In the year of the orange-haired hellbeast, chaos and corruption reign supreme. We are just past the annual anniversary of the election of Donald J. Trump and now have an entire calendar year to look at the mounting consequences of America’s decision. The damage to American institutions can be considered: the frequent attacks on the press, ignoring of scientific consensus on climate change (even from his own government), threatening former FBI agents on Twitter, assailing our intelligence community, the perverse wishing that he could control the justice department to prosecute his political enemies, or the little matter of his associate’s connections to Russia which more and more are looking like a rather comedic episode of a reality TV show called “stupid criminals”. Of course there is more considering an almost daily barrage of Twitter nonsense and public comments which, at best, seem to re-imagine English language. Put that in your “covfefe”.
In spite of the social media tirades, bumbling public interviews, and profane shouting matches directed at Congressional members of his own political party, Trump has still pulled off having a reasonably solid base of support. Within this loyal following are the white nationalists and other assorted white supremacists led by people like David Duke and Richard Spencer. Their love for Trump and at least parts of his agenda has been publicly on display even obnoxiously on the T-shirt of arrested white supremacist, Dennis Mothersbaugh, which declared “God, Guns, and Trump”. Apparently a new American trinity.
Speaking of Trinity, many Evangelicals (religious right) still support Trump as another large block. I have touched on the religious right before by calling for the retirement of James Dobson from public life.
Many people are still asking all the time how Evangelical Christians can continue to support Trump. An important question certainly with multiple answers but still, considering the macro level that Trump has eschewed any sense of Christian living, any basic ethical considerations in his business dealings including casinos and strip clubs, one would genuinely wonder at what level Evangelical supporters may start to abandon him. What would it take to pry Trump from the clenched, death grip of the religious right? Could Trump shoot somebody in broad daylight in New York City (as he bragged he could) and still have their support? After all, here is a man who has flaunted in a major interview that he has never asked God for forgiveness. Apparently, blasphemy is negotiable within politics for some.
Back when I was in high school I was somewhat of a budding member of the religious right. Definitely more politically conservative than I am now. This was the time when the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky scandal broke and the religious right aggressively and publicly confronted Clinton’s sex life. The message revolved around the importance of Godly character and how as a leader he should be disqualified (or certainly not trusted) as he had cheated on his wife. In general, the religious right had a message about returning to America’s alleged godly heritage and putting in solidly Christian candidates. Pseudo historian David Barton was a prominent figure making videos and writing books that seemed to make most of our founding fathers into Evangelical-style Christians. Clinton obviously didn’t live up to this, according to their argument, and his downfall had the religious right flailing about on how America was sinking into moral degradation. Not even twenty years later, they would support the candidacy of Trump and still carry his water through the first year of his presidency.
Some of the leaders within the religious right may be taken aback by how many Evangelicals (specifically millennials) have reacted in anger and called foul on the entire enterprise of supporting Trump. A disillusionment has settled over this part of the Evangelical camp (if millennials are even still in the Evangelical camp). People who grew up hearing about the importance of character and integrity in leaders and were reminded of the vitalness of these crucial aspects now suspect they had been lied too. That most of the teaching revolving around this political perspective was a sham. It is not just me and not just other articles across the web of people expressing their dismay but multiple people that I know and have corresponded with in person or through social media in my circles.
Why again has the religious right thrown in with Trump when his behavior has been so far over multiple lines of morality and decency? Again, there are varied reasons but I want to focus on one of the reasons which brings me to the central point of this post.
The seductive allure of power. Having a seat in the corridors of immense power where a group can have access to fame and money. Power religion. Control. Oh, the people that know that religious faith can be used to manipulate. Power is tricky because it is so easy to justify the pursuit. The religious right preaches to itself that they can enact Christian legislation as a representation of their idea of Christ. Laws, in the minds of the religious right, can coarce people to behave Christianly under threat of government punishment if they don’t. American can be taken back. Made great again. A new flourishing godly awakening can sweep the land according to this delusion.
I was recently in a social media discussion with a politically conservative Evangelical and I asked in his pursuit of bringing theocractic dominion theology to America if pre-marital sex and adultery should be criminalized. The response came back that this was a debated point. So, a conservative who allegedly believes in limited government and uses slogans revolving around ‘keeping the government out of people’s lives’ debates the point that a government should have the power to go into the most intimate parts of consenting adult’s lives and dispense punishments if someone is going against the Christian ideal of sexuality?
Now, personally, I reject a lot of the philosophies that have come out of the sexual revolution in the 1960s. There is tremendous value in holding to a sacred view of sex within marriage. Isn’t it more powerful to have someone make this choice for themselves though? What is more meaningful? If I came home to my wife and stated that I would not sleep around with other women because I was afraid a government bureaucrat would punish me, is this at all meaningful? Or if I said I would refrain from sleeping with other women because I had made a choice (a personal vow) to love my wife? The difference is law and gospel. A subject that all Christians versed in the New Testament should be familiar with.
In a blog post during the run up to the election last year, Dr. Amy Dickey (Breaths of Life) wrote about law and gospel in the context of Trump’s blatant misogyny and questioning how male Christian leaders could support him. She wrote:
‘You have put your hope for advancing Christian values on your ability to control laws, but laws can only fail at this. A main point of the Old Testament, as far as the New Testament is concerned, is that laws cannot change people. Only Jesus can do that (Romans 3:21-26). Representing Jesus in the way we treat others is the primary way to change culture and to advance Christian values. You want to protect Christian churches and schools, but if the church is not representing Christ in the way we love others, why not just close them all? We have already lost.’
