Will Trump’s Evangelicals Suffer Retribution?
This Advent season, while watching Donald Trump in front of a garishly green-and-red banner which proclaims “Make America Great Again,” take the opportunity to reflect on the Faustian bargain which allowed conservative evangelical Christians to “Keep Christ in Christmas” while seemingly divorcing Christianity from Christ. That Republican supply side economics, exemplified by Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell’s cruel tax “reform,” contradicts Matthew 5:3 is clear. That Trump’s draconian immigration policy, which involves splitting families apart, violates the essence of Exodus 22:21 is obvious. And it shouldn’t have to be said that the new nationalism, this new fascism, with its “blood and soil” metaphysic, stands in opposition to the sublime universalism of Galatians 3:28.
For those 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump, and more troublingly for the profoundly inhumane, greedy, wrathful ideology that he embodies, and who have seemingly forgotten their scripture, I have another passage to remind them of: Matthew 4:10. Following the dark Adversary who took Christ up “an exceeding high mountain, and she with him all the kingdoms of the world, and the glory of them; And saith unto him, All these things will I give thee, if thou wilt fall down and worship me.” And Christ, choosing to follow the small, humble, yet sacred path, rejected the temptations of worldly power declaring, “Get thee hence, Satan: for it is written, Thou shalt worship the Lord thy God, and him only shalt thou serve.”
America’s conservative evangelicals, however, have taken up that diabolical offer. Witness the self-debasement of a man like neurosurgeon and current H.U.D. secretary Ben Carson offering prayers for Trump last December 19th, with the president “quipping” to the press that they “need the prayer more than I do…. Maybe a good solid prayer and they’ll be honest, Ben, is that possible?” Or when at that same meeting Vice-President Mike Pence (one for whom we are perennially reminded of his piety while he seemingly forgets Matthew 6:6) offered a master class in saccharine sycophancy when he groveled to Trump with “Mr. President, I’ll end where I began and just tell you, I want to thank you, Mr. President. I want to thank you for speaking on behalf of and fighting every day for forgotten men and women of America… the forgotten men and women of America are forgotten no more, and we are making America great again.”
Or if those examples condemn the powerful at the expense of regular evangelicals, consider that 80% of white, self-identified evangelicals in Alabama voted for the disgraced and disgraceful losing pedophile Roy Moore. Presiding over this nightmare of abandoned principles (or perhaps more disturbingly the embrace of principles that were always there) is Trump himself, the philandering, vulgar, immoral New York real-estate developer of seemingly no authentic faith who promised evangelicals that “I am your voice.” The Public Religion Research Institute reported that over the past five years the “percentage of white evangelical Protestants who said that a politician who commits an immoral act in their personal life could still behave ethically shot up from 30 to 72 percent. The percentage saying such a politician could not serve ethically plunged from 63 to 20 percent.” The difference, it would seem, is a certain Fifth Avenue resident who promised them that “If I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store …. You can leave happy holidays at the corner.” What easily bought faith! In 2017 all it takes for many right-wing Christians is to be taken to the top-floor of Trump Tower, be shown all the kingdoms of the world, and they’ll gladly prostrate themselves before an idol for a bit of temporal power.
Christianity, by its own definition, is a countercultural faith, one which stands in opposition to the things of this world while still being in this world. But humans being humans the history of the religion is replete with moments where Augustine’s City of Man has overwhelmed the City of God in the heart of the believer. From Constantine’s usurpation of the Roman Church to Henry VIII’s appropriation of ecclesiastical power, Christians have been more than willing to sell their allegiance for thirty pieces of silver. Trumpian Christianity is but one chapter in a long lineage of hypocritical capitulation of principle to sovereigns in the name of worldly power.
A supreme irony, for one of the most important aspects of the Constitutional principle of disestablishment is that it preserved the independence and sanctity of religious practice from the machinations of a meddling state. But while there is a long custom of right-wing evangelicals bellyaching about their perceived oppression (when such calls for “religious freedom” are often really just a justification for denying the rights of others) there are now no compunctions about jumping into bed with the most manifestly irreligious of presidents in modern history, for whom the only scripture is that of Norman Vincent Peale’s prosperity gospel combined with an endlessly renewable faith in himself, regardless of what reality dictates.
There is an irony in all of this. Since the resurgence of politicized evangelical Christianity with the ascendency of Ronald Reagan, many apocalyptic minded conservative Christians made a sort of prophetic parlor game out of conjecturing who the potential anti-Christ could be. Figures from Hal Lindsey, to Pat Robertson, Oral Roberts, and Jerry Falwell often fingered world leaders or liberal politicians as being in league with Satan. An irony since if the anti-Christ is supposed to be a manipulative, powerful, smooth-talking demagogue with the ability to sever people from their most deeply held beliefs who would be a better candidate than the seemingly indestructible Trump? Well I don’t believe in a literal anti-Christ, and to accuse Trump of being one gives the president far too much credit. At his core he is simply a consummate narcissist with little intelligence and less curiosity, one who has somehow become the most powerful man in the world. And that’s certainly dangerous enough without invoking anything supernatural. Still, it’s surprising that evangelical Christians, who for years preached about such a figure, seem to lack the self-awareness to identify something so anti-Christian in Trump himself. Or worse yet, they certainly recognize it, but don’t care.
