12 Jun 2020
Associate Research Fellow Rosie Dawson reflects on Trump’s highly controversial pose outside St John’s Episcopal church last week and wonders if the key to the American election lies in the divergent response amongst evangelical Christians.
“To describe all that has happened within sight of this spot, all that this church has seen, looking across the square, would be to tell in large part the history of the United States.”
So wrote Republican Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of the “President’s church,” an elegant, white building on the north corner of Layfayette Square opposite the White House. It was designed by a Yorkshireman, Benjamin Latrobe, and consecrated in December 1816.
Former Presidents have sometimes looked to St John’s Episcopal church in times of national crisis. Lyndon Johnson asked for a service there on the day after Kennedy’s assassination; George W. Bush went there to remember those who died in 9/11 on the first anniversary of the terrorist attacks. Last week, the church was again at the centre of political events engulfing America as a nation rose in protest at the murder of George Floyd. But the presidential style was different. Donald Trump used police and tear gas to clear the square in front of St John’s of protestors so that he could have his photograph taken outside. He held up a Bible. According to his supporters this showed leadership akin to Joshua’s storming of the city of Jericho. According to his critics it desecrated the Scriptures and the Church.
But there’s no mystery as to the President’s motives. It is to be found in one of the shorter tweets he directed at his opponents last week: “NOVEMBER 3rd”. Donald Trump’s stance was aimed at the electoral base crucial to his chances of re-election, the eighty per cent of white evangelicals who voted for him in 2016. Fifteen per cent of Americans identify as white evangelicals but they are more likely than any other demographic to turn out to vote. Will that level of support hold? Will his action last week pay off?
Evangelicals can be broken down into many sub-categories, of course. But for the millions for whom being a white evangelical is a political identity, reading the Bible or going to church isn’t necessarily what they sign up to. They are religious in the way that Trump himself is religious. It’s about memory and nostalgia and was summed up in a podcast made by David Brody, head of the Christian Broadcasting Network.
“He remembers a time in the 1950s, back when he was growing up—remember, born in 1946, he’s 74 years old—he remembers a time where you dressed up for church, where you prayed in school. He remembers a time when there was Bible reading in classes. This is Donald Trump’s America”.
This was also a time of racial segregation and the Jim Crow Laws, but Brody said he didn’t want to get into that.
In 2016, research conducted by the Public Religion Research Institute showed that white evangelicals were the only group who felt that America’s culture and way of life had changed for the worse since the 1950s. Three quarters of them thought it had. The demographics and culture of the country have shifted around them: it is no longer the predominantly white, Anglo Saxon, Protestant country they thought it was, and they feel under siege. Bizarre though this may seem, for many of them, Trump’s stand outside St John’s Church was a statement in support of the persecuted, by which they mean themselves.
Then there’s another group of conservative evangelicals that are very serious about their Bible-reading. Some of them, including the flunkies who make up Trump’s religious advisory group, look in it for prophecies that Donald Trump is God’s anointed. But, more generally, this group read their Bibles purely from the perspective of the individual’s need for salvation rather than society’s need for transformation. Sin is individual, not structural. The African American evangelical Darrell Harrison used Twitter last week to draw a distinction between the “social gospel” and the “biblical gospel”.
“The social gospel preaches structural transformation that works in society from the outside-in, whereas the biblical gospel preaches spiritual transformation that works in society from the inside-out.”
George Floyd’s killing was caused by hate, rather than something called racism, he suggested. The solution to ending hate is “by repenting and believing the gospel”.
The Washington Post, however, noted protests in the capital last weekend which were organised by groups of conservative evangelicals and which appeared to call for change from the outside-in. Among them was David Platt, the white pastor of a huge mega church, McClean Bible, which Donald Trump has visited in the past. Standing alongside another conservative evangelical Thabiti Anyabwile, the pastor of Anacostia River Church, Platt prayed for forgiveness “for our history and our present”. Pastor Anyabwile, who has often spoken out about racism, told the Post that the moment felt significant.
What happens within these groups of evangelicals in the coming months will be reflected in future histories of the United States. Donald Trump will hope that actions such as his gesture outside St John’s will stoke just the right amount of fear among his supporters to make them feel threatened, but not so much that they are don’t trust him and stay away from November’s poll. The Democrats’ hopes may depend on the evangelicals who marched at the weekend, and the fact not just that they read the Bible but how they read it.
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