certain vs. seeking

“You Can’t Get Conservative Women to Change Their Minds.” That’s the blunt headline of a recent Katha Pollitt piece in The Nation. The piece that follows makes the now familiar point that Democrats should stop obsessing over converting Trump voters and focus instead of getting the millions of voters who already support their policies (but don’t vote, either out of apathy or various modes of disenfranchisement and gerrymandering, many of which then lead to apathy) to get on board.

Strategically speaking, this is sound advice, and precisely how Democrats will win places like Texas, where the electorate (aka, the people who vote) is so disparate, demographically, from the actual population. There are a number of ways of making that point, and attention to the increased political intractability — on both sides! — is one of them. But take a look at how Pollitt frames the issue:

“Why is it so hard to believe that Trump supporters really do support Trump? The New York Times is always checking in with folksy rural conservatives in search of cracks in the wall. Remember the article just a few weeks ago with the white evangelical woman who put a Beto O’Rourke sticker on her car and drove it to church—and there, in the parking lot, was another car with a sticker for Beto?”

For almost three years now, reporters have been begging tired farmers and miners eating their pancakes at Josie’s Diner in Smallville, Nebraska, to say they’ve seen the light. They never do. White evangelical women sneaking away from the Republican Party make for a good story—but they didn’t stop Ted Cruz from getting 81 percent of the white evangelical vote in Texas.”

There’s a compelling argument here, and one that publications have only recently started to heed: stop with the “have you changed your mind yet? What about now? What about NOW? OKAY BUT WHAT ABOUT NOW?” It’s akin to a kid asking their mom if they’ve changed their mind about whether or not they can have a package of Skittles: the more the kid asks, the more the mom cannot lose face by changing her mind. Not changing one’s mind becomes a point of principle, not actual position. And the principle becomes more hollow, more of a posture, the more outsiders — literal outsiders, urban people, journalists — push them on it.

They’re not changing their mind on Trump, and part of the reason is that journalists kept asking them when they would. Even if they do develop doubts, who wants to admit, ON THE RECORD, to being snookered by a political image and its promises? Very, very few people! No matter if they’re Conservative or Progressive! Those are the “tired farmers and miners” Pollitt describes here as hanging out at Josie’s Diner in Smallville, Nebraska (which is not a real place, just a caricature of ruralness). But that’s a very different type of person than the one’s she’s grouping them with — “the white evangelical woman who put a Beto O’Rourke sticker on her car and drove it to church—and there, in the parking lot, was another car with a sticker for Beto.”

One of the women featured in that Times article is Tess Clarke, who went on to participate in a lengthy interview with The Daily about how the beliefs she grew up with in the evangelical church began to shift following her marriage to her husband and their work with the refugee community in Dallas. The episode closes with some of the most compelling audio I’ve heard in some time: a ten-minute conversation between Clarke and her father, an avowed conservative, about politics and Trump and the intersection of both with their faith and the teachings of Jesus.

I highly recommend listening to it all the way through — in part because it illustrates a crucial difference between two types of Trump voters, one that gets lost in groupings like Pollitt’s. On one side, you have Evangelical voters like Clarke’s father, people I think of as ideologically and ethically and politically certain. They are certain that their interpretation of the bible and its connection to the contemporary world are righteous. They are certain, as well, that they made the right decision in electing Trump, and as a result, certain his policies are righteous.

On the other side, you have women (and they are largely, but not exclusively, women) like Clarke herself: ideologically and ethically and politically seeking. They have either long been seekers — always questioning any suggestions of certainty when it comes to explaining the world — or have become so, either through education or first-hand experience or an event that shifted their understanding of the world. They went on a trip to another country. They became friends with an actual Muslim person. Their son or daughter came out as a queer. They came out as a queer. They married someone who was a seeker, or a close friend or relative became a seeker. They went to the border, or started working with refugees, or someone or something they trusted — a pastor, a spouse — proved they shouldn’t have been. Many of these women became seekers when President Trump was elected and they watched the church alter its standards for the sort of leadership it would endorse.

I think it’s easy for those who’ve never been close to evangelicalism (or deeply engrained within any holistic ideological tradition) to dismiss women like Clarke. They were conservatives before, the reasoning goes, and knowingly voted for a bigot — why should I care if they’ve slightly reoriented themselves? If they’re asking questions? Why should I care so much about this white woman, part of the oft-cited 52% (since revised to 47%) responsible for Trump’s electoral college win?

It’s a fair point! No mainstream publication is in danger of under-covering white ladies! But white ladies are a powerful force, and to mischaracterize them is to misunderstand that power, and how it can be wielded.

