I just finished reading Tim Alberta’s masterly new book, “The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism.” It’s a powerful and emotionally resonant account of the transformation in evangelical politics that has brought us to the current moment: A godless man, Donald Trump, may now possess more devoted support from white evangelical Christians than any other president in the history of the United States. And most worrisome of all, that support is now disproportionately concentrated among the most churchgoing segment of the Republican electorate.
One of the troubling aspects of the Trump era for me, as a churchgoing evangelical, has been watching the evolution of his support among white evangelicals. During the 2016 primaries, I took some solace in the fact that Trump’s support seemed to decline the more a voter went to church. According to the 2016 American National Election Studies Pilot Study, he received majority support from white evangelicals who seldom or never attended church, but he received barely over a third of the votes of white evangelicals who attended weekly.
As we headed into the general election, a self-justifying narrative emerged. Countless churchgoing evangelicals told friends and neighbors that Trump had been their last choice among Republicans but that they had to vote for him against Hillary Clinton as the only pro-life option remaining.
Soon enough, however, the churchgoing dynamic flipped. I noticed the change among people I knew before I saw it in the data. After Trump won, folks in the pews warmed up to him considerably, especially those who were most firmly ensconced in evangelical America. Most home-schooling families I knew became militantly pro-Trump. I watched many segments of Christian media become militantly pro-Trump. And I always noticed the same trend: the more fundamentalist the Christians, the more likely they were to be all in.
Then the data started to confirm my observations. In 2018, Paul Djupe, a Denison University professor, and Ryan Burge, a statistician and associate professor at Eastern Illinois University, reported that Republican approval for Trump was positively correlated with church attendance: The more often people went to church, the more likely they were to strongly approve of Trump. By 2020, white evangelicals who attended church monthly or more were more likely to support Trump than evangelical voters who attended rarely or not at all.
I’m certainly not arguing that all regular churchgoers are fundamentalists, but in my experience fundamentalists are virtually always regular churchgoers. To understand why they support Trump, it’s important to understand fundamentalism more broadly and to understand how Trump fits so neatly within the culture of fundamentalist Christianity.
For some readers, that might be a head-spinning idea. How on earth could a secular, twice-divorced, philandering reality television star fit in neatly with fundamentalist Christians? It makes no sense until you understand that the true distinction between fundamentalism and mainstream beliefs isn’t what fundamentalists believe but how fundamentalists believe. As Richard Land, a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, once told me, “Fundamentalism is far more a psychology than a theology.” That’s why, for example, you can have competing Christian fundamentalisms, competing Muslim fundamentalisms and secular movements that possess fundamentalist characteristics.
I grew up in a church that most would describe as fundamentalist, and I’ve encountered fundamentalism of every stripe my entire life. And while fundamentalist ideas can often be quite variable and complex, I’ve never encountered a fundamentalist culture that didn’t combine three key traits: certainty, ferocity and solidarity.
Certainty is the key building block. The fundamentalist mind isn’t clouded by doubt. In fact, when people are fully captured by the fundamentalist mind-set, they often can’t even conceive of good-faith disagreement. To fundamentalists, their opponents aren’t just wrong but evil. Critics are derided as weak or cowards or grifters. Only a grave moral defect can explain the failure to agree.
That certainty breeds ferocity. Indeed, ferocity — not piety — is a principal trait of every truly fundamentalist movement I’ve ever encountered. Ferocity is so valuable to fundamentalism that it can cover a multitude of conventional Christian sins. Defending Trump in 2016, Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Dallas, an evangelical megachurch, explained, “Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find. And I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals.”
Alberta captures this rage well in his book. He tells a gut-wrenching anecdote about receiving a nasty note in 2019 at the funeral of his father, a pastor. After Alberta spoke at the service, he was handed the note from a member of the congregation condemning him as part of an “evil plot” to “undermine God’s ordained leader of the United States” and demanding that he seek absolution by investigating the “deep state.” This would be a strange message to direct at a journalist under any circumstance. But to do so at his father’s funeral is grotesque.
Yet certainty and ferocity are nothing without solidarity. It’s the sense of shared purpose and community that makes any form of fundamentalism truly potent. There is an undeniable allure to the idea that you’re joining a community that has achieved an understanding of life’s mysteries or discovered a path to resolving injustice. As angry as fundamentalists may feel, at the same time, there is true joy among comrades in the foxhole — at least as long as they remain comrades.
I’m reminded of an infamous quote by Mike Huckabee, a former Baptist pastor, regarding the necessity of loyalty. Explaining Trump’s hostility toward Ron DeSantis, Huckabee said, “I think there are two virtues — loyalty and confidentiality. Be loyal to the people who helped you and learn how to keep your mouth shut.”
Again, that’s not piety. It’s solidarity.
When you recognize the psychology of fundamentalism, fundamentalist Christian enthusiasm for Trump makes considerably more sense. His fundamentalist supporters are certain that he is fulfilling a divine purpose. They are ferocious in their response to opponents, especially those Christians they believe to be weak or squishes. And they experience great joy in their motivated, activist solidarity.
But the keys to fundamentalist success are also the source of its ultimate failure. Certainty, ferocity and solidarity can combine to create powerful social and political movements. They can have a steamrolling effect in institutions because their opponents — almost by definition — have less certainty, less ferocity and less solidarity.
We’ve seen this phenomenon in both secular and religious spaces across the political spectrum. A small number of extremely confident and aggressive people can turn an organization upside down. Political activists who possess fundamentalist intensity can push through resistance — at least until their inherent intolerance creates sufficient backlash to trigger real opposition.
That’s how fundamentalism fails. Certainty, which gives so much purpose, ultimately struggles in the face of complex realities. Ferocity, which allows fundamentalists to bully and intimidate opponents, also limits the ability to win converts. And solidarity, which creates community, can become stifling, as it encourages conformity and punishes those who raise good-faith questions.
Why do so many fundamentalists love Trump? Because in his certainty, ferocity and demands of loyalty, he’s a far more culturally familiar figure than a person of restraint and rectitude such as the departing senator Mitt Romney, who has the piety of a true believer but does not possess the ferocity of the fundamentalist. Thus Romney was culturally out of step with the millions of Christians who wanted, in the words of Jeffress, “the meanest, toughest son of a gun” they could find.
That’s why Trumpism, too, is ultimately doomed to fail. It’s engineered to destroy, not to build. The very characteristics that give it life also plant the seeds of its destruction. And so as we watch the continued marriage between Trumpism and fundamentalism dominate the right, the proper question isn’t whether fundamentalism will permanently remake American culture in its own image. Rather, it’s how much damage it will do before it collapses under the weight of its own rage and sin.