One of the enduring puzzles of this era is the support of Evangelicals for Trump. A deeper look at the Christian Right can explain why.
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White churches have been, and remain, part of the institutional fabric in the United States that serves to uphold white supremacy.
“Of course we’ve long known that American religion is divided by race, and white Christians in particular have very conservative views on racial politics,” says political scientist Paul A. Djupe. “Since congregations are heavily segregated, there are not many venues where contact with diverse people can be had to encourage conversations.”
In the new book White Too Long: The Legacy of White Supremacy in American Christianity, author Robert P. Jones shows that all white American Christian groups (evangelicals, Catholics, mainline Protestants) exhibit more racist attitudes than non-religious white Americans and, more importantly, demonstrates a causal connection between their racism and their Christianity. Just a day before the book’s July 28 release, Jones, founder and CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute, wrote, “This disparity in attitudes about systemic racism between white Christians and whites who claim no religious affiliation is important evidence that the common—and catalyzing—denominator here is religious identity.”
Media critics and pundits have responded to Jones’ findings with shock, but no one should have been surprised. Reports from the Pew Research Center and Jones’ PRRI show that not only do white evangelicals make up Trump’s base, but that those who attend church regularly are more likely to support Trump than those “cultural evangelicals” who attend church sparsely or never. Influenced by evangelicals’ power and PR savvy, elite journalists and commentators have largely ignored these facts until now, and there is a danger that even with Jones’ new data, lasting change in the national conversation isn’t forthcoming. There is one group of Americans, however, who are utterly unsurprised, who’ve been speaking out for years in the hopes of gaining a hearing: the growing contingent of ex-evangelicals and other former conservative Christians.
According to Denison University’s Djupe, “One of the major findings of twenty-first century social science of religion is that the polarizing politics of the Christian Right appears to have driven people out of religion.” Since the 1990s, America has experienced the rapid growth of people with no religious affiliation, or “nones” (many of whom retain some religious or spiritual beliefs). While the more moderate mainline Protestant denominations have declined faster than the more “low-church,” and generally politically right-wing, evangelical denominations, recent indicators suggest that decline has indeed caught up with evangelicals. The process has occurred in conjunction with America’s asymmetric political polarization driven by the Right. As Djupe related to DAME, his own research shows “that in states where the Christian Right was active in passing anti-gay rights ballot measures, the nones increased in size and evangelicals shrunk slightly.”
Although we don’t yet have the data to say for sure, white Christian Trump support has most likely accelerated America’s trend toward secularization according to Djupe and to social psychologist Joshua Grubbs, an assistant professor of psychology at Bowling Green State University. Grubbs grew up a Southern Baptist preacher’s kid and got his undergraduate degree from the notorious Liberty University, from which the scandal-prone Jerry Falwell, Jr., was recently forced by the board to take an indefinite leave of absence. Notably, Falwell’s ouster did not result from a recent racist stunt he pulled that has caused the school to lose African-American faculty and staff, as well as prominent student athletes.
Grubbs, who went on to get a Ph.D. from Case Western Reserve University, was among the Liberty alumni who returned their diplomas in 2017, in protest against Falwell’s defense of Trump’s “very fine people” remarks on the white supremacist rally at Charlottesville. Grubbs is still a Christian, but one who understands well the harm that can come from the kind of authoritarian, high-control Christianity he grew up with. He told me that his exodus from conservative evangelicalism took place in 2013-14, but that Trump’s evangelical support did not surprise him, since Trump is “the apotheosis of white evangelical Christian nationalism” and “what the Christian Right has been striving toward for decades.” According to Grubbs, Trump “securing the GOP nomination was predictable to anyone who understood white Christian nationalism.”
Meanwhile, religion watchers have identified a trend of African-Americans leaving predominantly white churches over Trump. Ex-evangelical homeschooling alum and anti-racist activist Tori Douglass told me that she knows a number of people who left evangelical churches over Trump. As for Douglass, she left around the same time Grubbs did, specifically as a result of scandals at Mars Hill Church and in response to white evangelical support of the white police officer who killed Mike Brown, which disturbed her as a Black woman. Douglass also told me that she launched her “White Homework” initiative in response to numerous white ex-evangelicals DMing her to ask for help with anti-racism, which is not something one learns automatically by leaving a racist religious community.
