Hello, white Christian America. I’d like to talk.
Let me be up front and say that while I am not a Christian myself, there are a lot of things I respect and even admire about the convictions of many believers in this country. We may be at odds on some specific issues like abortion, contraception, or LGBT rights, but there is much I have learned from listening to the voices of America’s evangelical and conservative Christians. Often times the underlying principles and values behind these concerns have either resonated with me or challenged me in my own views.
Church-state separation is a great example. Although there are believers like David Barton, who dismiss the general idea as a myth and seem to favor a return to a theocratic republic of sorts, I have heard a good number of American Christians express strong support for separation of church and state. Freedom of religion is an important part of our nation that has a long history. Yet the other side of separation, protecting the state from the church, can be a murky issue that invites a lot of misinterpretation.
We want to protect religious liberty, and one way we do this is by defending the government against any religious coup that might try to overtake it. But when this gets confused with pushing faith out of the public square altogether, things can get messy. The outspokenness of Christians on areas of church-state separation has helped to rethink and clarify where we as a nation want the lines to be drawn, so that Americans are best suited to believe or not believe as they see fit.
It’s no secret that a lot of Christians in our country are suspicious of government. For evangelicals and the Religious Right in particular, this suspicion comes from past experience with being disappointed by politicians who ‘talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk.’ This is something I very much applaud American Christians for standing behind. Pandering has been a problem in U.S. politics for a good while now, and it only seems to be getting worse as money becomes an ever increasing part of politics, too. We all should want representatives who actually represent our interests, not just when it helps their political career but because they share those interests with us.
After the election, a great deal of commentary emerged on how disaffection with the establishment played a role in Donald Trump becoming the 45th U.S. president. Mike Dorning mentions this in an article for Bloomberg, where he notes Trump’s various promises to “Make America Great Again”, his lack of ties to Washington or to political correctness, and more. There’s not much point to belaboring this observation, since I think it was fairly clear from the divisive tone of the election, and the resignation of a number of Americans to either not vote or simply to vote for the candidate who ‘isn’t the other guy.’ Trump is certainly a change from the norm in rhetoric, if not in practice, too.
But this is about where my understanding runs out.
My Christian friends, I can’t make sense of where Trump fits in with your own values as you’ve described them. It was one thing when you supported candidates that were dogmatically against abortion or gay rights, because those candidates aligned their positions very closely with their religious beliefs about the sanctity of life and marriage. It was one thing when you backed a president who started a war under false pretenses of stopping a dictator from using weapons of mass destruction. Again, there was something at least potentially laudable in that pretense. This is something different.
Exit polls showed that white evangelicals voted “overwhelmingly” for Trump, according to the Washington Post. This has perplexed me for a number of reasons. It perplexes me because Trump is, by all accounts, yet another figure who has merely pandered to religious voters, except that he also lives and acts in ways that defy the kind of morality the Religious Right has advocated for decades. And this isn’t like all the criticisms of so-called family values for inconsistently marginalizing certain groups and families. It isn’t even like the Ted Haggards and Jimmy Swaggarts who were found to be leading double lives. Trump is quite possibly the worst standard for family values and Christian values that evangelicals and other conservative believers have ever endorsed.
It has been all over the media that Trump attracted substantial support from white nationalist groups, including the Christian Identity movement and David Duke, the former grand wizard of the KKK. While the Trump campaign publicly claimed it would denounce hatred and bigotry, the amount of white nationalist support has been staggering, as has the fact that most of these hate groups were not disavowed by Trump (Duke may be the one exception). None of this is news now, but it does suggest that Michael Gerson, the former speechwriter for George W. Bush, is right when describing ‘Trumpism’ as fundamentally rooted in “contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc.”
1 Corinthians 15:33 warns, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’”(NIV) Many Trump supporters, most of them white Christians, have simply shrugged in response to the white nationalist approval of Trump, questioning why it matters. Charlottesville arguably should have put an end to that question, but this verse provides us with another reminder. When your message merits a shining endorsement from militant racists, it really ought to give you serious pause for reflection.
Earlier, in 1 Corinthians 5:11, Paul makes an even stronger statement about who Christians let among them: “you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler.” If the company we keep is important, what does it say if we are in the company of white supremacists? What does it say about us when we shrug it off, accept their support, and neglect even to denounce what they stand for?
