The Religious Roots of Alternative Facts

To the bewilderment of many, Donald Trump attracted and retains a large and loyal base of evangelical Christians. Given the religious right’s purported concern with Christian values, one can be forgiven for assuming they would be repelled by a figure like Trump, a man who brags about grabbing women, his excessive wealth, and the size of his button. But here we are. Trump’s supporters are disproportionately churchgoing evangelicals. So why has this demographic cozied up to such a conspicuously un-Jesus-like character?

Donald Trump procured his political lift-off via the birther movement, championing the idea that Barack Obama was born in a foreign land. The Obama-hating conspiracy theorists now had a big-league billionaire legitimizing what the mainstream media portrayed as crackpot garbage. Trump has continued down this path, making myriad claims without regard for what is actually true. From his insisting he had the largest inauguration crowd ever to his asserting Hillary Clinton received millions of illegal votes, President Trump boldly proclaims what he wants to be true as the truth.

Are conservative Christians untroubled by the president’s uncanny comfort with disseminating falsehoods? After all, the Ten Commandments state, “You shall not bear false witness.” Many have argued that so-called “values voters” are willing to hold their noses when it comes to the president’s shortcomings if it means gaining pro-life justices. I’m sure this is the case for some, but I will argue that many conservative Christians support Trump, not despite his naked disregard for what is true, but because of it. His willingness to unapologetically bend reality to his liking in the face of heavy criticism is inspiring.

Theologically conservative Christians, those who hold to the fundamentals of the religion, have had their worldview rocked by modernity. Biblical scholarship and shifting moral attitudes have pushed many of their beliefs to the margins, while science has thoroughly debunked positions that cut to the core of their theology. For fundamentalist Christians, disregarding experts and rejecting commonly accepted facts became a matter of survival. It’s worth taking a quick dive into Christian theology to better appreciate their predicament.

For most scientific discoveries that conflicted with a literal reading of the Bible, believers were able to reinterpret the biblical passages in less literal ways without much consequence. For example, the Bible asserts that the sky is a dome that separates the waters below from the waters above; it infers stars are small enough to fall to the earth; and it assumes that the sun revolves around an immovable earth. While this last example was famously a big deal in Galileo’s day, in the long run, moving the sun to the center of the solar system had little impact on the Christian story. In general, ancient cosmology could be reimagined as poetic language that was not meant to convey scientific facts. But more surprises lay ahead. Geologists began to overturn the commonly held biblical view that the earth is around 6,000 years old. And then came the theory of evolution, which caused many believers to draw a line in the sand. Unfortunately for Christianity, key parts of its theology are indeed reliant on the Bible’s literal accuracy, and hence genuinely threatened by science.

According to the traditional Christian theology, God made Adam and Eve, the first two humans. The couple lived harmoniously with their creator in the Garden of Eden until they ate from the forbidden tree, triggering the Fall. This event ruined everything, giving us the troubled world we live in today. The Fall brought sin and death into the world. Sin infiltrated the very nature of Adam and Eve and every future human that descends from them. Our “fallen” nature leads every one of us into sin, which renders us deserving of damnation and in desperate need of a savior. This is important: the need for a savior (Jesus) is directly linked to this ancient understanding of the world.

But science uncovered a world in which humans evolved from lower life forms through a long gradual process of survival of the fittest. Death is clearly not a result of human sin, and humans’ sinful nature does not result from Adam and Eve’s fall from grace; human nature is simply the result of natural processes. Nothing broke. This is how the world has always been. If evolution is true, then there was no Fall, and Christian theology was based on an event that never happened. For conservative Christians whose faith frames and undergirds basically everything in their lives, the accepted, mainstream scientific view of reality has to be wrong. 

With that in mind, what is the true believer supposed to do with the fact that evolution is accepted and taught around the globe? The idea of Adam and Eve, or even a first human couple, has no place in a science class today. The notion that there was a Fall is nowhere to be found in a science or history textbook. And the claim that the earth is about 6,000 years old, which many Christians still hold, is considered a joke. When people feel they no longer have a seat at the table, survival instincts kick in.

For many evangelical Christians, keeping their most fundamental and cherished beliefs in tact requires an accompanying belief in either massive academic incompetence or massive conspiracy. Either way, the result is massive distrust and disdain for experts, elites, and mainstream institutions. Accordingly, much of Trump’s base is conditioned for conspiracy theory. Alternative facts are not new for them; they’ve been living with them for a long time, albeit quietly, guarding them from ridicule. But then Trump comes along and successfully plows through the system without any concern for the outlandishness of his claims. Whether his statements are true or not is a side issue. Trump’s appeal is his very willingness to aggressively and unapologetically challenge the reliability of elites and their monopoly on truth. Even if he is a bit unsavory, he’s a guy who will brazenly raise a middle finger to the elites — the people allegedly responsible for forcing biblical beliefs into the closet.