Unbecoming but Unsurprising: What Evangelical Support of Trump Tells Us about Evangelicals

I suggested earlier that, on the surface, Trump doesn’t seem to be a fit for evangelical voters. That assumes, though, that evangelical means his faith informs his politics.

The reality is, though, that evangelicals[1] today very often do not live out a faith-informed politics. Or, to say it differently, they are people who espouse a particular political vision—one in which they have taken dominion—and use theology to justify it, no matter the harm done to their own evangelical brand or history.

In this understanding of evangelical Christianity, Trump isn’t the unlikely candidate of white evangelicals. He’s the absolute clearest expression of their theology imaginable: a person whose words mean nothing, who can perpetually wipe his own slate clean in order to justify pursuing his own desires.  The pastor who led his “born again” experience, Paula White, who just entered her third marriage, isn’t the only person of questionable character on Trump’s advisory board; it also includes Ralph Reed, who was implicated in the Jack Abramoff scandal and who has no computation at all about doing business with people who are hostile to traditional evangelical concerns if it profits him politically.[2] But, hey—Christians aren’t perfect, just forgiven! (Over and over and over…) In fact, it turns out that this wasn’t Trump’s first attempt at religious renewal. He just can’t seem to make it matter.

White evangelical Christianity, as it is widely practiced today as a faith, means virtually nothing in terms of religion for wide swathes of its followers; all of its meaning is in terms of a cultural identity and political power—and, with rare exceptions, that power is invoked to advance and maintain systems that harm the most vulnerable, particularly in its unwavering support of capitalism and its veneration of wealth. Evangelicals are indistinguishable from their larger culture, not in their piety (They pray more often, read Scripture more often, and attend services more often than most other people.), but in their desire for power in the public sphere. Their support for Trump (when it is not merely opposition to Clinton), a man who proudly calls himself “greedy,” suggests that they may actually be worse than the culture they are supposed to be “in but not of.”

For decades, evangelical theology has been absorbing the messages of the prosperity gospel (which says that God blesses his chosen people with material goods—and, conversely, those who are poor are at fault because of their lack of faith) and dominionism, which declares that Christians are to take control of “seven mountains” of public life, including government. They are to “occupy” the role of world leaders until Jesus’ return. What they have come to believe is that they deserve to be in charge, to have money and power. Sure, this is at odds with all kinds of historic thinking in Christianity. Sure, it is at odds with the most common-sense reading of the Christian scriptures, which uphold as models not the rich or powerful but the poor, rejected, and suffering, exemplified in Jesus’ humility “to the point of death.” No, it doesn’t align with the thinking that Paul outlines in Philippians when he encourages persecuted Christians to look for their “citizenship in heaven” rather than on earth. And, yes, it looks suspiciously like Christianity’s conversion to Constantinianism, when early Christians gave up their role as outsiders to power in order to be part of Constantine’s army and to dominate the Western world.

This doing is not Trump’s; Christians have been making this trade for almost 2000 years, and American evangelicals have been doing it in the US context since at least since Jerry Falwell recanted his claim that “Preachers are not called to be politicians, but soul winners” and became a leader of the Religious Right from the 1980s to his death. Evangelicals voted for Reagan—a divorced former movie star who rarely attended church and eschewed much of their agenda—because they wanted power. Their support for Trump, even if it is uneasy, is unbecoming but not surprising. If anything, it helpfully illuminates just how far evangelicals have gone in their effort to gain power. Given his long list of sins for which he has not repented, it is hard to imagine what Trump could do to lose the evangelical vote? Kill their savior, maybe?

For my many evangelical friends (if you can still call me “friend” after this) who are seeking a different way, here is my suggestion:

Withhold your vote from the Republican Party. If you want to be powerful, send the message to the Republican Party that you cannot vote for Trump, for someone who treats your faith with such disregard. Send the message to the evangelical leaders who have endorsed him that you aren’t going to trade a meaningful faith for political power. Force the Republicans to give you a candidate you can support. Tell them so by voting Hillary Clinton, a third party candidate, or a write in candidate. If that means that Hillary Clinton wins the election, America will survive—and you will be heard during the 2016 primary. Evangelical voters may never again have such an opportunity to make it known to both major political parties that they cannot be bamboozled. Your vote isn’t wasted if you don’t vote for Trump, but your faith will be diminished if you do.

