I went down to Alabama a few weeks ago and had a religious experience. A man of God welcomed me into his home, poured us both cups of English tea and talked about what has been happening to Jesus Christ in the land of Donald Trump.
My host was Wayne Flynt, an Alabaman who has made the people of the southern US his life’s work. A 76-year-old emeritus professor of history at Auburn University, he has written empathetically about his region in books such as Poor But Proud. A Baptist minister, he still teaches Sunday school at his church and delivered the eulogy at last year’s funeral of his friend Harper Lee, author of To Kill a Mockingbird.
I took my place in the book-lined study of Flynt’s redwood house in Auburn, Alabama, to hear his thoughts on the local economy, but the conversation turned to a central mystery of US politics. Trump would not be president without the strong support of the folks Flynt has chronicled — white residents of the Bible Belt, raised in the do-it-yourself religious traditions that distinguish the US from Europe. I wondered how a thrice-married former casino owner — who had been recorded bragging about grabbing women by the genitals — had won over the faithful.
Flynt’s answer is that his people are changing. The words of Jesus, as recorded in the Gospels, are less central to their thinking and behaviour, he says. Church is less compelling. Marriage is less important. Reading from a severely abridged Bible, their political concerns have narrowed down to abortion and issues involving homosexuality. Their faith, he says, has been put in a president who embodies an unholy trinity of materialism, hedonism and narcissism. Trump’s victory, in this sense, is less an expression of the old-time religion than evidence of a move away from it.
“The 2016 election laid out graphically what is in essence the loss of Christian America,” Flynt says, delivering his verdict with a calm assurance that reminded me of Lee’s hero, Atticus Finch, as played by Gregory Peck in the 1962 film of her novel.
“Arguably, what has constituted white evangelical Christian morality for 200 years no longer matters, which is to say we’re now a lot like Germany, a lot like France, a lot like England, a lot like the Netherlands, and what we have is a sort of late-stage Christian afterglow.”
The irony is that evangelicals turned to politics to prevent that very outcome. Fearing that so-called secular humanists would impose a moral order of their own through government action, born-again Christians began flocking to the polls in the late 1970s. Their impact was undeniable. They were the shock troops of the Reagan Revolution of 1980. They rescued Trump last year after many political analysts had counted him out, reckoning that the changing demographics of the US had made a white conservative like him unelectable.
When the Christian right burst to prominence, its calls to defend the unborn were a rallying cry. But unyielding opposition to abortion was not a traditional evangelical position. In 1971 — two years before the Roe v Wade Supreme Court decision legalising abortion — the evangelical Southern Baptist Convention, the largest US Protestant denomination, endorsed abortion in cases of rape, incest, “severe” foetal deformity or where there was “the likelihood of damage to the emotional, mental and physical health of the mother”. As recently as 1976, it said it believed government should play a “limited role” on abortion matters.
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Abortion only became a leading concern of the religious right when the late firebrand Jerry Falwell and other leaders of the Moral Majority seized upon the issue towards the end of the 1970s. In the decades that followed it became a sure-fire way to mobilise conservatives unmoored by a variety of political and social changes that followed from the 1960s — ranging from federal efforts to take away tax breaks from racially segregated Christian schools to movements promoting the rights of women and homosexuals. (“God made Adam and Eve,” Falwell liked to say, “not Adam and Steve.”)
By any measure, Trump was an odd vessel for evangelical hopes. He had described himself in the past as pro-choice. When he was growing up, his parents took him to church in New York, but it was one presided over by Norman Vincent Peale, a non-traditional pastor who wrote the 1952 bestseller, The Power of Positive Thinking. Before he married any of his three wives, all of whom are still alive, Trump spent the early years of the culture wars taking in the scene at the Studio 54 disco in Manhattan, where he told a biographer he once watched seven “well-known supermodels getting screwed on a bench in the middle of the room”.
Trump also had a long history — before business reversals prompted his exit — in casino gambling, an industry that evangelicals ostensibly abhor. As recently as 2014, the Southern Baptists condemned government-sponsored casinos and lotteries, saying they “promote and perpetuate the mentality of getting something for nothing, which is contrary to scripture and replaces biblical teachings of working for a living”.
Trump’s efforts to reach evangelicals during the campaign were marred by technical difficulties. After an appearance at Liberty University in Virginia, which was founded by Falwell, Trump was lampooned for quoting from a section of the Bible he called “Two Corinthians”, rather than “Second Corinthians”, as would customarily be done. Ultimately, Liberty University split over Trump. Its current president, Jerry Falwell Jr, endorsed his candidacy. But Mark DeMoss, a member of the university’s board of trustees and a former chief of staff for the elder Falwell, objected and resigned as a trustee. In a Washington Post interview last year, DeMoss described Trump’s rhetoric as antithetical to Christian values.
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“Donald Trump is the only candidate who has dealt almost exclusively in the politics of personal insult,” DeMoss said. “The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defence — and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. That’s what’s disturbing to so many people. It’s not [the] Christ-like behaviour that Liberty has spent 40 years promoting with its students.”
