Like most people, my exposure to the impeachment debate was limited to brief snatches on the car radio. But the gist was obvious. Democrats offered a thousand reasons why President Donald Trump’s campaign to dig up dirt on Joe Biden was a clear abuse of presidential power. Republicans repeated variations of Richard Nixon’s old argument that “if the president does it, it isn’t a crime” and accused Democrats of trying to disenfranchise 63 million voters.
Though I had to admire the message discipline on the Republican side, it reminded me of a scene from The Jungle Book (Rudyard Kipling’s book, not the Disney movie). Kipling used the Hindi term “Bandar-log” to describe the Borg-like monkeys who capture Mowgli and carry him into the treetops.
“We are great. We are free. We are wonderful,” the Bandar-log chant to Mowgli in unison. “We are the most wonderful people in the jungle! We all say so, and so it must be true.”
That last line made a big impression on me when I first read Kipling’s book as a boy of 12, and it came back to me as I listened to the Republicans defend their president. “We all say so, and so it must be true.”
The Republican exercise in groupthink was particularly impressive because it was employed in defense of the most corrupt and unhinged figure in American political history.
How did we get here?
It is rarely noted that Trump was the clear choice of white America. He won the white vote in the cities, the suburbs, the exurbs, the small towns and the whistle stops. Trump won decisively among white mainline Protestants and white Catholics. He triumphed among white women as well as white men. Trump was even supported by 41 percent of white millennial voters.
Still, it was Trump’s overwhelming victory among aging white evangelicals that delivered the keys to the White House.
It is frequently argued that white evangelicals have been brainwashed by megachurch preachers and Fox News. But the preachers and pundits advance by telling a select audience what it wants to hear. And what aging white evangelicals want to hear is precisely what you get from Fox and the big-name preachers on Trump’s Evangelical Advisory Council.
Similarly, if aging white evangelicals stayed home on Election Day, GOP candidates would go down in flames. Conservative preachers, pundits and politicians survive by learning to think like aging white evangelicals, a fact that makes this demographic the most powerful people on the planet in the dying days of 2019.
Powerful, and most to be pitied.
Whatever Christianity Today might dare to say, aging white evangelicals are foursquare for their president because they are desperate. Donald Trump smells desperation a mile away. It’s his superpower. Trump needs aging white evangelicals as much as they need him.
For decades, as a mature Billy Graham realized, conservative Christians have been manipulated and lied to by conservative politicians. Trump may fire off a dozen Twitter fibs and distortions before most of us get out of bed in the morning, but he keeps his promises to white evangelicals.
It’s reminiscent of an old Leonard Cohen line: “If I have been unkind, I hope that you can let it go by. If I have been untrue, I hope you know it was never to you.”
Trump promised to carry water for aging white evangelicals by giving their leaders unparalleled access to the White House; appointing pro-life, anti-gay jurists throughout the federal court system; and moving the American embassy in Israel to Jerusalem while behaving as if the Palestinians didn’t exist.
Most significantly, Trump promised to staunch the stream of refugees and immigrants flowing into the United States. According to the Pew Research Center, the foreign-born population of the United States was just under 10 million in 1970. By 2017 it was over 44 million and growing faster than the native-born population. In 1970, 68 percent of American immigrants came from Europe and Canada; these predominantly white regions now produce less than 14 percent of new immigrants, while 78 percent come from Mexico, Latin America and Asia. Since 1980, immigration from predominantly black countries has increased fivefold.
If new arrivals from “shithole countries” shared the aging white evangelical admiration for Trump, wall-building wouldn’t be such a passionate concern. But they don’t. Though recent immigrants tend to be socially conservative, they sense that the president wants them gone.
Though Trump works hard to earn the votes of aging white evangelicals, they are hardly his companions of choice. Close associates report that the commander in chief goes in for risqué humor and cusses like a marine, so he can’t really be himself when preachers come to call. Trump bows to the aging white evangelical agenda but, historically, he has held pro-choice and pro-LGBTQ positions.
Likewise, even Trump’s biggest fans in the aging white evangelical community wish he would break his Twitter finger and tone down the rhetoric. They love his toughness but detest his style.
