In recent months, Donald Trump has been talking about bringing back the anti-Muslim immigration ban from his single term in office.
His white evangelical fanbase loves it. Almost ten years into their decline, they are more touchy than ever about losing credibility and cultural power.
Say whatever you like about Donald Trump. If it’s negative, it’s probably true. But don’t say he doesn’t know how to work a sympathetic crowd. In recent campaign speeches, Trump has been telling his crowds of followers about how he plans to handle immigrants from, presumably, Muslim-dominated countries: he’d keep out those who “don’t like our religion” and “hate America.”
This flatly illegal, completely unconstitutional, human-rights-violating promise appears to have played well to his fanbase, who are overwhelmingly white evangelical Christians who claim to adore the rule of law, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights. They certainly haven’t rejected him on the basis of that promise! It demonstrates well their priorities amid their religion’s ongoing decline: to defend what turf they can, and grab what temporal power they can before their cultural power fades too much to grab anything with it at all.
Donald Trump and the last screech of white evangelicalism
In his current rallies, Donald Trump looks back on his anti-Muslim travel ban as a “beautiful” and “wonderful” thing, despite the utter chaos it wreaked. He now promises to bring that ban back and institute ideological screenings of all immigrants:
“I will implement strong ideological screening of all immigrants,” the former president vowed. “If you hate America, if you want to abolish Israel, if you don’t like our religion (which a lot of them don’t), if you sympathize with jihadists, then we don’t want you in our country and you are not getting in.”“Trump Says He’ll Ban Immigrants Who ‘Don’t Like Our Religion’,” Ryan Bort, Rolling Stone
The idea of “ideological screening” should alarm any American who cares about human rights. This is a religion test, which our laws specifically do not allow. But the kind of people who support Donald Trump don’t care. For all their fetishizing of America, its Founding Fathers, its history, and its laws, somehow his fanbase is totally fine with this kind of screening.
I’m not surprised. Donald Trump’s entire existence as a political candidate is predicated entirely on his biggest fanbase’s complete hypocrisy.
Donald Trump is still pandering about ‘our religion’
For months now, Donald Trump has been making the rounds at political rallies. He wants to be president again. That means he needs to raise support in the only real core fanbase he has: white evangelical Christians.
This group comprises somewhere between 5%-35% of Americans depending on who you consult, but they are reliable voters. According to Pew Research, he received 77% of this group’s votes in 2016, then 84% in 2020. Obviously, lots of other sorts of people also voted for him, but they tend to be the understanding sort who don’t mind him pandering so hard to this one group.
In May this year, he went off the rails ranting about immigration. Again. That’s always been a concern for conservatives generally, and white evangelical Christians in particular. Considering their stated beliefs, it’s ironic in the extreme that they’d oppose immigration and despise immigrants like they do. In fact, one 2015 evangelical-run study discovered that 90% of evangelical respondents didn’t base their beliefs about immigration on the Bible at all. (Franklin Graham even drilled down on this exact point in 2017. In response, the Washington Post humiliated him with a Bible study. Other Christians have written similar rebukes.)
Here as elsewhere, evangelicals’ unstated beliefs speak far more loudly than any vocal belief statements they could ever issue. They don’t want a Pastor-in-Chief. No, they want a tribalistic strongman who will prevent more non-Christians from entering the United States, since such immigration only dilutes their numbers and power. They want a ruler who flouts behavioral rules, flaunts his degeneracy and ignorance, and says out loud all the horrific stuff they dare not whisper.
Most of all, they want a ruler who will raise them to the rulership over America that they think they deserve, and one who will punish their enemies until they are strong enough to do it themselves.
As he did almost ten years ago, Donald Trump promises to be that ruler.
When ‘our religion’ is only the religion of a shrinking percentage of Americans
As noted earlier, the percentage of evangelicals in America is very far from a majority. Depending on the definition you use and the authorities and studies you consult, they range from 5% of Americans to 35%. But they vote very reliably. That fact makes them a desirable bloc to own for conservative politicians.
Most desirably of all, they respond extremely well to fearmongering, fake news, and tribalistic jingoism. In their own minds, they’ve got a lot to be afraid of—their own increasing cultural irrelevance most of all.
Christianity itself is cruising quickly toward losing its majority status in America. At present, about 63% of Americans claim Christian affiliation. When Pew Research modeled religious switching in future decades, though, they found that most estimates had that percentage dropping to 35-46% by 2070. Meanwhile, the percentage of “Nones” (the religiously unaffiliated who claim “none of the above” as their religion) only continues to rise. In Pew’s model, they go from 30% currently to 41-52% by 2070.
Add non-Christian immigration to the mix, and white evangelicals become irrelevant even more quickly. So I can easily understand why white evangelicals bitterly oppose immigration, even if it clashes hilariously with their stated beliefs in a literal, inerrant, completely timeless and divine Bible.
Donald Trump knows that white evangelicals don’t want no meltin’ pots
Kristin Kobes du Mez, a brilliant writer whose work I adore, linked evangelicals’ opposition to immigration to “militant masculinity” in 2018. It’s not in me to gainsay her. She’s got a deep understanding of that exact facet of white evangelicalism. As she wrote:
It is incredibly difficult to disrupt a cohesive worldview of this sort, particularly one that is inherently suspicious of opposing views and is fueled by a victimization narrative, one backed by a multi-billion-dollar spiritual-industrial complex, and one that has direct and exclusive avenues of communication to hundreds of millions of eager consumers.“Understanding White Evangelical Views on Immigration,” Kristin Kobes du Mez, Harvard Divinity Bulletin
I’d just add this: That “cohesive worldview” is not just militantly macho. It also reflects white evangelicals’ increasing sense of tribalism.
