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White Evangelical Support of Trump Makes Perfect Sense When You Examine the History of the Christian Right

The moral exceptionalism that was extended to Trump by evangelicals around the issue of family values was not just an act of grace. It was an example of a moral program working as it has in the past through religious and political alignments with the GOP.

Donald Trump Family
(Photo: The White House Facebook page)

How did Donald Trump get elected as the 45th President of the United States in 2016? The question has been posed and answered by scholars, journalists, and citizens alike. A recurring statistic — that 81 percent of White Evangelicals voted for Trump — has made those “Trumpvangelicals” a focal point of the media and captured the public’s imagination. Evangelical support for Trump has been discussed in terms of churchgoing versus unaffiliated religious activity, a disaffection with the Obama years, and in terms of evangelicals’ strong alliance with the Republican Party. Perhaps, most critically, evangelical support of Trump has been discussed in terms of U.S. Evangelicalism’s privileging of the cultural, political, and economic interests of its White majority. Evangelicals of color have been increasingly vocal about their disaffection with their White peers’ support for Trump (and his anti-Black and anti-immigrant positions), as well as their marginalization within the folds of a predominantly White Christian religious movement.

In a post-election article, The New York Times describes evangelical support of Trump as a “paradox,” writing that “[a] twice-divorced candidate who has flaunted his adultery, praised Planned Parenthood and admitted to never asking for God’s forgiveness is the favorite of the Christian Right.” How can we make sense of widespread evangelical support of a candidate whose own family life and political opinions contrast with their professed commitment to family values? This question rings even more loudly since news of Trump’s marital infidelities erupted in 2018.


Video: Author Michael D’Antonio discusses Donald Trump’s three marriages and how the twice-divorced Trump gets support from Christians who hold traditional marriage values.

There Is No Paradox: The Trumping and Broadening of Family Values

As a scholar of religion and family, my work has taught me that family, like most social phenomena, is never just one thing. Family is variable and contested; it is a language of belonging and a tool of exclusion, of membership, and inequality. The same can be said of the family values popularized by evangelicals and conservatives in the late 1960s and 1970s that came to define the family in national political parlance as a breadwinning patriarch, domesticated mother, and well-behaved children. Evangelicals viewed this family as the cornerstone of U.S. society and believed it should be given protections from liberal rights-based discourse — like those proposed by the civil rights and feminist movements — that were thought to intrude on family autonomy and an evangelical moral chain of command from father, mother, and children (Family Values and the Rise of the Christian Right).

Thus, evangelical support of the president and Trump’s non-conformity to family values is not a paradox. First, the family values championed by the Christian Right were never intended for men like Trump. His wealth and additional racial, gender, sexual, and class privileges buttress him against the weight of family values. Second, evangelical family values were never solely concerned with “the family.” Rather, the program of family values is a politically-acceptable umbrella to address a number of gender, sexual, racial and class concerns. Trump is not required to model a faithful monogamous marriage or Evangelical Christian piety.

Black man church
(Photo: Gift Habeshaw/Unsplash)

Over the course of a year, I interviewed, worshipped with, studied the Bible with, prayed with, and communed with members of a Black evangelical church association in the Atlanta metropolitan area. I learned how Black evangelical congregants define family in religious and spiritual terms as a matter of birth and of being born-again Christians. More importantly, I witnessed the collective labor that Black evangelical congregants expended in sustaining one another’s families. This labor was conceptual (producing religious and spiritual ideals of family), institutional (established organizational norms and practices of family in homes, churches, and the spaces between), and daily (everyday forms of mentorship, confiding, and care).

This kin labor was also motivated by both sacred and secular concerns. Church members discussed their familial commitments in terms of religious devotion and as a demonstration of their service, fidelity, and commitment to struggle past and beyond an individualized self. Black evangelicals also framed their familial work as an effort to reproduce or correct their heteronormative or non-heteronormative family histories.

