At the time of this writing, a local, white North Louisiana youth minister shared with me that he was losing his job because he and his wife invited nearby African American youth to attend their otherwise all white youth group. This isn’t an exception in the area. Other local white congregations still refuse to engage in ministry efforts that openly cross the Jim Crow lines that pattern the daily living of these communities. These experiences drive the following reflection.
“The Not-So-Lost Cause”
We never cleaned up after the civil war, never made it anathema, as the Germans have since the second world war, to support the losing side. We never had a truth and reconciliation process like South Africa did. We’ve allowed statues to go up across the country glorifying the traitors and losers, treated the pro-slavery flag as sentimental, fun, Dukes of Hazzard, white identity politics. - Rebecca Solnit, The Guardian
Progressive white Christians across the country have wondered for the past two years how white evangelicals could support a person like Donald J. Trump. He egregiously lies. He childishly calls his opponents schoolyard nicknames. He cozies up to dictators and alienates traditional U.S. allies. He opened his campaign, of course, by characterizing Latinx immigrants as “murderers and rapists.” He initially hesitated to denounce Klan support during the run up to the general election. He endorsed an accused child molester for political office. Now, with his staunch support of Brett Kavanaugh, Trump has denounced the credibility of a woman accusing Kavanaugh of attempted rape. He’s openly called peaceful black protesters “sons of bitches.” And, last, but not least, he’s publicly said that there are “very fine people” within openly white supremacist movements.
Nevertheless, Trump’s white, evangelical contingency has not flagged in their support of him - at least not in public. As of April 2018, 81% of white, male evangelicals had a favorable view of Trump, and 71% of white, evangelical women have a similarly favorable view. 69% of white evangelicals prefer that Trump remain the Republican presidential nominee in 2020.
Some have thought that white evangelicals voted for Trump merely because of their distaste for Hillary Clinton and liberals, not due to their attraction to Trump. But Trump’s presidential victory did not free his evangelical supporters to then critique Trump’s close ties to Russia, his sex scandal cover ups, his mocking of the disabled, or his draconian implementation of a family separation policy at the U.S.-Mexico border. In other words, white evangelicals did not simply hold their nose and vote for the candidate who espoused their socially conservative values. Rather, most supporters continue to refuse to voice any public condemnation of Trump’s odious behavior even after the election. The Trump presidency is more than just a ticket to nominating one, and now, two, Supreme Court justices. There’s very little reason to believe that white evangelicals actually disapprove of his character, his behavior, his language, or his handling of this public office.
At the least, it seems that white evangelicals are willing to ignore the unsavory aspects of a candidate as long as that candidate speaks their language, and, more importantly, promises to re-establish the power that they feel has been lost or imperiled. But who are the threats in Trump’s mind, and obviously their minds, too? Who has tainted the moral fabric of America? Who has sought to undermine their beloved Christian nation, which needs to be made great again?
If Trump is a proxy for a strong figure to protect against other supposedly vile forces in our culture, then Trump’s racism and sexism is understood to be less of a threat to the country than these other supposedly nefarious influences. Or, as I argue below, Trumps’ racism and sexism is not a lesser form of social evil that white evangelicals are willing to stomach for the good of a greater cause. Rather, they seem to be demonstrating that these xenophobic beliefs are part and parcel of their own belief system regarding how they, too, believe America can be made great again.
The problematic people feared and despised by white evangelicals are the same cast of characters outlined by white, southern, evangelical Christians for the past 150+ years. It has always been the “the Other,” e.g., the immigrant (e.g., the Catholic, the Italian, the Jew, the Chinese, the Mexican), the LGBTQ+ community (e.g., the so-called sexual deviants or those driving a “homosexual agenda”), the liberal media, the white race traitor (whether northern or southern), the “snowflakes” or “bleeding hearts,” the suffragettes or feminists, politically correct culture, and, the group for whom the most spite is reserved, the black community (e.g., Obama, Blacks Lives Matter, and black NFL players).
Trump’s anti-everyone-but-white people message, thus, strikes a deeply familiar chord, whether the language is thinly veiled through dogwhistle language or more vulgarly explicit. Whether or not a white, conservative evangelical openly espouses a linguistically explicit form of racism, for instance, they’re contempt for anti-racist work is made clear in their antagonism toward “snow flakes” and “PC culture.”
As Mercer University professor, Hollis Phelps, notes, “Trump’s nostalgia-laden promise to ‘Make America great again’ hit the right note in this respect. For many white evangelicals, a great America is a Christian America, and a Christian America is one whose laws are socially conservative and geared towards evangelical identity…. More important than individual proclivities [of a political candidate] is stemming the tide of what they see as widespread cultural decay.”
