Why Donald Trump Appeals to Evangelicals

A look at the long history of “Christian libertarianism” in the United States

A Trump supporter's hat (Carlo Allegri / Reuters)

Why do conservative Christians like Donald Trump?

It’s a question that has stumped pollsters, religion scholars, journalists, and pundits throughout this U.S. presidential election cycle. At first, some self-described evangelicals were skeptical of Trump, especially those who regularly attend church. But as of this summer, an estimated 94 percent of Republicans who identify as evangelicals say they’d support Trump over Clinton, with very little difference in the level of support among those who go to church every week and those who don’t.

Many explanations have been tossed around for this ironic alliance between the thrice-married, philandering casino mogul and some of America’s most socially conservative Christians: It’s about Supreme Court justices or religious liberty or loss of cultural power or anger. But there’s another recurrent theme in the way some Christian leaders have praised Trump: He’s a businessman. This was the explanation the Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. offered when he endorsed the Republican nominee, for example: “At this stage in our history, I believe we need an experienced and successful businessman who has fixed broken companies,” he said in a Washington Post op-ed in January. His nod came while Ted Cruz, a vocal proponent of conservative evangelicals, was still in the race.

It’s not obvious why alleged business chops would be attractive to a conservative Christian leader like Falwell. But Kevin Kruse, a historian at Princeton University, has a theory: This is an echo of an old alliance between white, evangelical Protestants and the corporate world. In his book One Nation Under God, published last year, Kruse argues that business titans joined forces with ministers and pastors following the Great Depression, pushing back against the New Deal with a kind of “Christian libertarianism.” Later, Dwight Eisenhower took their arguments—that freedom from government is a necessary part of freedom under God—and transformed them into messages about America: “In God We Trust” was adopted as the national motto and added to U.S. currency, and “under God” was tacked onto the pledge of allegiance. In turn, Kruse argues, Nixon used the newly minted image of America as a “Christian nation” to justify many of his policies.

Perhaps a strain of “Christian libertarianism” is coming back in American politics, showing up in a push to have government “run like a business” and a sense of anxiety about individual religious liberty being trampled by changing social mores. Kruse and I spoke about the possible connection between Trump’s rise and this old strain of pro-individualism among some conservative Christians. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Emma Green: Have there been particular moments in recent months when the language used by religious conservatives to praise Donald Trump or condemn Hillary Clinton has stuck out to you?

Kevin Kruse: It’s striking that evangelicals—and we’re talking about a subset, largely white, conservative, evangelical leaders—have touted Trump in the exact same language as other endorsers have, which is basically pointing to him as a winner. It hasn’t been that he sets such a great moral example; that’s kind of a hard case for an evangelical to make about a twice-divorced casino mogul. But they really have rallied around him by projecting the image of him as a winner.

What was the quote recently? “God has used worse people.” That’s the attitude: It’s that he’ll be an instrument to create change, and that’s what really matters.

Green: Talk about the connection between the prosperity gospel—a set of theological teachings that say prosperity is a sign of God’s blessing—and the political alignment of corporate leaders and ministers that you describe in your book.

Kruse: The first strand is an old one. You can look at the way in which Christians, Protestants, have seen personal success as a sign of God’s work.

The real political linkage is one that comes about through these corporate leaders in the 1930s, who are looking for someone to push back against the New Deal. When their own efforts fall flat, they go looking for ministers to make the case for them. They come together around a common set of values: They see the New Deal and the labor unions’ power as forces of “pagan statism.” Through that common enemy, they make an argument that Christianity and capitalism are one and the same.

In my book, I talk about James Fifield, who argues quite explicitly that both the systems are based on individual salvation. In his telling, a good Christian goes to heaven; a bad one goes to hell. A good capitalist makes profit, a bad one goes to the poorhouse. In both systems, individuals rise on their own merits.

“Christian libertarianism is an effort to appropriate a political ideology ... and use it toward a set of ends that had a religious gloss.”

