Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Leaning on the Evangelical Arms
Donald Trump met with a thousand Evangelicals this week in New York and apparently warmed their hearts like a camp meeting revivalist. Hardly the old sawdust trail, Trump’s meeting was with the well-heeled elite of the Evangelical movement in a Manhattan hotel. Scooping up campaign swag – Trump promised to end the ban on churches offering partisan political endorsements and told the group that he would get retail clerks to start saying “Merry Christmas” again – the participants apparently chose to see Trump on some sort of moral and spiritual journey toward faith in what must be the weirdest pilgrim’s progress ever recorded.
Religious folk have never shown much reluctance to prostitute themselves to candidates whose politics serve their perceived and not always principled ends. And by no means has this been limited to the religious right. But this trumping of piety for partisan advantage seems particularly bizarre given Trump’s lifestyle, business practices, and rhetoric, not to mention what can only be described as transient (at best!) engagement with traditional practices of faith whether it be asking God for forgiveness or nibbling on a communion “cracker.”
This prompts the question posed over and over again by this campaign season, “What the hell is going on here?” Some of it may, of course, be explained by the visceral hatred many conservatives have for Secretary Clinton or, as Trump would say, “Crooked Hillary.” But that can’t be the whole reason. Novelist Marilynne Robinson, in one of her recent non-fiction essays, offers this insight:
“In the last few decades a profound, if relative, change has taken place in American society. No doubt as a consequence of a recent vogue for feeling culturally embattled, the word “Christian” now is seen less as identifying an ethic, and more as identifying a demographic.” (The Givenness of Things, 2015)
For some time the Evangelicals represented at this week’s New York gathering have offered the world a peculiar blend of triumphalism and victimization, presenting themselves as both the confident vanguard of American exceptionalism and as a besieged and beleaguered remnant being overwhelmed by the godless elites. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” taps into this dual personality, gathering a large chunk of the Evangelical “demographic” into his larger umbrella demographic of white people seeking to assert and retain their cultural and political dominance amidst the momentous population shifts now taking place and represented by the twin demons of undocumented immigrants on the one hand and the current Black president on the other. Trump has replaced the old white supremacist politics of Strom Thurmond, George Wallace, and Jessie Helms with his populist appeal to white survival, albeit covered by the more polite veneer of concern for the shrinking middle class or, in this case, the embattled Evangelicals.
In other words, this campaign is largely and centrally about race, and that enables many white Evangelicals to overlook Trump’s adultery, crude misogynist rhetoric, investments in gambling, unethical business practices, grandiose hubris, and even his somewhat “unreliable” views of gays. This, of course, has been part of the Republican Party’s political playbook since wresting control of the South from the Democrats following Lyndon Johnson’s signing of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s. That so many Evangelical leaders continue to be willing pawns in this game of white survival is worse than pathetic.
Not every Evangelical has sold her or his birthright for a pot of Trumpian stew. Nor are the rest of us innocent of sometimes shaving our principles for the sake of some secular savior serving our own group interest. Robinson reminds us of the danger:
“All the praying on street corners, or, in contemporary terms, all the making of elaborate claims for one’s special piety on cable channels, and, heaven help us, at political events, might be evidence of an upsurge of enthusiasms that assume the coloration of religion for purposes that are not, strictly speaking, terribly religious. People of good faith get caught up in these things in all times and all places. In the excitement of the moment who really knows he might not also shout, ‘Give us Barabbas!’”
(That would be John 18.40, Donald.)
John H. Thomas
June 23, 2016