One of the questions over the past couple of weeks has been whether or not white evangelicals would break with President Trump in reaction to his decision to abandon the Kurdish people in Syria. Elizabeth Dias wrote a piece at the New York Times that outlined how prominent evangelical leaders such as Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, and Erik Erikson all criticized the president’s policy change. Her question was a familiar one: Is this enough to cause white evangelicals finally to stop supporting Trump?
The threat was serious enough for the president to make a last-minute speech at the Values Voter Summit in Washington D.C. last weekend. For a man who often seems to operate according to instinct more than strategy, this was a calculated move. He needed to shore up his support among his most devoted base. In his speech, the president explained his policy change in Turkey and Syria as a choice to bring home American troops.
“I don’t think our soldiers should be there for the next 50 years guarding a border between Turkey and Syria when we can’t guard our own borders at home,” Trump said. “I don’t think so.”
He also announced that he was directing $50 million in funding to aid minority groups in Syria, a clear message to his evangelical base that he had not forgotten his promise to protect persecuted Christians across the globe.
Trump’s speech was steeped in combative language. He described how Democratic leaders “hate this country,” how they want to destroy American values, and that they are waging war on values voters. It played well with his audience.
“I did hear some grumbling about Trump’s treatment of the Kurds, but these were aired in private and in no case appeared to threaten loyalty to Trump,” noted Katherine Stewart, author of the forthcoming The Power Worshippers: Inside the Dangerous Rise of Religious Nationalism. “Trump gave one of his characteristic, 100-minute addresses with the customary mix of falsehoods, boasting, and invective. And he was received with the same enthusiasm as 2017—with multiple standing ovations.”
Despite his unconscionable decision to give Erdogan the go-ahead to attack the Kurds, it shouldn’t be surprising that a nod to religious liberty and a sentence or two about bringing the troops home was enough to satisfy Trump’s evangelical flock.
In a piece published at Fox News, Miranda Devine makes the case that Trump has been so “successful” as president precisely because he is a barbarian, one who rolls over norms, policies, institutions, and borders in order to accomplish his goals.
“They see him implementing his agenda against all odds. If the swamp gets in his way, Trump bulldozes over it,” Devine writes. “Supreme Court, tick. Taxes cut, tick. Regulations slashed, tick. Jobs up, tick. Military rebuilt, tick. ISIS stopped, tick. Globalism challenged, tick. Paris climate treaty scrapped, tick. Borders strengthened, tick. Wall built, half-tick.”
For evangelicals, Trump’s barbarism is a feature, not a bug, which echoes a point made recently by John Stoehr (who, incidentally, happens to have a piece on RD covering similar territory to this one). Evangelicals follow a fundamentalist worldview that reduces the world to good/evil, us/them, here/there. They see the world as in a constant state of cosmic war where all those opposed to them are God’s enemies who will eventually be defeated. They see themselves as the true believers—and true Americans—charged by the divine to carry out his mission on earth. Trump is viewed as the barbarian-king who is willing to fight this war without concern for civility or etiquette.
“If you think that Trump’s abandonment of the Kurds or his impeachment troubles are going to shake his resolute base of support in the Christian nationalist movement, the Values Voter Summit 2019, held [last] weekend, should erase that expectation,” Stewart continues. “The people I spoke to at the Summit continue to see Trump as divinely appointed, and this allows them to forgive or explain away any existing and foreseeable flaws. They continue to demonize all liberal opinion and cast the negative stories about Trump as false, treasonous, and badly motivated.”
It’s also why recent remarks by Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Attorney General William Barr are so telling.
“This is not decay,” Barr said in his remarks at Notre Dame Law School. “This is organized destruction. Secularists and their allies have marshaled all the forces of mass communication, popular culture, the entertainment industry, and academia in an unremitting assault on religion and traditional values.”
His remarks are drawn straight from dominionist theology, which sees the world as belonging to God and his people. The goal of a dominionist is not diversity, or dialogue, or healthy debate. It is a will-to-power ideology based on vanquishing God’s enemies.
As a result, fundamentalists view themselves as a persecuted minority who must stand valiantly against secular forces trying to remove the divine from public life and culture. Barr’s remarks express this ideology seamlessly.
“The imperative of protecting religious freedom was not just a nod in the direction of piety,” Barr said. “It reflects the framers’ belief that religion was indispensable to sustaining our free system of government.”
This statement coheres with what the president said in his Values Voter Summit speech, which he has said several times before: “Our rights come from our Creator.”
If this weren’t enough, last Monday the State Department’s homepage was linked to a speech Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was giving in Nashville.
Pompeo is an outspoken evangelical who has said in the past that world conflicts, especially in the Middle East, will continue until the Rapture. The Rapture is, according to many evangelicals, an apocalyptic event when Christians will suddenly disappear from earth as God ushers in the end of all things.
Barr’s war on secularism and Pompeo’s end-times infused diplomacy are windows into why Trump’s evangelical supporters will not turn on him because of his foreign policy in Turkey, much less his willingness to withhold aid from the Ukraine in order to garner an investigation into a political rival. These ideologies allow for the Kurds to be collateral damage in the larger cosmic war being fought by President Trump and his administration. As Robert Jeffress, one of the president’s trusted spiritual advisors and the pastor of a Dallas megachurch said, there is no way his decision on Syria will lead evangelicals to support a Democratic candidate.
“Some evangelicals may disagree with the president’s decision,” Mr. Jeffress said, “but I guarantee you there is not one evangelical supporter of the president who would switch their vote and support Elizabeth Warren or Joe Biden over a Syria decision.”
Trump is the barbarian-king leading white evangelicals in their war against all those they deem God’s enemies. For evangelicals, his authoritarian rhetoric is an asset; his cruelty is a mark of determination; his unwillingness to compromise is a welcome change from “softer” evangelical politicians.
The question we should be asking is not when white evangelicals will finally have had enough. It’s how the rest of us are going to stop a corrupt president and his most loyal supporters from destroying the country and the world order.