It wasn’t your typical megachurch experience. When journalist and Lutheran pastor Angela Denker showed up at New Destiny Christian Center to check out the ministry of Paula White, one of Donald Trump’s pastoral advisors, she might have expected a coffee shop in the lobby (she kinda did) and a glitzy auditorium for a sanctuary. Instead she found a water fountain and a “nondescript room in rural Florida” where the worshippers seemed well-acquainted with the rougher side of life.
When Pastor White, who is Anglo, stood up before the mostly African-American congregation, she did look the part of the edgy, telegenic, evangelical pastor—“black leather jacket and stiletto heels”—and that was the former keyboardist of the arena rockers Journey on musical backup, but her message was down-home with an obvious familiarity with prisoners and the hungry. “It’s all about love,” her hairstylist told Denker. “She’s not up there [in Washington] saying, ‘Trump, Trump, Trump’…she’s there to lead him to Jesus.” (192)
Paula White is just one of the surprising people you’ll meet in Denker’s new book, Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump. Denker woke up after the 2016 election and wanted to know what had happened to “American Christians, God, and country.” (5) Though she was a confirmed progressive living in the Midwest, she was curious to know how America had become so divided—how we had come to speak two different languages.
“Ultimately, the unlikely love affair between Red State Christians and Trump comes down to a shared language,” she says. “So I’ve set out to record how Red State Christians talk about their faith, their votes, their guns, and their president…[T]he key to understanding their relationship with the most unlikely president is to listen to them, with empathy, scrutiny, and attention.” [13-14]
You might, in the end, wonder how well Denker pulls off the empathetic listening, (more on that below), but you have to admire her research. Denker puts on the air miles, traveling from her home in Minneapolis to places as far-flung as Orange County, California; Dallas and Houston; Orlando, Florida; Altoona, Pennsylvania; Cole Camp, Missouri; and Concord, New Hampshire. She pursues the names you would expect, like Prestonwood Baptist pastor Jack Graham in Plano, Texas, and those you would not, such as the area director of the Fellowship of Christian Athletes in southwest Florida, Charlie Weatherbie. And she covers the gamut of issues that come up time and again in red state politics from guns to immigration to the NFL national anthem protest.
She also looks for the diversity in Christian voices, refusing to adopt a flat caricature of what a Red State voter looks like. So you will find here feminists and Arab-Americans, Latinx pastors and New England Catholic priests, reminding us once again that rural is plural.
Some of Denker’s findings may be unsurprising. Many Red State Christians did pull the lever for Trump out of a great mistrust of Hillary Clinton. Control of the Supreme Court to decide pro-life issues was of overriding importance. But there are other kinds of Trump voters here, too—Appalachian town leaders who felt abandoned by national politicians in the face of economic decline and the opioid epidemic. And young people who felt defensive and shamed by charges that they were racist just for voting for Trump. “We need to find a middle ground where people can repent and forgive one another without the halting effect of shame, so that everyone can heal,” Denker writes. (121) Amen to that.
Denker is at her best when she is trying to understand the people around her and uncovering new dimensions in people we might have thought we knew, like Paula White and Rick Warren. Unfortunately, however, she also rehearses a litany of liberal critiques that sometimes cloud her ability to appreciate the people she is meeting.
When Dominic Cassella, a representative of Thomas More College, a conservative Catholic school in New Hampshire, offers a rationale for not ordaining gay priests that has been quite familiar in Catholic teaching, Denker can’t restrain her horror. “For the first time, I clearly saw Cassella’s handsome mask lifted and exposed for what lay beneath: a hatred of the other that is covered thinly by a well-practiced veneer of politeness and talk of ‘Western’ culture.” (241) In moments like these I wondered how Denker would build a bridge to foster the kind of “engagement and conversation” with such people that she says she desires.
In other moments, Denker finds hope in surprising places. In a chapter on sports she talks to a conservative high school football coach and an athlete and discovers, in sports, “a place to find that mutual respect that crosses dividing lines.” (136) A Latina pastor in El Paso and a Tongan-Mexican youth pastor in Orange County reinforce her belief that “the voices that…will heal America’s wounded heart are the voices that can speak truth to power in places far from seats of power.” (293)
But Denker ultimately has to point in the direction of hope because the divide she chronicles is too great. The concluding paragraphs to her chapters often succumb to the pastor’s temptation toward fantastic resolution. I know that temptation all too well and have succumbed myself at the end of many a difficult sermon. But crediting Trump with being more Christlike than many evangelical pastors because he appreciates strong, smart women like Pastor White, and affirming the Holy Spirit in a half-slumbering Sunday service just because it could awaken in Appalachia seem like a stretch.
Denker concludes the book with an anecdote about her divided extended family gathering for a reunion, always a fraught time, especially when many of them are Missouri Synod Lutherans who don’t recognize women pastors. Denker steps out of the room to tend to her toddler son just as the time for dinner arrives and returns to find that she had been expected to offer the grace. In this unexpected expectation she finds an affirmation that “all Americans, Christian or not, conservative or not, have a remarkable gift of acceptance.” It seems a wildly, optimistic leap from the specific to the general, especially when she sees it as a chance to “build an entirely new country built on justice and freedom for all.” (295)
Other chroniclers are at this work of understanding the times as well, most recently Lyz Lenz in God Land, recently reviewed on Heartlands. I’m grateful for all of them, even if some of these others also fall prey to their own strong desires for a more progressive and hope-filled future, (as do I). Denker is definitely such a dreamer. But in this divided land, I’ll take a dreamer anytime.
Fortress Press provided me with a review copy of this title.