Stephanie A. Martin is Associate Professor of Corporate Communication and Public Affairs at Southern Methodist University. In her new book, Decoding the Digital Church: Evangelical Storytelling and the Election of Donald J. Trump, she analyzes scores of sermons delivered at evangelical megachurches to document how evangelical pastors framed the 2016 electoral contest.
ECM: Between 2010 and 2018, you listened to, transcribed, and examined hundreds sermons delivered at evangelical megachurches across three dozen states. Why?
SAM: I did it for a couple of reasons. My animating interest, when I first began, was the reaction to the Great Recession and the popularity of the Tea Party among evangelicals. There had been, since the time of Reagan, a merger between the “free market” economic rhetoric and the social values rhetoric coming out of evangelical communities, but the cataclysmic impact of the Great Recession made me wonder if evangelicals—and really, the nation writ large—might reconsider its commitment to “trickle down” economics.
But then Obama came into office and the Tea Party arose and evangelicals started joining up. The great reckoning that I thought might on its way turned out not to be. So my central research question ended up being something like, how can I understand the grassroots movement bent on maintaining evangelical allegiance to free market economics?
I was pretty familiar with the popular media framing of evangelicals, and had recently watched the documentary Jesus Camp, which offers this very polemical presentation of evangelical life, and neither bore much resemblance to the evangelical people that I knew personally. So I started to wonder how I might get inside the movement to observe and understand their thinking firsthand. It made sense to attend their churches and listen to the sermons. This was pretty easy to do with megachurches, in particular, because so many of them stream and archive their sermons online. They’re “digital” churches.
ECM: Do the sermons given in very large churches (and streamed online) accurately reflect grassroots evangelical thought and opinion?
SAM: I think so, for a couple of reasons. The first is that they demonstrate a high degree of rhetorical resonance—or what I call esprit de finesse—which refers to the idea that rhetoric always reaches out to and connects with other, related conversations, and these become mutually reinforcing.The sermons that I heard drawing upon conservative social positions, conservative economics, personal responsibility, etc. were grounded within the same ideas and values that routinely feature on Fox News, that Republican politicians tout in their campaign speeches and rallies, and that get shared as common sense every day at diner counters and barrooms. Because there is such pervasive esprit de finesse within the conservative political movement in the United States, it’s easy to see how that rhetoric also pervades the discourse within the churches that conservative people attend.
But also, I learned in the course of this project that pastors share and edit sermon content kind of like how Internet readers use Wikipedia. The preachers that I studied are among the most charismatic, most famous religious figures in the United States, even if they may not be as well known outside of evangelicalism. And they upload their sermons to places like Sermon Central, or simply onto their church websites, which allows pastors of smaller churches to search for and browse those sermons, like I did, and borrow from or mimic them in their own pulpits. So evangelical sermons are not always created out of whole cloth. Very often they get replicated and reused again and again. Sometimes I would hear a sermon that sounded very familiar to me, and when I compared the transcripts I could see that it was almost word-for-word, indicating that there was some copying going on here. That validated my hunch that this mutual reinforcement was at work.
ECM: Having set out to draw some conclusions about economics, you end up making an important observation about politics. You observe that, during the 2016 campaign, these megachurch pastors did not openly advocate for Donald Trump, as many might suspect. Instead, how did they frame the race?
SAM: I don’t think I ever heard a pastor tell a congregation who to vote for. Instead, practically all of them embraced a rhetoric of what I call active passivism, which has several elements.
First of all, you have to understand that white evangelicals are one of the most politically active subcultures in the United States, and pastors encourage this. The pastors that I studied would routinely remind their congregations that America is an exceptional nation, chosen and blessed by God, a city on a hill, and therefore Christian citizens have an almost divinely mandated responsibility to vote. It would be disrespectful to the nation, its founders, its troops, and others if they didn’t.
But then, second, the evangelical pastors making this appeal in 2016 were confronted with a pair of presidential nominees who carried historically low approval ratings. So in pressing their audiences on the vital importance of voting, the pastors would also acknowledge that the options were very bad. If you think these candidates are abysmal, they would say, we agree. If you feel depressed about it, we do too. Nobody is happy with this situation. This created a sort of cognitive dissonance in the message. Congregants were told that it was important for them to vote, but also that they had no good candidate for whom to vote.
