There’s a lot that’s interesting about Randall Balmer’s recent lamentation over evangelical support for Trump, but I think his argument is hamstrung by his equivocation on the term “evangelical.” The bad evangelicals we know today are contrasted with the better, more authentically pious evangelicals of the past, who had not yet sold out to power and wealth.
In my opinion, it is more accurate to view American “evangelicalism” as something new, something that came into existence in and as the “religious right.” This is not to say, of course, that our evangelicals have no genealogical roots in the more pietistic and fundamentalist strands of American Christianity. But the idea that “evangelicals” were once all about proper theology and have since turned to politics is wrong. Evangelicalism in the contemporary American sense of the term has always and only been a political movement — a form of identity politics that has always tied together Jesus, America, and whiteness.
And it has always been utterly theologically vacuous. It is not an attempt to build on past traditions, but to erase them and replace them with a generic “non-denominational” vision of Christianity that is taken as self-evident (despite coming from God knows where). I had a front row seat as generic evangelicalism cannibalized the Church of the Nazarene, and the signature gesture was always to downplay or even belittle whatever was distinctive in Nazarene doctrine and practice in favor of one-size-fits-all, “seeker-sensitive,” wannabe megachurch pablum. All that’s left over from pietism and revivalism is the shallow emotionalism of tearing up while you belt out a chorus for twentieth time.
Generic evangelicalism claims to be all about biblical innerancy. Yet it doesn’t have the courage of its conviction when it comes to biblical literalsm, as the kind of classical fundamentalist apologetics explaining away apparent inconsistencies is absent. Evangelicalism has never produced anything to match the rigor of a document of the heroic era of fundamentalism such as the Scofield Reference Bible. Generic evangelicalism effectively has no biblical hermeneutic whatsoever, aside from the sheer opportunism that makes the Bible out to be a divinely inspired cross between the Wall Street Journal editorial page and a management self-help book.
There’s nothing inconsistent about evangelicals buying into Trump’s posturing and nihilism, because evangelicalism is itself nothing but posturing and nihilism. To paraphrase Karl Barth, evangelicalism was always “the invention of the anti-Christ,” an attempt to develop an American natural theology that turns whites into a chosen nation. They’re not “falling for” Trump, and if we view them as being somehow deceived, it’s only because they bought into a bigger lie long ago.