Evangelicals for Trump? The Roots Run Deeper than You Think
Clear back to the Great Awakening
“In 1739 arrived among us from Ireland the Reverend Mr. Whitefield, who had made himself remarkable there as an itinerant preacher,” Benjamin Franklin recalled. Franklin was living in Philadelphia, the most religiously tolerant city in the American colonies. Yet even the town fathers of Philadelphia had doubts about the charismatic English preacher George Whitefield—pronounced “whit-field”—and the religious revival he was proclaiming. “He was at first permitted to preach in some of our churches,” Franklin continued, “but the clergy, taking a dislike to him, soon refused him their pulpits, and he was obliged to preach in the fields.”
Banishment to the open simply added to Whitefield’s appeal. He became a second Martin Luther, opposed by the religious establishment just as Luther had been. And outdoors Whitefield and those who came to hear him weren’t constrained by the decorum associated with churches. He could shout and they could swoon to their hearts’ delight.
“The multitudes of all sects and denominations that attended his sermons were enormous,” Franklin said. “And it was matter of speculation to me, who was one of the number, to observe the extraordinary influence of his oratory on his hearers, and how much they admired and respected him, notwithstanding his common abuse of them by assuring them they were naturally half beasts and half devils. It was wonderful to see the change soon made in the manners of our inhabitants. From being thoughtless or indifferent about religion, it seemed as if all the world were growing religious, so that one could not walk through the town in an evening without hearing psalms sung in different families of every street.”
The revival Whitefield preached shook the colonial establishment to its core. A century after the founding of the first English colonies in America, religion remained a strong influence in most of them. But it wasn’t the sort of religion that touched ordinary hearts. The revival of Whitefield and such other preachers as Jonathan Edwards and Gilbert Tennent marked a kind of insurgency—a “great awakening”—against the religious status quo. Whitefield and the others sought to empower the people to find their own salvation, freed from the strictures of the past.
Benjamin Franklin wasn’t particularly religious. Born in Puritan Boston, he fled while a teenager to Philadelphia and thence, for a time, to London, where he dabbled in atheism. As he matured he gravitated back toward deism—a religion of the head far more than the heart.
Yet Franklin found Whitefield irresistible. He attended one of Whitefield’s sermons, which built up to a call for cash contributions to a favorite charity. “I silently resolved he should get nothing from me,” Franklin recounted. “I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles in gold. As he proceeded I began to soften, and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that, and determined me to give the silver; and he finished so admirably that I emptied my pocket wholly into the collector’s dish, gold and all.”
In time Whitefield returned to Britain, but the fires he and the others lit in America persisted. American Protestantism thereafter displayed a powerful current of evangelical egalitarianism—a belief that individuals had to make their own personal commitment to Jesus. From the open-air meetings of Whitefield in the eighteenth century to the televangelists and megachurches of the twenty-first can be traced an unbroken line.
Nor were the consequences merely religious. The authority-challenging spirit of the Awakening spilled over into the political realm during the 1760s and after. Indeed, the rejection of the British king and Parliament was less fraught with peril than the rejection of the establishment ministers, for while the former revolt risked life and limb, the latter put eternal souls at hazard.
The Great Awakening, moreover, helped unleash a democratic demand for guarantees of individual liberties against the power of government. Upon declaring independence from Britain, the thirteen states wrote constitutions, most of which had bills of rights or the equivalent. Freedom of religion was usually included, but so were freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly and petition.
When the federal Constitution of 1787 was drafted, its framers deemed another bill of rights unnecessary. But the skeptics held the Constitution hostage until its backers consented to add a bill. In that Bill of Rights, the first freedom listed was freedom of religion.
Here again the legacy of the Awakening was long-lived. When Donald Trump ran for president in 2016 he surprised many pundits and flummoxed many Democrats by winning the support of evangelical Christians, despite a lifestyle joltingly at odds with what those Christians—and religious people of any denomination, for that matter—taught their own children.
But George Whitefield would have understood. The spirit of the Awakening was only partly pietistic; it was also anti-establishment. It was a shout of dissatisfaction with the powers-that-be. Donald Trump put a megaphone to that shout, and rode that spirit into the White House, despite being a wealthy man himself and having his name emblazoned across New York and other establishment capitals. Trump was no theologian, but he was an apt student of popular psychology—as apt in his own time as Whitefield was in his.