With Donald Trump's Iowa landslide, evangelicals reveal who they really are in Whatever Will Be Will Be

  • Jan. 16, 2024, 10:19 a.m.
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  • Public

Story by Amanda Marcotte taken from SALON (found HERE)

Despite the best efforts of the mainstream media to portray the Republican Iowa caucus as a real competition between Donald Trump, former Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina, and Gov. Ron DeSantis of Florida, the result was exactly what anyone reading the polls expected: A massive win for Trump. It usually takes at least an hour to call the Iowa caucus, but the state was called by the Associated Press in fewer than 40 minutes after the caucuses began. Despite all the hype about Haley’s last-minute gains, or the possibility that the weather might tilt the outcome (Monday’s was the coldest caucus ever), the result was what all statistical odds showed: Trump walked away with it. He more than doubled the support he got in the Hawkeye State in 2016’s caucus.

Much of the “maybe someone else will win” hype was driven by capitalism, of course. As with sports, the uncertainty of outcome drives cable news ratings and news site clicks, creating financial pressure on journalists to sell the Iowa caucus as a nail-biter instead of a preordained outcome. But in truth, I think a lot of journalists half-convinced themselves that voters would break to a non-Trump alternative at the last minute for a simple reason: The Republican Party in Iowa is controlled, more than in most states, by evangelical voters.

Over the past 8 years, we’ve all watched as evangelicals have grown ever more fanatical in their love of Trump, a thrice-married adulterer who bragged about committing sexual assault. Still, many pundits cling to this fantasy that American evangelicals are morally upright people who actually mean all that talk about chastity, charity, and Christian values. It was always a silly notion, of course, as the evangelical movement has long shown itself more interested in right-wing politics than in feeding the poor and healing the sick. But the romantic fantasy about an American heartland replete with simple but good people had powerful sway over the imaginations of the chattering class.

Iowa does have a long history of choosing Republican candidates who offer a snapshot of how conservative Christianity sees itself at the time. In 2000, George W. Bush won with a “compassionate conservative” message that papered over the sadism that fuels anti-abortion and anti-LGBTQ politics with paternalism. In 2008, former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee won with his aw-shucks persona barely concealing the malice that fuels him. By 2012, evangelicals were done pretending there was kindness in their authoritarian worldview. They granted former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — who couldn’t conceal his enmity if he tried — the victory. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz beat Trump in 2016. Both men are hateful trolls, but Cruz doesn’t cheat on his wife, and in 2016, evangelicals were still wary of being accused of hypocrisy.

DeSantis made his play for Iowa with the Cruz playbook of being Trump without the embarrassing chronic adulteries. DeSantis secured the endorsement of Bob Vander Plaats, an evangelical leader whose endorsee has, until this cycle, won every Iowa caucus Vander Plaats weighed in on. DeSantis was also endorsed by Iowa’s Gov. Kim Reynolds, a popular politician in the Bible-clutching GOP mold. The Florida governor leaned hard into the issues that traditionally excite evangelicals, with his “don’t say gay” law and loudly complaining that Disney is too “woke.” He courted pastors around the state.

None of it worked, much to Vander Plaats’ embarrassment. But that doesn’t mean that Trump’s win represents some big break in Iowa’s evangelical-centric voting patterns. Just like every Republican winner of the Iowa caucus for over two decades, Trump is an avatar for the current mood of white evangelicals. They are done pretending to be “compassionate.” The mask is entirely off. Evangelicals are not the salt-of-the-earth types idealized by centrist pundits. They are what feminists, anti-racists, and pro-LGBTQ activists have always said: authoritarians who may use Jesus as cover for their ugly urges, but have no interest in the “love thy neighbor” teachings of their purported savior.

Forget Jesus. The real lord of the evangelical movement has shown his grimacing orange face to the world, and it is a nasty one. There’s a temptation among pundits, who want to retain their view of the humble Iowa evangelical, to write this alliance between Trump and the Christian right as purely transactional: He gets votes, they get their anti-choice/anti-gay policies so long as they just ignore the stuff they supposedly don’t like about Trump.

