The current GOP race for the presidential nomination poses this great puzzle. A party whose base consists of white evangelical Christians is enamored of Donald Trump, the Republican candidate most out of step with evangelicals on social issues and the most tin-eared regarding religion. Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, recently warned that a Trump presidency would jeopardize “the three primary goals of religious conservatives” — protecting religious liberty, and opposing abortion rights and same-sex marriage. Trump, a Presbyterian who was once pro-choice and a frequent attendee of gay weddings, claims now to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage, but gives little time to either issue.
Others disagree with Moore: Trump has been endorsed by high-profile evangelicals such as Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. One thing is certain — no GOP candidate can win the nomination without the support of white evangelicals, who comprised 26 percent of the electorate in the last midterm elections and are overwhelmingly Republican. In the first 27 primaries of 2012, white evangelicals made up 50 percent of Republican voters, according to CBS News polling.
Seventy-nine percent of evangelicals went on to vote for Mormon Mitt Romney in the general election, but Republican strategists like Ralph Reed maintain their turnout was low and that the “missing evangelicals” accounted for Obama’s victory. As Texas Sen. Ted Cruz said in December in a speech to his volunteers: “If we awaken and energize the body of Christ — if Christians and people of faith come out and vote our values — we will win and we will turn this country around.”
For Cruz, raised Southern Baptist, evangelical religious language comes naturally. Yet a recent New York Times/ CBS News poll found that Trump had the support of 42 percent of evangelical voters nationwide, compared to Cruz’s 25 percent. In Trump’s South Carolina blow-out on Saturday, he beat Cruz and Rubio among all voters by 10 points, and he beat them among evangelicals by a similar margin. Trump won 34 percent of their support, and Cruz, whose aggressive outreach to evangelicals is critical to his campaign strategy, won 26 percent. In fact, Trump’s support among evangelicals — who make up about 67 percent of Republican primary voters in the state — was slightly higher than his overall support.
Tony Beam, a pastor and the host of an evangelical radio show in South Carolina, recently told This American Life that he was “stunned” by his listeners’ passion for Trump. “I thought I was doing somebody else’s talk show,” Beam said after listeners weighed in following the first Republican debate. “This is crazy. This is not who we are.” One caller told him, “[Trump is] saying all the right things. And whether his conservative credentials are bona fide, that’s not the point.”
The answer to the Trump conundrum may lie, in part, in one Iowa poll’s finding that Trump captured 46 percent of Republican caucusgoers who wanted a president from outside the establishment. Across party lines, there appears to be a desperation among the electorate for candidates who will, as Sarah Palin enthused when endorsing Trump, “tear the veil off … the way that the system really works.” The truth will set us free, as the Bible verse has it. “Trump is the only hope to defeat the kingmakers,” as one key figure in the rise of the contemporary religious Right, Phyllis Schlafly, said in her endorsement of him. “Because everybody else will fall in line. The kingmakers have so much money behind them.”
But “anti-establishment” doesn’t fully capture the vein of discontent that Trump has tapped. Despite his lack of evangelical roots, he is almost as skillful as Cruz at performing a certain style within American politics — the prophetic style — that speaks to evangelical voters at a primal level. The prophetic style points to decline — but also to a path toward salvation. It is defined by a conviction that the faithful possess higher truths, sealed off from and immune to critique from evidence-based sources of authority. Across a range of issues, from climate change to voting rights, Cruz and Trump use the prophetic style to deliver such “truths.”
Trump’s speeches and social media output are a stream of falsehoods that speak to the certainty — the “higher truth” — that white Christians, and the nation they love, are being betrayed and targeted. That was the upshot of his claim that he saw “thousands and thousands” of terrorist sympathizers in Jersey City cheer the attacks of September 11. It was the point of his tweet that 81 percent of white homicide victims are killed by African-Americans (FBI statistics put the actual number at 15 percent). It was the basis for his opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which, he said, “was designed for China to come in, as they always do, through the back door and totally take advantage of everyone.” (China wasn’t part of the deal.) PolitiFact gave all three claims its lowest rating: “pants on fire.” Overall, it ranked more than three-fourths of Trump’s claims as either mostly or flatly false. Indeed, the organization designated his overall output on the campaign trail in 2015 as its “Lie of the Year.”