To reiterate, a less than squeaky clean candidate who promises to restore a Christian America [read: white, Christian America] is more than acceptable. The same case is being made again in face of the Kavanaugh hearings and the multiple sexual abuse allegations coming forth about him. Regarding Kavanaugh, white evangelical men and women are dismissing his accusers as hysterical, hypocritical, liars, or political ploys. Their concern is less with the veracity of the charges and more with the future of the Supreme Court and the power a person such as Kavanaugh will deliver to them. A tribalistic mindset, which I argue below links to the “Lost Cause” of Southern identity, emerges immediately to defend a political figure who will strike a blow at their perceived enemies. In the case of Kavanaugh, the enemy is women’s reproductive rights and Roe v. Wade.
Regarding Trump, white evangelicals may have privately questioned his “individual proclivities,” but they don’t doubt that Trump is God’s man, and that God can use anyone to stick it to the liberal, black, Muslim, queer, or Latinx agents of the “cultural decay” they see around every corner. At some point, of course, we have to quit giving the 70+% of white evangelicals who support Trump the benefit of the doubt that they find anything about his character disturbing, given the silence or blatant support of most voters in face of his disgraceful statements and actions.
Some may object that white evangelicals aren’t as anti-black as this may sound. In a shallow sense, this may be true for some of their ranks. But, typically, acceptance of black individuals by white evangelicals has been predicated on black individuals not challenging their prescribed lower social status. (This charge holds true for other segments of white America, to be sure.) Black individuals, and other people of color, are typically accepted by evangelicals if such acceptance doesn’t constitute a threat to the security and social position of those same white people. Warm acceptance of black people may, in fact, salve the conscience of the white evangelical, but those same African Americans dare not critique white supremacy, its history, or its continued practices. Likewise, they dare not march in the civil rights movement or the Blacks Lives Matter movement, or support liberal social programs, or kneel in protest of unpunished police brutality and corrupt aspects of our penal system. Acceptance, in other words, is highly qualified around that which maintains whiteness, power, and social position.
While some liberal Christians may still find it hard to reconcile the professed beliefs of white evangelicals with their support for Trump, I agree with Phelps that their political alignment with Trump is not an aberration from their Christian faith. It also does not constitute a “false” form of Christianity, phenomenologically speaking. While internal debate among Christians about morally valid forms of Christian thought and practice has its place, we cannot deny that the xenophobic values of Trump are in keeping with a white supremacist strain of evangelical Protestantism that has been passed along for generations. This is a truth that’s unsavory to mention, but when one dives into the literature, the rhetoric, and the professed values of white, evangelical Protestants, it becomes harder to see how Trump’s racism, though more public and vulgar, is different from the racism that’s always permeated their ranks.
Again, might there be individual exceptions? To be sure. But when percentages of supporters reach the high 70s and 80s, we can speak in rough generalities. Furthermore, as I grew up in the remnants of Klan country and a southern, fundamentalist Baptist church, these things are personally familiar to me. As I now work in the Louisiana Delta and see and hear Trump supporters justify his work and pray for “the demonic attacks coming against him” from Democrats, I’m familiar all the more with these lines of thinking.
Thus, instead of seeing Trump support as an aberration or a mysterious development that suddenly emerged in 2015/16, I’m suggesting that white, evangelical support of Trump can be traced back to the ideas espoused through the old Southern belief in the “Lost Cause.” While the phrase, as a political and religious slogan, has lost its usage, the animating impulses have certainly not been “lost.” In other words, the contemporary phenomenon of white, evangelical Christian support for an openly racist political candidate has roots deep within reactions to the loss of the Confederacy, the upheaval of slavery, and the granting of civil rights to African Americans in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
What follows, then, is a brief genealogy of the political and theological themes of the “Lost Cause,” demonstrating the connections between this late 19th century ideology and the present phenomenon of white evangelical support for Trump.
The defeat of the Confederacy in the Civil War left many white, southern Christians searching for theological explanations to make sense of what they interpreted to be the North’s assault on their divinely ordered way of life. While many white Southerners believed their defeat was a sign of God’s chastening punishment - (how else could they theologically rationalize it?) - they did not necessarily believe that the punishment was due to the “peculiar institution” of slavery or their beliefs in white supremacy. As we know with the history of prison work camps (Slavery By Another Name) and the exploitative sharecropping system, many elite southerners simply devised new methods to force African American labor through incarceration or debt bondage.
As Northern-led Reconstruction progressed in the South, many white, southern Christians came to believe more fervently that God did not intend for them to live under the subjection of radical northern influence and most certainly not with black suffrage or black civic equality.
