Trump and the Fear of Evil in America

The U.S. presidential candidate appeals to white evangelicals in part because he taps into common suspicions.

Donald Trump speaks at the Faith and Freedom Coalition in Washington in 2011 (Joshua Roberts / Reuters)

Donald Trump is deeply divisive among the Republican base of white evangelical Christians in the U.S. In a recent story on NPR, one evangelical called the billionaire New Yorker a “reprehensible” and “wicked” man. A popular evangelical novelist, Joel Rosenberg, has said Trump “would be an absolute catastrophe as president.” Even so, Trump has done well enough among conservative Christians to become the GOP’s presumptive nominee. In May’s decisive primary in Indiana, where about half of Republican voters were white evangelicals, exit polls showed Trump winning their votes by a margin of six points over Texas Senator Ted Cruz. They preferred a man who has been married three times, and who has been pro-choice much of his life, to the most outspoken evangelical Republican in the race. Why?

Trump has promised to seal off the nation’s borders from perceived “outside” threats, namely Mexicans and Muslims. His signature policy proposal is to build a wall along the entire southern border, and he has called for a moratorium on allowing Muslims into the U.S. These proposals, and his habit of stirring up fears related to nationality and religion, no doubt speak powerfully to many his supporters. But that animus isn’t the primary source of Trump’s appeal among white conservative Christians.

For more than a century, white evangelicals have been unsettled and infuriated by what they view as the nation’s subversion—not by forces outside the nation’s borders, but those within its most powerful institutions. These actors have corrupted and secularized one sector after another, evangelicals argue, especially universities, public schools, and the federal government.

It’s no coincidence that John Stormer’s book, None Dare Call it Treason, was a runaway bestseller in 1964—the same year Barry Goldwater, the last GOP nominee to be as fiercely anti-establishment as Trump, ran for president. The book reportedly sold more than 7 million copies. Stormer, a Missouri-based Baptist pastor and Christian school administrator, wrote a decade after the peak of the McCarthy era’s red-baiting. His book was, at one level, a straightforward rehash of conspiratorial thinking about communism in the highest levels of the U.S. government.

But at a deeper level, Stormer tapped a vein of disquiet among conservative Christians—one that was not limited to the threat of communism. Indeed, his ideas about communists were secondary to the conviction that the threat isn’t primarily from outside U.S. borders, but from forces within the country, working stealthily to fundamentally transform the nation.

Across the decades, that story has proved remarkably galvanizing among political conservatives generally and religious conservatives especially, with a wide range of people and groups serving as the villains—from secular humanists to immigrants to “superpredator” youth to radicalized Muslims. Trump has tapped into this story's power, decrying immigrants as “killers and rapists,” for example, and circulating the lie that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and is secretly a Muslim. The upshot of both charges is that the nation is, as evangelicals have long suspected, being attacked and transformed by sinister forces acting within our very borders—and even within the highest levels of government.

Evangelicals’ fears have largely found expression outside the realm of electoral politics. A century ago, conservative Christians began building their own networks of radio stations and colleges. In the 1970s, fueled by anger and a militant spirit, they initiated an intense phase of building their own elementary and secondary schools. “It is not too strong to say that we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in the struggle” as the Christian apologist Francis Schaeffer wrote in 1982, in A Christian Manifesto, one of the seminal texts of the Christian right’s emergence as a highly organized political force in the 1980s. “One either confesses that God is the final authority, or one confesses that Caesar is Lord.” This warrior spirit has proved astoundingly productive, inspiring evangelicals to build an entire world apart—a universe of sophisticated media outlets and educational institutions to promote their ideas and convert the unredeemed.

In the political realm, they have faithfully supported and often campaigned aggressively for Republican candidates who claim to share their values on social issues, especially abortion and gay rights. But the payoff has often been, from their perspective, minimal at best. Abortion remains legal, although it’s increasingly inaccessible in some states. Civil rights for gay people—and now transgender people—continue to advance. The federal government continues expanding under both Democrats and Republicans—sometimes, they argue, at the expense of their religious freedom, which they believe is increasingly under assault. Universities and public schools remain as “godless” as ever.

“The most lethal threat to freedom today comes not from a foreign military opponent. It comes from within.”

Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, summed up these grievances in his 2014 book, Awakening: “In America, the most lethal threat to freedom today comes not from a foreign military opponent,” Reed wrote. “It comes from within.” Citing the Harvard historian Niall Ferguson, he argued that the West’s four key contributions to humanity are representative government, free markets, the rule of law, and a vibrant civil society. As these have “withered and decayed,” he argued, “Western economies have stagnated and the culture that made prosperity possible has lost its way.”

In the 2016 GOP primaries, evangelical voters could have chosen from more than a dozen candidates—many claiming to share their faith and values, often fervently so. The candidates were mostly sitting and former governors and U.S. senators. They were also, from the perspective of some white evangelical voters, complicit in a corrupt system whose leaders have promised much but delivered little.

American political leaders have failed to address the economic concerns and discontent of much of the electorate—middle-class and working-class people alike—and income inequality has become a major theme of our public discourse. But for evangelicals, the disappointment is double barreled. The hollowing out of the middle class and the plight of the poor are inseparable from what they perceive as the moral rot of the nation and the political establishment.

Trump, always an awkward culture warrior, expresses only half-hearted sympathy with white evangelicals’ social values. Polls have shown that support for Trump is relatively shallow among the most devout evangelicals—those who attend church regularly. They appear unwilling to overlook his past, his coarseness, and his lack of commitment to their Christian faith.

But many other evangelicals have evidently embraced the audacity of Trump’s bid and the shock to the political system he embodies. If Trump doesn't speak their language fluently, he seems to get it at a gut level. They may well perceive threats from immigrants, Muslims, and other groups. But the greatest threat comes from the betrayal that lurks within the treasonous, godless heart of the political establishment itself—and that’s why they have largely supported the anti-establishment, billionaire businessman Trump.

This article appears courtesy of Sightings.