Published October 18, 2020
In public, Donald Trump has spoken in glowing terms about his evangelical supporters, calling them “warriors on the frontiers defending American freedom,” people who are “incredible” and “faithful,” a bulwark against assorted moral evils.
But behind the scenes, as The Atlantic’s McKay Coppins recently reported, “many of Trump’s comments about religion are marked by cynicism and contempt, according to people who have worked for him. Former aides told me they’ve heard Trump ridicule conservative religious leaders, dismiss various faith groups with cartoonish stereotypes, and deride certain rites and doctrines held sacred by many of the Americans who constitute his base.”
Trump “mocks evangelicals behind closed doors,” Republican Senator Ben Sasse recently told his constituents.
“Can you believe people believe that bullshit?” Donald Trump said after a 2012 meeting with pastors who laid hands on him, according to Michael Cohen, Trump’s former lawyer and confidant.
“Those fucking evangelicals,” the president, smiling and shaking his head, told GOP lawmakers, according to Tim Alberta’s book, American Carnage. Trump believed, Alberta writes, that if he gave them “the policies and the access to authority that they longed for,” then “in return they would stand behind him unwaveringly.”
And so they have.
In judging how each side sees the relationship, let’s start with the president. A man whose lifestyle is more closely aligned with hedonism than with Christianity, Trump clearly sees white evangelicals as a means to an end, people to be used, suckers to be played. He had absolutely no interest in evangelicals before his entry into politics and he will have absolutely no interest in them after his exit. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a person who has less affinity for authentic Christianity—for the teachings of Jesus, from the Sermon on the Mount to the parable of the Good Samaritan—than Donald Trump.
But what about evangelicals? How do they view him? Some have undoubtedly convinced themselves that they have a faith connection with the president, declaring that Trump is everything from a “baby Christian” to a “born-again Christian.” In 2016, James Dobson, a significant figure in the evangelical political world for decades, said, “Trump appears to be tender to things of the [Holy] Spirit.” Let’s just say Trump has a rather peculiar way of showing such tenderness.
The less gullible or more cynical evangelicals view Trump transactionally. Trump may be using evangelicals to advance his aims, but they are also using Trump to advance their aims. (Many evangelicals have grown enamored with Trump’s relentless attacks and aggression, believing that he is inflicting wounds on those who deserve to be wounded.) The president might not be a model Christian in his personal life, they admit, but he delivers what they want, which is power and influence.
In no area is that more true than in the judiciary, where Trump has placed two conservative justices on the Supreme Court, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, and, absent anything unforeseen, will end his first term having added a third, Amy Coney Barrett. Say what you will about Trump’s ethical failures, his evangelical supporters insist, on the issue that matters most to them, Trump has been spectacular.
The transaction, from their perspective, is better than they could have hoped for. Trump has reshaped the federal judiciary, particularly compared with what would have happened if Hillary Clinton had been president, and nothing else Trump has done—no moral line he has crossed, no offense he has committed—can take away from his achievements in this area.
But if politically conservative evangelicals have things they can rightly claim to have won, what has been lost?
For starters, by overlooking and excusing the president’s staggering array of personal and public corruptions, Trump’s evangelical supporters have forfeited the right to ever again argue that character counts in America’s political leaders. They might try, but if they do, they will be met with belly laughs. It’s not that their argument is invalidated; it is that because of their glaring hypocrisy, they have sabotaged their credibility in making the argument.
The conservative evangelical David French has reminded us that in 1998, during the Bill Clinton–Monica Lewinsky scandal, the Southern Baptist Convention passed a “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials,” declaring that it was wrong to “excuse or overlook immoral or illegal conduct by unrepentant public officials so long as economic prosperity prevails,” because “tolerance of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”
It further affirmed that “moral character matters to God and should matter to all citizens, especially God’s people, when choosing public leaders,” and “implore[d] our government leaders to live by the highest standards of morality both in their private actions and in their public duties, and thereby serve as models of moral excellence and character.”
“Be it finally RESOLVED,” the document continued, “that we urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.”
It turns out that this resolution cannot have been based on deep scriptural convictions, as it was sold to the world (the Southern Baptist resolution included a dozen scriptural verses); it has to have been motivated, at least in large part, by partisanship. It’s quite possible, of course, that many of its supporters were blind to just how large a role partisanship and motivated reasoning played in the position they took. But there is simply no other way to explain the massive double standard.
The carefully choreographed dance goes like this: Moral character in public officials matters quite a lot when the public officials who morally fail are Democrats; it matters hardly at all when they are Republicans. If it’s a liberal who has crossed ethical lines, emphasize righteous conduct; if it’s a conservative, emphasize forgiveness and verses like “Judge not lest you be judged.” If it’s Bill Clinton in the dock, savage him; if it’s Donald Trump, savage his critics.
But the problem goes far beyond an inconsistent application of a biblical ethic. What the Trump years have exposed is something more fundamental, which is that many evangelical Christians have not brought anything distinctively Christian to politics.
One would hope that people of faith would act differently from members of political interest groups—that followers of Jesus would passionately defend human dignity, champion justice, and create the conditions for human flourishing, without being co-opted by any political party or power structure.
