I grew up Evangelical, in the Nineties. For me this meant being very aware that I was a central player in America’s “culture war,” an epic, ongoing saga, a clash of good and evil, a series of battles against the secular world and the liberals who were actively encouraging sexual liberty, baby killing, the feminizing of men, the gay-ing of American children, and the use of the welfare state to reward sloth and laziness.
In a degenerate age, we were on God’s side, doing God’s work. So when it was discovered that Bill Clinton received a blow job (or perhaps more than one) from a busty young intern, we all lined up against him. As an impressionable teenager, I was told that character mattered; it was crucial, I was told, that American leaders be men with integrity — and I was a pretty earnest kid, so I took it all to heart.
It was actually quite inspiring, back in the Nineties. I was an Evangelical, part of a movement that stood for something. We had the integrity to vote for leaders who had character. This was the Lord’s work, and it all felt very counter-cultural.
My memories of the Bill Clinton scandal are as vivid as the hellicopter footage of OJ fleeing in the white Ford Bronco. It’s seared into my mind, in the pop culture section of my brain. I remember the passionate arguments made on the radio and television. Character. Integrity. These were essential for leaders — unless you were a liberal, then you tolerated and celebrated immorality.
The counter-cultural feature of Evangelicalism is something that has sort of stuck with me over the years, long after I’ve separated myself from the movement. There’s something very nobel in making an honest attempt at being “in the world but not of the world.”
What I didn’t realize, back then, was that the Evangelical movement was less about integrity and a counter-cultural way of life. It was about tribal power.
Humans are tribal beings. It’s who we are, it’s how we evolved, over many millenia as hunter-gatherers, living in small bands of less than a hundred. We evolved to trust the tribe and have an innate suspicion of those who are not like our tribe, not like “us.” Othering is a tribal feature, an element of our evolutionary development.
This tribalism hasn’t changed, but the way we tribe ourselves together has. We have national tribes (“Merica!”), we have consumer demographic tribes (gamers, movie buffs, Phish fans, etc.), and we have relgious tribes. Evangelicals are a loose but politically engaged religious tribe. There is no central organization, which is part of the success of Evangelicalism. It’s a decentralized network that connects by consuming much of the same media: worship music, sermons, books, TV, film, and radio.
Since it’s so decentralized, it’s hard to pin down just what makes an Evangelical an Evangelical. I think the defining difference is a life-changing personal encounter with God via a personal experience of Jesus. Direct experience of God/Jesus/Spirit, in some form or fashion, marks the day-to-day reality of an Evangelical.
In itself, this is quite a remarkable and admirable quality — it’s the positive side of Evangelicalism, what Evangelicals stand for. But as a political movement, things are still tribal, and rather than defining themselves by what they stand for, Evangelicals are far more animated and energized by what they oppose. This is what brings us back to Trump.
Defending the tribe
In speaking of the latest revelations of Trump’s godlessness, Tony Perkins of The Family Research Council layed it out plain and simple. Evangelicals “kind of gave him [Trump] — ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,’”
Typically a mulligan is one “do-over” — one and only one do-over — for a golfer that hits a bad tee shot. In the case of Trump, he seems to get a mulligan on every other shot he takes — but that’s beside the point, perhaps — the point is that Trump gets a pass on this and any other debauchery and lechery because he fights liberals.
Perkins explains that Evangelicals “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
Trump, in other words, will defend the tribe.
I don’t think Evangelicalism need be entirely tribal. Nor does it need to be conservative. At its best, Evangelicalism has been radically leftist, like when leftist Evangelicals helped lead the charge against slavery. Nonetheless, the Evangelical tribe, as it currently exists, and as it has been for all of my lifetime, is a tribe of hard-right political conservatives who feel threatened by liberal and progressive values.
Is Obama really a bully, a thug with a gang of leftists? Are Evangelicals the undersized vulnerable kid on the playground, at the mercy of ruthless, ravaging liberals like Obama?
Personally, I’ve never met a liberal who has any problem with Evangelicals. Liberals that I talk too are quite confused as to why Evangelicals are so angry with them.
The fact that Obama and liberals are perceived as bullies is a tribute to the power of modern tribal propaganda. Evangelical family members of mine, for example, are convinced that Evangelicals are undergoing persecution and will likely soon undergo intense persecution. I’ve never been given any evidence of this persecution, but the lack of evidence does nothing to dispell the felt sense that the tribe is being targeted, by schoolyard bullies like Obama.
Out here in Cali, by contrast, I often hear liberals talk to me about “listening” to conservatives, thinking that if we on the left listen better, then maybe we can all come together and reason. In actual fact, this is what Obama had tried to do while he was in office, speaking ad nauseum about “bringing folks together.”
I usually tell liberals that listening is a waste of time. It’s not that I think listening is a bad idea. We do need more productive conversations in American society; it’s just that to me — a former Evangelical — the Evangelical tribe defines itself as anti-liberal, and for those older Evangelicals, this is never going to change.
To be human is to be tribal. That’s how we evolved. Tribalism doesn’t make Evangelicals terrible people, it just makes them human.
“Blessed are [not] the meek”
Evangelical elders will be forever convinced of the evil of liberalism, and they’ll do anything to fight this evil, even if it means using evil itself as a means to an end. Hence the same Evangelical elders who bemoaned the lack of integrity in the White House, when Bill Clinton was getting head in the Oval Office, are some of the same elders who are now gladly giving Trump mulligans for his infidelities.
It may seem like hypocrisy, but hypocrisy is beside the point. Evangelicalism is a tribal movement, and right now the tribe feels threatened. They are being fed a steady stream of propoganda about ow victimized they are. As Perkins says, “they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”
The stronger and more angry and animated Trump is, the better. The reason Trump rants on Twitter is because it animates his base. It’s not just that Trump is a ranting idiot, it’s good politics.
It’s good politics because Evangelicals need a strong man to beat back the secular liberals and their godless agenda. This is the central, simple insight as to why Evangelical support for Trump will never flag, no matter what he does.
Trump knows this, too. That’s why he said that he could stand on 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and not lose voters. The context for this statement is even more fascinating than the statement itself because when he said it he was in the middle of the Republican primary and Trump was criticizing how “soft” all the other Republican candidates were. Trump, by contrast, was a hard ass, a tough guy, and that’s what earned him his following.
Trump knew that the conservative base would rally around a guy who was tough and that shooting someone on 5th Avenue only confirmed the essential reason why his base loves him so much. Trump is the tough guy, the tribal warrior.
There is pushback, from within. Young Evangelicals, in particular, are far more open to nuanced discussions of faith and culture and politics — but so far this hasn’t made a dent in the massive support that Trump receives from Evangelicals. Trump has found the formula for success, and he’s using it for all it’s worth.