This is a transcript from the April 24 edition of Trumpcast. These transcripts are lightly edited and may contain errors. For the definitive record, consult the podcast.
Virginia Heffernan: My guest today is Reza Aslan. He’s written three books on religion: No god but God, which is about Islam; Beyond Fundamentalism, which is about religious extremism; and Zealot, which is about Jesus of Nazareth. Aslan’s a member of the American Academy of Religion, the Society of Biblical Literature, and the International Qur’anic Studies Association. He’s also a professor of creative writing at the University of California at Riverside.
Reza, thanks for being here.
Reza Aslan: My pleasure.
Heffernan: I want to talk about Donald Trump, the would-be Presbyterian. He did go to Marble Collegiate Church as a child, or claims he did. The church says they have no record of it, but who cares. Let’s ignore it. That’s such a minor lie.
Aslan: Wait, wait, wait, wait—do you think Trump might be lying?
Heffernan: I’m sure he’s misremembering. I’m sure it’s just a small error, but Trump seems to be the first sort of floridly irreligious president we’ve had in a long time.
Aslan: No question.
Heffernan: We don’t know if he’s an atheist. We don’t know what he thinks about God. He uses the word. He doesn’t use the word. What do you make of this?
Aslan: I think he thinks he’s God.
Irreligious is one way of putting it. This is a man who’s entire life—I mean the greed, the lack of empathy, the racism, the misogyny, everything about his life—stands in direct contrast to what we have, in the American political landscape over the last 60, 70 years at least, come to expect from someone running for the highest office—which is that not only do you need to be Christian, specifically Christian, but you also need to be able to speak the language of Christianity, the language that has the most currency for the masses. After all, we are a country that is 71 percent Christian. In a democracy, you would assume that in order to gather that population to you, to get them to vote for you, you need to be able to speak to them.
Donald Trump has, I think, turned that on its head. Now, I think it’s a little more complicated than this, obviously, because the evangelical—particularly the white evangelical—community in the United States has changed dramatically over the last decade. Let’s begin by acknowledging one very important fact, which is that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. That’s a record. That’s more white evangelicals than voted George Bush, who was a white evangelical.
Heffernan: Right, and very vocal about it. That’s amazing.
Aslan: And very vocal about it, yes.
Heffernan: So what does that mean? So many of us during the primaries thought, well he’s never going to win the states that we associate with religion and megachurches.
Heffernan: And he did.
Aslan: OK. It’s a few things.
Number one, let’s focus on the white part for a minute, because we can’t ignore that. The fact of the matter is that non-white evangelicals voted for Clinton 67 to 24 percent. So this isn’t just about the evangelical part, it’s also about the white part. And it’s certainly true that a lot of the identity politics that Trump played with, this sort of resurgence of white nationalism, this conception of going back to a time in which America used to be great, that sense of nostalgia for what America used to be, the very clear... I’m not even going to use the word dog whistle, because it wasn’t a dog whistle. It was about as clear as it gets.
Heffernan: It was definitely in range of most human ears.
Aslan: Yes, exactly. The appeal to whiteness and white identity worked very well for these white evangelicals. Sojourners, a liberal evangelical magazine, made it very clear. They said that white evangelicals “acted more white than evangelical.” By the way, that still continues to this date, two-thirds of white evangelicals strongly approve of Trump’s performance.
So let’s not play around with it, race played a huge role in the enormous support of white evangelicals for Trump, but there was something else, too. And that’s that Trump had this ability to very explicitly promise secular power to Christian evangelicals in this country. I heard this repeatedly from some members of my extended family, who are white evangelicals, who did vote for Donald Trump. You have to understand that, over the last decade or so, white evangelicals pretty much lost the cultural wars in America, right? It’s over. I mean we were celebrating the end of the cultural wars a few years ago, certainly with the Supreme Court’s legalization of same-sex marriage.
