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Trump and the Evangelicals


There are many ironies in the ascent to power of Donald Trump and the rewriting of the popular perception of American culture. The image of America the munificent, ever ready to raise up the downtrodden, of a broad-shouldered Uncle Sam willing to right injustices everywhere, has been replaced by a more realistic picture of avarice, self-interest and ill-concealed hatred of “others.”

Trump has given Americans permission to cast aside the imposed civility of “political correctness” and some have eagerly embraced the opportunity to say what they really think. Still others have grasped the moment to fulfill political agendas, even though the “messiah” promoting their cause is completely at odds with their professed religious views.

The paradox of the unlikely embrace of Trump’s presidency by Evangelicals will be explored by Pulitzer Prizing-winning author Frances Fitzgerald Sunday, January 13th, when she presents Trump and the Evangelicals at 4PM at the Hotchkiss Library of Sharon.

FitzGerald, author of The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, will talk about the Evangelical movement’s history and how it has influenced today’s political climate.

“You really can’t understand how religiously devoted people became political so quickly without understanding evangelical history,” she said. “A lot of the fundamentalist doctrines come right out of the pietistic revivals of the 18th and 19th century—and they make sense from the viewpoint of the 19th century. Then, liberal Protestants believed if you got better and better, the world would be better and Christ would come before the tribulations. The people who became Fundamentalists turned it the other way around.”

She said that Evangelism had gone out of fashion before Billy Graham revived it in the 1950s, identifying it with conservatism. Now, she explained, four things define Evangelists: The Bible as the ultimate authority; the emphasis on Christ’s death on the cross as the salvation for Christians; new birth; and the duty to expand the faith to others.

The entry of Evangelicals into the political sphere is an anomaly. Baptists were initially strict adherents to the separation of church and state and separation from the world was the major tendency in conservative American Protestantism during the first half of the 20th century. Evangelicals then had their eyes set on a loftier plane.

But, according to FitzGerald, most Evangelicals have now become “more pragmatic”—so pragmatic they can discount the character of a leader who gives them the results they want.

“Evangelicals used to say character counted most of all in a president,” she said. “Now, the majority say results matter and Trump has given them the results they want, starting with the Supreme Court.”

“Evangelicals started voting Republican long ago when the South went Republican,” she continued. “White Evangelicals have been getting out to vote in enormous numbers. They see a lot at stake for them.”

The majority of Evangelicals are located in the South, she observed, and their political involvement “has a lot to do with where they are—race has always been important and still is. They have the feeling that Blacks get privileges they don’t; that Washington is generally a terrible place and needs to be shaken up.”

Evangelicals are also “in the camp of isolationists,” and support Trump’s immigration policy, worrying about their own economic viability.

But no group of people is ever a solid bloc and FitzGerald sees fissures in the Evangelical confederacy. “They are still for Trump,” she concedes, but predicts that change is coming. “Journalists don’t predict the future, but we can see trends. It’s going to change in a while It may not come in 2020, but it may come in the next elections—this is according to pollsters.

She noted that younger Evangelicals are not interested in the culture wars of the past. “For instance, more of them are for same-sex marriage than not. When they begin to vote—and they do not vote now—that will change things. It will also change when Latinos start voting. They vote Democratic by 60 percent—and this is Evangelical Latinos, most of whom are Pentacostals. They would vote for economic reasons and because of immigration.”

While Trump’s support has eroded somewhat among Evangelical men, she reports a “gender gap,” with Evangelical women being much more likely to vote for Democratic candidates. “Probably the women worry more about character,” she said. “For women in the Southern Baptist Convention, the Me Too movement has taken hold and they have gotten rid of some pastors who have abused women.”

They have already thrown out Paige Patterson, the former head of the Southern Baptist Convention, because of the demeaning way he spoke about women.

Leadership changes are also being felt among the Evangelicals, according to Fitzgerald. “You can see that the Christian Right leaders don’t have the charisma they had before 2016,” she said. “The Christian Right leaders got together to decide who to vote for so they would have they candidate they wanted. They came out for Ted Cruz, who is a Southern Baptist and good on all their issues. They thought they could influence their pews to vote for Cruz. As it turned out, they didn’t have enough influence. The Evangelicals in the pews fall to the right end of the Republican Party, while a lot of these pastors believe you should welcome the stranger.”

Fitzgerald says she has been following the Evangelicals since the 1980s. “By accident, I found myself in Jerry Falwell’s church and it’s been off and on since then. I came back to it during ‘W’s’ (George W. Bush’s) administration when Evangelicals were gaining power again.”

Her 2017 examination of Evangelism has garnered numerous honors, winning the 2017 National Book Critics Circle Award, becoming a National Book Award Finalist, and a Time Top 10 Nonfiction Book of the Year, New York Times Notable Book and being named one of Publishers Weekly Best Books of 2017.

FitzGerald has written six books and contributed to The New Yorker, the New York Review of Books, Harper’s, The Atlantic, The New York Times magazine, Esquire, Architectural Digest and other publications. Her first book, Fire in the Lake: the Vietnamese and the Americans in Vietnam (1972) received the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award and the Bancroft Prize for history.

She and her husband, journalist and author Jim Sterba, have homes in New York City and Sharon.

To register for her lecture at the Hotchkiss library call 860-364-5041.