In the many months since the release of the infamous Access Hollywood tapes, Donald Trump’s character has been called in question several times. He has been accused of sexually assaulting or harassing 19 different women. He is said to have referred to African nations and Haiti as “sh*thole countries” in a meeting with members of congress. Most recently, he is alleged to have had an extra marital affair with a pornographic actress by the name of Stormy Daniels the same year his wife Melania gave birth to their son. Despite his lapses in judgement, incivility, and lack of decorum which emanates from his incessant juvenile tweeting, some of his strongest support comes from white evangelicals.
Ironically, in 2011 two-thirds of evangelicals believed that a politician must display ethical behavior in both their private and public lives. However the rules seem not to apply to Donald Trump, who has been divorced twice and has children by three different women (if he were Black, they would be referred to a “baby mamas”). 81% of self-proclaimed evangelicals cast their ballots for Donald Trump in 2016. Pastor Robert Jeffress said the allegations by Daniels are “totally irrelevant” because evangelicals knew they weren’t voting for an “altar boy”. However, they had a near altar boy in the previous president. He was a regular church attendee and by all accounts a devoted husband and father. However, he was maligned at every turn and incredibly unpopular among white evangelical Christians. Only 24% of white evangelicals approved of him by the end of his second term. Obama was even said to be a Muslim, despite it being common knowledge that he consistently sat in the pews of Reverend Jeremiah Wright’s church in Chicago years prior to running for the presidency.
Instead, they support the foul-mouthed, moderately successful businessman and reality television star who referred to Nazi protesters as good people, while calling Black NFL football players “sons of b*tches”.
Black Christians have tried to integrate into white evangelical churches because of their supposed shared love for God and his word. For many Black Christians, it was a fundamental completion of Dr. King’s dream, where Americans of all ethnicities could worship under the same God under the same roof since they allegedly share the same values. However, recently the New York Times cites a mass “exodus” of Black worshipers away from those churches. The Times cites Trump being the catalyst, but he is only a symptom. Black worshipers realize that white nationalism stands firmly alongside the religious doctrine for evangelicals. The argument for Family Values was conveniently utilized to shame Black single parent households, quash gay civil and human rights, and reverse the gains of second wave feminism in the employment realm.
Jerry Falwell Sr., founder of the Moral Majority and perhaps the best known preacher from the evangelical movement of the 80s, questioned Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “sincerity” and founded the Lynchburg Christian Academy as a segregated private school for white children. He spoke against the landmark Brown vs Board of Education decision that desegregated schools, stating that when “God has drawn a line of distinction, we should not attempt to cross that line.” He opposed divestment in South Africa’s oppressive Apartheid regime.
While abortion became one of the religious right’s bedrock issues and is said to be the reason for some of their loyalty to Trump, evangelicals were initially silent after the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Abortion was primarily seen as a Catholic issue and therefore out of the purview of the evangelicals.
Falwell’s son, Jerry Falwell Jr. is the current president of Liberty University and an ardent Trump supporter. He speaks in the same spirit as his father, mixing his religious fervor with white nationalism. Falwell echoed Trump’s claim that Nazi protesters and sympathizers were no more to blame for the unrest in Charlottesville, VA than the noble counter-protesters like Heather Heyer who was killed during the upheaval.
Many writers have asked where the outrage is for Trump’s moral failings. If one understands the history and leadership of (white) evangelicals, one would recognize that racism is a powerful and fundamental element of their identity. Family values was a smokescreen to reclaim the moral high ground they had lost during the Civil Rights movement. The tradition they really wanted was Falwell Sr.’s idea of a return to segregation, the eradication of women from the work place, and the invisibility of LGBTQ people. Those reasons are why they fell in love with the slogan “Make America Great Again”, just as they had when Reagan stated it first as part of his Southern Strategy. It is Trump’s racism that has led to him being praised and defended. President Trump is correct, as long as he continues to target African Americans, Mexican/Mexican Americans, Muslims, immigrants from Black and Brown countries, and Native Americans, he could indeed “stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody” and still get evangelical support.
Jayson Nichols is a professor in the African American Studies Department at the University of Maryland.