I think that left a lot of white evangelicals feeling not just that they had lost the cultural wars, but that they had been left behind in some way. What you hear a lot from this community is this sense of siege, right? That the majority of white evangelicals feel as though their very rights are under siege, that Christians are being oppressed in the United States, because … I don’t know … Starbucks changed the color of their holiday cups, or because of this whole nonsense about whether you say “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Holidays.”
And I think for a lot of those Christians, Donald Trump very explicitly said that he would give them power again. That he would make them great again. You heard this from Franklin Graham, this promise that Christians would have the secular power to enforce their beliefs on society, and to have a seat at the table of power. And it worked.
Look, there’s a one-to-one correlation here. I’m not just kind of talking off the cuff. Today, Christians, white evangelicals in the United States, have gone, over the course of two election cycles—let’s say 2008 to today—from being the most likely group to say that morality has a role to play in how you judge candidates for office, to the least likely group in America to say that morality has a role to play in judging a politician. Atheists in America are far more likely to say that a politician’s morality should play a role in whether they deserve the job or not than white evangelicals are.
Heffernan: Wow. I mean, that’s incredibly rich. I think that there are some threads to pull apart here, for me and our listeners.
Namely, that it’s possible that—at least in the public square as represented on Twitter—the moral life lives less in our sexual and familial practices, and more in our relationship to liberal ideals, in particular to race. You cite someone for racism but adultery, abortion, and promiscuity don’t register anymore. So isn’t it possible that the evangelicals, when they say they don’t want to be faulted for moral failings, that those moral failings are the ones that they get faulted for, which is intolerance and potentially racism, or regionalism, or a lack of worldliness, or commitment to globalism? That morality, too, has been redefined?
Aslan: I think that’s a very sophisticated argument, but I don’t think it’s one that is at play for the vast majority of those white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump, because they themselves have made it very clear. I don’t think that they are making an argument that’s connected to their own sense of, let’s say, nebulous morality in an ever-graying globalized world. As a matter of fact, 72 percent of white evangelicals say that there should actually be a wall between a politician’s private and public life. Now, I just want to remind you that these are the people that we used to refer to as “value voters.”
Aslan: That’s it. There it is right there. We cannot call them “value voters” anymore, because quite clearly, values just don’t matter. The data is there. They don’t care anymore.
But I will say one thing that’s also important about this, which is that a whopping 74 percent of white evangelicals say that American culture has shifted in negative ways, right? That they—I used this phrase before—feel left behind by the movement of American culture.
I also don’t think that it is a coincidence that people of color are making up a larger and larger share of America’s Christian population. In fact, demographers say that by 2042, the majority of Christians in America will be people of color. The values of Christians of color, be they African American or Latino, or Korean, or what have you, are vastly at odds with the values that are being promoted by white evangelicals. And it all goes back to this notion, that many white evangelicals believe that the symbols of Christianity deserve cultural dominance in America, right? This is the whole notion of Christian nationalism.
America is a Christian nation founded on Christian ideals, and our laws and our morality have to change so that they are in alignment with biblical values. You’ve heard this argument for years and years among certain evangelical groups—white evangelical groups.
Heffernan: And you hear it reprised a little bit in the current administration by Steve Bannon. Even though—
Aslan: —That’s exactly right.
Heffernan: Yeah. Even though he’s identified with the Catholic church—and the history of Christianity of the U.S. is so extraordinarily rich, as you better than anyone has explained—Bannon is a Catholic on a continuum I think with Opus Dei, the Latin Mass preaching. I mean he’s very high church, and would’ve been regarded with great suspicion by the Protestant majority not along ago. Kennedy is still the first and only Catholic president. Pence has taken great pains to distance himself from Catholicism.
