I’ve always had an ambivalent relationship with Christianity–a sine wave from mandatory Sunday School as a kid to “born again” in college, coffeehouse atheist in the ‘60s, Buddhist flirt in the ’70s, Episcopalian convert in the ‘80s, to unaffiliated quasi-believer in recent years. Not exactly a consistent pattern but it establishes my credentials as a pilgrim. I’m no longer a “true believer,” but the “faith” that remains is tested whenever I hear an evangelical Christian proclaim his or her support for the President who just bribed his porn star girlfriend to keep her quiet.
I think it’s crazy and I don’t think I’m alone in this regard. To me, the relationship between Trump and evangelical Christians looks like a Faustian bargain wherein evangelicals sacrifice their moral principles to support a morally bankrupt President they hope will deliver their ultra-conservative political agenda. The moral compromises and mental gyrations evoke the image of a twisted pretzel.
The incongruity of this pairing is astonishing. ABC News reports that 83% of Americans describe themselves as Christians – Christians of all denominations – from Catholics to snake handling congregations in the Ozarks, and of those polled, 55% identify as Protestant, 22% Catholic and 8% as other (Mormon, Jehovah’s Witnesses, etc.) with 37% of the Protestants identifying themselves as evangelicals.
Merriam-Webster defines evangelical as one with a “belief in the strict, literal interpretation of scripture” whose salvation comes through personal conversion by the atoning death of Jesus Christ. That would seem to include Christ’s moral teachings as well as his atonement, but my problem with evangelical Christians isn’t theological. My confusion is how they reconcile their moral and spiritual values with a politician as un-Christian as Donald Trump? Apparently, politics trumps morality in the Age of Trump.
This unholy alliance with ultra-conservative politicians didn’t start with Trump. It has a long history, but their alignment with such an immoral agent brings the pairing into stark relief. Historically, it began with the Southern Strategy during the civil rights era. That’s when America began to politicize by religious affiliation. It further expanded after Roe v. Wade (the abortion decision) in 1973 and during the Ronald Reagan era (1981-1989). Evangelicals emerged as a political force and demographic courted by Republican candidates. Flash forward to the present.
The wild card in this poker game is Donald Trump who is not a conventional Republican nor one who personifies Christian values. Nevertheless, a large percentage of Christians made a devil’s bargain in 2016 and voted to have him as their President. How could they square their values with this candidate? I’m not writing to disparage Donald Trump. His character has been in evidence for decades. I want to know how Christians, people of conscience committed to Jesus Christ’s religious and moral teachings, have reconciled their beliefs and principles with the character and actions of a flagrant sexual predator, pathological liar, and borderline criminal?
Last month, when asked about Trump’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniels, Tony Perkins, an evangelical leader and president of the Family Research Council, told Politico that evangelicals are giving the President a “mulligan” for his past behavior. “We kind of gave him, ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here’ ” he told them in a podcast, adding that the president is providing the leadership the country needs because “Evangelical Christians are tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists.” Now, that’s pretzel making of the highest order.
Christians–think of the Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, and the Beatitudes, the moral guidelines of Christianity. Better yet, think of the Seven Deadly Sins – Gluttony, Fornication, Greed, Pride, Envy, Wrath, Boasting, and Sloth. They sound like bullet points on Trump’s resume’.
I’ve always been mystified by the politics of the religious right from Billy Graham to Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, and James Dobson. There is room for everyone in the American political experiment. That’s what the Bill of Rights guarantees – freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of religion etc. But, the religious right thinks of America as a Christian nation – something the Founders debated and decided against. The right’s value system doesn’t accept the big tent version of America. It seeks a more restrictive America with limitations on other religions, women’s rights, gay rights, voting rights, and fair housing. Are these Christian values? How does the Golden Rule figure in this vision of America?
I don’t want to be unfair to sincere Christians who are taking an active role in American politics, but I am appalled to see them in bed with a morally despicable character like Donald Trump. Surely they can find one of their own to represent their political desires instead of a charlatan whose political rallies conjure up images of snake handling extremists and Elmer Gantry circus-tent revivals. At times like this I’m reminded of Bertrand Russell’s essay Why I Am Not a Christian and identify with this angel. Remember, the shortest sentence in the bible is “Jesus wept.”