Tonight, Iowans will officially kick off the presidential election cycle. If you’re one of the few Americans possessing the patience to read countless hot takes on what will or might happen, you are well aware that Iowa evangelicals play an outsized role at the beginning of the nominating season. Their numbers and influence in the Hawkeye state are formidable.
As much as coastal elites might wish evangelicals didn’t factor so heavily into the electoral equation, there’s no bypassing the fact that evangelicals are a highly motivated and mobilized demographic. This explains the massive efforts of several token candidates and unlikely candidates to court evangelical voters. Tomorrow morning, postmortems will begin reflecting on how evangelicals voted.
So this election cycle has already produced a torrent of think pieces and perspectives, most prominently—and dizzily—on the phenomenon of Donald Trump’s unlikely coronation by many well-known conservative Christian leaders. Other analysis has focused on why evangelicals are gravitating to Trump, whose brazen and public sins are deeply at odds with their professed beliefs.
No analysis, at least none that I can find, has attempted to explain what the Trump-evangelical phenomenon means for a younger generation of conservative Christians attempting to forge a new approach to politics that places fealty to the Kingdom of God above fealty to a political aesthetic.
Because I’m thirty years old and a millennial, and since the millennial generation is the one generation that finds it acceptable for twenty-somethings and thirty-somethings to write memoirs, I have written this piece to autobiographically dissect what effect, if any, Trump is having on a new generation of conservative evangelicals.
This isn’t a post about whether Christians should vote for Trump. It’s a post about the symbolism contained within a Trump and evangelical alliance, the political affections that are making younger evangelicals decidedly more political, and what that means.
The Religious Right’s Politics Focus Doomed It
First, it’s essential to understand the context. Younger conservative evangelicals came of age as the much ballyhooed Religious Right was (and remains) the preferred whipping boy of liberal hysteria. According to its least charitable interpreters, the Religious Right was an invidious conspiracy attempting to bring theocracy to the United States by way of revivalist politics.
As a child of the Religious Right, I regard it quite differently. Well-intentioned but often too politically pragmatic, the best of the Christian Right attempted to restore the principles of ordered liberty that are associated with the American Founding—virtue, statesmanship, the value of mediating institutions such as churches, and the symbiotic link between religion and moral grounding. The movement was centered on building a humane, democratic order.
Consult any fever-pitched Daily Beast or New Republic article on the subject and you will find a catalogue of the errors and excesses of the Religious Right, and perhaps a few are justified. But even those less hostile toward the movement recognize its deficiencies.
A legitimate criticism is that the Religious Right was more overtly political than it was theological; that it was more concerned with moralizing than it was centered on New Testament Christianity; that it sought political wins at the expense of culture-making; and that it ceded too much ground to the winds of Christian anti-intellectualism. All of this in hopes of making America Christian again. Attempting to restore integrity throughout American government, conservative Christians insisted moral character was a prerequisite for elected office.
Rising Evangelicals Are Even More Conservative
These criticisms have gained traction with a rising generation of conservative evangelicals; and many fear that Trump represents the gaudy resurrection of a past that we do not want to return to. These criticisms haven’t caused younger evangelicals to pull back from their political witness. If anything, the young evangelicals I know are actually more conservative theologically than the rank and file of last generation’s Religious Right.
This theological conservatism, however, is playing out differently in the political sphere than it did 20 or 30 years ago. Today’s younger conservative evangelicals esteem an authentic, honest politics that promotes and prioritizes temperament as much as it does conviction. The political conservatism that focuses on family stability, human dignity, and religious liberty emanate from a decidedly theological epicenter.
For the most part, younger evangelicals aren’t focused on “making America great again.” They believe, instead, that America’s greatness is a byproduct of Christian mission. They’re fixated on the priority of Christ’s Kingdom, believing that an authentically Christian message—of repentance and reconciliation—offers more lasting hope than the glitz and glam of political prestige.
Trump’s Appeal Is to Inauthentic Emotion-Ginning
This is why the Trump phenomenon is, frankly, so disconcerting to me and many other young evangelicals. It smacks of politics first. To give such overt Christian support to Trump seems like a repudiation of values that evangelicals have been most vocally in support of in decades past. The caustic rhetoric, the chauvinism, the unquestioned devotion, the dehumanizing antics, the amateurish actions—the entire Trump campaign is marked by an audacious pragmatism unmoored from the Christian understanding that the nation-building we’re seeking is still yet to come (Hebrews 13:14).
The wave of populism Trump is riding reminds young evangelicals of the revivalist politics of Christian America. It channels a lost nostalgia by promising simplicity. My generation has a special sensitivity to being exploited for votes, and we reject the solutions Trump offers as inauthentic.
This generation of Christians grows more and more cynical as evangelical leaders make the trek to Trump headquarters to symbolically powwow under the guise of Christian solidarity with someone remaining proudly unrepentant of his immoral conduct, machoism, and predatory enterprises. Younger conservative Christians are approaching politics differently. And the Christian support for Trumpism further cements this generational divide. Thankfully, the younger evangelical Christians I know would rather lose an election than surrender our credibility.
Gain Trump, Lose Your Witness
The institutions of conservative Christianity have raised me, and I am eternally thankful. Raised Southern Baptist, I attended a Christian college. I spent a semester in Colorado Springs at the archetype for all things Christian conservatism: Focus on the Family’s Leadership Institute, where I discovered how to think through life’s biggest questions from a Christian worldview.
I have a master’s degree from The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the most conservative evangelical educational institutions in America. I worked at a conservative Washington think tank and now I work for the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. These institutions have raised me, and from everything I can see, have inoculated me and a generation like me against the temptations of Trumpism. How ironic now is it that the institutions of conservative Christianity are now raising a generation of Christians suspicious of the types of politics Trump represents.
So, where do we stand? Young evangelicals are trying to communicate to Christian leaders this message: those who pal around with Trump might unlock access to the corridors of power, but in the process, they will lose a generation of Christians who are looking for leadership that isn’t interested in a shock-and-awe muscular politics. The Christian alliance with Trump sets the political witness of evangelicals back by several generations. It justifies the caricatures and criticisms of our opponents. And younger evangelicals will not abide.
I’ve always defended Christian conservative leaders, but the dalliance with Trump makes me wonder whether cozying up to him doesn’t prove that all the overcooked, leftist caricatures of conservative Christians may be less exaggerated than we’d like to admit.