Where Evangelicals Came From

tags: evangelicals, Trump

Garry Wills is the subject of a Festchrift published by Northwestern’s Garret-Evangelical Theological Seminary, "Nation and World, Church and God: The Legacy of Garry Wills." (April 2017)

Excerpted from a review of Frances FitzGerald's The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America

... Evangelicalism tends to break out of any single denomination—think of the preachers from various bodies at Cane Ridge. It is fissiparous even in its most favorable environments—think of Methodism branching into the Disciples of Christ, the Holiness Movement, the African Methodist Episcopal Church. ([George] Whitefield, it should be remembered, was an ordained Anglican.) Evangelicalism is a style—Mark Noll calls it a “value system.” It can affect even some “high church” bodies or members. There are Pentecostalists among Roman Catholics. (Phyllis Schlafly, it should be remembered, was a Catholic, as Kellyanne Conway and Steve Bannon are. Bannon showed his allegiance in his 2014 Skype address to the Institute for Human Dignity at the Vatican.)

Given this description of evangelical style, two things should be noticed. America is, or likes to think of itself as, a “do-it-yourself democracy.” Many of the traits I have been listing are ones Americans will fancy themselves as embodying (or wanting to). People who hit the sawdust trail are working a kind of do-it-yourself salvation. The credentialing by the people is what all presidents claim. No wonder Noll thinks of evangelical religion (despite its roots in Wesley’s England) as native to America, as giving America its most recognizable God. Calvin said God “elects” his chosen ones. In America we choose to elect our leaders. The crowd credentials the preacher. Historians rightly observe that our national political conventions have borrowed elements from revivals.

A second thing to notice is how many of the traits I have listed would be ascribed by his voters to Donald Trump. He too presented himself as opposed to elites, to the academic and political and journalistic establishments, even (for a brief lying while) to banks and special-interest lobbying. He is spontaneous and improvising—“telling it like it is” in his supporters’ eyes. He feels so credentialed by his crowds that he cannot even conceive that more people voted for the establishment candidate than for his own “authentic” ticket—he will no doubt go to his grave thinking that any votes against him were rigged.

Trump has a style that seems like no style to the “proper” viewer, the “politically correct.” His antiestablishment pose could not, all by itself, make 81 percent of evangelicals vote for him. They had ancillary reasons for doing that—the hope of outlawing abortion, Hillary hate, feeling scorned by “the elite.” But his style helped ease the godly toward this godless man. They felt he was “talking their language”—little realizing that it was the language of Father Divine among others, of evangelicals as tastelessly rich as Donald Trump. It is the “tastelessly” that assures them he is no snob. As Fran Lebowitz says, “He’s a poor person’s idea of a rich person”—living in a vulgar gold splendor the poor man would embrace if he had “made it.”

Trumpian populism has proved a natural fit for Steve Bannon. The films he produced celebrate populist heroes—Sarah Palin (The Undefeated, 2011), “Duck Commander” Phil Robertson (Torchbearer, 2016)—or they let spokespersons like Dick Morris, Mike Flynn, and John Bolton denounce the “elites” of the establishment—The Battle for America (2010), Generation Zero (2010), Clinton Cash (2016). Bannon even has his own version of the evangelicals’ Armageddon, one that explains the dark message of Trump’s inaugural “American carnage” speech that he worked on. Ronald Radosh says that Bannon told him, “I’m a Leninist. Lenin wanted to destroy the state, and that’s my goal too. I want to bring everything crashing down, and destroy all of today’s establishment.”

That is not quite true. Bannon thinks the establishment is crumbling on its own, which is why Trump calls everything preceding his glorious arrival a “disaster.” In Generation Zero Bannon said that a cataclysm is already in process. In two books he admires and promotes, and on which he based Generation Zero, two amateur historians, William Strauss and Neil Howe, argued that each country gets four cataclysmic “turnings” when the status quo falls apart and a new order has to be invented or imposed. America has used up three of its turnings (the Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression) and its last has already begun. “The end is near.” No wonder Trump can disregard experts in places like the State Department—their demise is being taken care of by history.

Trump has been accused of being drawn to Alex Jones–style conspiratorial theories. Bannon assures him it is something grander than that. They are instruments of a great historical destiny. A do-it-yourself politics like the do-it-yourself religion of the evangelicals is the only thing to rely on in the crash of our ultimate turning. It looks less and less odd that 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump. They know what End Time sermons look like. ...

Read entire article at NY Review of Books

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