There’s a lot of talk these days about information bubbles like Fox News, Newsmax, and the sludge pits of Facebook. But the original, biggest, and baddest information bubble of them all surrounds white evangelicalism. For decades, white evangelicals have existed in their own cultural ecosystem, with their own churches and schools and universities and books and movies and music (ever heard Christian rap?) and cartoons. And artists like Stephen Sawyer, who created the above depiction of the Lamb of God as a tattooed he-man. Biker Jesus?
Anyway. This evangelical ecosystem is invisible to the rest of us, but it’s very real. And understanding its worldview is key to understanding why over 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020. Yes, devout Christians voted in droves for a philandering divorcee who paid off a porn star and bragged about grabbing them by the you-know-what and has a long, sordid business career full of bankruptcies and lawsuits. And swears a lot. And clearly doesn’t know beans about the Bible, except that it’s a useful prop.
You’ll get it entirely if you read “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation” by Kristin Kobes Du Mez, published in 2020. She takes us inside the world of modern white evangelicals, and shows clearly that they didn’t support Donald Trump in spite of who he was — he was the exact kind of leader they were looking for. He fit the role to a T.
Modern evangelicalism has developed a few very strong principles, which have more to do with social structure than with traditional Christianity. In fact, the old drive to convert every race, creed and color to the One True Faith is largely out the door. Instead, their world is divided into Believers and The Fallen. The latter are a mortal threat to the former, and must be defeated at all cost.
This requires a militaristic stance to meet the threat. Which leads to images like Biker Jesus above, and to the views of evangelical superstar preacher Mark Driscoll:
Real men avoided church because they had no interest in a “Richard Simmons, queer Christ.” But Jesus was no “long-haired, effeminate-looking dude” — he was… a man with “calluses on his hands and muscles on his frame.” …Jesus was a hero, not a loser, ‘an Ultimate Fighter warrior king with a tattoo down his leg who rides into battle against Satan, sin and death on a trusty horse.”
Sounds more like John Wayne than the Biblical Jesus, doesn’t it? Guys like Driscoll like to cite the few passages in scripture where Jesus is the aggressor — who chased the moneychangers out of the temple, slaughtered a herd of pigs to free one person from demonic possession, and “ordered his disciples around.”
Screw all that “blessed are the meek” stuff. That’s for losers.
John Wayne is the icon of modern evangelicalism. No matter that Wayne wasn’t a cowboy or a soldier (he had a deferment in World War II), he was thrice married and twice divorced, and his real name was the unmanly Marion Morrison. He played the hero, and that was good enough for evangelicals.
The modern-day heir of Wayne’s crown is Mel Gibson, no matter that his faith is deeply tinged with anti-Semitism. Gibson’s three films centering on righteous heroes who suffer under the yoke of an oppressor (The Patriot, Braveheart, and of course The Passion of the Christ) are favorites in the white evangelical community, stomach-churning violence and all.
White evangelicals have no qualms about choosing unrighteous men as political leaders. Barry Goldwater wasn’t terribly religious. Ronald Reagan professed Christian faith, but his real devotion was to free-market capitalism. Newt Gingrich was a serial divorcee who negotiated terms of his first divorce while his wife was hospitalized. Oliver North was a hero precisely because he subverted the system.
And of course, history is full of evangelical leaders who were moral failures in their own lives, from Aimee Semple McPherson to Billy James Hargis to Jimmy Swaggart to Jim Bakker to Robert Tilton to Ted Haggard to many of the leading preachers in the “manly Jesus” camp including Driscoll, who was kicked out of his first ministry. Almost every disgraced preacher eventually makes a comeback; white evangelicals are an extremely forgiving lot when it comes to their own.
What matters is not the inner man, it’s the outward projection of strength and success.
The fundamental principles of white evangelicalism don’t center on the traditional questions of Christianity (the nature of the Triune God, the process of Mass/Holy Communion, interpretation of the Bible, etc.) but on social mores.
White evangelicals are very big on gender roles. They call it “complementarianism” — the idea that traditional gender roles were ordained by God, and that any society that strays from that path is doomed. Men have to be “real men” — breadwinners, protectors, and leaders in their homes. Women have to be submissive to their men, and their primary duty is raising children. (Preferably a lot of them.)
They like strong leaders so much that there’s an uncomfortable affinity for Vladimir Putin. Franklin Graham praised Putin as a foe of the “gay and lesbian agenda” and defender of “traditional Christianity” compared to the humanism (suspected atheism) of Barack Obama.
Newt Gingrich might have been a serial philanderer, but at least he was true to the nature of real men awash in testosterone. *(King David couldn’t keep it in his pants but was nonetheless God’s ordained ruler.) Bill Clinton was a wimp who let his wife hold positions of power, and that’s a sin against the Godly order of things.
I think you see how all of this feeds into the Donald Trump phenomenon. He’s a real man, he plays the forceful leader, he trumpets traditional values. His obvious imperfections are easily brushed aside. And his authoritarian impulses fit in with the top-down Christianity of white evangelicals — God has dominion over humanity, ministers and elders have authority within a church, men are the rightful rulers of their families. For the vast majority of white evangelicals, a little fascism is nothing new. The very idea of each individual (especially women!) deciding for themselves is anathema to these people.
That’s why they took so naturally to Donald Trump. That’s why they stood by him through scandals and blunders and 30,000 lies.
And why they’ll vote for the next Donald Trump who comes along.