Black evangelicals’ kin labors were also conducted on the uneven terrains of lived experience and social inequalities. On a few occasions, I was party to congregants’ reflections on their perceived failures, anxieties, and criticisms of normative family ideals. These ideals often required different amounts of labor and received different kinds of sanctions depending on one’s age, and gender and marital, sexual, or class status. Church women conducted a lion’s share of kin labor. Church men who were not elders or well-educated often felt censored or that their moral sleights were more likely to be condemned. Beyond the walls of their congregations, Black evangelicals are enmeshed within a racial order of the family in the United States that tends to typecast heteronormativity in relationship to Whiteness and pathology in relation to Blackness. Therefore, the kin labors of Black evangelicals engaged in the sacred and secular meditations of evangelical family values are, in moral terms, differentially valued and compensated.

Family values, even within a racially minoritized religious community are not equitable. The inequality of family values is even more pronounced when viewed within the broader racial, gender, sexual, and class systems of U.S. society.

Although Trump’s loose association with a born-again Christian identity is relatively recent, he has been shaped by a theology that has deep connections with the Christian Right.

Clarification No. 1: Evangelicalism and Wealth Are Not Incompatible

I do not endeavor to use the term evangelical or any other identity discussed in this piece carelessly. I am not making the case that evangelical family values are not for wealthy White men. People of all manner of social locations find Evangelical Christianity — a belief system that foregrounds an emphasis of born-again conversion, the Bible as an authoritative and literal source of truth, the ability of the believer to access biblical truth, and an emphasis on spreading the Christian message — to be appealing and meaningful.

Although Trump’s loose association with a born-again Christian identity is relatively recent, he has been shaped by a theology that has deep connections with the Christian Right. In his formative years, Trump attended New York City’s Marble Collegiate Church. Pastored by Norman Vincent Peale, it was a testing ground for the blend of positive New Thought philosophy and Protestant Christianity that would give rise to prosperity theology.

There are also synergies between evangelicalism, family values, and entrepreneurialism. According to Bethan Moreton (To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise), the Walmart franchise founded by the Walton family emerged from a business model that applied ideals of servant leadership — a business management model that emphasizes compassionate executive authority and was understood by evangelicals to be relevant to male familial authority to its service sector empire. Thus, my claim is not an argument about the incompatibility of evangelicalism with certain social statuses as much as it is a discussion of privilege and its exemptions.

Clarification No. 2: Evangelical Family Values Should Not Be Defined As an Opportunistic Belief System

By discussing family values in broader terms, I am not claiming that evangelical family values are a ruse. Evangelicals understand their families in deeply meaningful terms. For the Afro-Caribbean and African-American evangelicals in the Atlanta metropolitan area with whom I worked as a researcher, the normative family was sacred. The family unit consisting of a married husband, wife, and child(ren) were to be dictated by familial dynamics of headship and submission. Men were heads of their wives and children. Parents held God-given authority over their children. And wives and children were to adopt a posture and spirit of submission to their husbands and parents.

The sacred quality of family values was not just limited to its creation of a moral order of chain of command in the family. According to the Black evangelicals who volunteered to teach me about their beliefs, the family had theological dimensions. It mirrored the mystery of relationship between the Godhead itself. God the Father, Jesus the Son, and the Christian Church as the Bride of Christ were also connected through relationships of headship and submission.

The sanctification of this traditional family which revealed the relational character of God/self and “God’s design” for humanity has motivated powerful collective actions by evangelicals, both inside and outside of the composite Christian collective of the Christian Right. Nonetheless, some of the concerns that shaped evangelicals’ focus on the family had origins and implications that extended beyond evangelical households. 

The Emergence of the Christian Right and Family Values

The Christian Right entered the public arena in the 1970s. Through an alliance with the Republican Party and a mobilization of the disaffection held by the Silent Majority — the U.S. citizenry that was disaffected with the critical and dissent movements of the 1960s — the Christian Right established itself as a visible voting bloc.

