Endorsements of Donald Trump by the leaders of evangelical organizations, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr. and James Dobson, have mystified outside observers and have frustrated many evangelicals. Based on my experience in several evangelical organizations led by a singular figurehead, I believe that many of these leaders do not merely see him as the preferable candidate for president. They resonate with him at a deeper level, seeing in him something of themselves.
Many of these leaders are older white men who built their institutions through the force of their charismatic personalities. They built constituencies and maintain them through strong rhetoric that forms clear boundaries to identify who is “in” and who is “out,” who is “safe” and who is “unsafe,” who are “friends” and who are “enemies.” Their organizations are involved in the culture war, seeking to influence the country by promoting Christian values and holding back the tide of growing threats to the faith. The Moral Majority and Focus on the Family are examples of this.
These leaders are suspicious of experts and scholars who see greater complexity in the world. They see people in black and white terms – good vs. evil, with us or against us. They envision the success of their organizations as validation of their views and may receive criticism or dissent as attack or persecution. They are not interested in parsing out fine distinctions since they feel that the causes they champion are so urgent and important. They often articulate the success or failure of their movements in apocalyptic terms – the future of our civilization is at stake!
They do not tolerate dissent within their organizations and will get rid of non-conformists, often violating agreed-upon terms of employment. They discourage or actively stifle dissenting opinions, labeling people who think differently as “disloyal” or even “dangerous.”
Many large evangelical organizations have traditionally served white America. For this reason, Donald Trump’s racially insensitive rhetoric – to put it mildly – does not offend evangelical organizational leaders, many of whose forebears were resistant to or critical of the civil rights movement. At the least, they have not historically been in solidarity with African- and Hispanic-Americans and view refugees and immigrants with suspicion.
Further, these leaders have stressed the submission of women in society, the church and the home. Donald Trump’s comments about women, while shocking to many, are not ultimately troubling for these leaders since for them, women have value insofar as they are living according to their “God-ordained” roles as wives and mothers.
When these leaders see Donald Trump, they see someone who is like them. His rhetoric, like theirs, prioritizes traditional white America. He wants to uphold the status quo, rhetorically labeling marginalized groups as threats to safety and security. This resonates with their militantly conservative posture in the culture wars.
The way they run their organizations is very similar to how he speaks about what he would do as president. Like them, he speaks in black and white terms, labeling people as “for” or “against” him. He is suspicious of experts and is strongly anti-intellectual. He has no time for complexity, for understanding the subtleties of issues and he does not tolerate dissent or value others’ opinions.
Further, many of the leaders of evangelical organizations have either been affected by or have themselves nurtured the hysterical paranoia about Hillary Clinton over the last 25 years. Their organizations are more or less aligned with the Republican Party so that there is little distinction. The leaders themselves, and those who populate the organizations, cannot imagine a person being loyal while not supporting a Republican candidate.
As an example, in 2012 two faculty members at an evangelical institution wrote an editorial in the school paper explaining why they were not voting for Mitt Romney. They did not mention the Democratic candidate, Barack Obama, but the outcry from students, fellow faculty and constituents was overpowering, calling for their dismissal. To not actively support a Republican was to be a disloyal Christian.
Many evangelicals sense a strong dissonance with these evangelical leaders. Many of them, especially younger evangelicals, distrust megachurches, preferring churches that offer strong community and participation in local life. They are suspicious of large evangelical organizations that solicit donations. They prefer to be personally involved in bringing about social change. And they do not view social transformation in terms of culture wars, but want to engage others with compassionate and gracious postures. They have close friends among historically marginalized groups and are offended by the demonization of racial and ethnic minorities and the denigration of women. They are willing to question traditional visions of gender and sexuality.
There are doubtless other factors, but these are some reasons why, in my estimation, leaders of evangelical organizations embrace and endorse Donald Trump.