Gerardo Martí is professor of sociology at Davidson College. His book, The Deconstructed Church: Understanding Emerging Christianity (co-written with Gladys Ganiel), received the Distinguished Book Award from the Society for the Scientific Study of Religion, and his most recent publications include American Blindspot: Race, Class, Religion, and the Trump Presidency. Currently, his research is funded generously through the Lilly Endowment and focused on churches actively confronting racial injustice.
American evangelicalism has never rested comfortably with being a privatized religion, something readily seen across the history of the United States in the public repentances of the Great Awakenings, controversies over slaveholding, movements for temperance and prohibition, and numerous court battles over abortion, evolution, marriage, and sexuality. More recently, the alliance of capitalist-friendly Christianity with neoliberal advocates merged morality and financialization into a powerful white Christian libertarianism buttressed by favorable legal judgments, sympathetic politicians, and government policies at local, state, and federal levels, which became more firmly entrenched in the presidency of Donald J. Trump.
Despite frequent definitions based on theological convictions, evangelicals routinely seek the authority of the state to enforce their approach to moral issues, making evangelicalism in practice an inherently political orientation. The term “political” here is not restricted to mere partisanship but directs our attention using a sociological lens to the desires for power over and through civic structures. What is fundamental to all varieties of evangelical identities is their presumption of knowing God’s best intention for humanity and then taking responsibility to convey that intention to others. Even the gentlest and most generous evangelical believes that the world has a proper, God-intended order. Therefore, evangelicals often wrestle with how much to impose their understanding of God’s order on others. To the extent evangelicals deem others to be recalcitrant and unrepentant, or in active revolt against the purposes of God and his people, the greater the urgency to enact that sense of order.
Evangelicals routinely seek the authority of the state to enforce their approach to moral issues, making evangelicalism in practice an inherently political orientation.
During the Reagan presidency, the seeming “win” against communism, the loosening of credit lines, and the expansion of consumer debt temporarily boosted the sense of economic well-being among white Americans, and a surge of souls and wealth funneled into evangelical church and parachurch ministries that affirmed the electoral priorities of the religious right. But by the start of the Clinton administration, ethnoracial demographics manifested striking shifts. Religious pluralism expanded, and defections away from literalist teachings increased. Decades of activism from gay, Black, Indigenous, and women’s movements heightened antagonisms. The pace of change led many to see a tacit understanding of religion deteriorating, and new approaches to attitudes and lifestyles were not just different but dangerous.
Normative controls can be powerful but can weaken quickly. White evangelicals found their moral authority more difficult to assert outside their highly bounded spaces of orthodoxy. As attempts at societal influence became increasingly ineffectual, they resorted to the most powerful means democratically available to them: the ballot box. Invoking the notion of a Christian nation, churches pivoted to focus more attention on mobilizing people and resources to institutionalize their values, leveraging the familiarity of Christian language and practices to innovate explicit political schemas, scripts, and logics of action. They legitimated using the authority of the state to compel those who live in the United States to conform to their vision of the world.
As attempts at societal influence became increasingly ineffectual, they resorted to the most powerful means democratically available to them: the ballot box.
Drawing on this context, the most recent and historically rooted analyses of white evangelicalism in the United States define it as a religious orientation centered on aggressive efforts to bring American society back into conformity to a particularistic way of life, one that is racialized as white, gendered as heteronormative, and economically oriented to expanding asset-based wealth. With the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump, white evangelicalism manifested as a reactionary movement rallying every means, from interpersonal shaming to encoded laws, to mitigate their idealized concerns. Aligned with neoliberal dogmas, they drew on Hayekian resonances of market supremacy, privatized problems, and state-enforced mechanisms to uphold moral boundaries.
As religious entrepreneurs, these evangelicals enact a strategic religiosity through political projects centered on abolishing abortion, restricting immigration, encoding gender and sexuality boundaries, and legally enforcing these and other commitments under the constitutional umbrella of “religious freedom.” This white Christian libertarian evangelicalism pushes away contenders to legitimacy—not only “foreign” religions like Hinduism and Islam but also, and especially, ill-fitting alternatives within Christianity—refusing to concede to pluralism and rousing congregational spaces that affirm their right to assert their distinctive convictions in every institutional sphere. Even when they face criticism and occasional opposition from more progressive wings of evangelicalism, this firmly entrenched faction has long been buffeted by multiple and overlapping moral obligations, negotiating the overlapping and often contradictory imperatives from multiple sources. These evangelicals stand against “lukewarmness,” sticking with safe slogans and familiar boundaries to cope with the increased fluidity affecting their friends and their children.
This white Christian libertarian evangelicalism pushes away contenders to legitimacy, refusing to concede to pluralism and rousing congregational spaces that affirm their right to assert their distinctive convictions in every institutional sphere.
When white Christian libertarians attained significant political power with the Executive Branch led by Trump, they also were invigorated by approving voices in Congress and the Supreme Court. Now these reactionary religious entrepreneurs are continuing their work within resonant congregational networks of churches, denominations, and seminaries like the Southern Baptist Convention, fostering spaces that allow this type of “legitimized” religious self to flourish. The most obvious manifestation of this persisting Christian nationalist-infused white evangelicalism is found among explicitly “anti-woke” churches who reject “the Great Awokening” and disrupt initiatives toward racial justice by critiquing critical race theory and #BlackLivesMatter champions. Some support “Patriot” churches that integrate conspiracy theories like #StopTheSteal into sermons positioned for gun rights and against refugees. These distinctive evangelical spaces streamline their faith systems to be consonant with their politics as a fully Christianized value system.
Displaying the truism that any tradition is dynamic and requires constant maintenance, white, Trump-supporting, anti-woke, and Patriot-leaning evangelicalism represents a bold experiment at religious reinvention. But what about the future? Certainly, its continuity is tied to these white evangelicals fending off criticism and, most crucially, securing the political means to enact their sense of God-ordained order for a Christian nation. But the foundational challenge to perpetuating this framework is the incessant denial of diverse epistemologies. Their religious actions are rooted in personalized convictions, but their conspiratorial, precarious, and often vacuous arguments can only persist by reproducing closed rationalities within limited networks. The modern fracturing of communication outlets creates immense profit incentives to cater to discrete publics, yet evangelicals refuse to believe they are a particular audience, only a persecuted one. Their cultivated ignorance depends on a mythologized history and an overlooked past that conveniently ignores variation and contention, which requires strict ideological boundaries and constant vigilance. Such delicate knowledge is predisposed to spoiling.
Their religious actions are rooted in personalized convictions, but their conspiratorial, precarious, and often vacuous arguments can only persist by reproducing closed rationalities within limited networks.
The organizational and rhetorical moves of white evangelicals devoted to Trump brings much-needed attention to persistent undercurrents that have been too often ignored. However, it is unlikely that this particular form of evangelicalism will continue unabated. Pockets of intensity will remain, but the obviously and necessarily partial evangelical discourses will fail to be fully authoritative, despite insistent attempts to make them definitive. Even as digitized mechanisms for spreading self-affirming, totalizing perspectives multiply, the ability to make them politically binding for all is tenuous. Still, the focus on the future of this brand of evangelicalism would be productively centered on more closely examining their access, enactment, and continued manipulation of corporate and constitutional power—the potential of instituting a coercive religious regime—raising the stakes on the relation between religious convictions and our American democracy.