During Reconstruction - a project which was ultimately abandoned - white southerners were called to work for the “redemption” of their states from the so-called tyranny of radical northerners and freed African Americans now exercising the right to vote. Once this began to be achieved during 1874-1877, they next sought to reestablish and reinforce the divinely ordered social hierarchy of which they fashioned themselves to be the protectors.* The hierarchy ran something like this: the clear division in social status, with inferiors, equals, and superiors; the racial segregation of inferior blacks and superior whites; and the public and private dominance of genteel white men over delicate, pure, white women.
In this vein, the South, through the Lost Cause, maintained a sense of cultural distinctiveness from the rest of the nation, just as many evangelicals believe their churches and their nation are still exceptional entities, “called out” to be a “holy” people. 19th century Southerners accepted what they perceived as a “spiritual destiny” to maintain and preserve (i.e., save) the “soul” of the nation.**
If they could not do this at a national level, white, southern evangelicals (and many white southern mainline congregations, too) would overturn Reconstruction-era efforts and redeem their states from the influence of wayward, liberal, white Christians and racially inferior blacks. On a social level, this spiritual destiny was translated into a holy civic obligation for white citizens to be pious evangelical Christians and to maintain the divinely ordered hierarchy of their communities.
To this end, Robert L. Dabney, a Southern Presbyterian Professor of Theology at Union Theological Seminary***, advised an audience in 1882 “to see to it that [white Southerners] retain all that was true in its principles . . . [and to] not bury the inspiring memories of great patriots, whose actions, whether successful or not, are the eternal glory of your race and section.”***
The “principles” which white southerners were to retain included the supremacy of whites, patriarchal dominance, a rejection of modern physical and social sciences, the superiority of conservative Protestant Christianity, and a strong theory of states’ rights. These were more than just political ends for which to fight. They also constituted what they assumed to be the country’s spiritual heritage and the Godly way for society to be constituted. White supremacy, in other words, is the “eternal glory” of white, southern evangelicals. The “old times there”**** should not be so easily forgotten.
This gives insight into the the “cause” which Southern leaders like Dabney felt was in danger of being “lost.” It was nothing short of the very soul of the nation. The so-called aggressive acts of the North and their military victory over the Confederacy represented a betrayal of the original intentions of the Founding Fathers. It was a betrayal of everything God had called the nation to be, additionally. When pressed to the limits, Southerners seceded, of course, and formed the Confederacy, which was meant to keep faith with the white supremacist, conservative Christian principles they believed to be at the heart of the American project. After the Civil War, the imposition of Reconstruction on the South, via missionaries, federal troops, and other social workers, poured more salt on the wound and threatened additional cultural decay.
Though they suffered defeat, as alluded to by Dabney, it didn’t mean that white Southerners should give up on their efforts to maintain the religious, social, and political sentiments of their [white] American ancestors. In other words, the North allowed the soul of the nation to become tainted by science, a strong federalism, and progressive attitudes on race relations. The South reserved unto itself, then, the sacred mission of preserving and rectifying the wayward course of the nation.
Thus, white southern clergy and laity often supported the construction of Confederate memorials, symbolizing their ancestors who fought not only for a military cause, but for a divinely blessed social cause and social order. They tended to either remain silent in face of the Ku Klux Klan or they encouraged and participated directly in the groups. Why should it come as a surprise, then, if white evangelical Trump supporters keep silent in the face of Trump’s white supremacist statements, or, as mentioned earlier, if Trump lauds neo-Nazis and Klan members as “very fine people?”
In an age that white evangelicals lament for being the time of “Political Correctness,” Trump’s not-so-subtle racism is not at odds with the racist elements of their Christian heritage. In fact, it’s in keeping with it and says publicly what many are hesitant to voice outside of their churches for fear of public shaming. Trump, again, represents not an aberration of Christian faith, but the very savior figure who espouses faith in the “noble” Lost Cause for which his supporters still believe themselves to be the Christian guardians. As many have noted, Trump simply enables more public expressions of the racism which has been only slightly tamped down over the last few decades.
Contemporary, white, evangelical Christians continue to support a president: who promises to “Make America Great Again” by chastising black civil rights protesters; who threatens a ban on transgender persons in the military; who vows to imprison a powerful woman (Hillary Clinton) who doesn’t know her place; and who will save America from dangerous Muslim and Latinx immigrants. How, then, are many white, evangelical Christians different from their forebears who believed in their sacred mission to also make America great again by fighting for the so-called Lost Cause? The white supremacy of the 19th century did not conflict with their vision of Christianity or American life at that time any more than Trump’s xenophobia conflicts with the faith of many white evangelicals, today.
