No sooner had the vile words flooded the airways than did some prominent evangelical leaders step forward to reiterate their support for Donald Trump. Ralph Reed, former head of the Christian Coalition and now chair of Trump’s religious advisory committee, and Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, assured us that despite Trump’s lewd comments, he is still the best candidate.
I’m not surprised. Misogyny is a recurring theme of much of evangelical history—much of Christian history, actually—and sacrificing women to supposed higher religious truths, both literally and metaphorically, is a longstanding tactic of religious men in power. We can look to the witch burnings in Europe and the United States, of which 75 percent of the victims were women, for a literal example. A metaphorical example comes from my own tradition—Southern Baptists.
In 1984, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution excluding women from pastoral leadership “to preserve a submission God requires because the man was first in creation and the woman was first in the Edenic fall.” In 2000, the Convention amended its confessional statement, “The Baptist Faith and Message,” adding a section on the family that states, “A wife is to submit herself graciously to the servant leadership of her husband.”
Evangelicals who hold to these beliefs will argue they are rooted in biblical truth—yet the Bible also says husbands and wives are to submit themselves to one another and offers multiple examples of women who served in ministry—from Mary Magdalene to Phoebe to Lydia. What these particular evangelical interpretations do is provide a self-serving justification for men’s power over women in church and home and society.
And a number of Christian men do worry about women’s power. Just do a quick google search to see all of the hand-wringing over the “feminization of Christianity.” The response to this supposed problem has been the revival of “muscular Christianity”—an association of Jesus and his male followers with masculine qualities of toughness, athleticism, competitiveness, and power. In other words, Christianity for a certain kind of evangelical man rests on the repudiation of everything associated with women—especially their supposed weakness.
The male-bonding rituals of muscular Christianity, then, are not all that different from Trump’s locker room banter. They may not use his vulgar language, but they still rally around their male identity. Let me give you another example from my own experience. I was teaching at an evangelical Christian college when the chair of the religion department was arrested for making sexually harassing phone calls to a woman. In our next department meeting (I was the only woman on the religion faculty), the men suggested we pray for the chair. I responded that perhaps we should pray for the woman he had sexually harassed (we did not). After the meeting, one of my colleagues pulled me aside to tell me he was concerned that I was becoming “too feminist.”
I’m also not surprised some evangelicals are still supporting Trump because I’ve witnessed the ways some evangelical leaders have been more than willing to believe that the end justifies the means. In this case, they believe supporting Trump will ensure appointments to the Supreme Court that will overturn Roe v. Wade and marriage equality. I witnessed leaders of the Southern Baptist Convention in the 1980s use any means necessary to seize power from the more moderate forces that had led the Convention for decades. I was in seminary at the time when they had students record faculty lectures which they would then excerpt and publish out of context to demonstrate a faculty member’s heresies. They used their power as moderators of Convention discussions to prevent the public expression of dissent. They bent the rules to ensure they attained and retained absolute power, and then they set out to purge the Convention’s seminaries and agencies of those they deemed as “liberals.”
Another reason I’m not surprised that some evangelicals are still supporting Trump is that some of them have a record of willingness to sacrifice real people for abstract principles. This isn’t surprising from people who think ideas are more real than individual human beings and that theological orthodoxy is more important than the practice of lovingkindness to the people right in front of them.
I’m also not surprised because some evangelicals have embraced a kind of civil religion that sees the government as a conduit for imposing particular interpretations of Christian faith on all Americans through law and public policy. Instead of using evangelical tools of witness and persuasion to win people to faith, they have resorted to trying to use the government to coerce all citizens into a theocracy of their own making.
Is this all evangelicals? Of course not. In fact, quite an impressive list of them has signed onto a letter denouncing Trump, drawing from their own understandings of the Bible, theology, and their own practices of Christian faith.
But as for those who remain steadfastly loyal to Trump, again, I’m not surprised. I’ve seen this side of the story up close and personally before. Even when couched in Paul Ryan’s language of the need to “revere” women, it’s still misogyny. And it’s still deeply rooted in one subculture of evangelical Christianity.