Why so many evangelicals support Trump

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If you still can’t understand how the thrice-married, foulmouthed President Trump convinced so many Christian evangelicals to vote for him, you should consider the role civil religion played in turning him into a secular deity.

For plenty of religious and moral reasons, Trump would seem the last candidate an evangelical would support.

But my research has shown that while political beliefs and party affiliation are still the biggest factors in choosing a president, it is American civil religion — and not the religion of churches — that has the next greatest effect. And it can help explain Trump’s broader-than-expected voter base.

When President Clinton was being impeached in the 1990s, there were people who said “we elected a president, not a pope.” But in some ways we did elect a pope, in that the president is the de facto high priest of American civil religion. Because of this, Clinton’s actions presented a moral problem for many people.

My research has shown that the more civil religious a person was, the more outraged they were about Clinton’s actions. In a related vein, we have Trump, who won the presidency in large part by casting himself, perhaps unknowingly, as the best possible future high priest of American civil religion.

Trump knows how to put on a show. He knows how to use symbols and rituals as shorthand to get an idea across. While civil religion and patriotism are not the same thing, they are closely related, and patriotism can be the outward manifestation of inner civil religious beliefs. By surrounding himself at his election rallies with flags, songs and people who symbolized American values, candidate Trump evoked a sense of priestly leadership that many found appealing.

{mosads}You probably haven’t even heard of civil religion — the concept of a religion-like unifying force that creates cohesion among relatively disparate people. Many countries have a traditional national religion, like Catholicism in Italy or Anglicanism in England. But America has never had a national religion, so we essentially created one to take its place.


French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau introduced the idea of civil religion in 1762 in discussing the moral foundations of modern societies. It was given academic heft in 1967 by sociologist Robert Bellah in a journal article that examined, in part, President Kennedy’s use of the term “God” in his 1961 inaugural address.

The concept has since resonated with academics who see it as an explanation for the common moral thread and belief system that runs through all of us regardless of how personally religious we are. Most people who have civil religious beliefs don’t even realize it. It’s just something deeply engrained in us as Americans.

The signs are all around us. Civil religion has holy places like Independence Hall and the site of the World Trade Center. We have sacred symbols like the flag and the bald eagle, sacred rituals like Fourth of July parades and inaugurations, and even respective saints like George Washington and and martyrs like Abraham Lincoln.

In my research, I created a series of questions that looked both at how civil religious individual voters were and how civil religious they perceived presidential candidates to be. I found that voters were three times more likely to favor the candidate who appeared more civil religious and 2.5 times more likely to vote for the candidate whose civil religious views matched their own.

My work has also shown that American evangelicals tend to associate with a more priestly strain of civil religion. Donald Trump was perfectly poised to take advantage of this priestly association.

When evangelicals looked at candidate Trump, they did not see someone who shared their Christian beliefs. They did, however, see someone who they thought could represent their civil religious beliefs better than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. That may have made all the difference.

Donald Woolley is a senior research associate at Duke University.

The views of contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.

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