The Problems and Possibilities of Evangelical Populism

Is evangelical opposition to Donald Trump simply evidence of elitism? That was the argument of Matthew Schmitz, who didn’t so much counter Christianity Today editor-in-chief Mark Galli’s critique of Trump as dismiss Galli and his CT colleagues as elite evangelicals — and therefore, by Schmitz’s definition, not really evangelical at all:

…evangelical leaders who have come up through established institutions tend to acquire the training and tastes of the wider American elite. They often disdain the religious and political populism of the base. Whatever their theological convictions may be, these elites have ceased to be evangelical in a sociological sense. And evangelicalism is more exactly defined sociologically than theologically.

Christianity Today is a case in point. Ask an editor there what she thinks about Israel, Trump, feminism or Fox News, and you will get a very different answer than you would from most American evangelicals. The magazine’s young contributors more ardently desire to freelance for The New Yorker than to appear on Tucker Carlson, despite the fact that their parents would be more impressed by the latter.

These people hold less sway among evangelicals than the editors of liberal publications do among their constituencies.

They also have functionally ceased to be evangelical. There is no dishonor in that. As a former evangelical-turned-Catholic, I am well aware of the drawbacks of the evangelical movement. But writers who trade on an evangelical identity that they no longer really share ought to do the decent thing and admit it.

Now, the easiest retort here is that there are elites on both sides of the Christian debate over Trump. Schmitz is a senior editor at First Things, which bills itself the “leading intellectual journal of its kind in the United States” and where his own bio notes his English degree from Princeton and his bylines in two of my favorite elite publications: the New York Times and the Washington Post. Echoing Schmitz was Johnnie Moore, who started his RNS column by making sure readers knew he had recently attended “an elegant reception at the home of our wonderful vice president and second lady.” His bio starts with his role as founder of “one of America’s leading boutique public relations and communications consultancies” and takes care to mention his work with Hollywood “mega-producer” Mark Burnett. Moore had also served as a senior vice president at Liberty University under Jerry Falwell, Jr. (J.D., University of Virginia), whose annual compensation is nearly $1 million.

These aren’t elites?

Schmitz tries to contrast the false evangelicalism of CT editors and like-minded elites with the more authentic evangelicalism of conservative elites who “gained prominence through electoral politics, mass media or entrepreneurial forms of evangelism — all activities that require a sense of the crowd and a common touch.” After all, he claims:

Evangelicalism has always been a populist movement, and its piety has always been closely tied to suspicion of religious and political elites. Movements as various as circuit-riding Methodism, Bible-thumping Baptists and black churches all encouraged the very American idea that the common man knows best.

So let’s come to the key question: is evangelicalism inherently “a populist movement”?

Hatch, The Democratization of American ChristianityThere’s a kernel of truth here, if Schmitz means “religious populism” as Nathan Hatch does in his history of the Democratization of American Christianity in the 19th century:

The canon of American religious history grows out of traditions that are intellectually respectable and institutionally cohesive. Yet American Protestantism has been skewed away from central ecclesiastical institutions and high culture; it has been pushed and pulled into its present shape by a democratic or populist orientation. At the very time that British clergy were confounded by their own gentility in trying to influence working-class culture, America exalted religious leaders short on social graces, family connections, and literary education. These religious activists pitched their messages to the unschooled and unsophisticated. Their movements offered the humble a marvelous sense of individual potential and of collective aspiration.

Religious populism has been a residual agent of change in America over the last two centuries, an inhibitor of genteel tradition and a recurring source of new religious movements. Deep and powerful undercurrents of democratic Christianity distinguish the United States from other modern industrial democracies. These currents insure that churches in this land do not withhold faith from the rank and file. Instead, religious leaders have pursued people wherever they could be found; embraced them without regard to social standing; and challenged them to think, to interpret Scripture, and to organize the church for themselves. Religious populism, reflecting the passions of ordinary people and the charisma of democratic movement-builders, remains among the oldest and deepest impulses in American life.

