Even in an era of marriage diversity, it remains the most unlikely match: Donald Trump and his loyal evangelical base. In the compulsively transgressive, foul-mouthed, loser-disdaining, mammon-worshiping billionaire, conservative Christians “have found their dream president,” according to Jerry Falwell Jr.
It is a miracle, of sorts.
In a recent analysis, the Pew Research Center found more than three-fourths of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance, most of them “strongly.” With these evangelicals comprising about a quarter of the electorate, their support is the life jacket preventing Trump from slipping into unrecoverable political depths.
The essence of Trump’s appeal to conservative Christians can be found in his otherwise-anodyne commencement speech at Liberty University. “Being an outsider is fine,” Trump said. “Embrace the label.” And then he promised: “As long as I am president, no one is ever going to stop you from practicing your faith.” Trump presented evangelicals as a group of besieged outsiders in need of a defender.
This sense of grievance and cultural dispossession — the common ground between “The Donald” and the faithful — runs deep in evangelical history. Evangelicalism emerged from the periodic mass revivals that have burnt across America for 300 years. While defining this version of Christianity is notoriously difficult, it involves (at least) a personal decision to accept God’s grace through faith in Christ and a commitment to live — haltingly, imperfectly — according to his example.
In the 19th century, evangelicals (particularly of the Northern variety) took leadership in abolitionism and other movements of social reform. But as a modernism based on secular scientific and cultural assumptions took control of institution after institution, evangelicals often…