Trump and the Puritans by James Roberts and Martyn Whittock
This book explains how, to the incomprehension and dismay of American liberals, Donald Trump was elected President by attracting the support of American Puritans.
Those of us who watch the politics of America from afar sometimes make the error of imagining that country to be similar to the European democracies, only bigger and more modern.
This assumption can be nourished by reading the best of the American press. Here one finds a sophisticated liberalism in harmony with European liberalism: a community of like-minded progressives who love the same writers, thrill to the same causes and are joined rather than divided by the Atlantic.
But America is in some respects astonishingly old-fashioned. That is one reason why I love going there. They take history more seriously than we do, and believe it is worth shedding blood for what you believe in – a truth from which the liberal mind recoils.
And they take religion more seriously than we do. The authors of this work remind us that about 70 per cent of American adults identify as being Christian, and that of the total adult population, a quarter describe themselves as “evangelicals”.
Of those evangelicals, 81 per cent voted for Trump in 2016, and most of them have stuck with him since. The term “evangelical” is open to the objection that it is imprecise, but as James Roberts and Martyn Whittock observe:
“While the meaning of this term may be open to interpretation, those who use it in the USA as an identifier generally subscribe to a broad raft of beliefs: acceptance of the Bible as the inspired ‘word of God’ (which often has a fundamentalist and literal interpretation of the scriptures); traditional concepts of marriage, family and gender; and traditional attitudes towards the practice of sexuality, almost always involving classifying homosexual practice as sinful, with acceptable (heterosexual) sexual relations being reserved for within marriage. This is a collection of beliefs that would have been both recognised and accepted by most seventeenth-century Puritan believers.”
In England, Puritanism failed, and was seen to have failed, by 1660. In New England, where The Mayflower landed with the first wave of Puritan settlers in 1620, and the “Great Migration” of about 21,000 Puritans took place between 1629 and 1642, Puritanism succeeded.
The most famous manifesto for American Puritanism was uttered by John Winthrop, from Groton in Suffolk, who had been educated at Trinity College, Cambridge, and in 1630 led the “Winthrop fleet” of 700 colonists sailing in 11 ships from England to New England:
“We shall find that the God of Israel is among us, when ten of us shall be able to resist a thousand of our enemies; when He shall make us a praise and glory that men shall say of succeeding plantations, ‘may the Lord make it like that of New England.’ For we must consider that we shall be as a city upon a hill. The eyes of all people are upon us. So that if we shall deal falsely with our God in this work we have undertaken, and so cause Him to withdraw His present help from us, we shall be made a story and a by-word through the world. We shall open the mouths of enemies to speak evil of the ways of God…”
The authors of this book give a convincing and dispassionate account of American Puritanism, but do not quote Winthrop at such length: I have done so in order to remind myself and others of the moral seriousness of these early Puritans.
The book does include the most remembered words in the above passage, “city upon a hill”, spoken by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, and in more recent times by Presidents John F Kennedy and Ronald Reagan, who clearly wished – with a certain effrontery, some may say – to show that they were acting within the Winthrop tradition.
There were echoes of Winthrop, these authors maintain, in Trump’s speech in Pensacola, Florida, in November 2018, when he declared that “pioneers and visionaries raised up gleaming cities by the sea”.
The standard liberal retort to this line of argument is that Trump is too sleazy, pagan and disreputable to be a convincing champion for American evangelicals.
Moral condemnation of the President supplants any attempt to understand why Christians do quite often decide, on moral or indeed spiritual grounds, to vote for him.
This book acts as an antidote to such intellectual laziness. It traces the survival of American Puritanism from the 17th century to the present day, and shows how Trump made himself the champion of evangelicals who see everything they hold dear threatened by an aggressive liberal secularism which treats them with contempt.
The evangelicals found themselves dismissed by Hillary Clinton as “deplorables”, a badge they were happy to adopt. They found their traditional understanding of marriage mocked, and were more numerous, and more persistent, than British Conservatives who suffered the same insult at the hands of David Cameron:
“After the passing into law of what Hillary and her supporters in the US and elsewhere called ‘marriage equality’ – a term that many ‘deplorables’ regarded as a form of Newspeak – President Barack Obama ordered that the White House be bathed in the colours of the rainbow. In the eyes of many this was a tender act of solidarity. After centuries of the darkening of marriage through prejudice and exclusion, America had taken a step towards a new era of equality, perhaps the most important one since the Supreme Court’s Roe v, Wade ruling in 1973, which affirmed a woman’s right to abortion.
“In the eyes of the “deplorables”, however, the rainbow White House was a transparent act of liberal-secular passive aggression. Under the guise of inclusiveness, the government was excluding the huge section of traditionally Christian Americans who believed that marriage was, by definition and nature, an institution that joined together one man and one woman.”
The early Puritans, founding their New Jerusalem in New England, were convinced they were God’s chosen people, entitled to dispossess and exterminate the Native Americans.
This belief in a providential mission was articulated on a larger scale by the journalist John L O’Sullivan, who wrote in 1845, while urging the annexation of Texas, of “our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions”.
The United States had the divine right to seize by force in 1846-48 vast territories from Mexico, stretching westwards all the way to California, with the southern border extended to the Rio Grande.
Abraham Lincoln, newly elected to the House of Representatives, opposed the Mexican War, and failed as a result to win re-election. Trump, if he had been around, would have been all in favour of it.
His anti-Mexican rhetoric is not an invention of the last few years, but has deep roots in American history. His calls to build a wall along the southern border play to the fear of evangelical Americans that the nation their forefathers built is in danger of being overwhelmed.
In 1960, Protestant voters narrowly failed to avert the election of the first Roman Catholic President, JFK. In the course of that decade, these Protestants came, these authors observe, to see secularisation “as a bigger threat to their understanding of Christian values than that posed by Catholicism”.
By 1980, Pastor Jerry Falwell could declare, in the forward to a book entitled The New Right: We’re Ready to Lead , “Americans have literally stood by and watched as godless, spineless leaders have brought our nation floundering to the brink of death”.
The evangelical Right had become a major force in politics. George W. Bush owed his election in 2000, and re-election in 2004, in part to the skill with which he appealed to this constituency.
Trump is adept, on issues like abortion, Israel and gun control, at appealing to evangelicals, convincingly portrayed here as the inheritors of the suspicion of central authority, and sure belief in their own righteousness, of the early Puritan settlers.
If Trump can appoint enough Supreme Court judges who oppose abortion, he can turn back the tide of secularisation. Compared to that great goal, his own character defects seem unimportant to many evangelicals.
Like Cyrus, the King of Persia who in the Book of Isaiah is found liberating the Jews at God’s behest, Trump is seen by some evangelicals as a man who is doing God’s work.
Liberals will throw up their hands in disgust at that thought. But revulsion precludes comprehension of how Trump has profiled himself as the defender of evangelicals who feel, as these authors put it, that “in a world of liberal identity politics they have been denied an identity that they themselves would recognise”.
The 400th anniversary of the arrival of the Pilgrim Fathers (as they became known) on The Mayflower falls in November this year, just after the presidential election, so one of the first duties of the victor will be to join in the celebrations of that event, and to decide how to react to criticism by Native Americans.
To anyone who wants to understand Trump, and how he became the champion of America’s embattled evangelicals, this scrupulous though not elegant book may be warmly recommended.