bragged about assaulting women and rarely goes to church? Some commentators have speculated that perhaps these voters weren’t all that “evangelical” to begin with. “Many cultural Christians who never go to church identify as ‘evangelical’ or ‘born-again,’ ” suggested one conservative Christian blogger. A writer in The Nation emphasized evangelicals’ concern about future nominations to the Supreme Court: “If you can rally voters around abortion, few other issues matter.” Other observers credited plain old party loyalty or wondered whether this election proved that religion doesn’t matter very much anymore. So many voters seemed motivated by economic and racial grievances and resentment of Washington elites, not faith.
At the end of The Evangelicals, her nearly 700-page history of white evangelical Americans from colonial times to the present, Frances FitzGerald settles on the last of these assessments. “The simplest explanation was that those evangelicals who voted for Trump had affinities with the Tea Party,” she writes. They seemed to care more about shrinking the government, creating jobs, and deporting illegal immigrants than about enforcing Christian morals. “The Trump victory had shown,” she goes on, “that the Christian right had lost its power.” Yet FitzGerald’s careful account offers grist for a much richer exploration of evangelicals’ affinity with Trump.
Fitzgerald begins with the great revivals of the early 18th century, which brought forth evangelicalism as we know it today, more or less. The emphasis on the literal truth of the Bible, the focus on the born-again experience, and the swarm of entrepreneurial evangelists whom no Old World church hierarchy could control—the basics of evangelical culture were in place 300 years ago.
She follows this story through the rise of the Christian right in the 1970s and ’80s, and evangelicals’ role in politics today. Synthesizing a wide range of scholarship, FitzGerald offers no major argument of her own, but she reveals long-standing patterns in evangelical politics and leadership. Her overview, in tandem with an array of more pointed books on the subject, suggests that evangelical support for Trump is not a deviation at all—not a sign of hypocrisy or declining influence. On the contrary, that 81 percent figure makes perfect sense.
Late in her book, as FitzGerald recounts evangelical activists’ embrace of the Tea Party movement during the Obama years, she deems the alliance “unlikely,” at least “from a historical perspective.” In fact, the partnership between white Protestants and libertarians dates back at least to the American Revolution. In the 18th century, evangelical Christians had plenty of company among their fellow colonists in decrying the king’s abuse of power. But evangelical preachers fused their commitment to freedom from “civil tyranny” with a demand for the spiritual freedom to decide, without political coercion, to accept Christ. “There is not a single instance in history in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty preserved entire,” preached John Witherspoon, a Presbyterian minister with evangelical sympathies who signed the Declaration of Independence. “If therefore we yield up our temporal property, we at the same time deliver the conscience into bondage.”
Evangelicals in the early republic nurtured a deep suspicion of an encroaching federal government, and many were happy to collaborate with heterodox politicians who felt the same way. Thomas Jefferson may have taken a razor to his personal copy of the Gospels, excising the tales of miracles, but he had friends among the Baptists, who supported his campaign to enshrine religious freedom into law. Trump is not the first politically useful infidel to find allies in the evangelical world.
The point is that American evangelical religion was born in a revolutionary state. This founding moment of rebellion against big government left evangelicals keenly aware of the fragility of personal liberty—and the capacity of centralized power to snuff it out. Over time, the conservative evangelical vision of spiritual liberty fused with free-market ideology. Recent research has called attention to the collaborative efforts of capitalists and evangelical ministers to convince Americans that the free market is sacred. In the late 19th century, Darren E. Grem notes in The Blessings of Business (2016), businessmen recruited evangelical organizations to help them pacify a restive labor force. “Either these people are to be evangelized, or the leaven of communism and infidelity will assume such enormous proportions that it will break out in a reign of terror such as this country has never known,” warned the evangelist Dwight L. Moody in 1886.
The labor unrest of the turn of the 20th century, the Great Depression, and the New Deal hardly appear in FitzGerald’s book, but those decades of economic disaster and reform are crucial to explaining conservative white evangelical politics through the rest of the century, as well as the embrace of Trump. By the time the Roosevelt administration began to transform the federal government’s relationship to American capitalism, millions of Catholic, Jewish, and Eastern European immigrants had settled in the United States. Large numbers of African Americans began migrating north and agitating for civil rights. Many white evangelicals feared they were losing control over the nation’s culture. By redistributing wealth to the poor—including so many foreign-born arrivals and African Americans—the New Deal threatened to undermine that authority even further. Opposition to Soviet Russia provided a perfect rallying cry: The country represented the godless, totalitarian end toward which the New Deal might lead.
In One Nation Under God (2015), Kevin M. Kruse probes the alliance between leading industrialists and the Los Angeles preacher James W. Fifield Jr. In 1935, Fifield co-founded an organization called Spiritual Mobilization to battle the New Deal’s “encroachment upon our American freedoms.” His propaganda campaign, funded by donations from tycoons like the tire magnate Harvey Firestone and J. Howard Pew Jr. of Sun Oil, dazzled Americans with radio spots and Independence Day media blitzes celebrating “freedom under God.” Mailings encouraged ministers to warn their flocks of the “anti-Christian and anti-American trends toward pagan stateism in America.”