Twitter is where I first connected with Douglass and also with Akiko Bergeron (last name changed to protect against possible professional retaliation), a half white, half Asian-American woman for whom Trump was the final straw. Bergeron devoted decades of her life to serving Southern Baptist churches by teaching Sunday school and leading women’s groups, where she pushed the envelope on gender in the strictly patriarchal denomination. The daughter of a Buddhist mother and a non-practicing Church of Christ father, Bergeron converted as a child attending SBC Vacation Bible School in the late 1960s. “By my forties, I was deep into the church, but struggling with contradictory verses and knowing that there had to be more,” she said.. “Why was evangelicalism so against science? Why would a loving God create people in His image that were so hateful, so bigoted, and so racist? Where on earth did evangelicals get the idea that being white meant being superior?”
In 1998, when the now disgraced misogynist Paige Patterson, a leader of the SBC’s “conservative resurgence,” was elected SBC president, that was enough for Bergeron to give up her formal membership in America’s largest Protestant denomination. She continued attending and volunteering for SBC churches, but, “In 2015, everything changed,” she says. As Bergeron recounts her experience, “When I saw that friends going back twenty, thirty, forty years were all marching in lockstep with Trump, it was the last straw for what remained of my own defense of evangelicalism.” Bergeron continued, “I knew then that for my own sanity, leaving evangelicalism and the people in it was the only path forward. I believe we can love all our neighbors when we stop thinking of them as ‘the other.’”
Bergeron and many others have found comfort in connecting online with other ex-evangelicals, known colloquially as “exvangelicals” or “exvies.” But as exvies have tried to form survivors’ communities, unaddressed trauma has at times caused upheaval.
The concept of religious trauma is associated with the 1993 publication of Marlene Winell’s Leaving the Fold, but the term has gained much more currency in recent years. Concomitantly, new efforts have emerged to address religious trauma and the relationship between leaving religion and mental health on the basis of the latest peer-reviewed psychological research. This work is often spearheaded by exvies with relevant expertise.
Family therapist Laura Anderson experienced an influx of clients after Trump’s election in 2016. Most of them were women, and many of them were weighing the complicated decision to leave religion altogether, just as she had done before the election.
“As a survivor of multiple acts of sexual violence, Trump’s election seemed to be carte blanche for every person who had ever violated me to continue doing what they were doing,” she said. But that wasn’t all that was devastating about it. Anderson went on, “My evangelical mother, who had defended Trump profusely after the Access Hollywood tapes came out, now seemed dangerous. I no longer felt safe with someone who would be so excited about ‘God’s man’ being in office—the man who abused women just like I had been abused.”
She heard similar stories of religious trauma all around her. “November 2016 marked the first time that a mainstream religion—evangelical Christianity—was called into question, and I don’t think we were prepared for it,” she says. “In the days after the election, what I witnessed, mostly through social media and the clients filtering through my office, was nothing short of a mass exodus [from evangelicalism].”
Most therapists, accustomed to seeing religion and spirituality as “pro-social and supportive,” do not know how to deal with the trauma that comes from what is sometimes referred to as spiritual abuse or religious abuse, so Anderson and her colleague Brian Peck decided to do something about that. Together, they founded the Religious Trauma Institute, a mostly online initiative aiming “to train mental health clinicians to work with religious trauma through a trauma informed lens. We also will be developing resources for non-clinical helpers (e.g. coaches, bodyworkers), advocates, clergy, and survivors.” While not anti-religious, RTI focuses on helping survivors of what Anderson and Peck call “Adverse Religious Experiences,” a term coined “to help survivors understand their experiences as well as broaden the scope of religious abuse, as many people leaving harmful religious contexts do not identify with the term religious abuse.”
Conservative white Christianity in this country is overdue for a critical reassessment, and white Christians’ enduring Trump support may finally have brought us to a moment when this undertaking is possible. We as a country need to deal with the devastating impact the Christian Right has had on both our politics and on many individual lives. We must start by frankly discussing evangelicalism’s baked-in bigotry in the public sphere, incorporating birds’-eye-view data from social scientists like Jones and Djupe, psychological insights from relevant experts, and voices “from below,” from those of us who have lived both conservative Christianity and the trend away from religious affiliation.
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