Over a decade ago, before the MAGA movement and The Donald, I had a warm spot in my heart for evangelicals. Once while deplaning in San Juan on my way to a week of sailing in the British Virgin Islands, I was sitting a few rows behind a large group of teenagers who were all wearing bright red “Jesus Saves” t-shirts and white hats with the sign of the cross. Their leader, a guy in his mid 40s, about my age at the time, and dressed like his charges, saw me and headed toward me, smiling broadly. He embraced me with vigor and proclaimed, “I love you, brother, I love you!”
How nice, I thought, but good heavens, what is going on?
“Your shirt,” he said. “We are brothers.”
I was wearing a shirt with the insignia “Amazing Grace” on the front pocket. I sheepishly thanked him but could not help telling him that “Amazing Grace” was the name of my sailboat.
“Oh,” he responded with an embarrassed look. “Well, I guess I love you anyway.” Then he quickly returned to his group.
While my religious beliefs are about as far a as you can get from what evangelicals believe, I admit that in those days of innocence I appreciated their enthusiasm, commitment, joy, sincerity, and authenticity. If they got involved in rightwing extremist politics, I was not aware of it. And for me anyway, they seemed like basically good people. Many probably still are. (Remember Hillary’s unfortunate comment that all who support Trump are not “deplorables”?)
So why have so many white evangelicals become MAGAs? Why do so many believe that the election was stolen? Why do many support the January 6 insurrectionists? Why do some carry arms and threaten to use them? Somewhere along the line, something happened. Of course, it is not just evangelicals who support Trump. Afterall, he got almost half the vote in the last election. Yet evangelicals are the religious group that has jumped in whole hog.
The answer to the question of why so many are following Trump is that their behavior has little to do with their religious beliefs. It has to do with their human nature. We humans are a flawed species. Homo sapiens may be at the top of the food chain, but we are still creatures like every other mammal.
What do our brothers and sister creatures of the animal world do when they feel threatened? They—and we— do one or more of three things:
- We run away and hide. Maybe it’s not under a rock, but it is some safe haven to avoid a predator or unfriendly creature. When we recently adopted our seventh–and I suspect last—cat, it took us three days to find out where he was hiding, and our two bedroom apartment is not all that big. (He was behind the luggage in a closet we hardly ever use.) This instinct, for example, is what drives immigration.
- We fight back. Think about what lions or tigers do when cornered. They roar and swat. Before we humans figured out how to use spears and rocks for weapons, a good roar from a lion or tiger fighting back usually meant a good meal to follow, but that was many thousands of years ago. This instinct, however, remains with us humans.
- We group together and follow the leadership of an Alpha Male. This is what our closest ancestors, the Great Apes, still do. Many other species do as well. We humans are essentially herd animals. Without strong leadership, countries fall; and when a country has a terrible leader, the results are often catastrophic. With strong leaders, we humans tend to fall in line. When they turn out to be authoritarian and oppressive, that is when things can go south very quickly. Think of rulers over the centuries that have done great damage. Think of authoritarian leaders in our lifetimes– Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Franco, Mussolini, Castro, Kim Jon Un, Putin, and Xi. The list is long.
In other words, while evangelicals and other people of faith may claim that religious beliefs and Christian faith are their primary motivator, they are wrong. When feeling threatened, we run and hide, we fight back, or we form groups and follow an Alpha Male. Often we do all three. Evangelicals and other MAGAs are only doing what humans do when threatened.
(Yes, it can go both ways. With strong, compassionate, and enlightened leaders, our better and gentler nature can come out. Think of Gandhi, Mandela, Churchill, both Roosevelts, Kennedy, King, and Obama. That list is also long. Unfortunately, that is not what is happening with the MAGAs.)
So why are evangelicals feeling threatened?
It has more to do with social class and education than with belief in God or adherence to religious dogma. It has to do with feeling they have been left behind by social changes over which they have little control. The primary factor—but certainly not the only factor—for white, working class supporters of Trump is that they have had to compete with minorities for good paying jobs with benefits. The old jobs which used to be secure and paid a living wage are diminishing. Lifestyles have also changed, and social norms have been turned upside down. They see a country where white people will soon cease to be the majority and where “unacceptable behavior” on sexuality issues abound. Churches of all types have lost members, and it is harder to claim we are a Christianity country. They see a country run by the rich and the liberal elite, who they believe look down their noses at them. They believe they have been dealt a bad hand and are mad about it. The shared grievances of those in the white working class and others who feel threatened by social change are what unites them. It has little to do with religious beliefs.
They have found in Donald Trump their Alpha Male leader. Trump is not the cause, just an immoral opportunist who has been able to exploit the anger of those who feel cornered to advance his own ambitions.
However, the America the MAGAs want to make great again is history. As they say, “That train has done left the station.” We are not going to return to the “good old days” of Jim Crow, segregated housing, segregated schools, segregated institutions, and intolerance of people who are different from us in race, ethnicity, immigration status, or sexuality. We are not going to return to Victorian era manners and decorum.
The election of 2024 will determine the outcome of the path our country chooses to follow. There is no assurance right now as to how it will turn out.
Stay tuned for a follow up on what the Dems need to do…..