But this image of evangelicals as reluctant Trump supporters doesn’t comport with reality. Trump often gets a rapturous reception with evangelical audiences and is frequently memorialized in fan art that depicts him in a near-messianic light. Trump shared such a video recently, called “God Made Trump,” which portrays the allegedly butt-smelly former president as the Second Coming. A recent poll of Republican voters shows that 64% rate Trump as a “person of faith,” putting him higher in their rankings than Sen. Mitt Romney, R-Utah, former Vice President Mike Pence, or any of Trump’s opponents in the GOP presidential primary. Only 13% of Republicans agreed President Joe Biden is a “person of faith,” even though — unlike Trump — Biden regularly attends church, prays, and showcases a basic understanding of the tenets of Christianity that Trump has publicly rejected, such as the concept of Christian forgiveness.

As religion reporter Sarah Posner wrote for MSNBC, “Trump is now the leader of the Christian right.” Garrett Haake of MSNBC found when he interviewed Trump supporters, they were eager to compare their stinky orange leader to Jesus.

One man goes so far as to compare Trump to Jesus Christ, saying, “when Jesus died, he died for us … so when Trump is facing all these things, he’s doing it for us in our place.”

This embrace of a proud sinner who almost certainly doesn’t believe in God comports with a lot of other cultural shifts in evangelical culture. As the New York Times recently phrased it in a delicately worded headline, “Trump Is Connecting With a Different Type of Evangelical Voter.” One big difference between evangelicals in the past and the ones today? The latter often don’t even bother with worship services. As religious pollster Ryan Burges recently demonstrated, over 40% of self-described “evangelicals” go to church once a year or less.

As Ruth Graham and Charles Homans of the New York Times explained:

Being evangelical once suggested regular church attendance, a focus on salvation and conversion and strongly held views on specific issues such as abortion. Today, it is as often used to describe a cultural and political identity: one in which Christians are considered a persecuted minority, traditional institutions are viewed skeptically and Mr. Trump looms large.

They spoke to many self-described “evangelicals” in Iowa who don’t attend church. Instead, their religious identity is built through “podcasts and YouTube channels that discuss politics and ‘what’s going on in the world’ from a right-wing, and sometimes Christian, worldview.” The primary religious figure in that world is not any pastor, theologian, or even Jesus himself — it’s Trump.

“Trump is our David and our Goliath,” one evangelical told them.

For years, progressive academics and activists have argued that the “evangelical” identity in white America was constructed less around spirituality and more around a very racist, sexist set of political preferences. It’s why evangelicals are rabidly anti-abortion and hostile to birth control and sex education, even though the Bible doesn’t even mention those topics. It’s why they center homophobia in their theology, even though same-sex relations are treated as roughly as sinful as getting a tattoo in the Bible. It’s why they hype patriarchal marriage as the end-all, be-all of their faith, even though Jesus explicitly regarded it as a secondary concern to salvation.

As author Tim Alberta, a conservative Christian-turned-Trump critic, recently argued to the Bulwark (

), this evangelicalism is not so much Christianity as a “competing religion” based not on the Bible but a grievance-centric faith of people angry that the “demography and the kind of cultural hierarchy” of the past — that is, white supremacy and male domination — is being challenged.

None of this is new to evangelicalism in America. As historian Randall Balmer has laid out, the religious right emerged directly as a reaction to the civil rights movement, as a way for segregationists to justify their racism on the grounds of faith rather than bigotry. The architects of modern American evangelicalism, such as Jerry Falwell, often got their start by pushing the view that the Bible demands the separation of the races. The infrastructure of the modern evangelical movement, especially its schools, grew up as a way to establish white-only spaces after the federal ban on most forms of racial discrimination.

Trump may not believe in faith or salvation, but he sure believes in racism and sexism. That Iowa evangelicals turned out to back Trump isn’t a betrayal of their values. It reveals the values that always fueled their movement. It’s just the last bit of plausible deniability has faded away.

Last updated January 16, 2024

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