The family became a focal point of its political mobilization, particularly by popularly known framers of the Moral Majority like Jerry Falwell, Tim LaHaye, and Pat Robertson. (Nonetheless, it is also important to note that White evangelical men did not have exclusive rights to the Moral Majority machine. Anti-feminist Christian women and racially minoritized evangelicals also participated in articulating and, at times, contesting family values perspectives.) Together these framers forged the perspective that the sacred traditional family — understood as a God-given unit of social life and the fundamental building block of U.S. society — was under siege by a host of moral threats that they identified in their time.

leave it to beaver family
“Leave It to Beaver” cast. (File photo)

Family Values Inside the Home

As a remedy, they prescribed moral prescriptions that can roughly be summarized as follows: White women should reject feminist calls for gender equality and perform cultural scripts of femininity and feminine subservience to male authority. LGBTQ persons should abandon their activism for inclusive justice and assimilate heterosexual scripts of gender and sexuality. African Americans should sidestep calls for civil rights and produce nuclear families that taught personal responsibility and self-reliance rather than a presumed dependence on the state in the form of welfare. (And we should contemplate the additional moral weight shouldered by people who inhabit two or more of these positions).

White men were not immune to the moral prescriptions of evangelical family values. They were supposed to be faithful husbands and heads of household that provided for their wives and children financially and emotionally (in the case of more enlightened softer patriarchs). White men (and less ideally other household heads) were supposed to conduct this labor of provision against the tides of deindustrialization — the drying up of the industrial sector and its jobs. They were supposed to sustain the economic provider role popularly associated with middle-class family life.

Family Values Outside of the Home 

But family values advocates were concerned not only with the maintenance of the internal relationships of the traditional family. They also looked beyond the borders of the home. Abortion and sexual education created venues for individual decision-making about sexuality and family planning beyond the auspices of the church and heterosexual marriage. They thus became frontiers for conservative Christians entry into the public square as believers, voters, pro-lifers, concerned parents, and community organizers.

In Moral Combat: How Sex Divided American Christians and Fractured American Politics, R. Marie Griffith discusses the activism of Christian Right advocates like evangelist Billy James Hargis around issues like sex education. She expertly notes, “The struggle over sex education was a war, all right: a battle over the moral frameworks in which sexual knowledge would be embedded and over who had the right to determine just what those frameworks would be.” The family values championed by the Christian Right formed a sacred and secular battleground for the right to define and defend their definition of family.

What Did Evangelical Family Values Do? 

Evangelical family values did not just sanctify heterosexual family arrangements. Evangelical family values generated a language of gender, class, and sexual conformity. It disciplined groups on the underside of class, gender, racial, and sexual power by giving them moral imperatives. These moral imperatives told them who they were; how they should behave; and what labors they should perform as members of a traditional family unit. The religious and political elevation of family values by the Moral Majority targeted the gendered and sexual behavior of White women and men, LGBTQ persons, and racially minoritized populations like African Americans. 

What Did Evangelical Family Values Not Do? 

But family values language never targeted the wealthy. In fact, the 1970s witnessed the beginning of a set of governmental policies that would limit regulation of capitalist enterprises in the U.S. (Capitalism was also protected under a moral system that framed activist activities as alternately “un-American” and potentially red or Communist, and thus a legitimate target of state surveillance, infiltration, or surveillance.) The wealthy were given a green light to continue accumulating wealth in a way that was even less accountable to broader societal oversight. And entrepreneurialism, like the traditional family was understood as patriotic by the GOP, neoconservative, Christian Right complex. That is because wealth, and the ability to accumulate wealth, has long been understood as a moral enterprise in the United States. Wealth is understood to be a result of virtuous hard work, rather than more invisible modes of intergenerational inheritance or governmental exceptions. Thus, practice of wealth-gathering (and the material interests of the wealthy) receives governmental protections, societal admiration, and shared moral exonerations.

Family Values as a Multi-Issue Umbrella

Proponents of civil rights, women’s rights, gay rights, labor rights, anti-war, and other movements in the 1960s asked questions about who should be included and receive the full entitlements and protections of citizenship. Moral Majority founders of the 1970s answered. With a counter-rallying cry of the family, they found a way to talk about racial, gender, sexual, and class concerns under another name. Under the banner of a familiar entity some understood to be God-given, inalienable, and thus worthy of protection, people — in particular White heterosexual middle-class and middle-class aspirant people were able to address their anxieties about social changes. If people conformed to the presumably stabilizing model of the traditional family, the social order preceding the sixties could be restored.

