Review: Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump, by Angela Denker

[1] In November 1966 Ronald Reagan shocked the Democratic party in California by decisively defeating Governor Pat Brown in his bid for a third term in the statehouse. In response to this shocking victory, the social scientist James Q. Wilson wrote “A Guide to Reagan Country” to help the Democratic establishment understand the thinking of those Reagan voters. Wilson reminded his readers that Reagan could not be easily dismissed as if he were something “preached at the pulpit of some cultist church.”

[2] Fifty years later there was another major shock to the political system. The election in 2016 of Donald Trump as President of the United States caused no less of a gasp to establishment Democrats and politically liberal Americans than Reagan’s victory over Brown. But this time, liberal Americans have a new guide, Angela Denker, an ELCA pastor who uses the journalistic training of her first career to explore the thinking of Christians who voted for Trump. The result is Red State Christians:  Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump. Unlike Wilson, Denker believes that what is preached at evangelical churches (especially megachurches) is exactly where one should go to understand many of these Trump voters.

[3] Denker’s purpose in writing Red State Christians is an admirable one:  to get people to move beyond their first impulse which is often “to block, to unfriend” anyone who disagrees with them. (3) She hopes that by encountering these stories of Christian Trump voters, the reader will find commonalities with people who often seem quite different from oneself.  This in turn may provide an “opportunity for growth and national renewal.” (3)

[4] This is not just an academic exercise for Denker, but a personal quest. Her acquaintances, friends, and family are Christian Trump voters, and Denker’s personal observations are interwoven with these stories. That is one of the strengths of the book – we get to see how Denker confronts her own deeply held beliefs about Trump voters.  She is challenged to go beyond a superficial understanding of these fellow Christians.

[5] Denker spent a year crisscrossing the nation to meet Christians who are politically conservative and voted for Donald Trump. Denker has structured her book as a series of interviews with Trump voters from different parts of the country.

[6] We meet Pam Nicholson who was a first-time marcher in the March for Life. Nicholson is from Maryland, and although she did not vote for Trump, she is generally pleased with his politics. Given the brashness of Donald Trump, Denker is surprised to find humility and self-consciousness in Nicholson and the pro-life movement, suggesting that the March for Life is not simply a “thinly veiled Trump rally.” (50)

[7] We meet Tammy Hotsenpiller, a pastor’s wife with a ministry in her own right at Influence Church in Orange County, California. Tammy is conflicted, supporting Trump yet holding open the possibility of voting for another candidate. Denker perceptively notes how women like Tammy have pushed the boundaries in evangelical Christianity and wonders how they might challenge the political “truths” of Evangelicals to go beyond Trump “to something more revolutionary and less patriarchal.” (101)

[8] We meet Eric and Emily Kullman from rural Cole Camp, Missouri, who praise Trump for his independence and that he could not be bought or influenced by any political party. Denker sees the Kullmans as rural libertarians who tend to separate (not entwine) their faith and politics.

[9] We also meet so-called “establishment” Christians such as Washington power player Brad Todd, who attends a United Methodist church in northern Virginia. For Denker, Todd is an example of “ruthless pragmatism” in which the fear of Trump paled in comparison to fear of Hillary Clinton. (150)

[10] In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Denker interviews Paula White, the pastor that Trump calls his pastor. Denker is prepared to dislike the woman (a former televangelist), her politics, and her brand of Christianity. Yet White now pastors humble New Destiny Christian Center outside of Orlando, Florida, which is composed of predominately African American Christians. She also feels called to minister to Trump and to show him Jesus. Although Denker believes that White’s theological training and biblical knowledge are lacking, White is genuine and a source of hope to Denker. White states that she will do her pastoral duty and call out Trump for his sins.