Fifield and his allies did not succeed in dismantling the New Deal. But by the 1950s, Billy Graham was rallying huge crowds with his dark predictions about the communist menace, an ideology “masterminded by Satan,” he said in 1957. “Graham sometimes invoked Communism as part of an end times prophecy,” FitzGerald writes, “and at other times as part of a jeremiad in which Americans had a choice to make.” In blending their movement’s libertarian inclinations with anticommunist hysteria and anxieties about cultural change, these evangelical leaders helped catalyze the most powerful ideology in modern American politics: Christian free-market mania. Evangelicals in other countries, such as Canada, worked alongside secular Social Democrats to build a generous social safety net. In the United States, conservative white Protestants ensured that the welfare state remained anemic.
At the same time, conservative white evangelicals have a long record of being highly pragmatic, rather than purist, in their libertarianism. Throughout American history, they have been more than happy to use the tools of the federal government to protect their own authority and advance a moral agenda—as they did, for example, during the campaign for Prohibition. This selective libertarianism continues to thrive. Trump’s promises to “drain the swamp” resonate with deeply rooted suspicion of big government, but conservative evangelicals applaud his more intrusive proposals as well. Today, many on the religious right find themselves on the losing side of global capitalism, and they don’t want anyone messing with their Social Security or Medicare.
Trump’s threats to curb free trade and punish journalists may make real libertarians apoplectic. And his initial executive order restricting immigration from seven majority-Muslim countries outraged some prominent evangelical organizations and leaders who lamented the order’s unbiblical abandonment of refugees. But other influential evangelicals, such as Billy Graham’s son Franklin, support Trump’s policy. The president’s isolationist approach plays well among Americans who believe that the time has come to restore the capitalist order as God intended it to be: with native-born white Americans on top.
In any case, ideology is not the sole bond between conservative evangelicals and Donald Trump. His dictator-lite charisma is essential to his appeal. To the majority of Americans—those who did not vote for him—Trump has all the allure of the boorish boss who takes too many liberties at the staff Christmas party. But his authoritarian machismo is right in step with a long evangelical tradition of pastor-overlords who anoint themselves with the power to make their own rules—and, in the event of their own occasional moral lapses, assure their followers that God always forgives.
Other forms of Christianity, like Roman Catholicism and many strains of liberal Protestantism, feature formidable Church structures: diocesan councils and synods, hierarchies and protocols that help keep rogues and would-be autocrats in line. In the evangelical world, these institutions are generally much less powerful—or nonexistent. FitzGerald chronicles the imperial ambitions of ministers like the Midwestern fundamentalist William Bell Riley and Jerry Falwell, a prime mover behind the Moral Majority. “Those who had built up their own churches or Bible schools,” she writes,“were rulers of their own fiefdoms.”
Down through the decades, more than a few of these figures, FitzGerald observes, have squelched dissent or scandal with little concern for the opinion of denominational bureaucrats. In a tradition that has always prized “soul liberty” and spiritual autonomy, American evangelicals have sometimes shown a strong preference for leaders who demand unquestioning obedience—and who, like Trump, consider disagreement a form of disloyalty.
Nowhere is this tendency more obvious than in the evangelical subculture that nurtured Donald Trump himself: the prosperity gospel. When Trump was a child, his family attended Marble Collegiate Church in New York City, pastored by Norman Vincent Peale, a celebrity minister whose influence radiated throughout evangelical circles and beyond. He was one of the most famous proponents of a spiritual style sometimes called the “Health and Wealth” gospel or “Name It and Claim It” faith.
Praying for a new car or a promotion may sound “shockingly materialistic,” FitzGerald writes. But for believers, prosperity theology means that the material world has “a miraculous, God-filled quality.” Its basic tenets appear throughout the Bible—the notion that God answers prayers, rewards believers with worldly blessings, and punishes those who don’t keep the faith. And then, like most heresies, it pushes such orthodox teaching to an extreme. Imagine that your desired reality is true, Peale urged believers. His handy slogan: “Prayerize, picturize, actualize.” Peale, the dean of “the power of positive thinking,” would have understood Trump’s penchant for inventing his preferred reality.
God never goes back on his word. According to many prosperity-gospel preachers, if you don’t get that new job you prayed for, then you didn’t pray sincerely enough, live righteously enough—or give generously enough to your church. The Florida mega-church pastor Paula White, who is frequently called the president’s “spiritual adviser” (and, like him, is on her third marriage), encourages her followers to donate generously to her ministry, and to expect financial returns. “When you give the ‘firstfruits of your increase,’ as the Word says, your ‘barns will be filled with plenty and your vats will OVERFLOW,’ ” her website promises.
Trump perfected his own brand of prosperity ministry in the ad campaigns for the now-defunct Trump University. “I’ll show you how to turn this sizzling opportunity into a tidal wave of profits,” one 2007 newspaper advertisement read. The candidate who specialized in ludicrous promises has continued that magical thinking now that he’s in office, as he vows to create “25 million new jobs” and insists that he can replace Obamacare with “a much better health-care plan at much less money.”
Throughout the 2016 campaign, historians suggested a range of analogies to explain Trump’s growing popularity. Did his momentum resemble the rise of fascism in 1930s Germany? Do his despotic tendencies and sensitive ego remind us of Napoleon? Maybe Henry VIII? Distant echoes are always tantalizing. The truth is that Trump’s victory—especially his popularity among conservative white evangelicals—has sources closer to home. His ascendancy was certainly galvanized by a 21st-century whirl of social media and global economic discontent. But in the end, Trump won over evangelicals—and won the election—because he exploited beliefs and fears with origins deep in America’s past.