Even for Christopher Hitchens-quoting, Richard Dawkins-reading anti-theists, the irony of our current political situation must come off as too good to be true. At least until now, it sort of made sense. George W. Bush may have said that God told him to invade Iraq, but at least he came across as the sort of guy who’d actually believe it. That doesn’t seem like the case with the current GOP nominee.
Sure, a good chunk of evangelicals tend to ignore the more “liberal” parts of scripture, but never like this. Donald Trump is, according to James Dobson, a “baby Christian” and thus should receive forgiveness for his wrongdoing—past, present and future. After all, God can use anybody. As long as it’s not Hillary Rodham Clinton, of course.
The hypocrisy is a mystery to many, but it really shouldn’t be. I grew up with evangelicals, I went to school with them, and I was taught by them. It comes as absolutely no surprise to me that they’re eating up everything Trump represents by his platform and candidacy.
What seems to be perplexing most people is how the “moral majority” could fall so readily into the arms of a someone who has been married three times and brags about his infidelity…not to mention his sexual abuse. He’s made fun of the disabled and disparaged the sojourner and immigrant. He is the most blatant threat to religious liberty in recent memory, but it doesn’t matter since his ire focuses on Islam rather than Christianity. It may be more difficult for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven, but the same logic does not apply to the Oval Office.
There are memes aplenty pointing out how these same people would never let Barack Obama live it down if he’d done half the things Trump has. It’s true: they wouldn’t. But it’s not for the reason they think. The evangelical problem with the left isn’t primarily that it’s ethically off-base, or that it represents a system of morality that’s of less empirical or rational value than theirs. It’s that the left is disobedient. For a good chunk of Christian voters, morality is as objective as the color of the sky or the fact that you need to breathe oxygen to survive.
This is the reason why, even if Clinton boldly proclaimed herself as a devout Christian, she still wouldn’t get off the hook. She’d need to become obedient. Given Clinton’s sex, her very presumption of entering a competitive race for authority is inherently disobedient. Her insistence women should retain autonomous control over their bodies even more so.
To espouse the doctrines of the left is to be a heretic. As with most heresy, it’s easy for the outside observer to see why it cropped up in the first place. Despite centuries upon centuries of orthodoxy, the Bible, as a source text, remains difficult to interpret and justifies differences in hermeneutical conclusions. For the most part, I respect the orthodox conclusions of evangelical theology. They make sense given the source text; they’re logical based on what they’re working with. When it comes to evangelical conclusions about political orthodoxy, I can’t say the same.
If evangelicals want to reduce the size of government, they must argue with Paul about whether Christians should rebel against government at all. If they want to try to influence government with levitical commands against homosexuality, they must ask themselves why they aren’t similarly trying to influence it to legislate morality when it comes to charitable giving. If they want the redistribution of wealth to be considered anathema, they must disagree with both Old and NewTestaments. If they believe that God created the heavens and the earth, they must answer why they don’t want to protect it. If they want to cry out for the rights of the unborn, they must be able to answer YHWH’s admonitions and Christ’s questions about why they tried to keep the refugee, the immigrant or the disadvantaged from assistance.
In other words, the current state of evangelical affairs is one of internal illogicality and contradiction. Certain parts of scripture and doctrine are ignored for the sake of others being overemphasized. The Republican candidates Christians vote for ignore and overindulge in all the same ways they do. That’s as true for George W. Bush and Trump as it is for Paul Ryan and John Kasich.
Trump is, to even his most fervent admirers, inconsistent and unpredictable. He is brash, he is prideful, he is morally bankrupt, he is completely forgiven. The reason being: he’s crossed the only t’s and dotted the only i’s necessary to be accepted within the hardline evangelical community and he, like them, embraces the same selective logic when it comes to interpreting the inerrant word of God. He zigs in more ways than evangelicals are typically comfortable with, but it’s forgiven since he zags even harder into their ideology than they’re used to. He is obedient to their moral desires even while defying them.
Moral fortitude, of a kind, is essential to evangelical leadership. Trump deviates from the norm a bit in this regard. I’ve seen disgraced pastors regain their positions when the right apologies are made, the right phrases are said, and the right tears are shed. Trump has gotten away displaying less contrition than that, but evangelicals don’t really require remorse from their politicians as long as they check the right boxes: a hatred of the left, a hard stance against abortion and gay marriage, and a hyper-italicized love of God and country.
In my time with the church, I saw male worship leaders and Bible teachers become inappropriately involved with female students, and not only were they exonerated when it was brought to their supervisors’ attention; they were eventually promoted. For a woman to be given authority over a man, this was a settled moral issue in the negative. For an alleged sexual predator to be given that same authority, this was a settled moral issue in the positive. It’s very difficult for me to compartmentalize this experience from what I’m seeing evangelicals doing for Trump at large.
The people I grew up with and were taught by didn’t have much concern for a nuanced perspective on anything. The Bible itself was viewed as a “talking points” documents. While the psalm saying that we are “fearfully and wonderfully made” in the womb could be taken as an outright condemnation of abortion even in cases of rape, incest or threat to the mother’s life, God’s explicit commands or the early church’s practice of wealth redistribution and embracing peace over war were either totally ignored or interpreted into meaninglessness.
I don’t know many people who believe the Earth is six thousand years old or that the end times will go down the way described in the Left Behind series who will disavow or even criticize Trump beyond the basic “he’s not perfect but neither was King David” rhetoric. It’s the Christians who believe the extra stuff about the beginning and end of the universe that I’ve found are more willing to ignore other parts of the Bible’s ethical mandate for how the human race should behave. Even if they think Trump will bring about Judgment Day, that’d be a net gain rather than a takeaway for their cause.
Even after losing my faith, I’m proud to say I’ve stayed friends with some of the best, most consistent and compassionate Christians I’ve known. These are the people whose lives, beliefs and behavior are so admirable, loving and ethically beautiful to me that I sometimes ponder returning to my rejected faith simply to stand in firmer solidarity with their convictions. They are perhaps the most disgusted of any people I’ve seen about what Trump stands for and represents.
They believe Jesus Christ is the only son of God, that he died for their sins and rose from the dead, that God is one essence and three persons, etc., and they’d never vote for Trump. They espouse a fuller, more compelling and consistent set of beliefs within the framework of traditional evangelical theology. Not only do they find Trump politically reprehensible, they find him anti-Christian.
Luckily, these sorts of doctrinally orthodox, thoughtful, tolerant and compassionate Christians are growing within evangelical groups. I think it’s even fair to say they’ll make up most of the next generation of Christians. They’re among the most intelligent and wonderful people I know.
Trump seems to have learned somewhere along the way that when you’re an evangelical, you can get away with anything. Maybe this election will be as much a reawakening for the church as for the nation. Even the well-known and revered Southern Baptist, Russell Moore, has been unsettled by so many of his colleagues and fellow Christians supporting Trump. Thankfully, there are even very traditional evangelical Christians who also reject the insanity Trump represents. For both, there is hope after this election. It’s just both a shame and an inspiration this hope shines even brighter due to the blackness of the landscape behind it.