Matthew Moore, a recent graduate of University of Arkansas, has sparked difficult conversations with his master’s degree thesis, a podcast called “In His Name” that takes a deep dive into the factors leading up to Donald Trump’s election in 2016. Split into three episodes, “God Bless America,” “The Litmus Test,” and “The Reckoning,” Moore looks back in history at the evangelical movement and the Republican Party to find his answers.
Moore grew up in a small town in southeastern Illinois. Much like what the people of Arkansas and surrounding states are accustomed to, Moore and his family would go to church multiple times a week. “[Church] was really a huge part of not just my belief system, but a lot of my cultural identity as well,” Moore said. When he began looking for colleges to attend for undergrad, most of his choices were found in contemporary Christian music magazines. “Christian culture made up the majority of who I was and how I described myself to other people. Going to a Christian school was important to me,” he said.
His freshman year of college was the year of 2008, or as Moore remembers it, the first election of Barack Obama. “Despite growing up in an Evangelical culture, most of the people I knew voted Democrat. So I, knowing what I knew about the candidates at the ripe age of 19, decided to vote for Barack Obama. What I thought was a fairly benign decision really opened my eyes to a white Evangelical culture, especially around politics,” Moore said.
Two instances stand out to Moore that shaped his perception of the environment he was studying in compared to what he had grown up in. “I had a friend whose family I visited over a break in October, and he told his mom that I had voted for Obama,” Moore said. Given that he was far from home, Moore voted absentee for Obama. “His mom turned around in the van and looked me dead in the eyes and said, ‘Oh, so you voted for a baby killer.’ I didn’t know what she meant, but I was so shocked by how much conviction she had behind that statement. I was afraid to ask what she meant by it.”
Not long after, Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States. “I had a Wednesday morning class and the professor walked into the classroom and said, ‘Well folks, it looks like we have our first Black president here in America,’ and as soon as those words came out of his mouth, there was a student in the back of the classroom who said, ‘He’s only half black.’ Just those two situations that happened to me at a Christian college and in a very quick succession within each other, really started to rattle my brain and made me wonder, ‘Why would someone who’s a Christian believe and say these sorts of things?’ I didn’t have these experiences before so it really started me on a journey trying to understand why these Christians feel like this is the right stance?”
Leading up to the 2016 election, Moore said that he saw more people he knew, inside and out, support Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. “I couldn’t understand those two realities of how can [you] be someone who believes in Jesus and feel the way [you] do about Christ and about other people, but also endorse and support this man who in no way, shape or form shows any sort of Christian identity? Whether it was the words that [Trump] said or the things that he did played a big part in trying to understand how [the 2016 election] happened,” Moore said.
Preparing for his master’s degree thesis, Moore had a strong idea of what he wanted to cover and how he wanted to present his findings. Attending school for audio journalism, Moore knew that a podcast would always be his end result – he just needed to organize his thoughts. “I wanted to explore the three main factors that I came to pinpoint as the three subjects that really drove the white evangelicals: white Christian nationalism, abortion and racism. As I discuss in the podcast, there was believed to be a surge of these ideas in the 80s, but it was a long, long time coming. The peak came with the election of Ronald Reagan and even though it gets a little washed out with George H.W. Bush, and with George W. Bush, Donald Trump pulled a lot of those same ideals that Reagan was running on forty years ago,” Moore explained.
The topic of abortion was one Moore wanted to explore thoroughly given the experiences he had in the past with the term “baby killer.” How abortion came into the play of politics and in relation, the modern day stance by both political parties. “The folks that I knew who voted conservatively and voted for Republicans in the past, [abortion] was one of their main reasons for voting for a Republican candidate. I just had a hard time understanding how a singular issue could be so important that every other aspect of that candidate could be almost irrelevant,” Moore shared. “I hope that when people listen to [the podcast] they’re willing to hear that I’m not saying you shouldn’t care about abortion, I’m saying you should think hard about why you think abortion is such a major issue because it wasn’t always. In a lot of ways, the presidents who had been elected because of their pro-life stance didn’t really make much of a difference in the pro-life movement once they were in office.”
His research and interviews with scholars led him down a rabbit hole of doctrines, questions of morality and how exactly politicians find ways to appeal to the different masses. “Elements of racism, white supremacy and white Christian nationalism really started to come forward in my research and showed that It wasn’t necessarily about abortion. That’s what’s bringing people to the table, but it’s a lot of coded language and dog-whistle racism.” Moore quickly discovered that there was more to unpack than he had originally planned. “There was so much to uncover, and when it got down to actually putting the podcast together, I felt like I needed to do a lot of table setting to answer the question that I set out to answer: Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Trump? Getting into him as a president didn’t really answer that question very well because [the presidency] had already happened at that point. [The project] was really about understanding the pieces that were laid decades ago, even centuries ago.”
Moore emphasized that he is not so different from potential listeners. “I made such a point to show my salvation experience in the first episode, and I try to constantly show my hand throughout the show to say, ‘I’m a white Evangelical, these are the experiences that I’m having and this is why I’m questioning it.’ There’s a crowd of people who are on social media right now who are trying to figure out the things that I was also taught growing up. Are [these teachings] actually true or are they just ideas that were perpetuated over generations and really aren’t all that biblical?”
Moore tackles the subjects many consider to be too uncomfortable to explore, but he considers these conversations to be necessary in moving forward. “It’s okay to have questions about your faith. It’s okay to have a discussion with people who look like you and talk like you, but it’s also really important to be open to having conversations with people who don’t look like you and don’t have the same faith or life experiences as you because that’s really what’s going to show you not just how unique their experiences are, but also show you how vast creation is. There’s so many people who have had drastically different situations than me, or life experiences than me, that are still made in the image of God. You can’t fit God to our litmus test,” Moore said.
He believes privilege is at the heart of much of the information he found during his research. “At the end of episode three, I talk about this idea of privilege and I would have never considered myself someone who was privileged. Growing up, I lived in a very small town. I was surrounded by poor people. I was objectively fairly poor but then I learned that I had opportunities for things that other people didn’t, especially people of color,” Moore said. He would like people to change their mindset from believing that privilege is akin to a curse word. “[Privilege] isn’t necessarily bad, but if we don’t acknowledge or reckon with that idea of privilege, then we’re never going to be able to move forward. Start talking about racism, talking about your privileges because if we don’t do that, then we’re always just going to be kicking the ball just a little bit further down the road and pretending like we don’t have to think about [racism] but we’re seeing it everyday.”
Listen to Matthew Moore’s podcast “In His Name” and find his source list here.