Of the various groups that came together in support of Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential run, two in particular have drawn a lot of media attention: the Christian Right and the white nationalist “alt-right” movement. Trump’s early supporters included white evangelical figures commonly associated with the Christian Right, such as Jerry Falwell, Jr., and Robert Jeffress. And the president’s campaign also attracted white nationalists such as David Duke and Richard Spencer. What are we to make of the fact that both of these groups—the Christian Right and the so-called alt-right—have been energized by Trump’s rhetoric and policies?
In her new book, Unholy: Why White Evangelicals Worship at the Altar of Donald Trump, journalist Sarah Posner draws on years of reporting to examine and explain the relationship among the president, his famously religious base, and the explicitly racist elements that have rallied to his political coalition. Posner’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, The New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Mother Jones, among other outlets. She is a reporting fellow with Type Investigations. She is also the author of God’s Profits: Faith, Fraud, and the Republican Crusade for Values Voters, published in 2008.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Posner about the book by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
R&P: Around the end of 2016, a narrative emerged claiming that white evangelical voters “held their noses” and voted for Trump because he was the only alternative to Hillary Clinton. You were there reporting it all. Was that your sense at the time?
SP: I wouldn’t say they were holding their noses. They converged on Trump during the Republican primary, but they did so from two separate tracks. Many white evangelical voters were supporting him from the beginning, while many white evangelical leaders were favoring another candidate, like Ben Carson or Marco Rubio or Ted Cruz. Some leaders, like Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell, Jr., understood from the outset that the base was falling for Trump, and so went ahead and endorsed him early on. Eventually the rest of the leadership came around based on conversations in which Trump pledged to enact their favored policies and appoint their favored judges, and things like that. By then they were enthusiastic, based on the energy that they felt radiating from the base and on the promises that Trump had made.
R&P: You write that Trump was attractive to white evangelicals who wanted a strongman to press their issues, and that his draft executive order on religious freedom amounted to a “blueprint for an assault on civil rights.” Is the Christian Right agenda as dark and illiberal as that sounds? And is Trump enacting it?
SP: Yes and yes. Some of it is not being enacted by Trump himself—it’s being enacted by cabinet secretaries, political appointees, and agencies. But his administration is working on it. What we saw in the first draft of that executive order was a plan to give broad religious exemptions to people and businesses and government officials who opposed LGBT rights, reproductive rights, and other kinds of civil rights on “religious” grounds. Trump didn’t sign that version, but he authorized the Justice Department to put these religious freedom guidelines into place, which Jeff Sessions did. Sessions launched a “religious freedom task force” within the Justice Department, and Bill Barr has been even more aggressive in promoting the “religious freedom” of conservative Christians through guidance, threats of litigation, and intervening in litigation. These same policy initiatives have played out in other agencies. The Christian Right agenda demands exemptions from many of the important civil rights advances that have been made over the past two decades, and works to replace them with what it would characterize as government from a “Christian worldview.” But that simply means elevating the rights of conservative Christians over other citizens.
R&P: How would you characterize the relationship between the Christian Right and the so-called “alt-right” since 2015? Is it reciprocal? Transactional? One-sided? Or something else?
SP: It’s something else. It’s not operational because there was no coordinated planning to bring the groups together behind Donald Trump. The alt-right as a movement is a separate entity from the Christian Right, but there is some overlap—some people who affiliate with both groups and who saw Trump as a sort of political savior. They were electrified by his campaign rallies, his demonization of immigrants and people of color, and his pledges to enact policies that would deal harshly with members of those communities. As Trump was energizing the alt-right, the Christian Right leadership mostly refused to criticize him for it. (The few figures who did—like Russell Moore—were quickly isolated and marginalized.) So when you look at how Trump has conducted his presidency, putting someone like Stephen Miller in charge of his immigration policy, trying to ban Muslims from entering the country, separating children from their parents at the border, and then you hear Christian Right figures praise him as the most pro-life president ever or the most pro-religious-freedom president ever or the greatest ally they’ve ever had in the White House, you can see a meeting of minds even if they never got together to formalize a partnership. Now, there was one notable person who did think about this, and that was Steve Bannon. When I interviewed him in 2016, he told me that the alt-right needed the Christian Right in order to win elections, and so he hoped the two groups could come together behind a candidate.
R&P: The standard account suggests that the Christian Right was initially formed in response to Supreme Court rulings like Engel v. Vitale and Roe v. Wade. You draw on Randall Balmer and others who have argued that it was more directly responsive to racial issues like the desegregation of public schools, and that it remains invested in distinctly racial politics. Is white evangelical Trump support more intelligible from that angle?