(It should go without saying, but it doesn’t, so I will say it: that doesn’t mean not writing pieces about people who are not white ladies; it means being precise when you do write a (hopefully more proportional) number of white lady stories).

White ladies like Clarke may not have swung Texas to Beto. But they were part of the larger coalition that produced unprecedented Democratic gains in the state, especially in the suburban areas where white ladies love to live.

I met white ladies like that in Dallas when I was working on my piece on the Christian groups that help make the city one of the most refugee friendly in the nation. I met others in Abilene, a city in the very buckle of the Texas Bible Belt, where you really do figure out who someone is by asking which (Christian) church they attend. I talked to them at Beto events and DM’ed with them after the midterms. They still think of themselves as conservatives, but that doesn’t mean that they embrace Republican policies or reject Democratic/Progressive ones. Appealing to them doesn’t necessarily entail becoming a centrist. It just means making the case for Democratic policies — when it comes to the border, or health care, or trans rights — as Christ-like.

That’s the paradigm shift many of these seekers are going through. They were raised in an environment of total spiritual certainty: not just of the righteousness of evangelical Christianity, but certainty, too, that you would be persecuted by the rest of the world for your righteous faith. That the media would attack your beliefs. That you would be ridiculed and belittled. Which is part of the reason this seeking is so difficult. But the other reason, for women in particular, is the way evangelicalism teaches about abortion. It’s not just that it’s wrong, or sinful, although it teaches that it is both of those things. It’s that every day that passes and another abortion takes place is another lost soul on your conscience. It is proof of an imperfect world and an imperfect flock. It’s substantively different from evangelical attitudes towards, say, queerness, or swearing, or any number of other behaviors considered sinful, because, for evangelicals, it involves the souls of the innocent. It is the fight — which is part of the reason electing politicians who will works towards banning abortion takes such precedence over all other policy or personal behavior. They are a means to the end of their war.

Think about a guiding, foundational principle to your life. Something you treat as an unalienable truth. Something you’d do more than just get in a fight with someone on the internet in order to protect. Now think about turning your back on it. That’s what voting for a Pro-Choice politician can feel like for an evangelical. I’m not saying it’s right; I’m saying the gravity of that shift is often ignored. When we talk about the intractability of evangelical voters, I’d argue that that stance is at the very root of it. It wasn’t always that way. But Republican strategists exploited it and evangelical leaders, the vast majority of them men, went along with it.

So again: for a woman like Clarke, it’s not that they necessarily have shifted their feelings about abortion. But they’ve done enough seeking to understand that other issues are equally, if not more, important, when it comes to voting in a way that follows their faith. Of course, black evangelicals have voted in this way for decades — and one explanation is that they saw that there were bigger issues at stake, issues that directly concerned the education and equal treatment and societal value of black people in America, that superseded the issue of abortion.

But for many white evangelicals, there was nothing threatening about the rest of the GOP platform; if anything, it elevated and protected them and their interests, especially if they were upper middle-class. And while Trump’s election didn’t threaten white evangelicals, it did take direct aim at the sort of people that many white evangelicals work with as part of their ministry and outreach: refugees. And in places like Texas and the southwest, there were Latinx immigrants in the pews beside them, in the classroom alongside their children. And the people who did most of that work with refugees, who knew more of the children in the classroom with their kids? Women. Women forced, through the explicit cruelty of Trump’s policies, to become seekers. To realize the ramifications of a political choice even if they didn’t directly, tangibly affect them and theirs.

Of course, there are thousands of other Christians and Jews and Muslims and Buddhists who have been seeking their entire lives: it’s at the very root of their belief system. I imagine the feeling of watching these evangelical women transition to their way of thinking is akin to how activists, many of them men and women of color, or queer, or disabled, who’ve been putting in the work for years, felt watching all the #Resist white women wake up the morning after Trump’s election and decide that something must be done!

Which is to say: there’s good reason to interrogate how and why these women were complacent for so long. But there’s also something interesting to be found in thinking through what rendered them persuadable, and the potential and power of that persuadability. It’s not something that should be covered instead of covering everything else. We should keep writing about disenfranchisement and gerrymandering and voter apathy and black evangelicals. But the shift is worth delineating, and considering with care, and naming with precision, which is part of the whole post-election enterprise on the part of this newsletter.

But for now: If you have thoughts about Certainty vs. Seeking or evangelical white women in general, I’d love to hear them — just reply to this email. And here’s some of the things I read and loved this week:

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