In any case, we have a Catholic very close to the president who espouses this clash-of-civilization defense of “Judeo-Christian values,” which taken altogether don’t conjure the image of either the mainline Protestant faiths or Catholicism, which is heavily identified with Latin countries. Christianity in the U.S. is represented by so many descendants of empire nations who got their Christianity from missionaries, including the giant Korean Presbyterian sect or the varying derivations of Baptist sects—an extraordinarily heterogeneous population—and suddenly Christianity means anti-Islam.
Aslan: I was waiting for one of us to say that, because you’re right.
What does the white evangelical living in the Midwest have in common with Steve Bannon’s pre-Vatican Catholicism? Fear of Islam. That’s exactly what it is. Bannon has managed, in a brilliant way, to wrap up the sort of sensitive siege that a lot of white evangelicals feel by giving it a name.
By the way, it’s not just anti-Islamic, it’s also stark anti-Semitism. The Judeo-Christian thing is nonsense. That’s just code for American Protestantism, really, but the point is that what Bannon has done, in this sort of bizarre clash-of-civilization mentality he has brought into the White House, is to give a name and an identity to the nebulous [feeling] that a lot of these white evangelicals have. And we’re talking about Christian Dominionism. That’s very much a part of Bannon’s world view. He himself, regardless of his spirituality, wants to define Christian civilization and make it synonymous with white civilization.
And he’s not the only one in the administration. Look, Rick Perry is a member of the new apostolic reformation. This is this organization that clamors for a Christian takeover of the entire United States government. Betsy DeVos is a member of the Christian reformist movement. This is a movement that has for years been advocating education reform in America to “advance God’s kingdom.” Kellyanne Conway is a Christian Dominionist. Mike Pence, of course, is a Christian Dominionist and a biblical literalist.
And one other thing that doesn’t get talked about enough when it comes to Trump’s appeal to these white evangelicals is the concept of the prosperity gospel. Are you familiar with the prosperity gospel?
Heffernan: Yes, but let’s reprise it.
Aslan: Well it’s been around for about two decades here in the United States, enormously successful. This is the message preached by charlatans like T. D. Jakes and Joel Osteen, which is that what God wants for you is material prosperity, and indeed—this is going all the way back to old Calvinism, right?—that material prosperity is an indication of God’s divine grace.
So you look at a man like Donald Trump, who stands against everything Jesus died for. His very life is basically a spit in Jesus’s face. And yet, his prosperity fits very easily into this notion of the prosperity gospel, right? He has material success, and it’s very easy to just assume that it’s some kind of divine grace or divine blessing. All of this plays into this record-shattering support for this despicable man.
Heffernan: We sometimes mull on the show—let’s face it, it’s just me that thinks about it still—about Trump’s appearance. His aesthetic, his gilded-ness, and certainly, the way he manages his person. He looks not unlike Jim Baker and certain televangelists of the ’80s. The hairspray, the talking straight to the camera, it’s sort of reality television—
Aslan: Yeah, you’re right.
Heffernan: Having been on a few reality TV sets, one of the things that amazes me, is that sort of Barnum and Bailey world where it’s only the facade, like literally the façade. Things look like a mahogany desk from the front, but they’re staple-gunned in the back.
There is a way that Trump doesn’t care about the underside of things, the tape on his tie and so on. And that to me does suggest that relentlessly and quite literally evangelical sales approach to religion that is in some ways intrinsic to Christianity, which is a proselytizing religion. It makes it easy to convert, and it’s—and I say this as a churchgoing Episcopalian—the effort to lower the bar to membership and also offer some sweet incentives. I’ve also spent some time as a Jew. I converted and lived as a Jew for ten years, and that’s a religion that asks you to please not convert to it.
Heffernan: And there’s less a tradition of sales. There’s less a tradition of Paul wandering all over with Bibles, trying to make converts. And there’s less tradition of building empire through conversion.
I guess the point is that I think sales and Christianity go well together.
Aslan: I think you’re right. I think it’s specifically an American Christianity. You’re not going to make that argument in Nicaragua. Nobody in El Salvador is going to pay any attention to what you just said, but in Iowa, yeah, what you say makes perfect sense.