I don’t wish to engage the “No True Scotsman” fallacy; conservative Christians presumably arrived at their faith and their conclusions for their own reasons, and the fact that I disagree with them on a litany of issues theological and political, from abortion to taxes, does not invalidate the legitimacy of their own faith. But there is something undeniably strange and supremely hypocritical in seeing the embarrassing spectacle of religious leaders bow to such a spiritually illiterate man, a moral midget. Jerry Falwell Jr., cognizant enough of the disjuncture between personal piety and support of Trump but apparently not cognizant enough to avoid uttering inanities like the following, has compared the president to King David. That is to say that he acknowledges Trump’s copious personal failings (and steadfast refusals at contrition for any of them) but sees the president as a tool of the Lord meant to enact Christian policy, and so it behooves evangelicals to support him. One imagines that whatever makes it easier for the good Rev. Falwell to sleep better at night, but perhaps he is the sort of man whose sleep is untroubled, for hypocrisy has a handy ability to cleanse the conscience.
Currently evangelical Christianity in the United States is certainly still classifiable as a flavor of orthodox Nicene Christianity. But it’s not like there isn’t precedent for the church to contort itself to the heresies of a totalitarian regime. Consider the promulgation of an Aryan “Positive Christianity” in the Third Reich, in which all Jewish elements of the faith were expunged, and the gospels rejected in favor of a deadly and noxious blood-and-soil ideology, where the “Fuehrer is the herald of a new revelation.” This consolidation of all the Protestant denominations of Germany featured no Apostle’s Creed, or Nicaean, rather only allegiance to the state, a complete capitulation to the Prince of this World and an ascent to the temptation upon that desert mountaintop. We must remind ourselves of such compromises, bargains, and contracts as a perennial threat to the inner life of the faithful. While there is certainly no corollary to such a phenomenon in the United States today – yet – one must be vigilant and on guard to those like Rev. Falwell who see no blasphemy in comparing a president to the Anointed One.
Trump is arguably the logical culmination of some strains of right-wing evangelical Christianity in America, from the political theology of dominionism to the hermeneutics of presuppositional apologetics, dogmas which see no inconsistency to rendering all to a Caesar whom they have declared to be a Christ. We may have yet to see the arrival in the United States of a type of powerful, theocratic, fascistic Protestant Falangism enabled by the opportunism of a Trump, and which makes the traditional Christian Right look positively liberal. And with the global rise of the new nationalism there is a disturbing degree of collaboration between rightest religion and racist ideology, from the Orthodox mysticisms of those in the Kremlin who follow the crackpot historian Aleksandr Dugin to Stephen Bannon who wishes to preserve his understanding of Christendom not because all of us are children of God but because only some of us are white. Christianity, when allied to the powers of the world, has a way of promulgating distinctly anti-Christian beliefs. Do not read me as hyperbolic, the threat is global, powerful, interconnected, and real. When 60,000 Polish fascists marched in November, promoting a Poland without Muslims and Jews, they chanted “We want God” – a phrase from a speech delivered in Warsaw by Trump earlier that year.
Nazi “Positive” Christianity was countered by the resistance of the Confessing Church, the underground network of pastors and parishioners who operated in opposition to the glorification of worldly power as represented by the regime. One of the greatest of souls and theological intellects was the Confessing Church minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer, martyred by the Nazis at Flossenbürg Concentration Camp in 1945. Witness to the rise of compromised fascist Christianity in his own country, he aptly diagnosed the equivocations and capitulations some Christians were willing to make in order to sup at the table of power, but he also understood that from a theological perspective there should be nothing surprising about this. He explained that for “evil to be disguised as light… is quite bewildering to anyone brought up on our traditional ethical concepts, while for the Christian who based his life on the Bible, it merely confirms the fundamental wickedness of evil.” But even while acknowledging the fundamental wickedness of that evil, Bonhoeffer stood in opposition to it, and lived a life testament to that gospel.
So, this Advent, if you’re looking for a bit of the promise of that first Christmas consider this: whenever some persons trade their faith for the treasures of this world, elsewhere a remnant of true faith always seemingly endures. A faith that answers power with mercy, hate with love, a shout with a whispered prayer.
It’s written that nobody can serve two masters, even as many evangelicals seem content to try and serve God, Mammon, and darker gods aside. But a compromised faith, a tainted faith, an implicated faith can only flourish for so long, and genuine faith can never be extinguished. Writer and scholar Burke Gerstenschlager writes for our current moment that “In the midst of Propaganda and Gospel, we must resist … with love where there is hate. Resist with kindness where there is abandonment. Resist with grace where there is cruelty. Resist with justice where there is impunity. Resist with knowledge where there is ignorance. Resist with truth where there are lies. Advent is our season.” For if Bonhoeffer and the Confessing Church provide us any Advent succor it’s this: even at the darkest of hours when faith seems all but extinguished a faint light can still glimmer so that we may see. And to those implicated, those collaborators, those who’ve traded faith for power, and those who chant “We want God” – consider that you should be careful what you wish for. God may be precisely what we get.