I am not an Evangelical Christian. I cannot speak as an Evangelical Christian; I cannot speak for Evangelical Christians. My intention here is only to respond to the frequent observation that Evangelical Christians and Donald Trump do not seem to be likely political allies.
Donald Trump is not the godliest of men; much of his behavior is indefensible, and yet, his support among Evangelical voters remains secure. Coarse language, well substantiated accounts of impropriety, virtual ignorance of the basic tenets of Christianity apparently don’t matter. He’s not a true conservative , and his political instincts may be curious and occasionally dangerous, but again, these failings also do not seem to matter because Donald Trump provides what mainstream, politicians cannot offer – a retreat from secular progressivism.
As a secular progressive, I have a difficult time understanding that what I take to be right, essential, and eminently progressive could be threatening to anyone. Progress is good; science is good; awareness of climate change is good; securing the rights of marginalized people is good. As a nation, we appeared to have made great progress in a relatively short period of time. Why would anyone want to go backward?
I’m not alone. My fellow secular progressives find it hard to understand that the very initiatives we found emblematic of a great age of global awareness, mindful celebration of diversity, and freedom from outdated social conventions have convinced Evangelical Christians that our march toward enlightened and progressive polity inevitably brings an assault on those who do not share our point of view.
I was surprised to learn that Evangelicals consider themselves more discriminated against than are Blacks or Hispanics. Even more unsettling was a phrase used by a moderate, articulate, compassionate, conservative Christian in explaining Evangelicals’ willingness to disregard Donald Trump’s unseemly behavior. He suggested that the culture had become notably anti-Christian and that in time the last vestiges of religious freedom would be systematically squashed.
“They are coming to get us,” he said. And, in his mind, “they” are people such as I am.
In order to understand what happened and is happening, we secular progressives have to look at Christianity in the United States, starting with the consideration of the term “secular”. My fellow liberals thinks of secularism as the clear separation of church and state, the Constitutional certainty that a democratic nation can not be ruled by individuals or agencies of any religion; political decisions ought not be affected by religion. With measured pride, we assert that we are a secular nation.
Secularism is one of the cornerstones of democracy. That is an article of faith for liberal progressives.
I’ll have to return to that assertion, but need first to present a competing notion of secularism, one more likely to be held by Evangelical Christians. To them secularism, progressive secularism, or secular humanism is the assertion that faith in a power beyond worldly apprehension is unnecessary at best and at worst, inimical to the principles by which Americans ought to live. To be secular is to live without concern with any judgment other than the laws created by human beings. To be secular is to find no authority greater than laws enforced by human will. To be secular is to believe that truth and morality are not absolute but relative. Expedience, consensus, compromise, the ordinary elements of political life may seem necessary and benign to a voting majority but are at odds with the convictions of people of faith.
When humane Christians of good will called for politicians to give them back their country, they sought to regain what they saw as the lost freedom to acknowledge their faith in every aspect of public life. The elimination of prayer in school, federally mandated suppression of the display of the Ten Commandments in courtrooms, the banning of nativity scenes on municipal properties – each of these asserted the secularism of life in America and appeared to discount convictions of people of faith.
Trump’s presidency may have opened new fissures in the political landscape, but deeply felt divisions were well established before this presidency and before this year’s barrage of inflammatory rhetoric. We are a more secular nation than we were fifty years ago; we are a less Christian nation. For many Evangelical Christians, the largest concerns in the last election were that a liberal demographic tide was about to hit the shore, that the Supreme Court was about to become even more resolute in support of Roe V Wade, and that increasingly the dominant culture had contempt for their beliefs.
Differences of opinion can be discussed, argued, and perhaps resolved. Differences of belief can not be talked away. The unresolved differences of belief with regard to reproductive politics is at the heart of some contemporary Christians’ rejection of progressivism. For some Christians, a government that protects elective abortion is a government that has abandoned them. The belief that human life begins at conception is not open to discussion or compromise. Ardent advocates of the Pro-Life movement compare themselves to abolitionists who could not abide the institution of slavery. The majority of Americans may not share that conviction and may wish that the power of their argument might silence those who do, but convictions are unmoved by argument.
Liberal and progressive convictions are equally unlikely to yield to opposing ideas, as is evidenced by my earlier statement that for those of us who are progressives, it is an article of faith that secularism is one of the cornerstones of democracy. Articles of faith are not preferences or predilections; articles of faith are unquestionable certainties. President Trump has blown right by questioning to the dismissal of conventions we progressives had considered inviolable. While Evangelical Christians may not agree with every tweet, there is some satisfaction for them in seeing political correctness corrected. This administration is determined to turn back the clock, undo what has been done. For the Evangelical Christian, deconstructing the government allows space for Christians to practice their faith in the ways that they live their lives.
Politics makes exceedingly strange bedfellows, and this political moment offers the curious spectacle of Evangelicals bunking down with a hyper-secularized wheeler-dealer in what they consider a last-ditch effort to prevent the secularization of their nation.
One has to suppose that this will not end well.