We have so effortlessly married not just capitalism and Christianity, but nationalism, patriotism, and Christianity. You have now, today, as we sit here, according to the latest Pew polling, 57 percent of white evangelicals say that it is vital to be Christian to be considered American.
This idea of the marriage of the cross and the flag, these two symbols bleeding into one, has been a part of American Christianity for quite some time. It’s just that we’ve never had a politician like Trump come out and just explicitly say, “Vote for me, and I will put power in your hands.” This idea of a nostalgia for white Christian America, the “good old days.” You know what I mean?
Aslan: The “good old days,” when you prayed in school and no damn ACLU Jewish commies would tell you you couldn’t.
Heffernan: The point that has sort of evolved from what you’re saying, which I hadn’t realized, is that Christian has become code for “white.”
Aslan: Yeah, and again, we’re talking about evangelical Christianity, right? Not mainline Christian denominations like Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Evangelicals, of course, make up, by far, the largest Christian group in America. They dwarf all other Christian groups in the United States, by some estimates—a full third of all Americans are evangelical. 110, 120 million people.
Heffernan: That’s far more than identify as Catholics.
Aslan: In the United States, far, far more than identify as Catholics, yeah, not even in the same ball park.
Now, I do want to say one thing that’s kind of interesting about what you were saying, which is about just Christianity, not evangelical Christianity. We’ve seen this incredible pendulum swing over the last eight, nine, ten years. In 2008, 54 percent of America was both white and Christian. In 2015, that number had dropped to 45 percent. You are seeing, I think, a sort of contraction, if you will, of the white Christian identity in the United States, because of immigration patterns, certainly because of Latinos. But when you go back to evangelicalism, you are seeing a movement that is still dominated by white people. Although, as I said before, that’s going change. We are seeing more and more people of color taking over the U.S. Christian population. By 2042, people of color will be the majority of Christians in the United States. I think this is important to understand, how it’s threatening to fracture, if not absolutely destroy, the white evangelical community.
So, it’s hard to say where we’re going to be 10 years from now, how this discussion is going to change 10 years from now, but the moral majority is done. Value voters are over, and Trump, in the way that he might break all of America, has broken the white evangelical community.
Heffernan: I remember first getting to college in the South. I grew up an Episcopalian. Friends of mine went to the Methodist church. We were in New England, so there were Congregationalists, Unitarians, and certainly Roman Catholics. And I met some people who identified as Christian, and I waited for them to tell me what kind, but no, they were just Christian. I suddenly thought, “Wow, they’ve built a world where this is just Christianity and they’re not hair-splitting over fascinating things, like schisms in the Episcopal church that 14 of us took an interest in. But it may be that the evangelical idea of Christian as a monolith might resplinter along interesting lines, possibly along racial or cultural lines.
Aslan: I will say one fascinating thing to keep an eye on now, as we move forward into this Trump era, is the resurgence of liberal evangelicalism, and I think particularly among the youth. I mean you saw something remarkable happen with Franklin Graham—that his students rebelled against him. His students started writing letters, posting protests essentially saying, “Stop speaking for us” and “Your support of Trump doesn’t fit with our values.” And so younger evangelicals are now, I think, starting to really ... it’s a day of reckoning. It’s impossible, if you’re a white evangelical and you are looking at that 81 percent of your community voted for a man who has been accused of rape on multiple occasions, who has been repeatedly sued for sexual harassment, who has boasted of sexual assault, who has given nothing to anyone, who literally gives not two shits about the poor, or the weak, or the orphaned, or anyone—again, whose very existence is a slap in the face to Jesus Christ—then you’ve got to figure out what’s gone wrong.
Something has gone wrong, and I think that you’re seeing this now. So I’m really curious to see how the evangelical community itself is going to rise up and push back against this sort of devil’s bargain, power in exchange for morals.