A lot of coastal liberals have been shaking their heads at evangelicals these days.
How, they ask, could over 80 percent of white evangelical Christians have voted for a vulgar, boastful, sexual-abuse-bragging serial adulterer married to a former nude model? Let alone the race-baiting, the biblical ignorance (“Two Corinthians”), the fraud, the tax-dodging, the cheating of business partners, and the promise to bring back torture.
The usual answer—which I provided here a couple of weeks ago—is the Supreme Court, which several well-known evangelical leaders say trumps any other concerns Christians might have with the now president-elect. Between the court and Mike Pence’s leadership on social issues, white evangelicals are focused on their core issues. And besides, maybe Franklin Graham was right that Trump found God during the election season.
But Ken Blackwell, one of the leaders of Trump’s domestic policy transition team, epitomizes the most important factor at all: the recent marriage between extreme laissez-faire capitalism and extreme social conservatism.
A lot of media coverage has focused on Blackwell’s anti-LGBT record, which indeed is impressive, together with his extreme pro-life views and anti-Black-Lives-Matter editorials. But what’s interesting about Blackwell is how those hard-right social views dovetail with the extreme economic conservatism of some of his team’s picks, like Goldman Sachs’s Steven Mnuchin and Gary Cohn, or Steven Pruitt, the anti-EPA crusader set to head the EPA. How can the same person advocate for a Christian nation and a hypercapitalist paradise?
Blackwell is a former secretary of state of Ohio, and a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, which sits toward the extreme edge of the Christian right. But his main areas of focus are tax reform, supply-side economics, and small government. His book, Rebuilding America: A Prescription for Creating Strong Families, Building the Wealth of Working People, and Ending Welfare, argues that the social safety net—welfare, Medicare—undermines the “rugged individualism” that makes families and communities strong.
This is not a novel argument, of course—but it is new to see it made by a conservative Christian. For over a century, evangelicals listened closely to what Jesus had to say about money—and none of it was good.
Examples? Jesus preaching that “It is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” for example. (The “eye of a needle” isn’t literally the eye of a needle, but a gate of Jerusalem so narrow that camels’ packs would have to be unloaded in order for them to get through.) Or throwing money lenders out of the temple. Or telling his followers to get rid of their possessions, leave their families, and join his radical, messianic, mostly celibate sect. Not settle down, not have kids, not make a living, and definitely not get rich.
During the Great Awakening, preachers taught exactly what Jesus taught: Turn on (to Christ), tune in (to the Gospel), and drop out of capitalist society. This was a rejection of the “Protestant ethic,” which, as sociologist Max Weber famously theorized, justified worldly pursuits. But it dovetailed nicely with 19th- and early 20th-century populist mistrust of bankers, cities, capitalism, and coastal (i.e. New York and Boston) elites. Sound familiar?
A very weird thing happened after World War II, however. As described in Kate Bowler’s Blessed: A History of American Prosperity Gospel, as evangelicals enjoyed postwar prosperity, preachers changed their tune. Maybe it’s not so bad to make money after all, some said. In fact, argued early “prosperity gospel” like E.W. Kenyon and “new thought” preachers like Norman Vincent Peale, maybe wealth is actually a sign that God loves you. After all, doesn’t the Old Testament say that if you’re faithful, God will ensure your crops grow?
Thus was created a new religious doctrine that, in Bowler’s words, “God grants health and wealth to those with the right kind of faith.” In the 1950s, it was mostly on the fringes. But by the 1980s, it had become the predominant view among conservative Christians in America.
Not coincidentally, these changes were accompanied by a profound political realignment. Until the civil-rights era, Democrats were the party of Southerners, progressives, farmers, poor folks, and most Christians. Republicans, meanwhile, were (generally) the party of Eastern elites, bankers, big business, and old money. The Republican Herbert Hoover advocated “rugged individualism,” but the Democratic FDR put forward the New Deal to help the poor.
That changed with the civil-rights movement. As the Democratic Party promoted equality for black Americans, their coalition fell apart. Beginning with Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy,” which co-opted the racist rhetoric of ex-Democrat George Wallace, less-affluent whites migrated from the Democratic party to the Republican one: First Southerners (under Nixon), then Reagan Democrats (Reagan), and finally Rust Belt and Italian/Irish whites who just put Trump over the top.
But the Republican leadership never changed its economic tune. It’s still preaching rugged individualism (dismantle Obamacare and Medicare, cut welfare, etc.) and still favoring the richest Americans (47 percent of Trump’s tax cuts go to the wealthiest 1 percent of the population). How did they pull this off? Magic?
No, the perfect combination of race and religion—in particular, the shift among conservative Christians regarding wealth. Suddenly, and not by coincidence, the Republican Party’s emphasis on wealth being a good thing fit perfectly with what evangelical preachers were preaching. No one could have imagined “wealth is good” being a Christian value in 2016.
Blackwell reflects this marriage of social conservatism and fiscal conservatism. There was no one like him a century ago. But now, he’s as American as apple pie baked with genetically modified apples because environmental regulations are unpatriotic.
During the election and since, liberals have railed against Trump’s wealth: his ultra-tacky, cheap looking gold-plating; his outrageous conflicts of interest; his non-payment of taxes. This has fallen on deaf ears, because today, most Christians want to be wealthy. They hear Joel Osteen preach a Christian version of the “law of attraction,” that you can create your own reality through the power of positive thinking. They go to huge megachurches which flaunt their wealth. They see no contradiction between Jesus criticizing the rich and their own attempts to get rich. Religion is a malleable thing. And theirs is consummately American blend of capitalism and conservatism.