A Global Perspective on American Evangelical Politics
White American evangelical Trumpism is a lot more white and more American than it is evangelical.
By John G. Stackhouse|September 13, 2022
As we Canadians mildly observe our American cousins facing yet another dramatic election, we note that evangelical Christianity remains in your headlines as a significant factor in the outcome. From a viewpoint outside the Excited States, however, it isn’t really evangelicalism per se that deserves all the attention.
In historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez’s lively reckoning, white American evangelicalism is shot through with macho Christian nationalism, thus prompting the provocative title of her bestselling book, Jesus and John Wayne How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation (Liveright 2020). Sociologists Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry’s carefully evidenced Taking America Back for God: Christian Nationalism in the United States (Oxford 2020) shows, furthermore, that what’s going in white Christian nationalism is, indeed, white Christian nationalism, not anything peculiarly evangelical. The same drive is at work among white Roman Catholics and so-called liberal Protestants as well, albeit not to the same degree as in American evangelical communities.
Having just authored a global description of evangelicalism for Oxford’s Very Short Introduction series, I’m impressed at how peculiarly American this white Christian nationalism is. For it is (forgive the phrase) only in America that evangelicalism has so burgeoned in the past such that a huge fraction of its citizens can at least plausibly be described as evangelical—all those Baptists and Methodists, yes, and more besides—and get caught up in the story of white American supremacy. Elsewhere, it’s a different story.
And it’s a big elsewhere, and quite a different story. Evangelicals in Britain were crucial in the rise of the Labour Party, as they were in the career of its Australian counterparts. A Baptist pastor on the Canadian prairie, Tommy Douglas, was the first important leader of Canada’s democratic socialist New Democratic Party, and Canadian evangelicals with few exceptions have voted in close proportion to the general popular vote for decades. Just to underline that point: as similar as Canadians are to Americans, evangelicals have not routinely and generally lined up behind the Conservative Party.
Where evangelicalism is booming, however, is outside the Anglosphere. Throughout sub-Saharan Africa, across Latin America, and in countries such as China, Indonesia, and even Iran, evangelical Christianity is growing rapidly. Does it need saying that white Christian nationalism isn’t much of a factor in any of these places?
Yes, many evangelicals in certain countries have largely aligned themselves with some dubious regimes, whether in Brazil, Kenya, or South Korea. But evangelical organizations such as World Vision, Compassion International, and the Salvation Army alongside local churches continue to care for the poor while others energetically spread the gospel among marginal peoples—from Dalits in India to favela-dwellers in South America. Such identification with the needy on scales large and small means that evangelicalism cannot be easily, let alone automatically, aligned with any social class or any particular brand of politics.
Indeed, to return to the United States, it is preposterous to equate evangelicalism with Trumpism when so many evangelicals are Black. Black evangelicals have long scratched their heads at the preoccupations of their white counterparts: communism, evolution, the inerrancy of the Bible, and esoteric points of prophetic interpretation—giving rise to such glories as the Left Behind series of novels and films. Black evangelicals haven’t had much energy to spare for arguments about Darwinism in science classes or gay and lesbian alliances in high schools—not when their agenda has included emancipation from slavery, justice within the legal system, opportunity in the economy, and the end of prejudice in matters great and small. And white Christian nationalism itself? Not an easy sell among Black folk, just as it isn’t among most evangelicals around the globe.
What is evangelicalism, then? Well, to answer that properly would take at least a small book (and, coincidentally, I recently wrote one). But for now, evangelicalism can be characterized as orthodox in doctrine, Biblical in orientation, fervent in piety, focused on evangelism, active in social service, populist in polity, and pragmatic in mode. Evangelicals are busy, enthusiastic Protestants (although some observers count some Catholics among their ranks) who love Jesus, want others to love him, and work hard to spread the good word and good works wherever they can.
White Christian nationalism? Yes, evangelicals in the United States have enjoyed wielding cultural power for decades—historian Martin Marty characterized nineteenth century America as so dominated by evangelicalism as to constitute a “righteous empire”—and being in charge is a hard habit to give up. Evangelicals used to drive the bus called “America,” so they are particularly inclined to support someone who offers to let them back into the driver’s seat—or, at least, to take them where they want to go. Small wonder that such white Christian nationalists support politicians and preachers who pander to white Christian nationalism.
Everywhere else, though, and even among non-white Americans, the nexus of Jesus and John Wayne just doesn’t even occur. White American evangelical Trumpism is a lot more white and more American than it is evangelical.