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Christians Tempted By Trump Idolatry

If Trump falls, conservative Christians will be scapegoated -- and will not be entirely innocent


I don’t agree with Michael Gerson on a lot of things — I believe he is far too accommodationist to the moral values of post-Christianity — but I suspect he has this right about his fellow Evangelicals:

Third, without really knowing it, Trump has presented a secular version of evangelical eschatology. When the candidate talked of an America on the brink of destruction, which could only be saved by returning to the certainties of the past, it perfectly fit the evangelical narrative of moral and national decline. Trump speaks the language of decadence and renewal (while exemplifying just one of them).

In the Trump era, evangelicals have gotten a conservative Supreme Court justice for their pains – which is significant. And they have gotten a leader who shows contempt for those who hold them in contempt – which is emotionally satisfying.

The cost? Evangelicals have become loyal to a leader of shockingly low character. They have associated their faith with exclusion and bias. They have become another Washington interest group, striving for advantage rather than seeking the common good. And a movement that should be known for grace is now known for its seething resentments.

Of course I do believe that we are in an era of moral and national decline, and I do believe that we have to return in some real sense to the past to find the right way forward. To the extent those things are believed by Evangelicals, they have that right. The problem is that so many of them saw Donald Trump (and politics in general) as a credible answer to the challenge. As I write in The Benedict Option:

Though Donald Trump won the presidency in part with the strong support of Catholics and Evangelicals, the idea that the robustly vulgar, fiercely combative, and morally compromised as Trump will be an avatar for the restoration of Christian morality and social unity is beyond delusional. He is not a solution to America’s cultural decline, but a symptom of it.


Besides, fair or not, conservative Christianity will be associated with Trump for the next few years, and no doubt beyond. If conservative church leaders aren’t extraordinarily careful in how they manage their public relationship to the Trump phenomenon, anti-Trump blowback will do severe damage to the church’s reputation. Trump’s election solves some problems for the church, but given the man’s character, it creates others. Political power is not a moral disinfectant.
And this brings us to the more subtle but potentially more devastating effects of this unexpected GOP election victory. There is first the temptation to worship power, and to compromise one’s soul to maintain access to it. There are many ways to burn a pinch of incense to Caesar, and some prominent pro-Trump Christians arguably crossed that line during the campaign season. Again, political victory does not vitiate the vice of hypocrisy.

There is also the danger of Christians falling back into complacency. No administration in Washington, no matter how ostensibly pro-Christian, is capable of stopping cultural trends toward desacralization and fragmentation that have been building for centuries. To expect any different is to make a false idol of politics.

What’s more, to believe that the threat to the church’s integrity and witness has passed because Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 presidential election is the height of folly.

One reason the contemporary church is in so much trouble is that religious conservatives of the last generation mistakenly believed they could focus on politics, and the culture would take care of itself.

Read the whole thing. And reflect too on this paragraph from Gerson’s column:

In a recent analysis, the Pew Research Center found that more than three-fourths of white evangelicals approve of Trump’s job performance, most of them “strongly.” With these evangelicals comprising about a quarter of the electorate, their support is the life jacket preventing Trump from slipping into unrecoverable political depths.

I’m not sure that Trump is in danger of “slipping into unrecoverable political depths” (but stick around!), but I am very sure that if Trump’s presidency collapses, that Christians in general and Evangelicals in particular are going to be the scapegoats.

It will not matter if you are a conservative Christian who spoke out against Trump during the campaign, or who did not vote for him. We are going to own him. The people within US culture, especially among the elites, who hate conservative Christians aren’t going to separate out the Russell Moores from the Jerry Falwell Jrs; it’s going to be on all of us. These diehard Trump-backing Christians will have provided progressives, as well as factions within the GOP who are sick of Christians’ influence in the party, with the pretext they need to crack down. Good luck defending religious liberty when it is associated with Donald Trump, whose only meaningful move on religious liberty has been to order the IRS not to enforce the law against political activity (including fundrai$ing) on the part of churches.

In October 2016, Andy Crouch, then executive editor at Christianity Today, penned an editorial that will be seen eventually as prophetic. It said, in part:

He has given no evidence of humility or dependence on others, let alone on God his Maker and Judge. He wantonly celebrates strongmen and takes every opportunity to humiliate and demean the vulnerable. He shows no curiosity or capacity to learn. He is, in short, the very embodiment of what the Bible calls a fool.

Some have compared Trump to King David, who himself committed adultery and murder. But David’s story began with a profound reliance on God who called him from the sheepfold to the kingship, and by the grace of God it did not end with his exploitation of Bathsheba and Uriah. There is no parallel in Trump’s much more protracted career of exploitation. The Lord sent his word by the prophet Nathan to denounce David’s actions—alas, many Christian leaders who could have spoken such prophetic confrontation to him personally have failed to do so. David quickly and deeply repented, leaving behind the astonishing and universally applicable lament of his own sin in Psalm 51—we have no sign that Trump ever in his life has expressed such humility. And the biblical narrative leaves no doubt that David’s sin had vast and terrible consequences for his own family dynasty and for his nation. The equivalent legacy of a Trump presidency is grievous to imagine.

Most Christians who support Trump have done so with reluctant strategic calculation, largely based on the president’s power to appoint members of the Supreme Court. Important issues are indeed at stake, including the right of Christians and adherents of other religions to uphold their vision of sexual integrity and marriage even if they are in the cultural minority.

But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.

Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.

If Donald Trump, through his own bumbling braggadocio, inadvertently revealed some of the nation’s most secret intelligence to the Russians, this is a very, very big deal. We do not have proof that Trump did this, but finding out the answer to that question cannot be a matter of indifference. There is no doubt that there are people within the intelligence community and permanent Washington bureaucracy who would like to see Trump fail. Maybe they are lying about the disclosure to the Russians — and if so, may their lies be exposed and may they be held responsible for what they have done.

But maybe they aren’t lying. What Trump is alleged to have done is perfectly within his character. Either way, the American people have to know. It is time for the sources of this leak to come forward, even if it means they have to resign. The stakes are too high.

For my tribe, conservative Christians, the stakes are mighty high as well. Many of us have already been willing to ignore a lot of things we previously said that we should not ignore — this, for the sake of supporting Trump. I did not vote in the presidential election, but I certainly understand why conservative Christians may have voted for Trump with a heavy heart, given how hostile Hillary Clinton would have been to our interests. Now, though, we had better be asking ourselves where the line is that Trump would have to cross to cost him our support. If — if — we learn that Trump did what he is alleged to have done, and you stand behind him even so, how do you answer the charge that Christians care so much about access to power that they will turn a blind eye when the president they support blabs extremely sensitive national security secrets to the Russians? Are we really idolaters who would sell our souls to stay in the king’s good graces?

Again: we don’t know for sure that Trump did what he is accused of doing. But if, once the smoke clears, he turns out to have done it, what will we do? Where will our moral credibility be if we still stand by him? Why should anyone take us seriously after that? There was a time when we condemned Democrats and liberals for standing by Bill Clinton, despite how he disgraced the Oval Office. We accused them of caring more about power than principle — and we were right to. Remember when the liberal journalist Nina Burleigh said in 1998, amid the Lewinsky scandal, that she would fellate Bill Clinton to thank him for keeping abortion legal? Are conservative Christians really prepared to walk a mile in her kneepads for Donald Trump? And for what?

God is not mocked.