By Daniel Bennett, John Brown University
When Donald Trump announced he was running for president in 2015, you would be forgiven for seeing the new candidate as an oddity at best and a joke at worst. After all, how could Trump, a thrice-married adulterer from New York City, win over conservative Christian voters so crucial to the Republican Party? Not surprisingly, when Trump won the presidency with huge support from white evangelical Christians, the race to find an explanation was on.
Many books and articles have been dedicated to the odd relationship between President Trump and conservative Christians. Add to this list Angela Denker and her new and insightful book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump. Denker, a journalist and pastor, spent months traveling the country trying to make sense of why conservative Christians overwhelmingly cast their votes for Donald Trump – and why many will do so again in 2020.
Denker relies on her journalism bona fides to visit, observe, and interview conservative Christians from around the country. She visits megachurches and small congregations, talking to celebrity pastors and relative unknowns. She talks about political issues, to be sure, but also about faith, identity, and culture. In doing so, Denker is able to paint a picture of the Christian voters who lined up behind Donald Trump in 2016, and offer her thoughts on why they did so.
In focusing on conservative Christians, Denker’s book is organized around geographic areas of the country, substantive political issues, and even different kinds of conservative Christians. There are chapters focused on Christian nationalism, abortion, and guns. There are chapters contrasting Christians in poor rural areas with those in affluent communities, those in the Deep South and those in the Midwest. And while most of the book is focused on white evangelicals, there are chapters highlighting conversations with Latinx and Arab Christians. In these chapters Denker explores different facets of conservative Christianity in the United States, all with the purpose of explaining why so many conservative Christians pulled the lever for Trump.
There is not one answer to that question, according to Denker. One answer can be found in Trump’s appeal to Christian nationalism, as illustrated in Denker’s visit to patriotic church services close to the Fourth of July. Another answer is seen in how people see government as corrupt, and Trump as an impartial and incorruptible savior. Yet another answer emphasizes the role of abortion in conservative Christian politics, and the value that these voters place on judicial appointments. Ultimately, Denker shows that explaining conservative Christian support for Donald Trump is a complicated endeavor.
One of Red State Christians’ greatest strengths is Denker’s capacity for storytelling. She includes dozens of interviews with people from around the country, and in doing so is able to tell a coherent and compelling story about what motivated Christians to vote the way they did in the last presidential election. Denker’s book also makes observations that could lead to future research, such as the regional differences between conservative Christians in their support for Trump and the role of churches in Rust Belt states.
There are clear similarities between Red State Christians and recent qualitative research on rural and conservative Americans, such as Katherine Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment and Arlene Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land. But Denker’s book is not a work of scholarly research. In her discussion of Christian nationalism, Denker does not adequately touch on numerous recent studies making sense of this phenomenon. She also makes claims about behavior not substantiated elsewhere. For example, while it is fashionable to claim that Christians voted for Donald Trump because of the Supreme Court, Denker offers little support for this beyond assertions from specific interviews. So long as the reader remembers what Red State Christians is not, Denker’s account will prove informative and worthwhile.
Conservative Christians play an important role in Donald Trump’s hope for a second term. Indeed, there may no group of people in America more pleased with Trump’s first term than the people Angela Denker features in Red State Christians. Despite its limitations, Denker’s book is a critical and sympathetic portrayal of conservative Christians in the Trump era, those who have found an unlikely ally and whose fears of cultural displacement have been somewhat halted, if only temporarily.
Daniel Bennett is an associate professor of political science at John Brown University. His research focuses on the intersection of politics, law, and religion in the United States. His book, Defending Faith: The Politics of the Christian Conservative Legal Movement, details the development of Christian legal advocacy in the United States.