On June 21, Donald Trump will meet with nearly 500 prominent evangelical Christians who are trying to get more comfortable with the idea of supporting a decidedly secular candidate. The organizers are leading lights of the Christian right, including the Family Research Council’s Tony Perkins, radio host James Dobson and the president of the Southern Baptist Convention, Ronnie Floyd.
These leaders describe the event as a listening session. The Trump campaign, and just about everyone else, will regard it as an en masse endorsement. The proposed deal is not subtly put. In exchange for their support, Trump is offering to appoint conservative Supreme Court justices and to lift restrictions on the political activities of tax-exempt institutions. “We’re going to take care of you,” Trump recently told an evangelical audience.
This is a particularly clear presentation of a long-term temptation (as old as the third temptation of Christ). The emperor, or king, or president offers to further the mission of the church. The church, in turn, provides legitimacy to power.
In the current case, support for Trump is presented as pragmatism. So let’s be clear about what is gained and what is lost.
Religious conservatives gain a better shot at a conservative Supreme Court nominee. This is not even close to a sure bet. A political candidate who claims to be pro-life but supported partial-birth abortion as late as 1999 has convictions charitably described as fluid. But Trump is more likely to make a conservative selection than is Hillary Clinton.
Presidential candidate Donald Trump told a rally Feb. 1 that evangelical Christians, "understand me better than anybody." (Reuters)
So what is lost? Support for Trump involves a massive, disorienting shift, especially given the reputation of the religious right. It is, well, unexpected for evangelicals to endorse a political figure who has engaged in creepy sex talk on the radio, boasted about his extramarital affairs, made a fortune from gambling and bragged about his endowment on national television.
But the tension runs much deeper. Evangelical Christians are not merely choosing a certain political outcome. They are determining their public character — the way they are viewed by others and, ultimately, the way they view themselves. They are identifying with a man who has fed ethnic tension for political gain; who has proposed systemic religious discrimination; who has dramatically undermined the democratic values of civility and tolerance; who has advocated war crimes, including killing the families of terrorists; who holds a highly sexualized view of power as dominance, rather than seeing power as an instrument to advance moral ends.
In legitimizing the presumptive Republican nominee, evangelicals are not merely accepting who he is; they are changing who they are. Trumpism, at its root, involves contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc. By associating with this movement, evangelicals will bear, if not the mark of Cain, at least the mark of Trump.
Over the Christian church’s two-millennium existence, there have been a variety of attempts to define a distinctly Christian approach to the messy business of politics. Over the past few decades, the most serious and successful effort has been made by Catholics (who have their own disturbing history of blessing strongmen). Catholic leaders have constructed a model of social engagement that places the needs of the weak and vulnerable at its center. The justice of a society is judged by its treatment of the powerless, the dispossessed, the exile.
Evangelicals, sadly, have no such broadly held framework. So Trump’s supporters are attempting to devise their own guidelines on the theological fly. “We don’t need a spiritual giant in the White House,” says Dallas pastor Robert Jeffress. “We need a strong leader.” There is also, he argues, the “electability factor” in beating Clinton.
What is specifically Christian about this argument for an electable strongman? It could easily be made by any third-rate political operative. It is presented as political realism by people who know almost nothing of politics. Have they factored in the global depression that might result from Trump’s trade war? Or the military challenges that might be invited by weakening traditional alliances and security arrangements?
Presumably, evangelical leaders know more about moral and spiritual principles. But here they are often silent. Instead, many are preaching a type of utilitarianism — a distasteful offering of incense to the emperor for the sake of the greater good. But in lowering the sights of Christian political involvement, they are no longer serving a faith where “justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream.” They are dishonoring that ideal before a watching nation.