Evangelicals and Trump: Same-vexed union

Last Monday, President Donald Trump had some evangelicals leaders over to the White House to give them marching orders for November. Reporters weren’t invited, but The New York Times ended up with an audio recording of the president’s remarks (perhaps this is why that “failing” publication does so well in Google searches) during which he: A. accepted the title of “the greatest leader for Christianity;” B. warned them of violent progressive Democrats; and C. urged them to break the law by using the pulpit to tell church members to vote Republican in November.

So was the response by the 100 or so invitees to patiently ignore A and B as self-serving pablum and question the wisdom of C, as it would cause them to violate the Johnson Amendment which prohibits churches from campaigning for candidates at risk of their tax exempt status? Mr. Trump claims to have overturned that law by executive order, but only Congress has the power, and it hasn’t done so. Last year, the president instructed the IRS not to enforce the Johnson Amendment, but experts say that has little effect.

The answer (as if you had to ask): By all accounts, the clergy ate it all up, lock, stock and smoking hypocrisy.

White evangelicals might be President Trump’s most unshakable supporters. Polls suggest as many as 81 percent back him. Too often, this support is dismissed by the president’s critics as some kind of single issue transaction. They perceive evangelicals as so dead-set against abortion rights that they are willing to ignore the moral shortcomings of the Oval Office’s current inhabitant because they have their eyes on the big prize — a packed U.S. Supreme Court that will weaken and perhaps even overturn Roe v. Wade. But the bond appears much stronger than just that. And it’s not because of the economic uncertainty of the middle class fretting over jobs.

Over and over again, the core Trump platform seems designed to cater to the concerns of white evangelicals that the country is slipping away from them on a more basic, cultural level as they become a smaller percentage of the overall population. Even the central theme of the Trump campaign to make American great “again” plays into this reactionary thinking that the country has drifted away from its white, Christian-centered, heterosexual past and turned toward something with which white evangelicals do not identify. They don’t want to just turn back the clock to 1972 on women’s reproductive rights, they’d like to turn it back on immigration, civil rights, separation of church and state, who serves in the military or merits a wedding cake and on and on.

This isn’t a religious conflict, it’s a cultural one. How else to explain that so many of these same institutions came down hard on President Bill Clinton for his relationship with Monica Lewinsky but have hardly batted an eye over the deluge of reports about moral failings that have come out about their hero? The “Access Hollywood” tape, the changing tales of affairs and payoffs, the growing list of associates headed for prison, the embrace of white supremacy. Even a watershed moment of moral repugnancy like the separation of undocumented immigrant children from their mothers brought nary a raised hand from this segment of Mr. Trump’s most faithful.

How evangelical leaders can reconcile Mr. Trump’s personal life, his incendiary tweets, his frequent lies, his bigotry toward people of color (not to mention the very minuteness of the role faith appears to have played in his life) with their unabashed worship of him is nothing short of a miracle. The Gospel seems so packed with lessons about love and forgiveness, helping others and steering clear of pride and greed that you would think the average minister would see this president as more of a lost soul in desperate need of their attention than someone to follow.

President Trump’s warning to evangelical leaders that if Democrats win big at the polls this fall, take control over Congress and then “quickly and violently” (as if Sens. Ben Cardin and Kirsten Gillibrand kept Antifa black masks and goggles in their desks for such occasions) reverse Trump administration actions to date sounds more like Elmer Gantry than Billy Graham — opportunistic, insincere and dripping with narcissism. Yet this particular section of the congregation just loves him all the more.

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