As Donald Trump’s presidency continues, it becomes increasingly clear that no amount of un-Christlike behavior will cause a rift between the president and his religious supporters.
They continue to approve of his job even as his lies grow more frequent and his lack of character is evermore on display.
How can this be? Those outside Trump’s cult following — particularly outside the evangelical community — struggle to make sense of this apparent forsaking of godliness in order to champion an elected official who is antithetical to all things Christian.
In 2016, American evangelicals appear to have taken the deal Jesus rejected in their own holy book: “The devil took [Jesus] to a very high mountain and showed him all the kingdoms of the world and their splendor. “All this I will give you,” he said, “if you will bow down and worship me” (KJV Matthew 4:8-9).
Jesus said to him, “Away from me, Satan! For it is written: ‘Worship the Lord your God, and serve him only.’ ” (KJV Matthew 4:10).
Jesus said no. He chose not to trade service to God for a chance to rule over all the kingdoms of the earth.
But today’s evangelicals have given in to temptation. They have taken the deal, trading in any sense of morality or godliness for the chance to rule — for a chance to fashion the country in the image of what they have come to believe is right, but is by no means in the likeness of the One they claim to serve.
“Boston Public Radio” host Margery Eagan opined on this topic just after Easter:
This is what’s been argued ever more fervently in Christian and secular circles since Trump’s election. The president has apparently divided a faith just as he has divided this country.
Earlier this year, numerous Christian leaders came together to denounce the type of Christianity espoused by predominantly white evangelicals that allows for this cult following of the president, setting up a website called ReclaimingJesus.org.
Since almost no black evangelicals support Trump, “you can’t call them evangelicals,” [JimWallis, founder of Sojourners magazine] said in an interview last week. “I keep telling the press, call them old white evangelicals, nearly all men, rich, the ones benefiting from the tax cuts.
“Or Trump evangelicals,” he said, “part of a fake church, to use (the president’s) language.”
“Reclaiming Jesus” is less about condemning romps with porn stars and more about condemning tax cuts for the wealthy, cuts to health care and food benefits for the poor, and the shunning of refugees and immigrants. It rejects Trump’s “America First” slogan as “theological heresy,” along with misogyny, racism, xenophobia, and presidential lying.
But these are some of the very notions underlying this particular brand of American Christianity — one that is bathed in American exceptionalism, stained by racism, and born not of love but of fear and hate.
It is why a Southern Baptist Trump supporter in Alabama can say Jesus meant “love thy American neighbor” and welcome the “legal immigrant” stranger — not those pesky brown people from other lands.
As for doing unto the least of these? Those are Americans, too.
When Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council said Trump gets a “mulligan” for his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels and subsequent hush payment, the most disturbing aspect was not his blatant hypocrisy but his reasoning:
“I think the president is providing the leadership we need at this time, in our country and in our culture.”
The president is willing to serve Perkins’ agenda — not God’s supposed will or plan, but the plan that Perkins and his ilk believe to include enriching the wealthy, demonizing the poor, keeping the population white, and so on.
Trump could personify every type of evil, and it would matter not to the likes of Perkins.
Or Liberty University’s Jerry Falwell Jr., who said, “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome—he never said Roman soldiers should turn the other cheek in battle or that Caesar should allow all the barbarians to be Roman citizens or that Caesar should tax the rich to help poor.”
A slew of evangelical leaders have led their followers to believe this theology is sound, this plan is of God, and their very existence is at stake.
“Under siege” is how Trump put it last year:
One fascinating explanation, proffered repeatedly during conversations with evangelicals over the past year, is that they identify with Trump because both he and they have been systematically targeted in the public square—oftentimes by the same adversaries. This explains why Trump, speaking last week to the Faith and Freedom Coalition’s annual gathering in Washington, offered an extraordinary sentiment in pledging to support the evangelical community.
“We’re under siege. You understand that,” the president said. “But we will come out bigger and better and stronger than ever.”
Attorney General Jeff Sessions has wielded the same notion, encouraging evangelicals to perceive that they are under attack and facing widespread persecution:
“Let’s be frank: A dangerous movement, undetected by many but real, is now challenging and eroding our great tradition of religious freedom. There can be no doubt. It’s no little matter. It must be confronted intellectually and politically and defeated.”
The deception works because this subset of American Christians is not concerned with actual faith so much as it is concerned with itself.
Evangelicals didn’t sell out Jesus when Trump came along; they sold out Jesus long before, and it is the underpinnings of their belief system — those diametrically opposed to Jesus’ teachings — that allow for their blatant attempt to wrest control of the nation.