Like many people following religion and politics, my interest was piqued when I saw Stephanie McCrummen’s story in today’s Washington Post: “God, Trump, and the meaning of morality.” McCammen does a carefully reported deep dive into life at First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama. It paints a picture of a particular aspect of evangelical church culture yet one that should be approached carefully.
The people of the church (picture credit Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post) are admittedly not quite sure what to make of Trump, especially in light of Pastor Crum’s summer series on the Ten Commandments. There are the expected questions about Obama faith, concerns about antagonism to Christian views, and an absolute disavowal of Hillary Rodham Clinton.
Yet in this story we catch a glimpse of why it’s so hard to disentangle religious beliefs from a variety of other factors. Each of them impacts the political equation in particular ways.
The context: Luverne is a town of roughly 2800 according to the most recent census estimates. It is the county seat of Crenshaw County in rural southeast Alabama. This is a deep red part of a deep red state. Crenshaw voted for Trump over Clinton by 72% to 26%. While I hesitate to make correlations look like causation, the racial makeup of the county is 73% white and 28% black. In 2017, Crenshaw voted for Roy Moore over Doug Jones by 63% to 35% (values may have hindered the Crenshaw vote — other red counties went much heavier for Moore). It is handy to argue that religious values ought to temper political values but there’s an awful lot of socialization and plausibility structure building that pushes back against that.
The church: There is an assumption of homogeneity in this congregation (and perhaps most congregations). McCrummen quotes a church leader:
“As Southern Baptists in this small town, we want our leader to believe like we do,” said Terry Drew, who had chaired the search committee, and three years later, Crum was meeting their highest expectations of what a good Southern Baptist pastor should be.
The internal congregational culture guarantees a pastor that will maintain that culture. This is not a call for prophetic preaching. The story ends with the observation that Pastor Crum might have called Trump out while preaching on adultery, but stopped short.
Many of the interviews on political ideology appear to occur within the context of the church service (although not all). I’ve written about Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity in previous posts; her research demonstrates the power of the internal communication structures and the ways in which those become mutually reinforcing. People who don’t fit become uncomfortable and depart.
The Second Coming: McCrummen’s interviews show people focused on the life to come more than on this one. Political engagement is interesting, but the real question is to make sure one is headed to Heaven. One person not only knows the dimensions of Heaven and the characteristics of Hell, but imagines the kinds of appliances that will be in her Heavenly mansion when she gets there.
Such a focus is consistent with arguments Donald Dayton made nearly 40 years ago on how millenarianism negatively impacts social engagement. Politics may be occasionally interesting, but it’s not the important thing.
Manichaeism and Spiritual Warfare: Present in the interviews is a strong sense of good and evil. Or maybe just evil. Trump may be flawed, but he wasn’t Clinton. She would destroy our way of life, the second amendment, religious freedom, and the entire nation.
Both political parties and their candidates, then, represent the combatants in the cosmic war between God and Satan. God uses his people to advance his desires while the other side (who are perhaps unwitting instruments) represent all that’s wrong. Recent PRRI data showing that a majority of White Evangelicals see increasing diversity in the society as a net negative demonstrates the perceptions of threatening “others”.
Sheilaism Redux; When Robert Bellah and colleagues wrote Habits of the Heart in 1985, one story that got the attention of sociologists, religionists, and journalists alike was the story of “Sheilaism”. In her interview, Shelia reported:
“I believe in God. I’m not a religious fanatic. I can’t remember the last time I went to church. My faith has carried me a long way. It’s Sheilaism. Just my own little voice…It’s just try to love yourself and be gentle with yourself. You know, I guess, take care of each other. I think He would want us to take care of each other.”
McCrummen finds another Sheila, this one a Sunday School teacher at First Baptist. She is certainly more devout than that other Sheila. But her political theology is no better constructed.
Sunday School Sheila explains:
“Obama was acting at the behest of the Islamic nation,” she began one afternoon when she was getting her nails done with her friend Linda. She was referring to allegations that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, not a Christian — allegations that are false. “He carried a Koran and it was not for literary purposes. If you look at it, the number of Christians is decreasing, the number of Muslims has grown. We allowed them to come in.”
“Obama woke a sleeping nation,” said Linda.
“He woke a sleeping Christian nation,” Sheila corrected.
Linda nodded. It wasn’t just Muslims that posed a threat, she said, but all kinds of immigrants coming into the country.
“Unpapered people,” Sheila said, adding that she had seen them in the county emergency room and they got treated before her. “And then the Americans are not served.”
Love thy neighbor, she said, meant “love thy American neighbor.”
Welcome the stranger, she said, meant the “legal immigrant stranger.”
“The Bible says, ‘If you do this to the least of these, you do it to me,’ ” Sheila said, quoting Jesus. “But the least of these are Americans, not the ones crossing the border.”
This version of Sheilaism has shocked people on my twitter feed today.
But it shouldn’t.
There is no reason to suggest that Jesus was only concerned with one’s neighbor of nationality (it was, in fact, the entire point of the parable of the Good Samaritan!). And to be fair to Sheila, I don’t think she believes that. She is combining her political beliefs with her religious beliefs in ways that sound right to her.
She has an idea that her theology ought to inform her political positions but when they become incompatible she papers over them. She’s not hypocritical, she simply is striving for cognitive consistency. And coming out in favor of immigrants just doesn’t fit her culture and upbringing.
What does this story really tell us about the politics of evangelicals and their congregations? It gives us a glimpse into how conservative white evangelicals process their political views. But those views occur in a particular context of community, history, eschatology, and personal psychology. Trying to sort out precisely which one is operative at any given point of time is nearly impossible.
In closing, I should also note that Guthrie Graves-Fitzsimmons pointed out yesterday that journalists and researchers seem particularly interested in seeing these stories told of evangelical Trump supporters. It’s a worthwhile thought experiment to imagine Stephanie McCrummen doing a deep-dive story on a United Church of Christ congregation in Seattle. It would be a fascinating sociological comparison between the two congregations and how they approach politics.