This style of calling upon higher truths is one familiar to conservative Christians, whose distinctive worldview is nurtured in the Right’s alternative media ecosystem. The development of that ecosystem is often attributed to Fox News, but Fox has simply capitalized on a century-old conflict between progressives and conservatives. The object of this 100 years war: the nature of truth itself. That is both the source of our deepening political paralysis and the basis for Trump’s — and the GOP’s — evangelical appeal.
The gospel truth
The power of the prophetic style in our politics can be traced to two related transformations — one educational and one religious — that fostered the sense of alienation, anger and betrayal that many conservatives, especially religious conservatives, feel toward mainstream American institutions.
The first is the specialization of knowledge in higher education — the division of labor among disciplines, fields and subfields. This process began in the late 19th century but accelerated rapidly through the early decades of the 20th century, as the religious origins and missions of many colleges faded and the production of new knowledge — as opposed to the passing on of received, religious and established truth — became central.
The second, related trend was a liberalization of religion, as scholars began to probe the origins of sacred texts and view the Bible as a repository of human wisdom that perhaps — but not necessarily — revealed the word of God. These “modernists,” as they were called, focused on the metaphorical truths of scripture and downplayed or denied literalism: Jesus was a great moral leader and prophet but not literally the son of God. Hell is not an actual place. Faith in Jesus as the son of God is not required to gain salvation and eternal life — whatever eternal life might mean. Evangelicals and fundamentalists, in the meantime, tended to favor literalism with regard to Jesus, creation, the Bible, Heaven and Hell.
In the 1910s and 1920s, divisions and quarrels over these fundamental questions roiled the mainstream Protestant denominations, creating fissures that remain deep and wide. The Scopes Trial of 1925, in which a Tennessee biology teacher was convicted of teaching evolution, was the symbolic breaking point, and creationism has remained an acid test of faithfulness for many conservative Christians ever since. A writer for Answers in Genesis, an organization that promotes creationism, laid out the stakes in 2009:
Each of us must choose which we will vest with ultimate authority: God’s Word or incomplete human knowledge. … There is one God who created all of reality, and His Word is equally authoritative in all that it reveals to us. If we treat evolutionary ideas as authoritative about the history of the world, this leads us to a distorted view of truth.
Dismayed and angry at the secularizing and “modernizing” trends, conservative Christians began separating from the mainstream, building their own independent network of institutions in the 1920s. They excelled in particular at broadcasting — first on radio and, eventually, on television.
Among the most influential radio preachers of the early years was Charles E. Fuller, whose Los Angeles-based program The Old Fashioned Revival Hour reached a national audience from 1937 to 1968. Jerry Falwell, founder of Liberty University, admired Fuller in his youth and named his own television broadcast The Old Fashioned Gospel Hour. He used it as a springboard for launching the Moral Majority, in 1979 — 37 years before his son, Jerry Jr., would endorse Trump for president.
Most radio preachers reached more limited audiences than Fuller. But the best of them, whatever the size of their ministry, cultivated a bond with their audience, forged through a combination of faith and hope. One of them, Howard Cadle, built a 10,000-seat “Cadle Tabernacle” in downtown Indianapolis and, in 1931, began broadcasting a radio program that could be heard all over the Midwest and South via WLW, a Cincinnati AM “megastation.”
In the 1990s, a small fraction of the people who had listened to Cadle on the radio as children or young adults were still alive, and I talked to as many as I could find. “It was a breath of fresh air,” one woman who had grown up during the Great Depression in Alleghany County, Va., told me. “It brought spirit and a goal to life. We got up by it every morning. It’s still a special memory in the recesses of my mind.”
Another of the earliest and most successful Christian radio preachers, Paul Rader of Chicago, captured the growing sense of skepticism evangelicals felt toward higher education in a brief essay telling his life story. Rader’s faith was shaken, he explained, by one of his literature professors in college. As Rader began reading books recommended by the professor, his crisis of faith deepened: “From the first day of doubt a wobble appeared in my nature. I did not have the old-time armor against sin. … I had a double mind, and, true to Scripture, became unstable in all my ways.” Rader found peace and a renewed faith, he wrote, during a threeday marathon of praying. “Alone in my room with [God], he opened up his word to me and banished my doubt.”