In short, the Trump-evangelical relationship is a marriage of convenience. In fact, it’s more a hook-up than a marriage.
It reminds me of “Last Call”, a recurring “Saturday Night Live” sketch. Kate McKinnon plays Sylvia Sovage, a burned-out lounge lizard who propositions the last guy remaining in Donnelly’s Fine Food and Spirits at closing time. The guy du jour is every bit as unappealing and desperate as Ms. Sovage, but neither party wants to go home alone.
“Did it hurt when you fell from heaven?” one character asks Sovage. “And, I assume, you landed on your face?” The dialogue is all downhill (way downhill) from there.
The bartender, played by Kenan Thompson, tries his best to usher the couple out the door with a dismissive remark: “Just seal the deal so I can power-wash your seats.” But the mutual desperation of his repulsive customers carries the day.
The coalition of Trump and conservative, white evangelicals is fueled by simple desperation. They need one another, and they know it.
For those watching from a distance, this relationship has all the appeal of a “Last Call” hookup. Like Kenan Thompson’s character, we just want to make them stop. “They’re selling their souls,” we say, “He’s playing these religious rubes like Paganini on a Stradivarius.” But both parties are acting in their own best interest, and they will keep it up as long as humanly possible.
But that might not be very long. As I have said, aging white evangelicals may be powerful, but they are also a people most to be pitied. Like John the Revelator’s devil, they are filled with “great wrath” for they know their time is short. Only 25 percent of younger evangelicals hold a “very favorable” opinion of Trump, compared to 55 percent of older evangelicals. Only 24 percent of religiously unaffiliated voters sided with Trump in the 2016 election, and this group grows with each election cycle, while evangelical numbers are dropping. Aging white evangelicals are fighting like there’s no tomorrow because … there isn’t.
Everybody dislikes the aging white evangelicals except the folks who need them – the president, Fox News and the Republican Party. Trump has melded with his base. “They just impeached us,” he bellowed at a recent rally. Conversely, when Trump is mocked his followers take it personally.
And who doesn’t mock Trump? Late night comics like Stephen Colbert are merciless. SNL skewers politicians of every stripe, but it is particularly tough on Trump. Mainstream journalists (moderate, liberal and conservative) no longer conceal their contempt for the man. Even Christianity Today is appalled by his antics.
And every time Trump is mocked, aging white evangelicals feel belittled.
Conservative evangelicals punch above their weight because they are custodians of American civil religion, a vision of America as God’s beacon in a dark world. Civil religion enjoyed bipartisan support during the Eisenhower years. For generations, American history and civics classes were exercises in self-congratulation.
For the past half century, however, our civil religion has been “deconstructed” by academics who see it as little more than a mask for white supremacy and the oppression of women and racial and sexual minorities. America, in this view, has a lot of explaining to do. College educated whites broke decisively for Hillary Clinton in 2016, the only white demographic to do so.
In response, aging white evangelicals have doubled down on the myth of American righteousness. In the hands of evangelical faux historians like David Barton, the old civil religion has become a great, sprawling story of God’s providential love for America with footnotes a mile long. Trump’s promise to make America great again dovetails perfectly with American civil religion in both its classic and expanded iterations.
In defending Trump, aging white evangelicals are fighting for their identity. The liberals have transformed a gleaming army of Christian soldiers into a rabble of bigots and fools. Evangelicals won’t take this demotion lying down, especially with Donald John Trump emerging as their champion. A civil religion designed to unify a nation now serves as a dividing line.
All this is quite by design. Trump’s political strategy comes straight out of professional wrestling. Half the crowd is hailing Trump as a Savior while everybody else is baying for his blood. The president has our attention, and that’s all he has ever wanted.
As the impeachment process so clearly reveals, the GOP is now the party of Trump. But the power behind the throne is a band of aging white evangelicals, the most powerful people on earth, and therefore the most to be pitied.
Like the biblical Samson, Trump will eventually bring the entire edifice of American conservatism crashing down around him. Some species of evangelical religion will ultimately rise from the rubble, but it will be greatly curtailed, politically irrelevant and, I pray, more recognizably Christian.
Sometimes it takes a cataclysm to advance the cause of Christ.
This column was originally published as an opinion column by Baptist News Global.