The Status Anxiety of White Evangelicals

White evangelical support for Donald Trump is at an all-time high and perhaps no one expresses the attraction better than Douglas MacKinnon in an victim-drenched article titled, “How long will I be allowed to remain a Christian?

Recognizing that, Olga Khazan wrote that “status anxiety” is what drove the election of Donald Trump.

[Diana] Mutz examined voters whose incomes declined, or didn’t increase much, or who lost their jobs, or who were concerned about expenses, or who thought they had been personally hurt by trade. None of those things motivated people to switch from voting for Obama in 2012 to supporting Trump in 2016…

Meanwhile, a few things did correlate with support for Trump: a voter’s desire for their group to be dominant, as well as how much they disagreed with Clinton’s views on trade and China. Trump supporters were also more likely than Clinton voters to feel that “the American way of life is threatened,” and that high-status groups, like men, Christians, and whites, are discriminated against.

What are we to make of this when, as MacKinnon himself acknowledged, Christians are still a majority in this country? Here’s how Mutz described what is happening:

“For the first time since Europeans arrived in this country,” Mutz notes, “white Americans are being told that they will soon be a minority race.”When members of a historically dominant group feel threatened, she explains, they go through some interesting psychological twists and turns to make themselves feel okay again. First, they get nostalgic and try to protect the status quo however they can. They defend their own group (“all lives matter”), they start behaving in more traditional ways, and they start to feel more negatively toward other groups.

The question becomes: how much of this is about Christianity and how much is about whiteness?

It is important to note that not all white evangelicals are reacting to change this way. A group that John Fea calls “non-court evangelicals” met last week in Illinois to discuss the future of evangelicalism. One of the speakers was Dr. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary (disclosure: where I earned my master’s degree). His speech resonated with a theology that takes an entirely different view than the one we hear so often from the likes of Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. He acknowledged that evangelicals are at a moment of crisis, but it is historical, not recent.

We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.

Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.

Labberton goes on to address the issues of power, race, nationalism, and economics. On power, he said this:

In much of the last century, American evangelicalism has had a complex relationship with power.  On one hand, it has felt itself marginalized and repudiated, defeated and silenced. On the other, it has often seemed to seek—even fawn over—worldly power, mimicking in the church forms of power evident in our culture…An evangelical dance with political power has been going on from the time of Billy Graham, through the Moral Majority and the religious right, to the Tea Party, and most recently with the white evangelical vote…

This points to an evangelical crisis over so many issues of power: racial, political, economic, cultural, right against left, Republican against Democrat, rich against poor, white against black, men against women, and so on. But winning power was the goal of Judas, not Jesus…

Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment.  Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy—all this is about power.  The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.

Given that Labberton’s view of the gospel lines up much more closely with biblical teaching, it becomes clear that the fear being experienced by so many white evangelicals isn’t really about how long they’ll be able to remain a Christian, but is instead rooted in a fear of the loss of power. In other words, it is the “status anxiety” Khazan wrote about. She points to the challenge that poses:

…deep-seated psychological resentment is harder for policy makers to address than an overly meager disability check…

In other words, it’s now pretty clear that many Trump supporters feel threatened, frustrated, and marginalized—not on an economic, but on an existential level. Now what?

I would suggest that this country has faced down that challenge twice in our relatively short history: the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. While blood was shed, we eventually got it right both times. Unfortunately, as Labberton pointed out, the majority of white evangelicals were also on the wrong side of those struggles.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.