Fools for Christ
The success of conservative Christian radio preachers like Fuller, Cadle and Rader — and their successors across the decades — helps to explain the vitality of religion in the United States compared with other developed countries. A 2005 survey by Barna Group, a Christian marketing firm, found that nearly half of adults in the U.S. listen to at least one Christian radio broadcast each month. A 2015 Pew Research poll found that 53 percent of U.S. respondents described religion as “very important” to their lives, versus 11 percent in Japan, 14 percent in France, and 21 percent in Germany, Spain and the United Kingdom.
Evangelical Christian broadcasters pioneered the prophetic style that has become a trademark of the modern conservative movement. Many of them had loose ties to denominational structures, and they consciously thought of themselves as operating on the fringes of “the establishment,” both religious and secular. Their sense of alienation was heightened by their theology, which portrayed the ever-more evil world as moving toward an apocalyptic showdown between the forces of good and evil. Their sense of a better, more righteous America located somewhere in the past was rooted in a theology of inevitable decline and increasing depravity.
In truth, conservative Christians have good reason to feel marginalized. Even though their radio and television outlets draw massive audiences, and even though their party, the GOP, dominates the nation’s political machinery at the state and congressional levels, evangelicals are culturally marginal.
In the early 20th century, the specialization of knowledge became the reigning paradigm within academia: Truth is arrived at through the accumulation of new evidence. This paradigm has worked in giving us the medical breakthroughs and revolutionary consumer goods of the modern era. What it can’t give — isn’t designed to give — is ultimate truth. In fact, in an essential sense, everincreasing knowledge is a destroyer of meaning. It leads to the constant erosion of taken-for-granted truths. A telling example is the public’s exasperation with the constantly changing dietary guidelines from government agencies, telling us — based on evidence from some new set of scientific studies — that coffee either is or isn’t good for us, or that we should or shouldn’t be eating more eggs, often in contradiction to the last set of guidelines. Conservatism, in contrast, offers the promise of fixed principles and absolute truth. The vacuum of meaning is filled by religious and political prophets who know precisely what it all means, where the problem lies, who betrayed us and how to get to Heaven. The basis of their authority isn’t expertise or mastery of a body of knowledge; it’s their claim to the truth — to higher truths. Truth doesn’t emerge from evidence but from the strength of will to reject the evidence put forth by corrupt secular — ungodly — institutions like the mainstream media and its ally, the liberal political establishment.
Consider Trump’s focus on immigrants from Mexico, which propelled him to frontrunner status in the early stages of the GOP race. His facts contradict the available evidence — most notably, more Mexicans are now leaving the United States than entering it. But for many of his supporters, the portrait of chaos at the border is true regardless of whether it is literally true: The higher truth is that they believe themselves— especially their religion — to be threatened by forces beyond their control. Christianity is “under siege,” as Trump said in an address at Liberty University in January, a few days before Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsed him for president.
Trump and Cruz appeal to conservatives precisely because they present themselves as delivering such truths. When Ted Cruz went to Kentucky to defend Kim Davis, the Rowan County Clerk who refused to grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples, he proclaimed, “For the first time in history, a Christian was put in jail for standing up for her beliefs.” The claim was false, as Cruz surely knew. As the Washington Post’s Candida Moss pointed out, Rosa Parks is one among many Christian women jailed for their beliefs. Yet Cruz’s claim taps into the prophetic style’s higher truth that the nation — or, at least, a persecuted subset within the nation, Christian America — is under siege by the forces of darkness lurking within, or just beyond, our borders.
Not coincidentally, this ownership of higher truth is also the paradigm for political conservatism’s most influential pundits, from Rush Limbaugh to Ann Coulter to Bill O’Reilly. In a recent monologue about climate change, for example, Limbaugh claimed that the higher truth of God’s benevolence trumps the science: “The premise [of climate change is that] you, and the way you’re living your life, are causing this destruction. And I’m sorry, but I don’t believe that. … It is my devout belief in God that gives me every bit of confidence that man is not destroying — and furthermore, cannot destroy — the climate.” For his part, Cruz has said that climate change “is not science — it’s religion,” because the scientists who study it aren’t sufficiently skeptical of their data.
