“There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”
This recent statement by religious right activist Ralph Reed is objectively true, at least when it comes to sloppy kisses for the president. Considered purely as a political transaction, religious conservatives have gotten two appointments to the Supreme Court who set their hearts aflutter. They, in return, have shifted from the language of political realism to the language of love.
Trump has not gone back on the conservative promises of his presidential campaign. More than that, he has not let up in his attacks on liberal elites who disdain religious conservatives. Reed is correct that Trump has “defended us” and “fought for us.”
But this language itself should raise warning signs. Is this really how most conservative Christians view the political enterprise — as the vindication of their own interests rather than the good of the whole? Were Christian political activists of the 19th century — such as William Wilberforce, Frederick Douglass, Charles Finney and Harriet Beecher Stowe — primarily concerned with the respect accorded to their own religious community? No, they were known for taking the side of the oppressed and vulnerable.
It now seems like a different world. Maybe even a different conception of God.
Religious conservatives are now firmly allied in the public mind with a leader who practices the politics of exclusion. And there is every indication that this community will hold Trump in an ever-tighter embrace. Even if the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, the process of securing that nomination will push him further to the left on social issues (which he demonstrated in his about-face support for federal funding of abortion). This will make the contrast between Trump and his eventual opponent all the more dramatic on social issues.
A lot of attention has been given to the risks to the GOP (at the national level) of placing all their electoral bets on white voters who resent and fear a morally and ethnically changing country. In 2008, white Christians constituted 54% of the population. By 2014, that figure was more like 47%. And the slide continues. Republicans seem doomed to ride a retreating wave.
There is also, however, much to be said about the risk to evangelicalism. Evangelical Christians are tying themselves to an institution — the GOP — that is actively alienating college-educated voters, minority voters and younger voters. Evangelicals are thus entrenching a public perception that their movement consists of old, white Christians who want to restore lost social status through political power. Maybe this is because the perception is often accurate.
But there is no strategy of Christian evangelism that would take the Republican political strategy as a model. There is no conception of the Great Commission that would present Hispanic migrants as villains, or encourage millennials to continue their flight from religious association. (Around 36% of people age 18 to 34 never attend religious services — a percentage that has roughly doubled since 2004.)
The moral consequences of being a loyal part of Trump’s political coalition come into ever-sharper focus. During the 2016 presidential election, evangelicals could comfort themselves that it was possible — just possible — for Trump to grow in office and become something greater than the sum of his tweets. Doesn’t someone whom James Dobson called a “baby Christian” deserve a chance to grow up? Isn’t that the essence of grace?
This argument was a small fig leaf when it was made. Now evangelicals are naked before the world. Trump’s cruelty (see the treatment of migrant children), his bigotry (see Charlottesville, Virginia), his obstruction of justice (see any fair reading of the Mueller report), his vanity (see any time he speaks in public), his serial deception (also see any time he speaks in public) have become more pronounced and unrepentant over time. Can there be any question that reelection would result in Trump unbound?
At the same time, some evangelical leaders have become more effusive in their praise of the president. More willing to defend the indefensible on his behalf. More dismissive of the importance of character in public life.
In the process, evangelical leaders have placed themselves — uncritically, with open eyes — into a political coalition that is inspired by ethnic nationalism. Such are the occupational hazards of calling good evil, and evil good.