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.
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”.
SOURCE: Gary Silverman