Much has already been written on the seemingly strange, and some would say unholy, alliance between right-wing evangelicals and the presidential aspirations of Donald Trump. On the surface, Trump would seem to be the least likely among the Republican field to garner evangelical support. As Jonathan Merritt has put it, "Donald Trump is immodest, arrogant, foul-mouthed, money-obsessed, thrice-married, and until recently, pro-choice. By conventional standards, evangelical Christians should despise him."
Yet, although he certainly doesn't have the conservative Christian voting bloc in the bag and has numerous critics among them, a recent CNN poll shows that Trump has the support of almost a third of white evangelicals, though retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson seems to be catching up quickly.
How, then, should we understand this unexpected outpouring of support?
Maybe Trump has pulled a fast one. Trump has, of course, done much to play to the religious right, even going so far as to bring his Bible to the Value Voters Summit. Kirsten Powers has argued that Trump is, in this sense, little more than a "scam artist," who has successfully fleeced a large segment of evangelical voters. "Evangelical voters need to wake up," she says.
I have no doubt that Trump's religious appeals are often less than sincere, and amount to little more than pandering. Although he may pander in a particular, overzealous way, though, a certain amount of pandering is really par for the course for Republican candidates. It's hard to imagine today what a Republican presidential race would look like without such pandering, due to the simple fact that conservative Christians constitute a substantial voting bloc.
That said, the bigger issue with Powers's claim is that it allows us to dismiss his supporters as naïve. Perhaps some are, but we're talking about a third of white evangelicals, here. Understanding Trump's success in terms of a mass deception seems off the mark and, moreover, unhelpful for grasping his appeal.
Indeed, even when not explicitly stated, the undercurrent of deception subsists in the very fact that we question his appeal. The CNN poll mentioned above called the findings "striking," and a good amount of the commentary on Trump's appeal to evangelical voters begins with the assumption that he should not appeal to evangelical voters. Hence the almost ubiquitous commentary on the various ways in which Trump contrasts sharply with the values of evangelical voters.
Not only does that assume a contradiction between the two, one that, moreover, seems to understand religion as an autonomous field of expression and values. More importantly, it assumes that evangelical voters either aren't aware of the apparent contrast or that they're simply downplaying it for the sake of political expediency.
For what it's worth, this is also why pointing out the various ways in which Trump would seem to be the antithesis of evangelical values, and Christian values more generally, is a fruitless endeavor. It's the political equivalent of trying to change someone's mind on an issue by appealing to "what the Bible really says." It assumes, again, that potential supporters of Trump have been scammed, but more seriously ignores the fact that what people believe and how they act is more complicated, and is often more affective than intellectual.
Rather than brood over the apparent disconnect between evangelical values and support of Trump, we should, rather, dig deeper. The political theorist William Connolly's work on the "evangelical-capitalist resonance machine" is helpful here, I think.
For Connolly, political alliances don't work primarily through causal relations or even agreement at the level of doctrine or belief. They rather work through "affinities of sensibility" that allow often divergent and even contradictory beliefs and practices to fold into and resonate with each other, especially in mediatized and digitized environments. A shared affective ethos, in this sense, is more important than a common creed, and tapping into and amplifying that ethos is what counts most.
In the case of what Connolly calls the "evangelical-capitalist resonance machine," he suggests that the ethos that drives it is "existential revenge," a certain resentment that aligns itself, at least in part, against those deemed a threat to a particular way of being in the world. Connolly writes:
Today resentment against cultural diversity, economic egalitarianism, and the future whirl together in the same resonance machine. That is why its participants identify similar targets of hatred and marginalization, such as gay marriage, women who seek equal status in work, family and business; secularists, atheists, devotees of Islamic faith, and African American residents of the inner city who do not appreciate the abstract beauty of cowboy capitalism.
Given that Trump's campaign has capitalized not only on his putative business savvy but also on his unsubtle sexist, racist, anti-immigrant, and Islamophobic remarks, Connolly's words here could have been written as a description of Trump's campaign and overall success thus far.
The fact of the matter is, despite the apparent contrast between it and Trump, good segments of evangelical Christianity share that ethos, the existential revenge or resentment that Trump touts and uses to his advantage. Although there may be a disconnect between certain stated beliefs and practices, then, Trump and right-wing evangelicals have more in common than is often realized or acknowledged. It's what they do share in common, a certain sensibility rooted in resentment, that is important to understand, more so than any of the obvious contradictions that appear at the surface.