[1] I know that there are lots of people who identify as evangelical who do not feel or act this way. I know, too, that there are many Christians who would like to call themselves “evangelical” but can’t because that word has come to be associated with the brand of politically conservative politics justified by religion I’m discussing here. If you are either kind of evangelical—the kind that doesn’t use the term but would like to or the kind that does and is unhappy with how the GOP exploits it, I’m sorry for your loss. Really and truly. It’s discouraging to have your religious faith given a bad name because of the politically cruel and exploitative work of a few. Just ask the victims of the more than 180 hate crimes targeting Muslims that have occurred since the start of the primary season. Of course, you can’t ask the 12 of them who were murdered because of their faith.

[2] That said, at least one member, Richard Land, has been quite critical of Trump as a leader but accepted the position as it provides him with an opportunity to forward the concerns of evangelicals: Supreme Court nominations, “the sanctity of life” (i.e., abortion) and “religious liberty” (generally invoked in the fight against LGBTQ rights

Why Trump’s Religious Conversions Don’t Matter

Theories abound to explain why so many evangelicals are now signing up to support Trump, even if they are doing so with about as much enthusiasm as Paul Ryan. Certainly the politics of resentment have much to do with it—especially as these overlap with race, racism, xenophobia, and prejudice against Muslims. Authoritarianism is also a factor, as is the contingent of hate group members who love and endorse him. Evangelicals are often authority-minded, with a history of racism. Not surprisingly, racist evangelicals especially like Trump.  And since Trump has always polled well with poorer whites with lower education levels who live in places where racial resentment has long burned, it only makes sense that evangelicals—who are often poorer whites with lower education levels and who also live in those places of long-simmering racial tensions—vote for him.  They often perceive themselves as being losers. And, realistically, life under an Obama presidency hasn’t staunched the dissolution of their economic and social lives.

Could it be that white evangelicals look to Trump and see themselves in him, as he suggested when he told them, invoking Ronald Reagan, “I’m with you”?

No. No, it’s not. They know full well that Trump isn’t like them. In January, evangelical voters identified him as the least religious candidate among the Republicans. No one could look at Trump, a man more intimate with the early speeches of Hitler than the Bible, and think, “The Holy Spirit is really working in him!” Even Dobson’s claim that Trump is a “baby Christian” is insulting to “baby Christians” (whoever they are).

Is Trump trying to pass as a Christian in order to bring evangelical voters to him—like the photuris genus of fireflies, which imitate the light signals of the females of other lighting bug species in order to lure males close to them, then kill and eat them? Is he another in a long line of presidential candidates who is trying to harness the power of white evangelical votes with promises to support their policies, only to abandon them after he’s elected, as Reagan and George W. Bush (on abortion and a federal marriage amendment respectively) did in some regards?

No. Not that either.

He’s not even pretending to be a Christian, not really. Reagan was an actor and did it well. George W. Bush could dog whistle evangelicals. No one seriously believes that Trump’s “born again” experience was authentic (“[T]hey can’t possibly be that stupid,” in the words of Paul Waldman.). It was simply a hurdle he needed to jump to be acceptable to white evangelicals as a candidate, and he did it. Historian John Fea describes it as “the theo-political equivalent of money laundering…, making Trump clean so that he is worthy of evangelical votes.” (Fea is generous in refusing to comment on the validity of Trump’s conversion. Dobson warns that “[o]nly the Lord knows the condition of a person’s heart.” I am less generous. The condition of “Trump’s heart” (evangelically-speaking) is irrelevant to his competency to be president (White evangelical voters seem to agree, which is why, in fact, they could say both that he is the least religious and the best candidate) and, in fact, is only modestly important to his faith. What matters is those fruits of the spirit. In other words, we can doubt his change of heart because there has been no change of anything that would flow from his heart.

The conversion was humiliating all around. Trump’s association with a prosperity gospel minister shows how little he knows about the etiquette or pecking-order of American Christianity. His appointment of White, whose nonprofit ministries have long supported her lavish lifestyle, and other prosperity gospel ministers to his Evangelical Executive Advisory Board, illustrates what he thinks of American evangelicals: suckers.