Nonetheless, Trump was backed by 81 per cent of white voters who identified themselves as evangelical Christians, more than recent Republican candidates such as Mitt Romney and John McCain, according to the Pew Research Center, and more even than George W Bush, whose strategist Karl Rove made wooing them a priority of the campaign. Analysts say Trump made evangelicals an offer that they could not refuse. Unlike his Democratic opponent Hillary Clinton — who was both disliked by conservatives and uncompromising in her support of a woman’s right to choose — Trump pledged to appoint an anti-abortion justice to fill the vacancy on a Supreme Court that was split between conservatives and liberals.
The white evangelical flight to Trump has caused “deep heartbreak” for “evangelicals of colour” who see him as a bigot, says Jim Wallis, a progressive evangelical leader in Washington. “It’s the most painful divide I have seen in the churches since the beginning of the civil rights movement.”
But white evangelicals appear to be getting what they wanted from their man in the White House. President Trump quickly filled the Supreme Court vacancy created by the death of conservative Antonin Scalia with Neil Gorsuch, a jurist revered on the religious right who was confirmed by the Senate this month. Even as Trump’s approval ratings were falling below 50 per cent in national surveys, 74 per cent of white evangelical Protestants viewed him favourably in a poll conducted in mid-February by a PRRI, a non-partisan group that specialises on research on religious matters.
One such admirer is David Jeremiah, a Southern Baptist pastor in El Cajon, California, who hosts a 30-minute radio programme, called Turning Point, heard on 2,200 stations around the world. “It’s still all about the Supreme Court,” he wrote recently. “President Trump told the American people that he would nominate a Supreme Court justice in the mould of Scalia. In Judge Gorsuch, a strict originalist, he has succeeded marvellously and honoured his promise to evangelicals.”
But that’s not the way things look at the house on a hill in Auburn, Alabama, where Wayne Flynt lives with his wife of 55 years, Dorothy. As evangelical Christianity has grown more successful in the political realm, Flynt fears that it has been reduced to a sum of its slogans. Lost in the transition, he says, is the traditional evangelical standard for sizing up candidates — “personal moral character”, which includes such criteria as marital fidelity, church attendance and kindness.
“No one I know of would argue that Donald Trump inculcates moral character,” Flynt says. “What has happened to American Christianity is there is this afterglow of what a candidate is supposed to represent. It’s no longer moral character. It’s policy positions on things that bother evangelicals.”
Flynt says evangelical Christians are mainly mobilising against the sins they either do not want to commit (homosexual acts) or cannot commit (undergoing an abortion, in the case of men). They turn a blind eye toward temptations such as adultery and divorce that interest them. In 2010, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution calling the rising incidence of divorce among its members a “scandal”. A Pew Research Center study in 2015 found that evangelical Protestants in the US were more likely to be divorced or separated than Catholics, Jews, Muslims or atheists.
“Jesus says four times in four different places: do not divorce,” Flynt says. “Does divorce bother evangelicals? No, absolutely not. Does adultery bother evangelicals? No, not really, because if so they wouldn’t have voted for Donald Trump. So what bothers them? Abortion and same-sex marriage. Beyond that, there’s no longer an agenda.”
Flynt, who left the Southern Baptist Convention in 1979 to protest its turn to the right, notes ruefully that his former denomination has lost members for nine years in a row.
Into this religious void, he believes, stepped Trump, an unabashed materialist and hedonist — “What is right to Donald Trump is what gives him pleasure,” Flynt says — who thinks that he alone can make America great again.
“To be sure, every politician has some element of narcissism, but he has perfected narcissism, he has made it the supreme element of his life, and not only that, evangelicals have responded in an almost messianic way that he is the saviour, which makes him feel really good because he does believe he is the saviour,” Flynt says. “It is kind of curious evangelicals would not be offended by this. I am as an American Christian. I’m offended because I already thought following Jesus was going to make us great again.”
I did not have much to offer in response because I am not a Christian, or a religious person in a formal sense. My paternal grandfather used to call my father a “cardiac Jew”, meaning he felt the religion in his heart, but did not follow its rules, and the same could be said of me. If we do need help to become great again, I’m not sure who, or what, is going to get it done.
But I do know that it felt good to spend some time with Flynt. For all his talk about the loss of Christian America, I came away from our conversation with the faith that I had found at least a little piece of it in the Flynt home in eastern Alabama.
Even the design of the room where we met left me with that impression. When Flynt and his wife decided to add a study to their house a few years ago, he wanted as much space as possible for his books. But Dorothy dreamt of a spot where she could look at her wild flower garden in the backyard. A compromise was reached, and a floor-to-ceiling window now bisects the shelves.
While Mr Flynt spoke, I sat in Mrs Flynt’s seat, in the sun.
Gary Silverman is the FT’s US national editor
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Photographs: Sam Hodgson/NYT/Redux/Eyevine; Getty; Bloomberg