Evangelical* leaders have been boldly providing religious cover for the most degenerate, wicked President we’ve ever had. And it doesn’t make any sense to us because of how emphatic Evangelicals used to be about being moral leaders.
How can these Christian* leaders, who used to be known for attempting to be a voice against sin* and immorality*, now be dismissing any critique of Trump’s immoral words, actions, and policies?
But “not all Evangelicals…”
I know. And, it’s millions of people, enough to get him elected and enough to make him feel very comfortable and that he continues to be in a position of power. Here are several well written articles that dive into the problem and include the voices of some rare Evangelicals who are trying to be a voice for reason and integrity.
“The guide breaks evangelicals into five groups: Trump-vangelicals, Neo-Fundamentalist Evangelicals, iVangelicals, Kingdom Christians and Peace and Justice Evangelicals.
“We used three sorting criteria. First, each group shares a basic agreement on evangelical theology. Second, they each understand themselves as existing within the larger tradition of American evangelicalism, whether or not they refer to themselves, their churches and other organizations as “evangelical.” Third, their theology motivates how they act in the world, including social and political activities, and their attitudes toward people who do not share their faith.”
What is this “basic agreement on evangelical theology?”
This is the piece of the puzzle that analysts, researchers, commentators, and authors trying to make sense of the unholy marriage between Trump and Evangelicals have missed. And this is what I want to begin to unpack for you.
According to The State of Theology, a conservative report on how Americans respond to questions about faith, Evangelicals were defined by LifeWay Research as people who strongly agreed with the following four statements:
• The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe. • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior. • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin. • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
The history of Evangelical theology in Christianity is fascinating, but I’m only going to focus on Evangelical beliefs about the Bible for this article because I assert these beliefs are at the source of their devotion to Trump.
Here are some statements that indicate how Evangelicals approach the Bible (emphasis mine). These are not meant to express the complete doctrine & ideas of Evangelicals about the Bible, but to give you a snapshot of how they understand the Bible culturally, academically, and theologically.
“The Bible has been central to their lives as not only a Supreme authority, belief, and practice, but also the object of their affections and instrument of their devotion.” Christianity Today
“We believe in: The divine inspiration and supreme authority of the Old and New Testament Scriptures, which are the written Word of God—fully trustworthy for faith and conduct.” The Evangelical Alliance
1. God, who is Himself Truth and speaks truth only, has inspired Holy Scripture in order thereby to reveal Himself to lost mankind through Jesus Christ as Creator and Lord, Redeemer and Judge. Holy Scripture is God’s witness to Himself. 2. Holy Scripture, being God’s own Word, written by men prepared and superintended by His Spirit, is of infallible divine authority in all matters upon which it touches: it is to be believed, as God’s instruction, in all that it affirms; obeyed, as God’s command, in all that it requires; embraced, as God’s pledge, in all that it promises. 3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s Divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning. 4. Being wholly and verballyGod-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives. 5. The authority of Scripture is inescapably impaired if this total divine inerrancy is in any way limited or disregarded, or made relative to a view of truth contrary to the Bible’s own; and such lapses bring serious loss to both the individual and the Church.
Or consider this one:
“An evangelical stance toward the Scriptures is typically positivist, rather than suspicious. If the essence of critical scholarship is “the willingness not to take a text at face value,” the essence of evangelical scholarship is first to accept the face value of the text. The Scriptures were not written primarily as riddles, whose true significance is realized by reading against the grain. While the latter has its place and often yields interesting results, establishing the meaning of biblical texts requires reading with the grain.” How Evangelicals Treat Scripture – Christianity Today
Do you see any similarities yet when you think of how Evangelicals relate to Trump’s speeches, Twitter posts, actions, behavior, etc., and how Evangelicals relate to the Bible?
Trump can not make a mistake with Evangelicals. His documented lies will not be accepted as lies by Evangelicals because they relate to him the way they relate to the Bible … they suspend any critical thinking out of fear it will destabilize the very foundations of their faith and existence.
Inerrancy and Infallibility are the key issues here. Trump can not make a mistake with Evangelicals. His documented lies will not be accepted as lies by Evangelicals because they relate to him the way they relate to the Bible–which is full of problems and contradictions, they suspend any critical thinking out of fear it will destabilize the very foundations of their faith and existence.
His immorality, cheating on his wives, hiring sex workers, his insatiable greed, his love of money, his disgust of the poor, his fraudulent business practices, his fear of the immigrant, his racism, and the seeming endless stream of other examples that unequivocally show how he is diametrically opposed to the generally accepted Judeo-Christian values is of no concern to Evangelicals because they either find a “Biblical” basis for the issue or they dismiss it as something that is forgiven because it happened before Trump “got saved” when all the Evangelical pastors gathered with him to pray for him.