One might expect that they would care for the weak and the vulnerable, including the unborn and those living in the shadows of society; promote ordered liberty, empathy, and compassion, especially toward those viewed as social outcasts and aliens (one of the most striking features of the ministry of Jesus); and speak out—time and time and time again, if necessary—against political leaders and presidents, including those who advance a political agenda they believe in, if those leaders are cruel, pathologically dishonest, and lawless, and if they dehumanize their enemies. To reduce this to a single sentence: People of faith should embody moral and intellectual integrity.
I’ve argued in these pages before that the Trump-evangelical alliance has inflicted enormous damage on the Christian witness in America, particularly among Millennials and Gen Z. Unfortunately, the stories keep pouring in.
I was recently told by a friend that in 2018 he met with a group of students from a leading evangelical college. He reported that all of them—about a dozen—had turned against the term evangelical because of the way evangelicals were engaging in culture and politics during the Trump era.
This account reflects what James Astill, a reporter with The Economist, told me three years ago. Astill met with 14 students on the campus of the same school. “Most of them said they were less willing to be identified, by the world at large, as evangelicals,” he told me, “because they were so sickened by the identification of evangelicals with Trump.”
A few weeks ago, a person in Christian ministry told me in pained and poignant terms that he’s been counseling scores of younger evangelicals who are on the edge of leaving their faith and scores more who actually have lost their faith because they have been so unsettled by what they have witnessed during the Trump years.
I’ve heard from others about how nascent efforts at multiethnic reconciliation within their communities have now collapsed because of racial tensions that have been inflamed by the president, even while Trump retains the enthusiastic support of white evangelicals.
It’s fine to say to young people that they shouldn’t judge Christianity based on the actions of flawed Christians or the reckless statements and misconduct by those who are in positions of leadership, because the acid test of Christian faith is who Jesus was.
But that argument, while valid, goes only so far. Because the truth is that people, certainly outside the faith but also within it, do judge the merits of Christianity on the conduct of Christians and Christian leaders. We are social beings at our core; we find fulfillment and meaning in associating with others. So it’s a real problem if people see a narrative unfold—even if it’s an incomplete narrative, even if it’s one that doesn’t fully represent the diverse and nuanced views of tens of millions of evangelicals in America—and their reaction is: Look, I don’t want to be a part of that group. It’s self-righteous, it’s judgmental and ungracious, it’s angry and arrogant, and it’s just not something I want to be a part of.
This doesn’t mean Christians who vote for Donald Trump are committing a mortal or venial sin. It doesn’t mean they don’t have a case that deserves to be heard. It doesn’t mean they don’t have legitimate concerns or that they haven’t been on the receiving end of condescending attacks. And it certainly doesn’t mean Trump supporters can’t be fine people doing wonderful things in different areas of their lives.
“We have a savior, and personally, my president doesn’t even have to share my faith,” Jerushah Duford, the granddaughter of Billy Graham, said at a press briefing hosted by Not Our Faith, a new PAC whose purpose is to peel off Christian support for Trump. “However, [Trump’s] attempt to hijack our faith for votes, and the evangelical leaders’ silence on his actions and behavior, has presented a picture of what our faith looks like that’s so erroneous, it’s done significant damage to the way people view Jesus.”
The Trump era is hardly the first or most egregious time that people who speak for Christianity have disfigured their faith. Furthermore, evangelicalism isn’t the whole of Christianity in America, and Christianity in America isn’t the vital center of Christianity in the world. What American evangelicals do certainly matters, though perhaps not quite as much as its champions and critics might think. And there are pockets of renewal within American evangelicalism, along with a deep desire among many Christians to close this unfortunate chapter in their history and write a far more enchanting and captivating one next.
A final, somewhat more personal reflection, if I might. My criticisms of American evangelicals during the entirety of the Trump era have upset many people within my faith community, including some very close, longtime friends, who believe my critiques have been much too harsh, ungracious, and unsympathetic. They argue that in criticizing the president, I have become too much like him. They may be right; my only response is that I have spoken the truth as I (imperfectly) see it, assessing the case as clearly as I can and marshaling the arguments as best I can. I have tried to align my words to match the need of the moment. My judgment may well be wrong, but my conscience is clear.
I do know, though, that there are more and there are less constructive ways to disagree. In his beautiful book My Bright Abyss: Meditations of a Modern Believer, the poet Christian Wiman wrote:
The spiritual efficacy of all encounters is determined by the amount of personal ego that is in play. If two people meet and disagree fiercely about the theological matters but agree, silently or otherwise, that God’s love creates and sustains human love, and that whatever else may be said of God is subsidiary to this truth, then even out of what seems great friction there may emerge a peace that—though it may not end the dispute, though neither party may be “convinced” of the other’s position—nevertheless enters and nourishes one’s notion of, and relationship with, God.
Wiman went on to say, “Without this radical openness, all arguments about God are not simply pointless but pernicious, for each person is in the thrall to some lesser conception of ultimate truth and asserts not love but a lesson, not God but himself.”
What many of us within the Christian faith need to do better than we have—what I can do better than I have—is assert less of ourselves and more of God. If more followers of Jesus did that, if I did that, it would offer more people a place of repose in a deeply unsettling world.
Peter Wehner is a contributing writer at The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. He writes widely on political, cultural, religious, and national-security issues, and he is the author of The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump.