The following excerpt is from the opening chapter of Red State Christians: Understanding the Voters Who Elected Donald Trump by Angela Denker, copyright © 2019 Fortress Press. Reproduced by permission.
In 1983, John Cougar Mellencamp wrote a song that told the story of America for conservatives, liberals, and Christians alike. Mellencamp sings about a black man living in Indiana with an interstate running through his front yard. He lives in a pink shotgun house, meaning you could open the front and back doors, shoot a shotgun shell through the house, and not hit a thing. The black man is watching a woman he loves in the kitchen, and he has loved her for a long time. He thinks he has it so good, in America.
Mellencamp sings in the second verse about a young man wearing a T-shirt and listening to rock and roll. He has greasy hair and a greasy smile; maybe he’s not too clean, not too rich. Still, this greasy young man believes he can be president one day—because America is a place for dreams and dreamers.
“Ain’t that America?” the song demands again and again. “Ain’t that America?”—where you and I might not be millionaires, but we can be born free, dream dreams, and maybe someday own a little pink house in front of an interstate in Indiana.
“Ain’t that America?”—where you and I might not be millionaires, but we can be born free.
Thirty-three years later, newly elected US president Donald Trump gave an inauguration speech depicting a very different America:
Washington flourished—but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered—but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country.
Their victories have not been your victories; their triumphs have not been your triumphs; and while they celebrated in our nation’s capital, there was little to celebrate for struggling families all across our land. . . .
For too many of our citizens, a different reality exists: mothers and children trapped in poverty in our inner cities; rusted-out factories scattered like tombstones across the landscape of our nation; an education system, flush with cash, but which leaves our young and beautiful students deprived of knowledge; and the crime and gangs and drugs that have stolen too many lives and robbed our country of so much unrealized potential. This American carnage stops right here and stops right now.
Cheering his dark and dire depiction of America were millions of Red State Christians, many of them weaned on church traditions that taught Christian Nationalism, the importance of America as a Christian country, and the fear that America was being destroyed for its apostasy. Somehow, despite being raised a millionaire’s kid in New York City, Trump spoke their language. He understood their colloquialisms and appealed directly to Red State Christians across America, whether by eating a taco bowl on Cinco de Mayo, shouting “Merry Christmas,” bragging about his Big Mac consumption, or saying things that sounded racist, sexist, and rude. While Trump was connecting through the power of shared language, Democrats sounded like foreigners to Red State Christians across the South and rural America. Leading liberals didn’t understand the language, much less speak it.
Cheering Trump’s dark and dire depiction of America were millions of Red State Christians, many of them weaned on church traditions that taught Christian Nationalism.
Not so long ago, Americans spoke a shared language, before divergent strains of partisan media and sophisticated targeted advertising gave two Americas two different languages. Thirty-three years earlier—and probably still in 2016—lots of Red State Christians could recite the words to Mellencamp’s song, which had been played at campaign events for Republican presidential candidate John McCain until Mellencamp’s liberal beliefs became public and McCain was criticized for using the song.
“Land of the free” and dreams and little houses for everyone were sentiments that fit the sunny optimism of the Reagan/Bush Republican Party. The fact that Mellencamp’s song was also played at President Barack Obama’s inauguration—as well as at 2010 conservative political events opposing same-sex marriage, despite protests from Mellencamp himself—was not all that surprising in a country where most people saw America in much the same way as Mellencamp’s song described, despite partisan differences.
While Trump was connecting through the power of shared language, Democrats sounded like foreigners to Red State Christians across the South and rural America.
The song’s main idea, at least as most Americans heard it, was that America’s a place where anyone can succeed, anyone can buy a little pink house, and anyone can be free. This is the idea of America that immigrants climbed aboard rickety steamships for, the idea of America that soldiers died for, the triumph of America that made it the beacon of the world and the great enemy of despots and dictators everywhere.
By 2016, however, this optimistic idea of America was no longer a foregone conclusion. Two years later, McCain was dead. Most rock stars were hated by most Republicans (and vice versa), and the only ones deemed eligible to sing about America for conservatives were country singers.
Among those whose idea of America had changed the most since Mellencamp’s song were the 81 percent of white American Evangelical Christians who voted for Donald J. Trump. In Trump’s America, particularly among Red State Christians, people have lost confidence in America’s Christian identity. The United States is no longer the place where resurrection seems possible because anything is possible, even pink houses for everyone. And a shared song to represent America can no longer be sung at both liberal and conservative political events.
This optimistic idea of America was no longer a foregone conclusion.
Instead, Red State Christians consider America and American Christianity under siege, resulting in a defensive pushback. Churches today must defend not just Jesus but also America. The American flag and the Christian flag are posted side by side in sanctuaries across the country, often directly in front of the cross.
Copyright © 2019. Reproduced by permission from Fortress Press.