After Alignment With Trump, Some Evangelicals Are Questioning Movement's Leaders
SARAH MCCAMMON, HOST:
About 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for President Donald Trump in the 2016 election. That was despite Trump's three marriages, his anti-immigrant rhetoric and accusations of sexual harassment and assault from multiple women. The continued alignment of many leading evangelicals with Trump has caused some to question whether their movement has lost its way, including Michael Gerson, former adviser to President George W. Bush.
He recently wrote about this for The Atlantic. And we started our conversation about his own crisis of faith.
MICHAEL GERSON: I've been a traditional defender of the role that evangelicals have played in our common life, knowing that there were downsides, knowing that there were justified criticisms. But if I'm honest and I look at the last few years and the way that evangelicals have presented themselves in public, I don't believe that's been a positive public role. There's a self-perception that they are a persecuted minority and they need the defense of a strong man.
And that sense of self is really, I think, what has developed over the last hundred years to put them at a place where they were vulnerable to a message that says you are on the cultural outs, you are the outsiders, and I am going to stand for you and defend you.
MCCAMMON: What's that about, though? I mean, given that while their numbers are shrinking, you know, evangelicals are still, by some counts, the largest single religious group in the country. According to the Pew Center, 25 percent of the population, depending how you count evangelicals. That's more than Catholics, that's more than mainline Protestants. How can evangelicals feel maligned?
GERSON: Well, some of this really is the history. In the 19th century, American evangelicalism was very much the main tradition of American Christianity that went from being culturally predominant to being a national joke at the point of the Scopes Monkey Trial.
MCCAMMON: That, of course, was the trial in Tennessee in the 1920s over a disputed textbook in a public school that taught evolution.
GERSON: Right. And this is at the same time that scientific views on evolution are coming to the fore and also modern Biblical criticism that questions the kind of roots and accuracy of scriptural accounts. So you had all of these influences that were separating evangelicals from mainstream or elite culture. And they've carried many of these mental habits that come from this unique history, this feeling like they had great influence that has been lost. And that reaction to that lost influence has often been fear.
MCCAMMON: Michael Gerson, you write that in the age of Donald Trump, evangelicals are risking their faith's reputation particularly when it comes to matters of race. Can you explain how?
GERSON: Evangelicals really blew that on the whole during the civil rights movement. A lot of Southern evangelicals took a pro-segregation viewpoint and then many supported the creation of Christian academies, educational institutions that were thinly veiled excuses for segregation. So you're dealing with this history. And all of a sudden, we now have a political movement in America, Trumpism, that is appealing to racial division, appealing to nativist sentiment.
And for evangelicals to be some of the most loyal supporters to that is really risking, you know, a serious association of their faith with bias, particularly in an increasingly diverse nation. I mean, you can't associate your faith with exclusion without serious social and religious consequences.
MCCAMMON: You describe the evangelical tradition as something important and admirable that has become disgraced. But I do wonder, as someone who myself grew up in this tradition, do you give it too much credit? I mean, evangelicalism is deeply associated with whiteness. As you acknowledge, evangelical churches and schools have long been largely de facto segregated. Recent polling suggests the majority of white evangelicals don't see Muslims as part of mainstream American society.
Has evangelicalism really slipped from a noble history or has it maybe always been this way to a degree?
GERSON: I think there is a noble tradition there. I mean, I come out of churches and institutions that do a significant amount of outreach in their community to those in need. This is not visible. But if you were to remove that influence in America, it would leave a massive hole in our common life. So I saw what could be on a variety of issues where evangelicals motivated by conscience could join coalitions to seek the common good and save millions of lives.
But what you say is true as well. I think that these trends are not just beginning with Trump. I think that they go back decades.
MCCAMMON: What do you think it's going to take for evangelicalism to extricate itself from sort of this association with the nativism, with nationalism, some of these ideas that evangelicalism has become associated with particularly in the age of Donald Trump?
GERSON: I think it's possible that we will see a turnaround here. I don't think that turnaround is going to come from the turnaround of the current leaders of evangelicalism. I think they're deeply entrenched in their choices and that that is a human tendency to double down on your bets. And I think we've seen that with Donald Trump where the worse the things that he does, the stronger the support. I'm not sure how that dynamic is broken.
But I do think that we're going to have a new generation of leaders in evangelicalism with a different approach. And I think they're going to be motivated by a great history.
MCCAMMON: That's Michael Gerson. He's an op-ed columnist for The Washington Post and a former adviser to President George W. Bush. Thank you.
GERSON: Good to be with you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.