The problem with inerrancy and infallibility is that the Evangelical posits that the text is the inerrant, inspired Word of God, and never, not for a second, doubts his or her ability to interpret the text correctly. The hubris and arrogance is astounding. To further understand how this happens, I want to direct your attention back to the Chicago Statement posted above, specifically the 3rd item:
“3. The Holy Spirit, Scripture’s Divine Author, both authenticates it to us by His inward witness and opens our minds to understand its meaning.”
This is a really difficult concept to communicate to non-Evangelicals who aren’t steeped in this theology and culture. It’s actually one of most beautiful things I find in Evangelicalism. It’s basically this idea that God is right here with me, especially as I’m reading God’s Word. It communicates immanence, the knowable presence of God, the deep-in-the-gut sense that God is interacting with your own spirit, your soul, in that moment.
Evangelicals believe that God both confirms that the Word of God is God’s own and that God actually interprets the Word of God for them individually.
Imagine what it means to someone to feel that sense of connection with God. Imagine what it means to someone who has first been convinced of their total depravity having been infected with original sin and destined for an eternity in hell … and then, with a simple and heartfelt prayer, the person can become saved and forgiven by believing Jesus is the Son of God and that the Word of God is inerrant and infallible … and then after all of that, the Holy Spirit, God, who was unfathomably far from the person before salvation, becomes intimately connected to the individual, thereby closing the loop on the traumatizing narrative of original sin and hell.
Is there any question about the entire Evangelical proposition appealing to people? Of course it does. It offers a simple, yet seemingly powerful answer to their specific problems (even if it creates those problems). Especially people who are feeling far from God, who are suffering with poverty and sickness, people whom society has discarded.
It’s easy to be cynical about Everyday Evangelicals** because this whole system is so easily abused and manipulated for gain, power, and as cover for acts of evil, but for the Everyday Evangelical in the pew, their experience of and their understanding of their faith is real and precious to them.
So what about Trump? Why do Evangelicals throng to worship him?
Everyday Evangelicals have been told that Trump’s presidency is God’s doing. He has been anointed, literally, by Evangelical leaders. Trump’s agenda, his messaging, his actions, all must be backed up by Evangelical leaders or they, and God by connection, would be mistaken. That possibility can not be considered easily by people whose entire worldview, relationships, careers, etc., exists in an Evangelical paradigm.
I don’t know if I can say strongly enough that there is no cost too high that Evangelicals would be unwilling to pay before they would be willing to consider that any foundation of their faith would be wrong. This devotion, this blindness, this fear, causes Evangelicals to do financial, medical, educational, spiritual, and social harm to themselves and their children. The strongest example of the power of this mechanism is that it is what is behind an Evangelical parent’s willingness to disown their own child for being gay. As violent as these kinds of behaviors are, we should keep in mind that the person doing the violence is also in pain. When things like this happen, it rips the Evangelical’s soul in two, it rends their heart to pieces, but any cost to protect their theological paradigm is worth it and will be paid.
This is the danger of the unholy alliance of Trump and the Evangelicals.
Trump has been elevated to the same status as the Word of God, he has become a modern day Messiah.
How are we supposed to respond?
This is what’s going on and a little bit of how it happened. But what are we going to do now?
Demonize everyday Everyday Evangelicals? This is the easy route. It’s obvious. It’s understandable. And it will be completely ineffective.
If we are going to have Christianity be about Jesus, if we are going to have our nation be about its founding vision, then we are going to have take the hard road. We’re going to have to build authentic relationships with Everyday Evangelicals, not relationships of permissibility, but relationships of accountability.
We’re going to have to have a strong plan to address the Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Paula White, Jerry Falwell Jr., etc., who are the architects and profiteers behind the worst of these abuses.
We’re going to have to take our own faith commitments seriously. If Everyday Evangelicals can teach us anything, they can definitely teach us to take our faith seriously. They can teach us to take our commitment to the work of justice seriously.
As Americans, we have become too individuated, too disconnected from each other in all aspects of our lives. That disconnection has had our lives become about our own survival, our own comfort, our own health, and our own success. That self-centeredness is one of the reasons that Evangelicalism has been so successful among the poor, the disenfranchised, the uneducated and the dismissed. Their lives have been marked with pain and isolation, and Evangelicalism brings them into what feels like intimate relationship with God and a sort of group membership with other Evangelicals.
Our methods to create change can’t be about attacking Everyday Evangelical people, but instead must be about restoring our own integrity. We must focus on healing the spiritual and relational pain that makes Evangelicalism so appealing. We must prove with our words, our actions, and our voting, that we truly believe in the premises of our faith and of our deepest values.
* I used these asterisk marks at the beginning of this article to indicate that the words being used are often understood differently by different groups of people. For example, the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA.org) understands the word Evangelical MUCH differently than the way it’s used by Trump’s Evangelical fans. Other words are also loaded with many meanings: sin, morality, God, etc. If you’d like me to write about any of these topics in more detail, please let me know.
** Everyday Evangelical is a term I’ve created and am writing about. If you’d like more information, please let me know.