The message of Jesus that Dr. Dickey is articulating here is one of internal transformation. The sermon on the mount was largely Jesus’ message of changing the innermost center of a person. Murder starts with hatred. Adultery starts with lust. Stealing things starts with storing up treasures on earth or embracing materialism as an unsatisfying drug for the soul. Therefore, the centermost part of a person has to be changed by the gospel. A law will fall short of this kind of change.
When Lyndon Johnson passed the civil rights act of 1965, did this automatically end racism? After all, we got a new law in America. No, tragically racism goes far deeper into a cancerous sickness existing in a person or nation’s soul. A law, even a good one, falls short of significant transformation.
Loving God and loving our neighbors is the antithesis to power religion. While power religion seeks control and to manipulate using the most sacred message of all, the greatest commandment invites people on their own volition to find meaning and hope in Jesus. This is not something that can be coerced by the state but rather has to be something that people choose for themselves with the encouragement of their families or faith communities.
The grave concern is a considerable bloc within American Evangelical Christianity has lost the plot. The truth that they had received has been exchanged for a cynical pandering of delivering votes for powerful politicians- the quid pro quo for a seat at the table of power. Values and morality that they preached has been exposed as fraud as they have embraced a thrice married real estate developer whose abuses and assaults on women he has openly boasted about in the now infamous Access Hollywood tape. His racism widely reported (see Ta-Nehisi Coates brilliant article “The First White President”) and seen recently in an Alabama rally, with all of it’s contentious racial history, attacking NFL players (a league that is 66% African-American) for kneeling in protest during the National Anthem. “Get that son of a bitch off the field right now!”
The American churches support of this will bring a reckoning and sadly, it is already in motion. Ex-Evangelical and ex-Christian musician David Bazan in a recent interview talked about the growing number of people who were deconstructing their faith especially given this political reality. He says:
“Until this election I personally had quite a bit of hope that the white American church was not a ‘lost cause.’ I saw it as being capable of maturing and evolving while still retaining its basic form and identity. And even if I couldn’t participate as a ‘believer,’ as I’ve said, I wanted to be a helper in that process if I could. But the fruit that appeared on the tree last November was, for me, the ‘cut the damned thing down and throw it in the fire’ kind of fruit. So clouded by magical considerations that the vast majority couldn’t see the absurdity of what they were doing (forgive them…). For all the things they claim to believe, the election laid bare the actual, actionable loyalties of most white Christians in a way that one can’t unsee. Far too many of them still don’t even recognize it. They cannot be trusted. They can’t be taken seriously. As a group the correlation between their stated values and their real behavior is worse than random, they reliably champion evil and work against the best virtues of their own faith traditions. There is simply no way around it at this point; the racism, misogyny, and disdain for the poor are out in the open now. Whatever good Christians are capable of promoting in the larger society is far outweighed by the sea of problems they create with their political gullibility. It’s crushing.”
The perspective of Bazan, someone outside of the church, is crucial to those of us who want to see the gospel held up in a holy place rather than being corroded down into a political tool. We need to listen to how others see us. Do some still doubt Bazan? Are there national Christian leaders who still wonder why so many young people are leaving the church? A big part of the answer is exactly this discussion.
As another disturbing example during the past couple of weeks, the Roy Moore saga in Alabama has continued. With a groundswell of support from the religious right both in Alabama and nationally behind his Senate candidacy, stories broke about the would be Senator’s past pedophilia.
If one thought this could not get any more outrageous, that is not all. Alabama Auditor Jim Zeigler told the Washington Examiner, “Take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus. There’s just nothing immoral or illegal here. Maybe just a little bit unusual.” So, yes, an individual has literally used the birth accounts of our Lord and Savior as an attempt to justify child molestation. Where do we even begin with a comment that is so disgustingly offensive and dumb at the same time?
For me and for many, this is a time of solemn lamentation. The American Evangelical Church is sick. We have failed to uphold the sacred message of the gospel of our Lord. We have faltered in our help for widows, orphans, prisoners, minorities and the least of these. We have acted to cover up and not believe the accounts of women who have been sexually assaulted, abused or harassed. We have often made these same women out to be slanderers or divisive when they have come forward with credible allegations of abuse of those in power to our great shame.
A repentant course correction is needed immediately. May all the political doctrines and ideas that we have added to the gospel as an act of syncretism be burned away like chaff. A return is in order to the beautiful orthodoxy of Christianity: a loving God, an inspired Scripture, a God-Man named Jesus, a death for sins and a resurrection. As the book of James says, may it not stop with belief but be harnessed as action in love for our neighbors including those abused, immigrants, refugees and others in our lives. Evangelical church leadership, which has largely been dominated by white males like me, need to be much more inclusive of others in our communities. Women and other minorities should be invited into leadership roles to exercise their gifts, passions, callings and also, maybe most importantly, give new/ fresh perspectives on moving the church forward by the grace of God.
There is always hope for redemption with God and this begins with recognizing the grotesque mess we have created. Let power religion die.