This religious populism — not institutions like CT or Wheaton College or Fuller Seminary — defined the primary source for my own evangelical identity: an evangelicalism that was first spread in Sweden by colporteurs and lay preachers who pushed poor people like my ancestors to ask “Where is it written?” and “How goes your walk with Christ?” apart from the authority of a state church. I am a Christian because generations of immigrant farmers asked those questions of their children, and then eventually of me. With my academic appointment, Ivy League degree, and upper-middle class background, I surely fit Schmitz’s idea of an “elite,” but the populist streak within evangelicalism continues to shape my theology, piety, and religious imagination.

But Schmitz’s depiction of evangelical populism is misleading in at least two important ways:

1. Evangelical populism does not assume that “the common man knows best.”

Setting aside the fact that evangelicalism has also been marked by significant concern for education and intellectual life… Even the least well-educated among Schmitz’s Methodist circuit riders and Baptist Bible-thumpers weren’t just taking the “common man” as they found him; they were trying to bring about repentance, conversion, and sanctification. To paraphrase Hatch, they were challenging ordinary Americans to think about God, themselves, their relationships, and their world. They sought to change the behavior (e.g., drinking, domestic abuse) and attitudes (racism, at least to some degree) of the common man.

Turn of the 20th century image of a Methodist circuit rider – Wikimedia

The most successful of those evangelical leaders often had “a sense of the crowd and a common touch,” but for the sake of evangelism, discipleship, and social reform.

The conservative elites who appeal to “populism” today are riding a different kind of circuit for a different purpose. They cycle through Fox News and CBN and social media, not to call for personal and social change, but to tell the evangelical “common man” that he is right to be fearful, right to be angry. They persuade people who try to live with biblical integrity in their own lives to accept transactional morality in the nation’s life.

Such elites sustain their power not through the religious populism of Hatch’s definition, but the political populism that scholar James L. Guth finds prevalent among white evangelicals in America: “more likely to favor strong leadership (even when that means breaking the rules), to distrust government, to see the country on the ‘wrong’ track, and to think that the majority should always rule (and minorities adapt).” Under the guidance of such “strong leadership,” they are more likely than other theologically conservative Christians to affirm “nationalism, authoritarianism, support for ‘rough politics,’ and distaste for political compromise.”

In most respects, by contrast, Guth found that African American and Latino Christians score significantly lower on most (though not all) such “populist” measures. Which points to the second, even larger problem with Schmitz’s appeal to evangelical populism.

2. Which populace defines populism?

Donald Trump likes to present himself as a populist, but he has generally been one of the least popular first-term presidents in American history. Even after a recent bump, he’s still 10 points more unfavorable than favorable in Five Thirty Eight‘s composite poll. He’s particularly disliked by certain groups within American society, including women and persons of color.

If evangelical populism is meant to empower ordinary evangelicals, then it had better address the concerns of three of the most important, most often ignored groups within evangelicalism: women (55% of all evangelicals in America), persons of color (22% and growing fast), and non-American evangelicals (the lion’s share of the world total).

Rather than just reflecting the passions of the white men who compose Trump’s base of support, genuine evangelical populists would join CT president Tim Dalrymple in lamenting that evangelicals are “associated with President Trump’s rampant immorality, greed, and corruption; his divisiveness and race-baiting; his cruelty and hostility to immigrants and refugees; and more.” They would stop waving aside Trump’s misogyny and ask how much it taps into the sexism too often found within evangelical communities.

Finally, truly evangelical populists would look beyond the American nation to recognize that most evangelicals live elsewhere — often in places already being affected by the climate crisis that the Trump administration and its Christian enablers casually deny. “If we shift our gaze from the U.S. political right,” writes David Fitzpatrick, to look at evangelicals of color in this country and beyond it, “we can see an alternative tradition of evangelicalism that embraces social, economic, environmental and racial justice.”