Such acts of resistance are core to the identity of many right-wing evangelical and fundamentalist Christians. The phrase used to describe this mindset— “fools for Christ” — is taken from passages written by the apostle Paul, who in First Corinthians explored the idea of Christians as “fools”:
For the foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength. But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong.
The implications are maddening. The “foolish” spirit of evangelical Christianity is the taproot of the GOP’s opposition to evidence-based policy, and it serves the interest of corporate America quite well, most urgently in the realm of climate change. But mocking it only reinforces and hardens the evangelical identity, becoming further proof of betrayal by the mainstream elite. In other words, if evangelicals are not being mocked, they are failing to do their job. They are failing to be fools.
The truth and the noise
When announcing his run for the Republican presidential nomination at Liberty University, Sen. Ted Cruz said: “It is a time for truth. It is a time for liberty. … This is our fight. The answer will not come from Washington. It will come only from … people of faith, from lovers of liberty, from people who respect the Constitution.” In his January speech at Liberty, Trump put these ideas less eloquently: “We’re going to protect Christianity. … Somehow we have to unify, we have to band together, we have to do really — in a really large version — what they’ve done at Liberty.”
The power that this language exerts over certain audiences is easy to underestimate. The Left’s critique that working-class Republicans vote against their own interests is hardly obvious, or even true, for those voters. It comes down to a definition of interests. The GOP may cut taxes for the wealthy and disinvest in social services and public institutions, but its leaders at least have the courage to speak higher truths about national decay, about the betrayal of the elites, about the fight for liberty. As one evangelical Trump supporter told the New York Times, “He is the only one who can pull us back from the abyss” — the descent into complete corruption and secularization. Or, as a meme posted on the Facebook page “Christians for Donald Trump” expressed it, above a picture of Trump against an American flag, “We will fight to preserve our liberty until hell freezes over. And then we will fight on the ice.” A commentor added: “Vote Trump. Nobody likes the truth.”
The conservative Christian critique of the establishment contains a large grain of truth. Progressives and the evangelical GOP base can at least agree that the nation has often been betrayed by its institutions and leaders, if not on the nature and sources of the betrayal. For the conservative Christian base of the GOP, the betrayal goes back to the secularization of institutional life, and especially of higher education. It often finds unfortunate expression, but the conviction that they can — and must — take back America from the “kingmakers” and the elites has a genuinely grassroots, democratic dimension. The prophetic style is a powerful movement builder. But its success has come at a steep price. One of the GOP’s great dilemmas, beyond its demographic challenges, is that the hostility of its base to the paradigm of evidence-based truth pulls the party ever further away from the realities of both public opinion and the scientific mainstream — and makes the GOP ever more dependent on white evangelical Christians.
That voting bloc may simply be beyond the reach of progressives — the gap in worldview may be too wide to bridge. But is it possible that the prophetic style could cut more than one way? Haven’t the ideals of “all men are created equal” and “liberty and justice for all,” set against the often hideous reality of our history, sometimes prodded the nation to action and reform? Consider the higher truths of Martin Luther King Jr., not strictly tied to empirical evidence but powerfully moving nonetheless:
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” he wrote in his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.” “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
If there were prophetic voices in our electoral politics that actually articulated a vision of deep reform, could they find an audience?
The evidence suggests that they might. The right-wing radio and television star Glenn Beck recently said that he “liked” Bernie Sanders for his honesty (later clarifying that Sanders would be a “disaster” as president). “Honesty, faith and truth are basic requirements,” Beck said. “I can actually sit at a table with a man who says, ‘Yes, I’m a socialist, and yes, I don’t like what we are doing.’ ” Time reported, a few days later, that Sanders had captured the attention of conservatives in Iowa — conservatives who “just can’t stop talking about him.”
Right-wing populists like Beck, and politicians like Trump and Cruz, capitalize on the public’s sense that our politics is tilted against the possibility of truth breaking through the noise — or even being spoken. Palin does the same when she says that Trump rips the veil off the way the system works. Her buffoonery, and that of the others, is easy to mock and parody, and the substance of their critique is off target. Yet Palin and her cohort get at something real: They tap a deep vein of popular frustration and anger that finds few outlets for expression in electoral politics outside of the GOP.
Democrats would do well to ponder why that might be.