Unpacking the evangelical embrace of Trump and the political Right

Paul Djupe, co-editor of the new book ‘Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics: Change and Continuity,’ on the weird new political landscape.
"Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics: Change and Continuity"
"Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics: Change and Continuity"Courtesy Paul Djupe

In June 2023, Paul Djupe, who directs the Data for Political Research program at Denison University, made his way to Faith Life Church in New Albany, where he took in a portion of the two-day “Truth and Freedom” rally hosted by the Christian nationalist program “FlashPoint.”

“They had a massive tent, and it was overflowing, basically,” Djupe said of the outsized crowd for the event, which is scheduled to return to Faith Life Church for another go-round in June. “And people were really excited, and they were up and shouting and speaking in tongues and pumped for every component.”

These components included appearances by the likes of My Pillow CEO Mike Lindell, who has advanced increasingly outlandish conspiracy theories claiming the 2020 presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump. Televangelist Kenneth Copeland also turned up to deliver a sermon heavily steeped in Christian nationalist talking points, claiming that “the first act of Congress was to enter covenant with the Almighty God.” (Copeland’s language is consistent with that utilized by the growing Christian nationalist movement, a political ideology that asserts America was founded as a Christian nation and the government must take active steps to keep it that way.)

Djupe said he was also compelled by what he termed “the side issues” that galvanized the “FlashPoint” crowd, including a noted enthusiasm for the anti-trafficking thriller “Sound of Freedom,” whose star, Jim Caviezel, appeared at the rally.

A similar scene opens Trump, White Evangelical Christians, and American Politics: Change and Continuity, released today (Tuesday, March 5), an academic book for which Djupe served as co-editor, in addition to contributing a chapter. In the opening pages, Djupe relays the story of Clay Clark, an Oklahoma podcaster and business coach who partnered with retired general and former national security advisor Michael Flynn to launch the “ReAwaken America Tour.” Sometimes billed as a religious “revival,” the events feature a mix of lawyers, clergy and political figures such as My Pillow’s Lindell, who also made the rounds with “FlashPoint.”

“It’s such an interesting story, and I think it captures where a lot of the energy in religion and politics is on the Right currently, and it’s not with the old, traditional kind of Christian Right, or what I call the mainline Christian Right,” Djupe said, citing the Family Research Council as one example of these more traditional organizations. “With Clay Clark and the ‘ReAwaken America Tour,’ it was like some dude decided, ‘I have an idea and I feel called to do it.’ And then he went out and he got Flynn, and he got the My Pillow guy, and it blew up and became this huge thing. And I think that’s where charismatic conservative Christianity is right now. It’s all these entrepreneurs just doing their own thing, and major [political] parties and major figures are going along with it. If anything signals a new [relationship in] religion and politics, it’s Clay Clark and this startup that went big quickly.”

The evolving relationship between evangelical Christianity and the political Right forms the crux of the wide-ranging and timely collection, for which Djupe and co-editor Anand Sokhey recruited nearly 20 sociologists and political scientists, who collectively address subjects ranging from the sharp evangelical pivot toward Trump to lingering questions about what the movement might look like once the former president exits (or is booted from) the stage. There are also deep explorations into the history of the Christian nationalist movement, which can be traced back to Southern Baptist churches in the 1980s, passages unpacking issues related to evangelicalism and race, and a chapter that digs into the evolving way political language has come to be wielded from the pulpit, among other developments.

“There were a lot of people that seemed to discover this connection between politics and religion, and especially white evangelicalism, during the Trump era. And part of that is because it was so in your face,” said Djupe, a self-described atheist who traced his interest in the link between politics and religion back through his bloodlines, citing multiple preachers in his family, including a grandfather and an uncle. “And it raised these questions, like, is this a brand-new thing? Is this new to Trump or has it been going on a long time? And then the other part about it, of course, is that academics tend to get their hackles up, like, ‘Wait, I’ve been studying this a long time and I need to tell you about it!’ And so it’s a balance of those two things: We’ve been studying this and have seen things change over a long time, but also Trump is so weird even when compared with other religious candidates.” 

This weirdness is reflected in everything from Trump’s increasing willingness to lean into religious grievance – at recent campaign rallies his supporters have taken to describing the upcoming election as “a spiritual battle” with “demonic forces at play” – to the reality that the former president could rightly be described as an imperfect vessel to deliver this kind of religious messaging, having been accused of sexual misconduct by more than two-dozen women, in addition to having an affair with the adult film star Stormy Daniels that he attempted to keep quiet with a six-figure bribe. “And still, midway through his administration you started to hear some elites like Rick Perry begin to refer to [Trump] as ‘anointed by God,’” Djupe said.

And yet, it’s never been a case of evangelicals holding their nose to pull the lever for Trump. Rather, Djupe said, those within the movement quite like him. “He is this coastal elite who didn’t look down on them, and that said they were the most important group in the room, and that they had been persecuted,” he said. “And he was going to be their champion, right? And I think they really liked having their own bully.”

The book is rich in data and polling supportive of this idea, perhaps best represented by a poll carried out by the Public Religion Research Institute that documented the shift toward Trump by evangelicals, who went from being the least supportive in 2011 to the most supportive in 2016 of the statement, “Elected officials can still perform their public duties in an ethical manner even if they have committed immoral personal acts” – a 42 percent increase.

Of course, evangelicals aligning with the political Right is nothing new – Djupe and Co. document how evangelical interests related to everything from opposing abortion rights to restricting immigration have long been championed by the Republican Party. But the book also makes a compelling argument that the current iteration of this relationship is one born more of desperation, with the religious Right still having the power to mobilize constituents but less so to influence policy, forcing the movement to shape itself to whatever politicians best mirror its aims, no matter how flawed the person might be.

There’s also the reality that evangelicals are a shrinking demographic, with more people identifying as non-religious and the movement increasingly dominated by older, white, rural voters – a development that has fueled the increasingly dramatic language used by politicians courting this crowd.

“The trick is that you have to keep ramping up the threat to keep them engaged and to get them to turn out [to vote] at super high rates,” Djupe said. “Because if you don’t, they’re a smaller percentage of the population, and then you’re not going to win elections anymore. And that explains why people are adopting this apocalyptic campaign style, because they need people to believe their fundamental rights and liberties are at stake, and if they lose this election, the United States is going to hell and you’re going to be put in prison camps and the rest of it. And that’s what politicians like Trump have been saying.”

As an academic, Djupe is loath to prognosticate, but he argued that the information assembled for this book suggests the movement will continue after Trump, pointing to the likes of current Republican Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who one New York Times opinion columnist described as “the embodiment of white Christian nationalism in a tailored suit.”

“Trump was certainly a catalyst for bringing them out into the open,” Djupe said. “But I think at this point, the Republican Party has been fundamentally changed. … There are so many people who are really well placed to continue these sorts of dynamics and to push policy that I think encourages a lot of these folks and keeps them mobilized. So, yeah, we called it the GOP tent revival, and I think it’s going to keep going, even if there’s a new person it revolves around.”

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