As in the aftermath of the Civil War, white evangelicals continue to believe they are victims to aggressive, sinful campaigns like school desegregation, communism, affirmative action, pro-choice movements, and the so-called “homosexual agenda.” Many still readily believe the myth of Obama being a foreign-born, Muslim, socialist. Essentially anything which doesn’t square with their holy crusade to reestablish white values and conservative Christianity is seen as unpatriotic, un-American, and un-Christian. For a group who today often denounces the politicization of Christianity, it’s ironic to note that their faith is rooted in a political vision of American “greatness” and belief that the U.S. has a peculiar, divine calling.
We are thoroughly mistaken, then, to believe that the heirs of the defeated Confederacy (and their admirers from afar) hold as sacred the actual democratic institutions of this country. Hence, there is little outcry from white evangelicals regarding Trump’s disparagement of the free press or his multiple attempts to undermine an investigation regarding Russian collusion and interference in our elections. We are also, therefore, thoroughly mistaken to believe that white, evangelical Christians hold as sacred the democratic institutions of this country. What they seem to hold as sacred is their belief that God has called America to be a great city on a hill, and the greatness of that city depends on their maintenance of a conservative, Christian set of values to govern the country. The democratic institutions of the country are only as useful to them, it seems, to the degree that they get to control the levers and make them churn out a society that is amenable to their own socially conservative values.
No matter what some evangelicals may espouse publicly, from fear of retribution, these conservative values have always been predicated on what many feel to be a divinely ordered social life, and this divinely ordered social life is rooted in a (conscious or unconscious) belief in the supremacy of white conservative values and white entitlement. Animus toward people of color may not be overtly present, as long as people of color politely and quietly respect their own lower social standing in the white structured color hierarchy. For instance, one white evangelical recently stated that black NFL protests were “crass, crude, and disrespectful” and “deliberately insulting [of] our patriots.” He went on to state that he, personally, stands for the national anthem because “I value our flag, our anthem, our freedom. I stand because I pursue those rights for every American.”
What rights exactly does he have in mind? The freedom which he espouses is evidently a freedom that does not include the right to protest. In something like a Freudian slip, the only freedom he can conceptualize is a freedom that is entirely predicated on not protesting a sense of whiteness, which is masked in idolatrous love for soldiers and the blue shield (model, symbolic examples of whiteness protecting against cultural decay and sinful influences). Political rights are only humanly constructed, political contrivances in the mind of many white evangelicals, and they certainly do not carry the weight of the divine values given to white evangelicals by God to make sure that the U.S. remains a country dominated by white evangelical values. This cause, alone, is sacred. Civil rights are obviously meant to be given and taken away, depending on one’s comportment with the white evangelical social order which they feel spiritually destined to defend.
And it is in this way that the Lost Cause, though a 19th century idiom, has never been lost. It’s simply shifted shape and taken on new language over the decades (e.g., America First, the Silent Majority, the Religious Right, Make America Great Again). This is a fight for the soul of the nation, in the minds of many white, conservative evangelicals, and for these four years, at least, they feel as though Trump and Kavanaugh will help them in the battle.
* Paul Harvey, “God and Negroes and Jesus and Sin and Salvation: Racism, Racial Interchange, and Interracialism in Southern Religious History,” in Religion in the American South: Protestants and Others in History and Culture, ed. by Beth Barton Schweiger and Donald G. Mathews (Chapel Hill, NC: The University of North Carolina Press, 2004), 287. “Racism, Racial Interchange, and Interracialism,” 287. See also H. Shelton Smith, In His Image But… Racism in Southern Religion, 1780-1910 ( Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1972), 258.
** Gaines M. Foster, “The End of Slavery and the Origins of the Bible Belt,” in Vales of Tears, 151. Gaines is referencing the work of Charles Reagan Wilson, Baptized in Blood.
*** Union Theological Seminary, now Union Presbyterian Seminary, maintained a campus building named after Robert Dabney until 2007-2008.
**** Robert Dabney, The New South: A Discourse Delivered at the Annual Commencement of Hampden Sydney College, June 15th, 1882 (Raleigh, NC: Edwards, Broughton, and Co., 1883), 14. Emphasis added.
***** Referencing a lyric in the song “Dixie,” music and lyrics by Daniel Decatur Emmett (1861)
Rev. Marc Boswell, Ph.D., is the director of the faith-based non-profit, Together for Hope - LA, in Lake Providence, Louisiana. He has lived in the Delta for the past two years and enjoys photography and writing. His research and teaching interests include constructive/liberation theologies, community development, and race in American culture.