By Matthew Avery Sutton
Donald Trump has never pretended to practice traditional Christian virtues. Yet in 2016 he earned 81 percent of the white evangelical vote—a higher percentage than George W. Bush, Mitt Romney, or John McCain. Trump’s success surprised a lot of us: How could a group of staunchly moral religious voters give their support to a man with a long track record of lying, cheating, using profanity, and grabbing women “by the pussy”?
If this seemed jarring, it may be because evangelical leaders have projected a whitewashed vision of their movement to the rest of the country so successfully for so long. To be an evangelical, leaders of the movement and the scholars who follow them insisted for several decades, is to commit to the authority of the Bible, the centrality of Jesus, the necessity of individual conversion, and evangelism. With this move, they separated evangelicalism from its existence in the world. Evangelicals might try to influence politics and culture, but politics and culture, they implied, had no impact on the untainted core of evangelicalism. Billy Graham might be sleeping in the Lincoln bedroom, and Jerry Falwell might be advising GOP platform committees, but the evangelical gospel was timeless, unaffected by the forces of history and the world around it. The sexists, racists, and xenophobes who regularly appeared in their ranks, they argued, did not reflect the true movement, only its distortions.
For the most part, this image of evangelicalism won the day. Historians and journalists swallowed the idea that evangelicalism was a system of theological beliefs independent from culture and politics. In the 2010s, a few scholars offered more accurate histories. But when it came time for elections, most Americans assumed that evangelicals would hold a presidential candidate to their own supposedly exacting standards of conduct.
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