Donald Trump and evangelical Christians

Gary Silverman, the FT’s US national editor, is visiting Auburn, Alabama. He interviewed Wayne Flynt, emeritus professor of history at Auburn University and a Baptist minister who still teaches Sunday school at a local church. From this conversation, he produced a remarkable column. Here are a few fragments from it. If there were no copyright restrictions, I would copy and paste the full column. You can register and read all of it for free, without subscribing to the Financial Times.

I have highlighted the fragment that most surprised and enlightened me.

I … [wanted] to hear his thoughts on the local economy, but the conversation turned to a central mystery of US politics. Trump would not be president without the strong support of the folks Flynt has chronicled — white residents of the Bible Belt …. I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful.

Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality. Their faith, he says, has been put in a president who embodies an unholy trinity of materialism, hedonism and narcissism. Trump’s victory, in this sense, is less an expression of the old-time religion than evidence of a move away from it. ….

When the Christian right burst to prominence, its calls to defend the unborn were a rallying cry. But unyielding opposition to abortion was not a traditional evangelical position. In 1971 — two years before the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision legalising abortion — the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the largest US Protestant denomination, endorsed abortion in cases of rape, incest, “severe” foetal deformity or where there was “the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother”. ….

Abortion only became a leading concern of the religious right when the late firebrand Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the Moral Majority seized upon the issue towards the end of the 1970s. …. [Emphasis added.]

By any measure, Trump was an odd vessel for evangelical hopes. ….

Nonetheless, Trump was backed by 81 per cent of white voters who identified themselves as evangelical Christians, …. Unlike … Hillary Clinton … Trump pledged to appoint an anti-abortion justice to fill the vacancy on a Supreme Court that was split between conservatives and liberals. ….

Flynt says evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them. ….

Gary Silverman, “How the Bible Belt lost God and found Trump“, Financial Times, 14 April 2017 (gated paywall).

Professor Flynt (born 1940) is author or co-author of 12 books on Alabama, including Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites (University of Alabama Press, 1989). His latest book is Mockingbird Songs: My Friendship with Harper Lee (HarperCollins, forthcoming 2 May 2017), a collection of letters between himself and the author of To Kill a Mockingbird.

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