Family values, as a moral program designed to govern the conformity of some, was never intended to apply to people like Donald Trump.

As poignantly observed by the late queer Black feminist Audre Lorde, “There is no such thing as single-issue struggle because we do not live single-issue lives.” Supporters of family values were able to take a number of broader social issues and frame them as family issues. As discussed by Ann Burlein in Lift High the Cross: Where White Supremacy and the Christian Right Converge, the Christian Right, both Christian Right family values framers like James Dobson and White nationalists share an emphasis on the Bible, family, and children in particular.

This emphasis on children allowed for movement leaders and everyday people to discuss social issues as threats to family and children who inhabit a significant site of moral innocence in the U.S. Fears of desegregation including school busing, integrated neighborhoods, and inter-racial intimacy became framed as a concern for the well-being of children. Critiques of women’s rights and LGBTQ activism could be framed not solely as an attack on the inclusive aspirations of marginalized groups but as emanating from promoting the best interests of children. But family values were never just about the family. Family values was neither a single issue nor were evangelicals conducting single-issue lives. This remains the case.

Exploding the ‘Paradox’ of Pro-Trump Evangelicals and Trump’s Non-Conformity to Family Values

Family values, as a moral program designed to govern the conformity of some, was never intended to apply to people like Donald Trump. There is a difference between subjecting oneself to a moral standard versus being the intended object of a moral system. The distinction is akin to deciding to purchase a product versus being designated as the target audience. Within the target audience that consumes the evangelical family package, there are winners and losers. The winners gain social capital for conformity. The losers cede social standing for their non-conformity.

But, Donald Trump has never lost. Donald Trump is a winner, but he has not had to conform to the family values package to accrue social capital. He is morally insulated by his wealth, a lion’s share of which he inherited. He is also shielded by a host of normativities that accrue to him. That’s what it means to be a cis, straight, White, married/marriageable man. These are also inherited. For instance, within their own ranks evangelicals associate male sexual misconduct with natural masculine tendency for sexual initiation. Yet, these same explanations are not extended to women or sexual minorities. And my own research with Black evangelicals exposed me to scenes in which people invested a great deal of individual and community labor to conform to traditional family standards. They did so with the added burden of anti-Black economic marginalization and long-standing views of Black family dysfunction. This is a burden Trump has never had to carry.

Yet, the story does not just end with Trump’s gender, sexual, and racial privilege. It also, once again, extends to wealth. A university colleague once told me that her father, a staunch evangelical, explained his decision to vote for Trump in the following terms: “Trump doesn’t have to be a good husband. He’s a good businessman.” Trump’s assumed prowess as an executive was substitutable or even potentially prioritized over his role as a family patriarch. Or perhaps, family and economic headship are interchangeable. In the case of elites, moral exceptions are made. On the moral battleground of a dominant evangelical family values and U.S. society writ large, Donald Trump is a winner who has never had to win.

The moral exceptionalism that was extended to Trump by evangelicals around the issue of family values was not just an act of grace. It was an example of a moral program working as it has in the past through religious and political alignments with the GOP. A family values that has accrued decades of experience in speaking to White constituents’ immediate moral, economic, and political concerns and nostalgic sensibilities. A family values that has been concerned with protecting a set of situated interests and protected privileges innocuously and provisionally by tapping into a sacred and civic grammar of the family. A family values that rations moral placements to White, middle-class, straight, masculine citizens (and their aspirants). A family values that exonerates itself, its interests, its great America, just as it can exonerate its Commander-in-Chief.

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    Participant

    Written by Todne Thomas

    Todne Thomas, PhD, is a socio-cultural anthropologist and assistant professor of African-American Religions at Harvard Divinity School. In collaboration with Afro-Caribbean and African-American congregants, Dr. Thomas conducts ethnographic research on Afro-Caribbean and African-American evangelicalism and contemporary Black church arson.

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