Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, a preacher and co-founder (with the Rev. William Barber) of the Poor People’s Campaign, cheered the “honest” exposé of “#SlaveholderReligion.” Jemar Tisby, a prominent black historian and evangelical, tweeted that the religion described wasn’t Christianity at all but rather “syncretism: a blending of beliefs that corrupts true religion.” Ordinary citizens, too, reacted. One woman, “an American, a citizen of Alabama, and a Southern Baptist,” claimed she was “astonished at the way these Christians have twisted the teachings of Christ to soothe their hypocritical conscience.”
For many Trump critics, it’s enough to write off these believers as, in H.L. Mencken’s phrase, “immortal vermin” possessing only “theologic bile.” But this would be a mistake. To flatten them as caricatures of ignorance or hate dehumanizes them and, moreover, misses the enduring role of religious belief in American politics. It also misses the pervasiveness of what scholars call folk religion — the lived practice that exists in the spaces between official doctrine, biblical text and personal politics. And while we can dismiss it as nonsense or condemn it as hypocrisy, we might be better off seeing it as an opportunity.
Support for Trump continues a pattern for culturally conservative Christians that dates to the mid-20th century, when rapid, seismic transformations remade the United States. The post-World War II economic boom, the advent of the Cold War, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating desegregation of American schools, the sexual revolution sparked by available and legal contraception, the 1962 Engel v. Vitale ruling outlawing mandatory prayer in schools — these all created a sense of careening change that left some Americans deeply fearful. As an Alabama congressman put it in 1963, the government had first “put the Negroes in the schools; now they put God out of the schools.”
These changes revealed schisms within American Christianity. For example, after Brown, many Southern denominations urged their flocks to accept the ruling. The Southern Baptist Convention promoted compliance, with its Christian Life Commission stating that the ruling had its roots in the “scriptural teaching that every man is embraced in the love of God.” The Methodist Church, too, issued a supportive statement and later codified support for integration in its 1964 “Discipline,” a publication stating the law and doctrine of the denomination.
But conservative Christians defied such pronouncements throughout the 1950s and 1960s, joining segregationist groups and even enacting “closed door” policies in their local churches barring black worshipers. These chasms over race illustrate the difference between what religious historian Paul Harvey has called “folk” theology and “ecclesiastical” theology. That theological divide meant that while the Atlanta Methodist Bishop John O. Smith reminded churches of the need to welcome all in Christ’s name, a Los Angeles Methodist could write a 1965 letter proclaiming integration a force of the “Antichrist” and declaring that it was “a wonderful feeling to know that there are other people in America that are standing up for the rights of the white race and the right to gather without being mixed with the Savages of Africa.”
This tension — and the willingness of millions of parishioners to disregard the teachings of their churches — created an opening for leaders such as Paul Weyrich and Jerry Falwell, who came to understand that grass-roots opposition to racial integration, and later, principally, to abortion, could be catalyzed into a powerful conservative political movement. Using the language of Christianity and support for conservative cultural positions, they recruited these alienated Christians into new organizations such as Falwell’s Moral Majority, founded in 1979, and James Dobson’s Focus on the Family. They proffered a new brand of Christian conservative politics that was antiabortion, anti-homosexuality, pro-Israel and pro-private education, and utilized new tools such as Pat Robertson’s Christian Broadcasting Network to gain national resonance and ultimately take over the platform of the Republican Party.
While profound theological convictions anchored many of these stances, so, too, did political expedience, creating an uneven, and sometimes uneasy, partnership. Conservative believers found themselves committed to theological and political principles that often became difficult to disentangle.
Haunting this new conservative Christian coalition were the racial attitudes that had first animated the fracture within churches. When, in 1995, the Southern Baptist Church repented for its past racism, the move sparked controversy. And though, more recently, the denomination has repudiated the Confederate flag and white supremacy, many conservative churchgoers, like those in Luverne, continue to defend slavery, mischaracterize black protest and prepare for a “race war.”
Trying to fuse conservative racial and political beliefs with Christian teaching has sometimes required theological acrobatics. Ancient biblical curses were employed to justify American slavery; instructions given to the Israelites, to forbid interracial marriage. Similar contortions appear in the Luverne congregation. Frantic assertions that Hillary Clinton was “of Satan,” that President Barack Obama was a Muslim acting covertly for an Islamic state, that the Bible’s mandate to love one’s neighbor meant to love one’s American neighbor — all patently false — show the desperation for some sort of religious justification for their political views.
This gymnastics also appears more subtly, as when one woman begins questioning Trump’s belittling of others and then stops herself short, claiming, “We are not to judge,” or when the foibles of past presidents are invoked as cover. A sort of theological shrug, some admit that Trump is an ungodly leader but one who, like King Cyrus, might be used by God for good purposes.
But sincere theological grappling is apparent, as well. Churchgoer Brett Green took issue with Trump’s comments on immigration, wondering, “Jesus Christ was born in Nazareth, and Nazareth was a s—hole country at that time. … Jesus came out of a place like that.” Deacon Jack Jones, for his part, claimed it was “difficult, for sure,” that a divorced man couldn’t serve on the diaconate at First Baptist but that the president was twice divorced and an alleged adulterer to boot. To quote Pastor Clay Crum, these are “hard thing[s] to reconcile.”
It seems that in many congregations, now, as in the past, Americans are faced with not only a political, social and cultural conflict, but a theological one, as well. And if history is any guide, this is not going away. Mocking religion in the public square will only stoke the sense of grievance, abandoning believers to the apostles of conservatism and conspiracy.
Indeed, it may be that we need not less theology influencing political opinion, but less political opinion influencing theology. Trump’s irreligiosity may actually offer a chance to do the deep work of disentangling the two. In churches across the nation, in towns where people imagine heaven as filled with gardens and appliances, there is a need for theological instruction and faithful shepherding. Crum, with his exegetical, “sincere” sermons, his faithful prayers and home visits, his call to repent and experience grace, appears to be such a leader. But now he, and others like him, must also be prophetic. They must finish the sermon and call their flocks away from hatred, away from fear and toward the beloved community of God.