And this set up the third part of the appeal, the piece that relieves the tension produced by the first two. To listeners who felt at once obligated to vote and dismayed or anxious about the difficult political choice before them, the pastors said, almost across the board, don’t worry, because God is in control. Vote the issues, vote your values, and trust that He will take care of the rest. If the strong entreaty to vote was the active part of the appeal, this was the passive. It essentially drained the election of all significance, because it assured these voters that their votes didn’t really matter in the end. It made them feel that, while they were obligated to vote, they were not responsible for whatever real world effects their votes might have on vulnerable people. God would handle all of that for them.
Because most white evangelicals consistently vote Republican, and because this particular Republican candidate had a unique set of moral failings that might have given them pause, this active passive appeal had the practical effect of soothing their troubled consciences, directing their attention past the candidate and onto the issues, and ultimately excusing them from accountability in any case. This is the mindset that millions of evangelicals likely carried with them into the voting booth, and as we know, 81 percent of them voted for Donald Trump.
ECM: Haven’t evangelicals always thought that God is in control of electoral outcomes? Or do you see this as a concerted, strategic means of helping evangelical Republicans get past the Access Hollywood tape?
SAM: It’s difficult because I’m trying to describe something that I think is very nuanced and very pernicious. It is absolutely a valid spiritual belief to think that God is in control, has a plan, and has prepared a place for believers in the hereafter. If one doesn’t share a faith in those things with other believers, than there is no reason to identify with them as a conservative evangelical. From the standpoint of political and democratic theory, however, this move from activism to passivism essentially transfers a theoretical, spiritual belief into material votes while also disclaiming that any such transfer has taken place and preemptively denying that those ballots can ever add up and have material effects on peoples’ lives.
That, I argue, is the real problem that evangelicals need to confront. It’s fine to have faith in God. But the offloading of their democratic responsibility onto God, in the here and now—that doesn’t make sense because there are material effects that we can point to and attribute to the decisions that they made as citizens. They can’t say that they voted for conservative Supreme Court justices and religious freedom but decided to trust God on the sexual assaults and the racism and the family separation at the border. They voted for those things too. If you’re going to shift that intangible faith into a material artifact, in the form of a ballot, then you have to own it. This changed mindset may not have altered the average evangelical’s vote in 2016, but it would have prepared us for a more open and authentic political conversation.
ECM: Your book is focused on 2016. Did you do any of this same sort of analysis during 2020? Were the sermons noticeably similar or different?
SAM: I haven’t analyzed those sermons quite as closely yet, but I am planning to do so. In 2020, because of the George Floyd murder and the Black Lives Matter protests, most of the election-oriented sermons had to do, in some way, with race relations. But those that I have considered so far were similar to 2016 in one important respect—pastors argued that, black or white or other, Christians are already one in heaven. There is no distinction between races in God’s eyes. Therefore, we have to stop seeing differences among ourselves. Again, this is active passivism at work. We need to stop being divided over race and start being the unified body that God calls us to be, full stop. It’s an appeal that completely elides any discussion of the very real racial injustices that continue to define daily American life for men and women of color. Any acknowledgement of racial injustice in these sermons was only momentary, because the pastor was always anxious to rush directly to reconciliation, while excusing white congregants from any sort of responsibility or obligation.
ECM: Given that trajectory from 2016-2020, are you willing to make any predictions about where evangelical sermonizers are headed in ’22 and ’24?
SAM: I think it’s pretty clear that white evangelicals are becoming ever more tightly stitched to the Republican Party and to Donald Trump, and that this move of dealing with cognitive dissonance by offloading civic responsibility onto God makes that all the easier. As long as it holds, evangelicals are free from having to consider the vulnerable people placed at risk by their particular political coalition and the decisions that it makes. If there is a trajectory going forward, I think will remain founded on this rhetoric about the loss of Christian freedom. If that continues to be activated, privileging the notion that white evangelicals are the most besieged and vulnerable demographic in the nation today, then it will continue to justify ever more radical departures from civic norms and responsibilities—including commitments to an American democracy that looks increasingly fragile as the Republican Party looks increasingly authoritarian.