The white singularity: The racial divide in American evangelicalism

white evangelicals and Trump

By Alan Bean

“We condemn in the strongest possible terms this egregious display of hatred, bigotry and violence on many sides,” President Trump said. We can’t help asking why he had to throw in the bit about “many sides,” as if the folks protesting violent racism can be compared to the men with torches, or the crazed individual who drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters.

Unfortunately, the dreadful events unfolding in Charlottesville, Va., conform to a well-worn pattern.

On Aug. 14, 2016, the star quarterback of the San Francisco 49ers remained seated during the singing of the national anthem. It was the first preseason game of the year and nobody noticed the quiet gesture. But two weeks later, a reporter examining a promotional photograph noticed that Kaepernick wasn’t standing during the anthem and decided to ask him why.

Fans who had been following the star quarterback on social media weren’t surprised by his answer. For over a year, his posts had been featuring quotations from Martin Luther King Jr. and other civil rights leaders. “I couldn’t see another hashtag Sandra Bland,” he told the reporter, “Hashtag Tamir Rice. Hashtag Walter Scott. Hashtag Eric Garner. This list goes on and on. At what point do we do something about it? At what point do we take a stand as a people and say this isn’t right?”

A year later, Colin Kaepernick is a 29-year-old football prodigy without a team. He is accused of disrespecting the military. People regard him as a traitor to his country. Because his girlfriend is Muslim, rumors circulated that he had converted to Islam. Some even speculate that Kaepernick is a clandestine ISIS agent and they have doctored photographs to prove it.

Fifteen years before Colin Kaepernick took a knee during the national anthem, Barbara Lee rose to address the House of Representatives. It was three days after 9-11 and twisted bodies were still being dragged from the rubble. An Authorized Use of Military Force resolution was rushed through the House and Senate with hardly any debate. “The President is authorized to use all necessary and appropriate force,” the resolution read, “against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.”

“Only the most foolish and the most callous would not understand the grief that has really gripped our people and millions across the world,” Lee told her colleagues. “This unspeakable act on the United States has really, really forced me, however, to rely on my moral compass, my conscience, and my God for direction.”

God told Barbara Lee to vote no, lest America “become the evil that we deplore.”

“I am a person of deep faith,” Lee told incredulous reporters in the wake of her no vote. “I think my vote was based in my religion and my faith. Where else do you go to at a time like this?”

Editorials across the nation denounced Lee as an anti-American traitor. So many death threats poured in that Lee was given around-the-clock police protection.

On June 29, 2017, the House Appropriations Committee quietly adopted an amendment, written by Lee, which would repeal the AUMF.

Why are people like Colin Kaepernick and Barbara Lee so threatening to white America?  And why are so many white people (white evangelicals, in particular) attracted to a politician like Donald Trump who advertises his racial bias at every opportunity?

Donald Trump is more popular with the leaders of the religious right, it would appear, than with the leaders of his own party. Conservative pundits like George Will, Charles Krauthammer and Jennifer Rubin routinely denounce the Republican president, but the likes of Franklin Graham, Richard Land, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress enjoy unparalleled access to the White House and have elevated Trump to the status of patron saint.

Pundits, liberal and conservative, want to know why 81 percent of American evangelicals pulled the lever for a walking advertisement for the seven deadly sins.

Did the vast majority of American evangelicals vote for Trump? It depends which evangelicals we are talking about. White evangelicals love them some Trump. Most non-white evangelicals view the man with alarm.

The Republican candidate won because white voters, still 71 percent of the American electorate, favored him by 21 percentage points over Hillary Clinton. Among white evangelicals, the margin was 65 points (81 percent for Trump, 16 percent for Clinton).

The much-vaunted “church-college divide” is real, but it is strictly a feature of the white electorate. While college educated whites split their votes between the two leading candidates, whites with no degree favored Trump by a jaw dropping 43 points.

In stark contrast, non-white voters favored Clinton by 53 points and education wasn’t a factor. Pew researchers didn’t collect data on black and Hispanic evangelicals, but black voters favor Democratic candidates by astounding margins regardless of religious affiliation.

What is more, non-white voters are far more religious than their white counterparts. Fully 87 percent of African Americans are affiliated with a community of faith and 80 percent place a high value on their religion. Even 48 percent of those without religious affiliation say religion is important to them. In contrast, only 56 percent of Roman Catholics and 52 percent of mainline Protestants say they value their religion highly.

The vast majority of African Americans attend evangelical churches: 56 percent are Baptist, 40 percent are Methodist, 15 percent attend racially mixed evangelical churches and 4 percent hold membership in liberal mainline churches. Measured by “absolute certainty of the existence of God, literal biblical interpretation, miracles, angels and demons and certainty about the afterlife,” African-American Christians and white evangelicals are virtually identical.

Similarly, 83 percent of American Latinos are religiously affiliated. While 55 percent of this group retain a Roman Catholic identity, 22 percent now identify as Protestants. In a recent survey, 70 percent of Latino evangelicals, 79 percent of Latino Catholics and 84 percent of unaffiliated Latinos identify as Democrats.

Asian Americans are religiously diverse (42 percent Christian, 14 percent Buddhist, 10 percent Hindu, 4 percent Muslim and 26 percent unaffiliated) but 65 percent of Asian voters supported Clinton.

Non-white evangelicals tend to be patriarchal; they embrace family values, believe in hard work and personal responsibility, and often skew conservative on hot button issues like abortion and gay marriage. But put a man like Trump in front of them and you get a hearty “hell, no!”