SP: Yes, because Trump is a racist, and they continue to support him, with no indication that they are doing so despite his racism. Randy’s work on the origins of the Christian Right relies a lot on what Paul Weyrich told him in the 1990s—that the movement was motivated primarily by public school desegregation and the IRS crackdown on segregated private schools—so I wanted to dig a little deeper into what happened there. In the course of that research I looked into the history of Robert Billings, who was involved in the formation of the Moral Majority but who never got the attention that Jerry Falwell received. Billings was involved in the Christian School movement, he was the principal or headmaster at several Christian schools, he traveled around the country promoting Christian schools, and he was very active in pushing back against the IRS, arguing that any attempt to revoke the tax exemption of a Christian school—particularly among the “segregation academies” of the day—constituted a violation of religious freedom. His argument was extremely influential in shaping white evangelical opinion. After examining sermons, newspaper clippings, and other historical data, I was struck by how important the issue was as a driver of white evangelical antipathy toward the government, and how fiercely they opposed any governmental effort to protect the civil rights of others. So when you look today at white evangelical antipathy toward government protections for LGBT rights, the legacy is clear.
R&P: In the course of your reporting, you also spoke with some Black and Latino clergy who support Trump. Do they complicate the story?
SP: I don’t think so. To the extent that Trump has support from some Black and Latino pastors and televangelists, they are not representative of Black and Latino congregants around the country. Ideologically, they are more aligned with the Christian Right. The argument is not that only white evangelicals support Trump—certainly, not all white evangelicals support Trump in any case—but rather that the Christian Right as a movement was started by white people and continues to perpetuate an ideology of white Christian nationalism, claiming that it is under threat by pluralistic social change.
R&P: Some prominent evangelicals have suggested that God chose Trump for this moment—a claim that they previously made about George W. Bush and Sarah Palin, but not as much about John McCain, Mitt Romney, or Barack Obama. Is this simply opportunism? Has anyone provided you with a theological warrant for claims about God’s choices?
SP: Well, people have, but I don’t know that I would characterize any of them as warrants—more like theological proof texts. They have attempted to explain why Trump is different, and why this time they really mean that God has his hands on the president of the United States. They say that Trump came along and “told it like it is” at a time when America was in extraordinary peril from globalism, George Soros, secularism, the secular left, or some other supposed enemy of Christian values. There is a very common claim that Trump is a new iteration of King Cyrus, in that he himself is not a believer, but God is using him to restore America. Others have referred to him as a “wrecking ball” in a system that needed to be smashed down and started over. I don’t see a theological basis for that, but it is an image that some televangelists have used to describe Trump. There are a number of different paths that people take to anoint Donald Trump, but I think the main takeaway is that many of his supporters continue to claim a divine mandate for his administration and its policies.
R&P: You note that, through all of this, Trump has consistently attacked the credibility of the press, the experts, the federal agencies and watchdogs, and anyone else who challenges or investigates the host of bizarre claims that he makes daily on Twitter and on television, and that the Christian Right has been dutifully consenting all the way. Has their compliance damaged our shared notion of truth?
SP: Yes. They have helped create a bloc of voters who believe Trump over the news media and even over the government’s own agencies. Believe Trump, don’t believe the CDC. Don’t believe the medical experts, drink hydroxychloroquine. Just this morning, I was looking at some polling data from Pew finding that people who use the White House as their main source of news about the pandemic are less likely to believe that the pandemic is serious. In that sense, though they tout their commitment to the Bible as the ultimate source of truth, the Christian Right is closely aligned here with falsehood and lies. By promoting sycophantic outlets, like the Christian Broadcasting Network, by joining his attacks on the media, and by questioning those who challenge Trump as a truth teller, they have contributed to creating a base of voters who are divorced from the reality that everyone else can see.
I think it’s important to understand that both Trump himself and the Trump coalition have been strongly influenced by televangelists, and that Trump understands how to use the communication methods of televangelism to communicate to his base. This means drawing on magical thinking, portraying himself as a victim of secular enemies, and claiming the authority of one anointed by God. It’s a culture reliant on charisma and loyalty, plagued by scandal, and insulated by the credulity of viewers willing to attribute any accusation of wrongdoing to the deceptions of Satan.
R&P: Your narrative culminates in the declaration that the Christian Right, along with the alt-right, hopes to transform the United States into “a nativist power that accords different rights to different groups of people, based on race, religion, and ethnicity.” Are you attributing this vision to movement elites, to the rank-and-file, or to all of the above? And do you think such a vision can be fully implemented, either under Trump or a more calculating successor?
SP: By supporting Donald Trump and his vision for American “greatness,” with its sealed borders and racist incitements to violence and all the rest, the Christian Right as a whole has demonstrated its support for this sort of nation. By failing to hold him accountable for anything that he has done in office, the Republican Party has demonstrated that it is either unwilling or unable to challenge it. That much is clear. Now, can Trump accomplish this? I think it depends on how long he holds office, how long the Republican Party maintains a majority in the Senate, and how successful they are in stacking the federal judiciary. He has already eroded so many of our norms, customs, and regulations in three and a half years. If he is granted four more years, with no worries about getting reelected, then there is no telling how bad things might get.