How Trump won the conservative evangelical vote
Trump and the Puritans, James Roberts and Martyn Whittock, Biteback.
In our quest to understand Donald Trump’s presidency, we may need to look at his significant support base amongst evangelical Christian voters, and why a man with such moral laxity has been embraced by them. Trump is far from puritanical, that much is obvious, but James Roberts and Martyn Whittock draw a line from the Pilgrims who landed on America’s east coast in 1620 (the 400th anniversary of which is being celebrated this year) through American historical developments and the way Americans think of themselves to Nixon’s silent majority and Reagan’s ‘light on a hill’ to Trump’s self- and nation-boosting.
At the core of Puritan identity was a sense of rightness and special favour from God mixed with insecurity at threats from outside. The colonial experiment was prompted by intolerance from the established church in England, but this bred in the Puritans not an easy-going attitude to religion but a determination to hold rigidly to their particular sectarian religious outlook. On the other side, literally, in a geographical sense, were (perceived and actual) hostile Native Americans. Added to these were threats from within, from those who were not as morally upright as they should have been, hence the moral patrolling. So the Puritans were besieged from all sides, and a significant portion of Americans still feel the nation is exceptional, in a godly sense, and besieged by a hostile world without and traitorous liberals within. (These are generalisations of course, but particular to the American nation, and the authors, being British, are attuned to the ways American Christians differ from, and are even perplexing to, Christians elsewhere.)
Not unassociated is the selective use of the Bible. The Puritans (unlike Trump) were highly biblically literate, but they used the Bible in a particular way to justify their sense of exceptionalism, arguing that, for example, Native American deaths due to disease were a sure sign that God wanted them to take over Indian lands. We can trace this way of reading the Bible, of selectively seeking signs, to the widespread belief that Trump is sent by God (prophesied in the Bible even, according to some extremists).
As the American colonies grew, the sense of favour from God was reflected in American talk of providence (a word used heavily by Puritans), and in the nineteenth century idea of manifest destiny, notions that can and did justify much dubious behaviour, including the extermination of Native American tribes. But Puritanism was also diluted, leading to, in the remnant godly, nostalgia for an earlier age of purity, a sentiment similar to Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ (a slogan, I might add, not of Trump’s making but borrowed from Reagan’s 1980 campaign – the idea of a lost American heyday is not new to Trump).
The old idea of going forth (westward) and multiplying explains a general antipathy to environmentalism (even if there is a lengthy parallel tradition within the States of needing to preserve the God-given beauty of the continent), seen by many as literally a tool of Satan because it is a challenge to the idea that God has given the American land to exploit to the full (which, it was claimed, Native Americans weren’t doing).
For many Americans in the middle states, Trump holds these ideals – not apologising but proud of the US, unlike Hilary Clinton who (conservative thought has it) with the use of the word ‘deplorables’ betrayed her contempt for the quiet (but angry) mass in the centre, and lost her the election. For those who thought of themselves as hard-working but oppressed morally and financially, Trump promised not only economic, but also religious, salvation, the restoration of Christianity (the religion of the previously dominant and ordained tribe) to a more prominent place, and they were happy to put up with Trump’s obviously unchristian personal moral failings. After-all, God can use the ungodly for his purposes.
Nick Mattiske blogs on books at coburgreviewofbooks.wordpress.com