MIAMI BEACH, Fla. — White evangelical affection for President Donald Trump can be explained by three frameworks, Molly Worthen, professor of history at UNC-Chapel Hill, described Nov. 6, 2017, at Faith Angle Forum — selective libertarianism, women and authority, and presuppositionalism.
Many evangelicals (by which she means white evangelicals) hold a selective libertarian view of government, Worthen says. They're opposed to an expansive social safety net but support a large government role in other areas, such as immigration. Evangelicals are suspicious of centralized government power that could infringe upon their liberty, but have supported government power to advance a moral agenda they support, such as prohibition, she noted.
Worthen doesn't view this position as inconsistent, but as based in "the Puritan genius." "The Massachusetts Bay Puritans saw both of these strategies, this rejection of a certain kind of centralized power and a very confident use of certain government tools as necessary to build and guard their city on a hill," she said.
This selective libertarianism has an "internal logic," Worthen says, that provides evangelicals the flexibility to both cheer a Republican de-regulatory platform and an authoritarian leader like Trump.
Women and Authority
The second reason evangelicals backed Trump, Worthen continued, had to do with the role of women and authority in evangelical churches.
The socioeconomic decline of white men, discussed in books like Hanna Rosin's The End of Men and J.D. Vance's Hillbilly Elegy, Worthen noted, is both an American story and a particularly evangelical story. In evangelical circles, concerns about the feminization or emasculation of the Church played out in debates over women leaders and Paul's New Testament writings on the topic. And these concerns, Worthen believes, helps explain evangelical women who voted for Trump.
"In a family where the man is no longer the breadwinner, where he feels he has lost his dignity, he has no hope of attaining the status that his father or grandfather had, where the women in his life have seen him feel demeaned, they have watched men drift away from Sunday worship. Perhaps we can start to understand why even for women this hierarchical theology of gender has real staying power, why there is a certain perverse appeal in Trump's pseudo-masculinity," she said.
Lastly, Worthen tied presuppositional apologetics to Trump's critique of "fake news."
Worthen defined presuppositionalism as the idea that "one can only accurately evaluate evidence out in the world if proceeding from the right assumptions, assumptions that you can't demonstrate, that you have to simply take on faith, the most important being the assumption of the inerrant truth of the Bible."
She attributed the development of presuppositionalism to Dutch theologian Abraham Kuyper and Westminster Theological Seminary. And sees its fruition in the works of 1960s to 1980s popular evangelical author and speaker Francis Schaeffer.
Presuppositionalists are dismissive of evidence that doesn't support their beliefs, similar to how Trump is dismissive of news he doesn't like, Worthen argued.
"Francis Schaeffer and folks like him very brilliantly used this way of thinking, this presuppositionalist stuff, packaged in more accessible language, packaged in the language of the Christian worldview, defending the Christian worldview or world and life view against the secular humanist worldview," Worthen said.
"And this gave American evangelicals a way to talk back to secular scholarship and feel they had emerged victorious, and not just victorious, but more savvy than their opponents, really getting what was going on. 'Yeah, these secular liberal types, they talk about a neutral public square. There's nothing neutral about it. It is totally poisoned by the suppositions of the secular humanist world view.'
"I think when Trump began speaking in terms of fake news and phony stories coming from kind of an untrustworthy media, he capitalized unwittingly on two generations of evangelical intellectual practice. They are old hands at rejecting difficult facts as fake news."
Theology matters, Worthen concluded, because ideological frameworks "organize our chaos" and help us "make sense of our sufferings, our fears and our desires."
The three frameworks discussed — selective libertarianism, women and authority, and presuppositionalism — therefore, "are all strategies that conservative evangelicals have used to make sense of massive change in America and their declining cultural authority and to try to rally like-minded Christians to arrest that decline. And in some ways, these strategies have worked. ... Of course, they helped elect Donald Trump."
Faith Angle Forum, a project of the Ethics and Public Policy Center, gathers about 20 journalists twice a year to discuss issues of importance to faith and public life. You can watch, listen or read the transcript of Worthen's presentation here.