Sexual immorality also sticks out in that last passage. As well-known as the white nationalist support is, the numerous allegations of sexual assault by Mr. Trump have also been much discussed in the media. Along with this was the leaked 2005 video of Trump expressing his feeling of entitlement to “grab [women] by the pussy.” I am admittedly at a loss to understand how this sort of behavior can be condoned by Christians, especially those who are often first to emphasize the immorality of adultery and generally any kind of sexual contact outside marriage. Although many evangelicals were horrified by these discoveries, there were those like John Zmirak, who appeared in an episode of the Christian podcast Unbelievable, who seem to feel that Trump’s position on abortion overshadows sexual assault allegations.
This approach of picking the lesser of two evils could warrant an entire essay in itself. It is unfortunately a situation many Americans, be they Christian or not, say they find themselves in today. But the Bible challenges its readers on this in several places. “Why not say — as some slanderously claim that we say — ‘Let us do evil that good may result’? Their condemnation is just!” (Romans 3:8, NIV) Proverbs 17:15 additionally proclaims: “He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous, both of them alike are an abomination to the Lord.” (NAS)
There is an uncomfortable problem with voting in the lesser of two evils if the elected authorities are instituted by God, as Romans 13:1 tells us. Is it moral for a believer to endorse a lesser evil into the seat of authority ordained by God? Or would it be better for them to abstain? Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, gives us an important reminder:
When Christians face two clearly immoral options, we cannot rationalize a vote for immorality or injustice just because we deem the alternative to be worse. The Bible tells us we will be held accountable not only for the evil deeds we do but also when we “give approval to those who practice them” (Rom. 1:32).
Of course, the concerns with Trump’s morality don’t end here. The white nationalism supporting him hasn’t found just his immigration policies likeable, but was also certainly influenced by the racist remarks and non-inclusive approach at work in Trump’s campaign. All this outpouring of white disaffection is made further alarming by the fact that it comes directly after the nation’s first African American president served for eight years. If you truly believe that Christ and scripture (Galatians 3:28, for example) command us to accept and love one another regardless of race or gender, please explain to me why Trump’s track record on these issues has not caused more of an upset among religious conservatives.
Another concern one might have is with what John Paul Rollert terms the “sociopathic capitalism” of Trump. Rather than a measured response to economic conditions, Trump’s vision of capitalism is more along the lines of conquest or a game of high-stakes poker. There are clear winners and losers, and the United States must wage zero-sum combat to take that gold medal it deserves (for some reason) more than anyone else. This ruthless winner-takes-all attitude might come in handy in some businesses, but most companies these days are wise enough to know that the true art of the deal is at least as much about co-operation as it is about competition. When it comes to running the country, a cut-throat kind of capitalism not only seems archaic and dangerous, it seems remarkably un-Christian, too.
James 1:27 states: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
The world of Wall Street is aptly characterized by many as a world of greed. Yet the world in which Trump lives is no different. Sometimes it isn’t financial greed, sometimes it’s greed for power, for status, and so forth. What is incredibly hard to imagine is just how Trump’s vision of America could mesh in any meaningful sense with the kind of religious worldview depicted in this verse from the Epistle of James. Trump’s religion seems to be a religion of the self, rather than one that is outward-looking and focused on compassionate caring for others.
Indeed, Christian leaders in our nation have been sounding alarm bells about Trump for some time. He has openly stated that although he believes in God, he has never asked forgiveness. Either he must feel he has no need to ask, or he has been unwilling to ask, and in neither case would most Christians consider a person so described to be ‘right with God’. As Eric Sapp at The Christian Post puts it, “Trump is a thrice-married adulterer who brags not only about cheating on his own wife but with the wives of other men.” Even the gaffe about Two Corinthians suggests Trump is not as familiar with scripture as he may pretend. This all raises the question: is Trump the president a lot of American Christians seem to want to believe he is?
In some ways, perhaps this remains to be seen, but with respect to his religious views (or lack thereof), plenty of evangelicals have already said no. The Dallas News has an article expounding ten areas of conflict between voting for Trump and professing Christian faith. Among them is his lack of compassion, his appeals to fear and anger, his egotism, his lying, his treatment of women, and his disdain for his opponents. Jesus famously taught to love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you (Matthew 5:43–48) — ideas that were astronomically far off from the kind of behavior that went on during the campaign. Christians like Michael Farris, a founder of the Christian homeschooling movement, may be on to something when they declare that the 2016 election marked “the end of the Christian Right.”
My intent here is not to rejoice or be a doomsayer, though. As a student of religion and philosophy, I have an interest in the movements and changes that take place in our culture and society, and as a former evangelical, I have an interest in the development of the Religious Right in particular. But this is also more than a simple academic or casual interest for me. I do believe there are very important things at stake. Among them is the way we conceptualize our values in this country. Whether you are a Christian or not, the majority of America still claims to be, and Christian values continue to affect us in this country. Yes, I recognize Christians are not a monolithic group, and there is no one set of established Christian values, but this is in fact a large part of my point.