Green: How would you tease apart the difference between today’s libertarians and the type of Christian libertarianism that you were describing from the mid-century?

Kruse: If you go back and look at the main libertarian thinkers from the 1930s on, religion doesn’t play a large role in their lives. Even some, like Ayn Rand, are atheists.

Christian libertarianism is an effort by ministers like Fifield or Vereide or even Billy Graham to appropriate classic libertarian arguments, which didn’t at all have to do with religion, and put a religious veneer on them to make them palatable for Americans. They reprint Hayek and von Mises and people like that who never would have made an argument in religious terms; they send them off to ministers and religious leaders. Christian libertarianism is essentially an effort to appropriate a political ideology that either had nothing at all to do with religion or was antithetical to religion and instead use it toward a set of ends that had a religious gloss to it.

Green: How does the mindset of Christian libertarians in the mid-century period you’re describing match up with the later mindset of strong government advocacy by groups such as the Moral Majority?

Kruse: I credit Christian libertarians with getting this religious language into government—the popularization of the idea of “freedom under God.” But they had always posed religion as an oppositional force to the state.

It’s Eisenhower who takes the language that these Christian libertarians had been pushing, uncouples it from its libertarian roots, and weds it to the state. Instead of “freedom under God” as opposed to government, he promotes “government under God.” He promotes “one nation under God” and the motto “in God we trust.”

A later generation, the nascent religious right seizes on that language that had been created by Christian libertarians, and instead urges the state to be more Godly. The language that had been used to promote economic conservatism comes to be used to support social conservatism. It’s not at all what the originators of this language had hoped to bring about.

“We, as a business, have a religious right to refuse the reach of the regulatory state.”

Green: Does 2016 mark a turn away from the conservative base wanting the president to embody a kind of moral leadership that, for example, Eisenhower aspired to?

Kruse: I think this has been in the making for at least the last decade. The real change seems to be in evangelical leaders. We’re seen a transformation in the way, for example, leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention talk—someone like Russell Moore is really important and transformative in the way the SBC thinks about politics. There’s a certain edge that has come off of faith in politics.

Green: How does Christian libertarianism connect with the push for religious-refusal laws—individual exemptions from the law on things like baking a cake for a gay couple or providing contraception to women?

Kruse: They’re absolutely connected. The Hobby Lobby decision is a perfect callback to the arguments made by Christian libertarians in the 1930s that we, as a business, have a religious right to refuse the reach of the regulatory state.

There was a period when the Civil Rights Act was passed when the same religious objections are made. A number of religious business owners in the South say segregation is demanded by the Bible. They point to the curse of Ham. They say that segregation is divinely ordained, and if you tell me to go against that, you are telling me to go against the Bible and violate my religious freedom.

What’s different is that those arguments in the 1960s didn’t get very far in the courts. It’s remarkable that today, these arguments that are being made against gays and lesbians have gotten much further, both politically and legally, than they ever had before.

Green: In your book, you talk about the idea that “America was once a Christian nation.” That might be true, you say, but much more recently than people generally think. That kind of nostalgia seems dominant in this election: the desire to make America great—again. Do you think this call back is specifically directed toward an Eisenhower-style presidency, when the commander in chief was pushing for God in office—literally, “In God We Trust”?

Kruse: I think it’s an explicit echo. During the Republican National Convention, speakers kept invoking “One Nation Under God.” At Trump rallies, it’s on T-shirts. It’s a callback to the Eisenhower era, but the use is closer to the Nixon era. Eisenhower used that language to try, in his mind, and bring Americans together. Nixon instead used it as a partisan club. He used it to justify the extent of the Vietnam War and Cambodia; he used it to advance all sorts of Silent Majority proposals before Congress. It became a wedge issue.

That’s what you see in Trump today: It’s much more of a defensive pushback against people who are seen as outside one nation under God.