Worse, the quick acceptance of Trump as a candidate now that the business of being “born again” was accomplished shows how little evangelicals actually care about their faith, how cheap it is to them. Trump didn’t do anything except, it seems, chant some magic words, the kind printed on the back of religious tracts left at the laundromat: “God, I believe that Jesus Christ died for my sins, was resurrected from the dead, is alive, and hears my prayer. I invite Jesus to become the Lord of my life, to rule and reign in my heart from this day forward. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” Whew! Now that that’s done, Trump can go back to being the lyingest candidate of the election.

Here I am reminded of the commandment “You shall not misuse the name of the Lord Your God,” from the New International Version translation of Exodus 20:7.  Trump has done nothing in response to his new-found faith except use it to reel in voters.  I’m not suggesting he should go knocking door to door, “soul winning.” I mean he hasn’t used the platform he is on to promote or care for the concerns of Christians. He hasn’t come up with a plan to end the world-wide persecution of Christians. He hasn’t suggested a plan to end human trafficking. He hasn’t put together a strategy to combat human slavery. He hasn’t paid back the debtors he owed in his company’s many bankruptcies. He hasn’t renounced his work in gambling or his role in the continued pornification of beauty pageants.  In other words, his “born again” experience is of no consequence.

“I’m Not Totally Sure I Deserve It”: Evangelical Support of Donald Trump

Donald Trump showed a rare glimmer of humility in accepting the Republican presidential nomination at this week’s Republican National Convention in Cleveland, Ohio, saying, of evangelical Christians’ support for his effort, “I’m not sure I totally deserve it …”

For a man not usually given to understatement, this was a big one.

On the surface of it, Trump does not in any way deserve the support of evangelicals[1], as major evangelical leaders and news organizations, including The Christian Post, began noting during the Republican primary. He’s a thrice-divorced serial adulterer who began the affair that ended his first marriage in a church. (That’s right—he went to church in order to conduct an affair with Marla Maples, whom he later got pregnant, marrying only after the birth of daughter Tiffany.) He bragged about spending the years he could have been serving in Viet Nam having sex with countless beautiful women, calling his effort to avoid STDs during the time his own “personal Viet Nam.” He has fathered five different children from three different women. He is a chronic liar, a business cheat, a man who inherited and then mismanaged and wasted considerable wealth in a career marked by exploitation of employees and customers. He’s never submitted himself to public service or held himself accountable to a community, and his relationships are primarily transactional—all about what he gets out of them. He has repeatedly expressed lust for his daughter Ivanka, herself accused of cheating in her shoe design business, and he has been credibly accused of child rape as well as numerous cases of sexual assault, intimidation, and harassment. He speaks about women with contempt, mocks those with disabilities, and foments racial and religious unrest by threatening the safety of minorities born here and those who immigrate, positions not surprisingly from a man with a long history of discrimination against people of color. He has business ties to the mob and made much of his money in gambling through shady and exploitive business practices. All that makes James Dobson’s remark that Trump is “tender to the things of the spirit” (that is, the Holy Spirit) laughable. The fruit of the spirit is “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” according to the Christian scriptures. None of these qualities are visible in the public life of Donald Trump, not before his “born again” experience under the direction of prosperity gospel preacher Paula White or after. And this is besides the fact that he has long been a supporter of positions that evangelical Christians have widely rejected, including gay rights and abortion rights. He explicitly links these opinions to his background in New York City, directly in contrast, he says, to a person from Iowa, a state that often stands-in for conservative American Protestant Christianity.

So, why, then, do more than three-fourths of white evangelicals say that they will vote for Trump now that he is the nominee?

Significantly, a number of them—45%–will vote for Trump simply as a vote against Clinton, according to a recent Pew poll; just 30% see themselves as voting for Trump because they actually want to vote for him. Forty-two percent of white evangelical voters don’t like either candidate.

(Note to Democratic leadership: How did you mess this up so terribly? Nearly half of Republican evangelicals don’t want to vote for the candidate they are planning to vote for, but you still couldn’t give them any better option? And, no, Tim Kaine, a social-justice style Catholic, is not going to close that gap. What would have? Perhaps nothing could make Hillary Clinton vote-worthy for many evangelicals, but faster recognition and action in response to the genocide of Christians and other minorities in the Middle East at the hands of Daesh might have helped a bit. Or maybe nominating someone other than Clinton, who was actually perceived to be less likely to be a good president than was Bernie Sanders by white evangelicals in a January 2016 Pew poll.)

[1] Or anyone of any faith who sees their faith as important in their political decisions, actually. His unethical behavior violates the codes of all major religious groups.

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