[11] The book is titled Red State Christians, but this is something of a misnomer as many of Denker’s stories originate from states that did not go “red” for Trump. (Denker does recognize this as she occasionally refers to “red counties” rather than “red states.”)  The bulk of the book is not so much about Christians living in “red states” or “red counties” but about evangelical Protestant Christians and those influenced by evangelical Christianity who voted for Donald Trump. Denker’s major question is how is it that evangelical Protestant Christianity produced so many Christians who voted for Donald Trump. Denker does not answer this question directly, but she does point us in the direction of some possible answers through her choice of material.

[12] One answer is Christian nationalism, and Denker’s material on Christian nationalism is of particular value.  She illustrates this with a vignette on Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Texas and its celebration of Fourth of July worship.  When Denker visited Prestonwood, the entire arena-style worship space was covered with American flag bunting. The service started with the Pledge of Allegiance, followed by the National Anthem, songs of the military service branches, and recognition of veterans and service members. Denker remarks that she has not said the Pledge since elementary school.  While the First Commandment would seem to warn against making the flag or the nation an idol, Denker notes that the sermon’s theme is the biblical justification for American exceptionalism. Denker is appalled by the brazen display of “Christian Nationalism” and support for the Trump administration’s immigration policy. Yet, after hearing a patriotic song written by Prestonwood’s musicians and watching images of the sacrifice of American forces, she admits that as the granddaughter of a World War II veteran and daughter-in-law of a Vietnam vet, “My heart swelled with pride, and I nearly cried.”  (26)

[13] It was at this point that I thought Denker would try to bridge the gap, to attempt to understand why these Christians would include a patriotic display in their church service. But instead of looking deeper into the reasons for this display, she ends the story with a criticism of the church seemingly conflating the sacrifice of soldiers with the sacrifice of Jesus. It is here that I thought Denker could have added to her excellent description by reflecting on how it might be possible, at least for these Christians, that this type of American patriotism is consistent with their Christian beliefs. Many churches, not just evangelical ones, have American flags on their property (and even in their sanctuaries), and there are historical and cultural reasons for this, as well as theological understandings of the proper church-state relationship that could possibly explain the presence of a national flag, singing of the National Anthem, recognition of veterans, and the like. The question that calls out to be answered is why these Christians do not see a conflict between their allegiance to Christ and their allegiance to country.

[14] In addition to Christian nationalism, Denker suggests that Trump’s position on guns adds to his popularity in the evangelical world.  In her section on “God and Guns,”  Denker describes the River church in Tampa Bay, Florida, where a sign notifies visitors that the church is not a gun free zone and that the pastors are heavily armed. Although the pastors are not actually armed, Denker wonders if guns are a “final defense against the encroachment of an amoral, irreligious outside world.”  (60).

[15] The fascinating chapter on Christians, Muslims, and Evangelicals in Houston is akin to a coming-of-age narrative in which Denker encounters people she initially assumed would not support Donald Trump. For example, she learns from Issa Kabar, a Jordanian Evangelical Christian, that extremist Muslims pose a greater threat to Arab Christians than does Israel. Trump is the choice of these Christians who want to defeat ISIS. And even Javed Malik, the director of the Masjid Sabireen Mosque, could say that the Trump “travel ban” had not affected his community and that Trump as President was “our leader.” (256)

[16] Denker is to be saluted for seeking out fellow Christians with political beliefs radically different from her own and providing us with a record of these conversations. The vividness of her conversations is something that sticks with you, and the book could provide the text for small-group discussions at the congregational level. Although this book primarily concentrated on conservative and evangelical Protestant Christians, I would look forward to a follow-up on those mainline Christians, such as ELCA Christians, who voted for Trump in key battleground states such as Wisconsin. For if the Pew surveys are correct, almost half of ELCA Christians are Republican or lean Republican. It would be interesting to hear the stories of these Christians and whether they can also be counted as Trump voters.

Robin M. Taylor

Robin M. Taylor is a theologian and attorney from McLean, Virginia. She has a M.A. from United Lutheran Seminary and a Ph.D. in systematic theology from the Catholic University of America.