A recent article in The Atlantic is just the latest of many analyses that demonstrate the devil’s bargain white evangelicals have made in their unequivocal support of Donald Trump. White evangelicals gave up their moral high ground to get Supreme Court judges. Those who have made the bargain thought throwing their support behind a narcissistic arrogant prudish man was worth it if it led to some wins in the culture war. Countless younger Christians in the Millennial and Gen-Z generations have seen through the hypocrisy, concluding there is nothing unique about Christianity. Christians are just power-hungry, ends-justifies-the-means folks as anyone else.
As the article states:
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.
This has been my biggest problem with the Christian support of Trump since the very beginning. I recall my younger days, remembering the refrain “character matters” coming from Christians in my family, my local church and the larger evangelical subculture. As a naive 16 year old, I believed them.
I now wonder if they believed? It seems “character matters” when it is someone in the other party but not in our own party.
The hypocrisy is, as Christians appear to only hold their enemies to any sort of moral standard while shrugging shoulders at the indiscretions of their friends. Albert Mohler, president of a Baptist seminary, once stated that if he ever supported Trump he would need to apologize to what he said about Bill Clinton. He recently supported Trump and I’m pretty sure he hasn’t sent that apology Clinton’s way.
(I’m actually 100% sure as just yesterday he posted an article saying he wouldn’t be apologizing to Bill Clinton. Again, they hypocrisy is obvious.)
The problem is deeper than who we vote for. This post is not about voting for Biden, Trump or someone else. Voting is the symptom of deeper issues in the white American Christian heart and mind. The problem is that White American Christians are moral relativists. When I was a young Christian, working my way through campus ministry at a secular university then studying at a Christian seminary, much of what I read warned of the danger of moral relativism. While secular atheists, and even some Christians, fell into moral relativism, it was our duty as “Bible-believing Christians” to stand firm for moral objectivity. Yet after twenty years of observing the white evangelical Christian subculture, it appears those warning about moral relativism were not able to notice how they fell into themselves.
The danger of moral relativism is apparent in the theology formed by white evangelicals. For example, early on in the rise of Trump, another Christian university president, the now disgraced Jerry Falwell Jr, tweeted that Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. The implication is that our political views need not be influenced by the teachings of Jesus. More recently, the popular provocateur Matt Walsh admitted to ends-justifies-the-means mentality, saying he did not mind if Republicans worked by one set of principles a few years back and a totally different set now, because he wants to win the culture war!
The theology at work here is one that makes Jesus our personal savior whose function is to get us into heaven when we die. But once our sins are dealt with and our eternal bliss secured, we can lay Jesus to the side and get on with living in this world by other means. Jesus, in this way of thinking, has little to nothing to say to this-worldly realities. Plenty of theologians and pastors have noticed this deficiency in western Christianity and specifically American evangelicalism. Dallas Willard called it vampire Christianity because it wants Jesus for his blood to wash away sins, but not as a person to follow in all aspects of life. This view of Jesus is certainly rooted in the fundamentalist-modernist controversy, which ceded any effort to bring the kingdom of God on earth to mainline/liberal churches and focused solely on getting to heaven. By the time fundamentalists decided to renter public life, they did not change their view of Jesus. They just relegated Jesus to spiritual things and looked to, as Kristin Kobes Du Mez says, John Wayne for public things.
Perhaps it would be fairer to say white evangelical Christians do bring their faith to bear on public realities. But this public faith seems to be limited to making abortion illegal, defending the right to own guns and fighting for the right to fire people who might be gay. The form of faith brought to the public square seems more rooted in Christian Nationalism and conservative political ideology (and fear of the other) than anything distinctly Christ-like. The deeper problem here then simply who one votes for is that for the majority of white evangelical Christians, what they think is Christian ethics is actually not rooted in the teaching of Jesus or the testimony of the historic Christian church nor the contemporary global church.
More on that below. First, a side note on libertarianism.
I think we see the same basic theology in Christians who support libertarianism. Like many of those who support Trump, libertarianism appears to relegate Jesus to private matters. To their credit, most of my libertarian friends appear to be opposed to Trump and Christian support of Trump. At the same time, it seems they have arrived at libertarianism more through disillusionment with American politics than deep reflection on scripture. Or they bring their distaste of politics to scripture and read scripture in such a way to justify libertarian politics. Either way, I believe libertarianism relegates Jesus to merely a private savior in much the same way white evangelical Christianity does. When the sole emphasis is individuals putting faith in Jesus and then individuals following Jesus, there is no room for anything beyond the individual in libertarianism. Libertarianism does not make any effort to shape culture, government or the public life in a Christ-like way. To libertarians, the public or political sphere is the one place Jesus is apparently not sovereign.