The landscape as we know it is changing after 2016. White evangelicals have been influential in American politics for several decades now. We have seen scandals and cases of dubious moral commitments, not to mention the surveys of religious illiteracy, but this is the clearest moment in recent history where a large proportion of American Christians have rallied behind violence, egotism, profanity, and a very concerning set of racial and gender-based attitudes.
This can’t be waved away as exaggeration when Liberty University, created by the father of the Moral Majority, even found itself so divided over the character of Donald Trump. So many news sources and sociologists have been scrambling to understand the white evangelical majority behind Trump because something appears different on the landscape.
For some, this has been an exciting moment. After all, change is what a disaffected populace really wants. But whether or not this will be beneficial change is certainly worth asking. What it does seem to already be doing is forcing a much needed conversation about the role of race, ethnicity, and religion in U.S. politics.
When Christian values relate to social structures and cultural values we as a people find praiseworthy, it has been easy for the two to covertly operate in tandem. But if Christian values lose those social and cultural support, and take on a closer resemblance to fear, anger, oppression, and hatred, what will be the consequences? We might react by pulling back religion from the political sphere, or we might react — as unfortunately tends to be the case — by merely reframing our narratives so that they will accommodate an almost unrecognizable form of Christian belief.
In an example of the latter, Eric Metaxas has described Trump as being “kind of like your uncle who says stuff that makes you cringe, but you know that when push comes to shove, he’s a decent guy.” The question here is whether Americans, including American Christians, want just a “decent guy” (certainly disputable in the case of Trump) in the White House, or if perhaps we should hold the highest office in the land to a higher standard. 2 Timothy 4:3–4 makes an interesting prediction:
For the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.
All religions evolve and change, and there can come a point where we wonder how faithful our current version is to the original. The inexorable march of time forces us to adapt, but while we desperately pretend that nothing essential has changed, it can be notoriously difficult to gauge the truth of that belief from within our little corner of history. Often we see “through a glass, darkly” — appreciating in retrospect a fuller picture of what has transpired, while at the time much of the machinations of change can be largely undetectable and elusive.
This is where we find ourselves in the age of Trump. Temptations are everywhere to panic, to romanticize, to overestimate, to underestimate, but there is nevertheless some writing on the wall that is getting hard to ignore. American Christianity wasn’t the same after the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976, and it may not be the same after the election of Donald Trump.
Robert Jones, author of the book The End of White Christian America, seems to feel the same. Trump’s victory, he argues, against many other Republican candidates that aligned better with evangelical views, can be attributed to his successful conversion of “values voters” to “nostalgia voters.” The promises made by the president address a sense of cultural displacement even more than they purportedly address economic grievances.
However, this move to nostalgia and an idealized past has value-implications, too. Progress — on marriage rights, on abortion, on immigration, etc. — becomes an erroneous move in the wrong direction, away from the return to the golden days. More recent political values like tolerance, diversity, and multiculturalism also become problematic distractions from that perfect past-life. Instead, ideas like loyalty, authority, and purity become the important values. Jonathan Haidt has shown this in his research on the values of political conservatives and liberals in general, but whereas the Religious Right has typically defined such values in connection with religious traditions and religious documents, it looks as if part of what Trump has done is to successfully turn that on its head by connecting those values to a mythic American past rather to than any distinctively religious source.
If you are an American Christian, I would urge you to ask yourself a few questions as 2020 approaches.
1. Why do you consider yourself a Christian? This isn’t asking just about what made you a Christian, but what you like about being Christian. What makes it meaningful and important to you?
2. Where do other human beings fit in with your Christian beliefs? Do you find your faith gives you more appreciation for life, including the lives of those who aren’t Christian?
3. What do you believe it should mean to be a Christian? Are there things that seem out of sorts to you that someone who calls herself a Christian should not do?
4. Does Donald Trump match your understanding of all it means to be a Christian? If not, then how close does he come? If yes, then why do you think he’s conducted his campaign and presidency as he has?
5. Do you believe the presidency carries any certain moral expectations with it? How does Donald Trump fit those expectations, and how do those expectations measure up to what a Christian should look like?
You may have already given some thought to a number of these, but I find it’s never a bad idea to revisit and rethink our beliefs. We stand at an important moment right now that calls for wisdom, for reflection, for compassion, and for patience. These are things I have known many kind and devoted Christian Americans to hold in high regard, and I hope that we will continue to do so as the age of Trump comes to another pivotal transition point.