When President Donald Trump in an immigration policy meeting reportedly declared Haiti, El Salvador, and various African nations to be “shithole countries” whose immigrants we should reject in favor of those from Nordic climes, his evangelical supporters phrased their responses with care.
“Apart from the vocabulary attributed to him, President Trump is right on target in his sentiment,” said Robert Jeffress, a Dallas megachurch pastor whose support for Trump crosses well into the territory of civil idolatry. “I support his views 100 percent,” Jeffress told the Washington Post, “even though as a pastor I can’t use that language.”
Others, though more circumspect, took a similar tack. Johnnie Moore, a member of Trump’s evangelical advisory council, labeled the alleged phrasing “crass” before pivoting to charge that reports on the subject were “absolutely suspect and politicized,” a distraction from failures in Congress. Another council member, Pastor Mark Burns, likewise said he would “disavow” Trump’s crude language—“that’s not how I would speak”—but added it’s a mistake to focus on the president’s words instead of his deeds. And when Trump himself addressed the controversy on Twitter, he, too, minimized the import of his “tough” language in comparison to the policy matters at hand.
Trump’s critics have accepted this framework of deeds over words—and not without reason. To get hung up on “shithole” at the expense of grappling with its commentary on the worth of people with darker skin is at the very least inexcusable ignorance. As progressive Christian writer Rachel Held Evans argued on Twitter, the problem is “not that he uses ‘salty language.’ It’s that he uses ‘salty language’ while denigrating people of color.”
Evans is right that we err if we focus only on the language, but we also err if we ignore the way vulgarity works for Trump, the way it serves him as a means of defense and deflection. When Trump says something offensive in both meaning and phrasing, it allows him to apologize for the saltiness while sidestepping or downplaying the denigration. It allows his backers to condemn Trump’s language without wavering in their support for the man himself. And it allows members of the public unconcerned about Trump’s vocabulary to pivot all the way around to full acceptance of the president’s meaning and language alike.
This dynamic did not begin with “shithole.” It was also in play following news of that other contender for Trump’s most infamous vulgarity—“grab them by the pussy”—and the assorted indecencies in the “Access Hollywood” tape that contained it.
Jeffress deemed the then-candidate’s words “lewd, offensive, and indefensible,” but he did not waver in his support for Trump’s campaign. The “locker room banter” in the recording “is unfortunate,” said David Bozell, a Catholic who leads the pro-Trump ForAmerica group, “but then again, we’re not electing saints.” Faith and Freedom Coalition president Ralph Reed similarly declared that “10-year-old tapes of private conversation with a television talk show host rank very low” in his calculus for 2016. Focus on the Family’s Jim Dobson condemned Trump’s “deplorable” words “entirely” while indicating his intent to continue backing Trump.
In his video apology after the recording surfaced, Trump said his words were wrong but still sought to minimize their impact using the words/deeds dichotomy. “[T]here’s a big difference between [my] words and actions of other people,” he said, suggesting the Clintons’ guilt is greater than his own and claiming the recording is “nothing more than a distraction from the important issues we’re facing today.” In an interview with Anderson Cooper two days later, he dismissed his language as mere “locker room talk.”
This verbal sleight-of-hand is the real distraction. If Trump told with G-rated language the exact same story on the “Access Hollywood” tape, if he cleanly expressed the exact same sentiment that he did in the immigration meeting, what he said would be no less reprehensible—though ironically it might be more difficult to defend. There could be no pivot. There could be no condemning the language while supporting the policy. There could be no cover of “tough talk” and “locker rooms.” There would only be naked misogyny and racism.
Self-proclaimed Christians’ complicity in this chicanery is particularly egregious given Scripture’s clarity on the connection between our tongues and our hearts. Just as no “good tree bears bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit,” Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Plain, so a “good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart.”
What Jesus preached is utterly incompatible with court evangelicals’ claims that we may disregard Trump’s words—that his obscenities about women and people of color may be brushed aside as a point of personal preference—because his policy, intention, or heart is good.
Words and deeds cannot be thus separated, for “out of the abundance of the heart that the mouth speaks,” and “out of the heart come evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, slanders.” Our deeds and words, meaning and language, all have the same source. Knowing this, Trump’s evangelical backers deceive themselves and others when they use a sham dichotomy to create an illusion of distance between Trump’s language and his person.
Like a small blaze that will burn a great forest, the Apostle James wrote, so “the tongue is a fire, the very world of iniquity.” It “sets on fire the course of our life, and is set on fire by hell.” (If ever James needed a vivid illustration of his message, Trump has supplied it, and I confess his negative object lesson has me reexamining the habits of my own tongue.) James’s exhortation does not lend itself to “I wouldn’t speak that way, but…” Fire is not so easily contained. This month Trump has shown himself once more as an arsonist, and insofar as they let his vulgarity distract from his inhumanity, his evangelical supporters act as accomplices.
Bonnie Kristian is a fellow at Defense Priorities. She is a weekend editor at The Week and a columnist at Rare, and her writing has also appeared at Time, Politico, Relevant, The Hill, and other outlets.