In sociology, it is not a good thing for a group to behave in tribalistic ways. Such a group tends to be dysfunctionally authoritarian. That means that it cannot fulfill its own stated goals, nor even protect its own members from in-group abuse. Instead, the group is a conduit for power. Its followers cluster around a chosen charismatic leader who dispenses power to those lower on the power ladder. Those below the leader jockey and infight for favor.
To maintain their hold on power, the leaders of these groups need to flex their power often. They do this in a variety of ways:
- Betraying those who are no longer useful
- Visibly disobeying the group’s rules and allowing favored underlings to disobey them as well
- Painting outsiders to the group as their mortal enemies
- Stomping on critics and apostates with both feet
- Being inconsistent with rule enforcement and creation
- Destroying any heretics’ reputations and relationships as they leave the group
- Making followers do things they don’t want to do, from church chores to abusive sexual favors
(See also: The lessons authoritarians learn.)
But this flexing works best if group members feel they can’t ever leave. If they’re sure they’ll never recover emotionally or financially from such a move, then they’re far less likely to take the risk.
So in a lot of ways, tribalism in Christianity works best in an environment where the local tribe leaders wield a lot of cultural power. If their power gets too diluted, people feel safer in leaving. And the more non-Christians enter the United States, the more diluted white evangelicals—along with their vision of ideal American culture—become in the population as a whole.
The last thing tribalistic white evangelicals want is a melting-pot America. Rather, they desire a solidly Christian America (full of their own preferred kind of Christian, naturally) that turns non-Christians of all kinds into pariahs until they bend the knee.
Compassion and empathy destroy tribalism
Another serious problem evangelicals have with immigration is simply the way that knowing people from the outgroup can destabilize a dysfunctional-authoritarian ingroup. Right now, Trump can frighten his fanbase by identifying Muslim immigrants as terrorists. He can paint them as scary Others who don’t know how to America right.
But once Americans get to know outsiders, they stop being outsiders.
By now, there are about 3.85 million Muslims in the United States, according to a 2023 Pew Research report. In the past 20-ish years, the number of mosques has grown from 1209 to 2769. (And, as they always have, Republicans tend to think they, as a group, face more discrimination than Muslims do.) Muslims are also running for—and winning—public office. They’re far more visible now than they ever were. A 2017 Pew Research survey even found that most Americans were significantly warming up to Muslims, though the war in Israel might now be changing things for the worse.
Still, that visibility has to be scaring the knickers off of white evangelicals. They don’t want to see Muslims praying on their knees on public sidewalks, or to take college classes alongside women in headscarves, or see their kids making friends with Muslim kids.
(I can’t think of evangelicals encountering headscarves without thinking of that cringey side plot from the first “God’s Not Dead” movie involving a young Muslim convert who adores Franklin Graham—who if you’ll recall is very anti-immigration.)
White evangelicals don’t want any reminders that they no longer represent the cultural standard of America, nor are even its Designated Adults. What they want is quiet, effortless mastery and recognized superiority, not having to share and play nicely with the other children on the playground.
Even if it destroys their witness, to use the Christianese, they can’t let go of their tribalism. Jesus’ direct orders be damned! Bible blahblah is all well and good, but this is real life we’re talking about. Like everyone else, white evangelicals know that when real life starts happening, they have to step into the real world to deal with it.
The new age of evangelical power-grabs
Over the past few years, I’ve noticed a sharp change in how white evangelicals present themselves and sell their only product (active membership in their own group).
Just a decade ago, evangelicals tried to engage outsiders in one-sided non-versations. They traveled to schools to deliver sales pitches. They ran pseudo-charity efforts like Beach Reach that were really about indoctrination. Online, they seemed acutely aware that they were selling something. Sure, very few people cared to buy it anymore. But they still felt compelled by Jesus to SELL SELL SELL WITHOUT MERCY.
To an extent, they still do that stuff, yes. But they’ve really shifted their emphasis. Now, they seem much more like an overtly theocratic, totalitarian political group with a thin coat of Jesus frosting. Aware that nobody wants to buy their product on its own merits, they have turned from wheedling and fake non-versations to outright insults and sneers toward those who reject their control-grabs. This behavior seems to bolster their own self-image, even as it wrecks their tribe’s credibility every time they act out.
When I encounter them, I can’t help but think that my first pastor, a genial old Pentecostal leader in our denomination, would have had their hides for mistreating people the way they do.
Again, this is real life we’re talking about, though, not Bible blahblah. Evangelicals may give lip service to Jesus’ sheer power and miracle-working all they like. In the real world, they’re aware that if they don’t punish their enemies, Jesus sure won’t do it for them.
I’ve known this about evangelicals for a long, long time. In a way, I’m glad Trump has come along to unmask them.
I suspect that the further white evangelicals decline in cultural power and credibility, the more and the worse they’ll act out. I just hope the rest of the world is ready to listen when they tell us who they truly are.