Asked why they voted for Trump, most white evangelicals explain that abortion and gay marriage are political deal-breakers for them.

But if that’s true, non-white evangelicals would also be in the Trump camp. And they’re not.

If you want to understand why white evangelicals love Trump, forget about abortion and gay marriage. The reason lies elsewhere.

Most scientists believe our universe sprang into existence 13.7 billion years ago (give or take a millennium). In the beginning, all the mass, time and space in existence was packed into an infinitely dense, infinitely hot “singularity” the size of a grapefruit. (Actually, not all scientists buy the grapefruit part, but I find it appealing.) Prior to what is euphemistically known as “the big bang,” space and time were non-existent and the billions of galaxies we know and love were crushed so tightly together there was no way to distinguish one from another.

This image of an original “singularity” may eventually be exposed as bad science, but it helps us understand the hearts of white American evangelicals. In white evangelicaldom, faith, the Bible, God, Jesus, politics, history, economics, science, law enforcement, and the military comprise one interlocking reality.

Let’s call it the white singularity.

Being white is hard, and it’s getting harder. White nationalists are rioting in Virginia because immigrants are taking their jobs (so they suppose), white culture is getting a bad rap, and a city council wants to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee. With every component of the established order under attack, eternal vigilance is mandatory. No wonder Trump voters believe white people encounter more discrimination than African Americans.

Most evangelicals affirm the inerrancy of the Bible and will tell you that no one comes to the Father except by the shed blood of Jesus. Evangelicals of all races talk this way. But only white evangelicals wrap these theological affirmations in the American flag, and relate them closely to the Constitution of the United States, the views of the Founding Fathers, and a peculiar rendering of American history.

According to white evangelical orthodoxy, America is a chosen nation, a city set upon a hill.

We have made our share of mistakes, evangelicals acknowledge, but at the end of the day we yield to our better angels because that’s what chosen people do.

Chattel slavery, Jim Crow laws, a genocidal war against Native Americans and periodic fits of anti-immigration hysteria are regrettable footnotes, perhaps, but God doesn’t expect perfection, only sincerity. And white evangelicals are extremely sincere.

Besides, the past has no bearing on the present, or so white evangelicals believe. America is a land of unbounded opportunity, the playing field is level, and the poor have only themselves to blame for their poverty.

Because America is God’s sole instrument for good in the world, unwavering support for the American military is an article of faith for most white evangelicals. Attend a Fourth of July service and you’ll see what I mean.

Because laissez-faire capitalism is God’s will for the world, government regulation of job-creators is viewed with suspicion.

Since God has given humankind dominion over the natural world, climate change science is bogus by definition. It is unthinkable that unencumbered economic expansion, God’s gracious gift to America, could end up wrecking the planet.

Any critique of one component of this interlocking white singularity is an assault on the entire package and bespeaks a rejection of Almighty God.

American white evangelicals are uncomfortable with diversity. It makes them nervous. There can only be one sacred text (the Christian Bible), one way of interpreting the Bible (literally), one God (Jehovah), one Savior (Jesus), one true religion (Christianity), one chosen nation (America), one divinely sanctioned economic system (free market capitalism), one political party (Republican), one dominant gender (male) and one sexual orientation (hetero).

To question one component of the white singularity is to assault the entire package. This explains why Russell Moore, a Southern Baptist who once said Donald Trump was a sinner in need of repentance, was shunned as a heathen and a publican after the election. Moore, I suspect, can identify with Colin Kaepernick and Barbara Lee.

The great divide in our country is not between the secular left and the religious right; it’s between white evangelicals who vote Republican and non-white evangelicals who don’t.

It’s hard to document this divide because statistics aren’t kept on non-white evangelicals and it is frightfully difficult to track the white vote at the state and municipal level. It’s in no one’s interest to reveal how racially divided our nation remains. Republicans are uncomfortable with how dependent they have become on the whims of white America; Democrats don’t like to admit that, for the most part, they have been rejected by working class white people.

But I dug up the numbers and they are shocking. Clinton won the white vote in California, but that’s about it. Even in hyper-liberal New York State, white voters favored Trump by six points.

Texas Democrats were pleased that Clinton only lost the Lone Star State by nine points; but among white voters she was destroyed by 43 points.

Why did white America vote for a clownish hate-monger? Because he promised to restore the white singularity to its former glory. That’s the cash value of “Make America Great Again.”

No one, myself included, believed that white folks would fall for Trump’s crude appeal to racial resentment. We didn’t understand the abiding influence of the white singularity or the fear engendered by its gradual demise.

Trump sleeps in the White House because white America (led by its evangelical fringe) is clinging to the privilege that came to us as a birthright.

The Democrats are increasingly stymied by a secular singularity that, while robust on university campuses, has little appeal at the grass roots level (I will have more to say about that down the road). The secular singularity divides progressives and provides a convenient whipping boy for conservatives. The white singularity unites and galvanizes Republicans and gives Fox News its editorial policy.

Non-white evangelicals aren’t in love with the Democratic Party; they just believe in civil rights.

We can restore the white singularity to its former glory or we can extend civil rights to all Americans, but we can’t do both. We need at least two strong political parties in America, but our racially divided politics is an embarrassment.

Strip away the religious components of the white singularity and you are left with white nationalism. There are only two groups Trump dares not criticize: white evangelicals and the alt-right. Trump appeals to both groups for the same reasons.

But here’s my real beef: the white singularity is antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Early Christianity knocked down barriers between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free. Nationality and race were irrelevant.

The white singularity is building walls; Jesus is knocking them down. Whose side are we on?