The problem is, whether you relegate Jesus to private matters as a libertarian or as a Trump-supporting evangelical, either way you are submitting to some other god in the public sphere. It is not as if this sphere is neutral. For Christians to not let Jesus shape our public life is to let some other god (philosophy, ideology) to do so.
This is why I am not concerned with any sort of accusation that opposing Trump is to fully endorse the secular left. All I can say is that I have tried my hardest throughout my life to develop views on politics and public life that flow from my faith. In many cases – climate change, health care, taxation of the rich, benefits for those in need, limits of military – the specific positions I have come to line me up with the left. Yet I do not presume to be welcomed with open arms, for I cannot hide the fact my views are distinctly rooted in my faith.
The fact that it is surprising, to both Christians and non-Christians, that something other than conservative politics can be rooted in Christian faith is a problem. There is a long history of Christian socialism which all would do well to become more versed in.
Debating democratic socialism, libertarianism and conservatism is not the point of this post. I will admit, well-meaning, Jesus-loving Christians can end up on various points along this scale. The question I am interested in is why we come to the conclusions we do? Do we lean towards capitalism or democratic socialism or libertarianism because of our faith and its traditions? Or do we lean where we do due to the influences coming from elsewhere?
I think a large part of the reason so many Christians struggle to have public views rooted in faith is because we are being taught to root them in something else on a regular basis. We may spend a few hours in church each week, but the rest of our time we are being discipled by these other gods into other gospels. Rush Limbaugh has done more to disciple Christians in the past thirty years than any pastor, which is why American conservatism shapes many of us more than anything distinctly Christian. Rush is just one of many conservative talking heads who are not coming from a position of faith (at least, not historic Christian faith…they come at if from Christian Nationalist faith) who are tremendously influential.
How does this play out? Take the issue of guns for example. You’ll have a hard time defending the need for a gun for self-defense from a Christian perspective. Jesus does not seem at all interested in use of violence for personal safety. The first centuries of the early church were unified in opposing Christian involvement in war. Jesus calls his disciples to take up our cross and follow him, even to death, so to use violence against others to preserve our own lives goes directly against what we are called to do. Why then do so many conservative evangelicals see supporting the Second Amendment as central to their faith? The obvious answer is because their faith is more defined by American Christian Nationalism than the teachings of Jesus.
We are defined by American Christian Nationalism rather than the teaching of Jesus or historic Christian faith because we are shaped by other gods and gospels for our public and political life. James KA Smith calls these secular liturgies:
“Through a vast repertoire of secular liturgies we are quietly assimilate to the earthly city of disordered loves, governed by self-love, and pursuit of domination. So we toddle off to church or Bible study week after week, comforting ourselves that we’re devoted to ‘the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord, the temple of the Lord ( Jer. 7:4), without realizing that we spend the rest of the week making bread for idols (Jer. 7:18) because we fail to appreciate the religious nature of these ‘secular’ practices. So we become the kind of people who are inclined to a sort of low-grade, socially acceptable greed that makes us remarkably tolerant of inequality and the exploitation of the (global) poor; or we take for granted a mobile, commuting way of life that exploits creation’s resources rather than stewards them. We might be passionately devoted to ending religious persecution without for a moment considering how our ‘normal’ way of life exploits children halfway around the globe, or we think it’s just ‘natural’ to turn a blind eye to the suffering of Christians in countries we bomb int he name of ‘freedom.’A way of life becomes habitual for us such that we pursue that way of life – we act in that way of life – without thinking about i because we’ve absorbed the habit us that is oriented to a corresponding vision of ‘the good life.’ Indeed, because this becomes sedimented into my background, I can’t even see the world otherwise; this way of seeing it just seems ‘obvious,’ and I don’t even feel the call to be otherwise. I fail to resist temptation, not because I’ve simply made a bad decision, but because I’ve failed to recognize that I’m being malformed by a constellation of cultural ‘disciplines’ that are disciplining me otherwise. And such rival discipleship is effected through the most banal practices…such liturgies are pedagogues of insignificance: they co-opt us to an ultimate vision by simply demanding what seems to be insignificant” (James KA Smith, Imagining the Kingdom, 142).
To refute Christian nationalism and white supremacy will require recognizing that we need to be shaped by what is distinctly Christian: the life and teaching of Jesus, the scripture, the historic Christian church that spans the globe. Of course, this itself is no easy task. Admittedly, Christian theology itself has often been compromised through the ages. The most important step any of us can take is to expand who we listen to and learn from. I believe we must look to the tradition of the church, especially prior to the 1500s, and the global church that is non-white and non-American. The uncomfortable reality we may find is that becoming disciples of Jesus and applying this to public life requires questioning the greatest and most powerful of all Western gods: Capitalism.
But more on that next time…