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US presidential election and religionEvangelical front is crumbling

"The days are numbered when President Donald Trump can use the faith of the evangelicals for himself," says an excerpt from an election campaign advert that an American lobby group broadcasts via digital channels shortly before the presidential elections. It's called "Not our Faith".

"Not our Faith" is one of several associations of American Christians who position themselves against Trump and for his democratic challenger Joe Biden. These include numerous white evangelical Christians, including former Trump supporters.

Billy Graham's granddaughter wants to choose Biden

One of them is Jerushah Duford, the granddaughter of legendary television preacher Billy Graham, who died in 2018. You couldn't keep silent, said Duford in a video blog. You don't expect a US president to be an evangelical Christian. On the other hand, she thinks it is much more dangerous how her faith is represented by Trump - from her point of view in a distorted way.

(AP / Alex Brandon) Trump, the "Anointed One of God"
In the Bible, kings are also referred to as "God's anointed" ones. In the United States, evangelicals are now claiming that President Trump is also "anointed by God". And more and more people agree.

In 2016, white evangelicals had voted for Trump with 81 percent. Does the president now have to fear the support of his most loyal voters? Hardly, says David Gushee. He is a theologian and religious scholar at Mercer University in Atlanta. He long identified himself as a progressive evangelical. It is a misunderstanding to assume that 'the evangelicals' are a coherent group, says Gushee. Evangelical - that is an artificial identity, a conceptual umbrella under which various Christian denominations came together - from Calvinists and Baptists to Pentecostals. There are many black evangelical churches that are politically progressive but socially more conservative.

White conservative evangelicals dominate the picture

There are left-wing white evangelicals like former US President Jimmy Carter. And there are a growing number of moderate, multi-ethnic evangelical churches. Like the First Baptist Church of Decatur in Atlanta, which recently, together with rabbis, imams and Hindu priests with church bells and handbells, commemorated the around 230,000 people who have died of Covid-19 in the USA to date.

And yet it is white, conservative evangelicals who shape the public image of this religious community in the USA, says Gushee. And who have allied themselves more and more with the Republican Party over the past few decades.

"That connection has now become an identity-merger. Most white evangelicals now vote Republican on principle. And even if they don't like a candidate - like John McCain or Mitt Romney in the past because he's Mormon - they turn up their noses and choose him anyway. And I think that's deeply unhealthy. "

According to a recent Gallup poll, 78 percent of white evangelicals want to vote for Trump on November 3rd, just three percent less than in 2016.

Theologian David Gushee has written a book about the phenomenon of apostate evangelicals (Deutschlandradio / Katja Ridderbusch)

Gushee doesn't find this surprising. After all, Trump delivered politically in their favor - for example, three conservative judges for the Supreme Court and numerous federal judges who could overturn liberal abortion law. In addition, Trump stands for the ideology of a white Christian nationalism - and against the supposed threat from immigrants, communists, atheists.

Trump's less godly character apparently hardly bothered his evangelical followers. On the contrary, Gushee says: "There are elements in Trump's personality that some evangelicals find particularly attractive, this cocky, garish, authoritarian, ostentatious masculine demeanor. Especially representatives of the so-called prosperity gospel, who see wealth as a sign of God's favor , are attracted to Trump's character. In this sense, Trump is not a violation of evangelical visions and values, but their fulfillment. "

The number of ex-evangelicals is increasing

At the same time, the politically increasingly radical group of white, conservative evangelicals is putting off members of other evangelical denominations, says Gushee, especially younger evangelical Christians. 25 million Americans who grew up in evangelical families have cut their evangelical roots, the Pew Institute says.

(picture alliance / Wolfram Steinberg)

Amy Hayes is one of the refugees. Hayes is 32, from Atlanta and is a sophomore theology student. For a long time she belonged to a Pentecostal church, which she describes as arch-conservative:

"My whole world was the church, I went to school there, my neighbors went to this church, my friends went to this church, I didn't know anything except this church. Today I know: It was a church that had its members spiritually and." emotionally controlled. "

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She, her older sister, and her parents have since left the Church, but many of her more distant relatives and some of her friends remain in this ward.

"And these people are not just bad cartoons. Many are honest and serious about obeying the commandments of God. They are trapped in a religious variant of Stockholm Syndrome. I was in this situation myself, and I understand what the tight one is Attachment to a religious community with one power. "

Her belief is still important to her, says Hayes. But today she no longer feels that she belongs to a denomination or church. She would most likely describe herself as a post-evangelical in search of spirituality. Her mother sometimes fears that she will become an atheist while studying. A concern that is not entirely unjustified, says Hayes, laughing behind her lime green cloth mask and shrugging her shoulders.

Describes herself as a "post-evangelical" theology student Amy Hayes (Deutschlandradio / Riddenbusch)

Amy Hayes belongs to the rapidly growing army of Americans who do not feel they belong to any religious community. That is now more than a quarter of adult US citizens, according to a 2019 Pew poll.

Grayson Hester is also an evangelical exile, but unlike Amy Hayes, he still feels connected to the denomination in which he grew up.

"I identify as a Christian, as a queer Christian. And as a Baptist, but with limitations. I like some Baptist principles, the strict separation of church and state, or the independence of the local church. And I hold the Bible very highly, not as absolute and sole guideline, but as an authority. Some elements of my faith are classically evangelical, but I in no way identify with the political meaning that the term has assumed. "

Hester, 25, was born in a small town in Tennessee in the US conservative Bible belt. His father was a college professor and the family attended a progressive Baptist church. He grew up in a protected cultural bubble, he says, but surrounded by inveterate evangelicals.

Above all, Grayson Hester criticizes the political orientation of many evangelical churches in the USA (Deutschlandradio / Riddenbusch)

We meet on a sunny October day on the Mercer University campus, where Hester is about to get his Masters degree in theology. He doesn't yet know exactly what he wants to do afterwards. The pandemic and politics made it difficult to plan.

Toxic legacy of evangelical subculture?

Today he has hardly anything associated with white evangelical Christians, he says. But sometimes there are situations in which an encounter is inevitable:

"At Thanksgiving dinner at the end of November, for example. Some members of my distant relatives are conservative evangelicals. We have learned to avoid certain topics, be it Trump or the creation story. And I always speak to myself internally, like a mantra: We don't talk about that. "

Refugee evangelicals like Grayson Hester and Amy Hayes are also featured in David Gushee's new book, After Evangelicalism.

The theologian does not want to make a prognosis for the elections on November 3rd. But even if the Democrat Joe Biden should clearly decide the elections for himself - and if the withdrawal movement from the evangelical camp continues: The subculture of the white, conservative evangelicals will not disappear anytime soon.

"There are still many of them and they are highly motivated. Most white Conservative evangelicals are now completely imbued with the spirit of Trumpism - meanness and wickedness. That will be felt long after Trump, and it will take time, the political and the to detoxify religious culture in the US. "