For the better part of a year I’ve been trying to wrap my mind around the support Donald Trump is getting from a certain segment of the Evangelical Christian community 1. He is a man who treats the Image of God with utter contempt, especially when the image-bearer is a woman. He is a man who seems to constantly trade up for a “newer model” of wife when his current one becomes too old for his tastes. He is a man who appears to have a pathological aversion to telling the truth and a mental armor which is impervious to correction.
So why, for all that is good and righteous, have certain Evangelicals run to embrace his candidacy, and even welcome him into their portion of the Evangelical fold?
The most common assumption has typically focused on Trump’s flimsy promises to return Christians to cultural superiority. “We’ll be saying Christmas again,” he once pointed out. In many ways this makes sense, a hunger for power will often make even the most principled of people compromise their values to get a taste of it.
What I couldn’t understand, however, was how Trump so easily duped this portion of Evangelicalism with promises so etherial as to be almost non-existent. What led them to lose any semblance of discernment and welcome to the family a man who has publicly stated he’s never asked for forgiveness? It has absolutely boggled my mind.
And then I watched the debate this week and something dawned on me. Donald Trump is extremely pessimistic. In Donald Trump’s world the sky is not only falling, its on fire and filled with evil aliens riding guided missiles. If you happen to already be a person who feels beaten down and afraid for their future, hearing him speak would almost certainly be validation for the way you feel. The world sucks and has no hopeful prospects for improving.
This is precisely the type of attitude which ultimately drove me out of the Evangelical fold 2.
Throughout the history of Western Civilization, there has been a repeated mixing of religious and political identity. The inevitable outcome of this toxic cocktail is the misidentification of temporal power with Jesus’ Kingdom. People mostly attribute this to Constantine’s conversion in the later Roman Empire and leave it at that, but the Papal abuses of the Middle Ages, the actual wars fought in the wake of the Reformation, and the Puritan revolution in 17th Century England all show how this confusion rises again and again. It’s one of the greatest tricks Satan pulls on the Church, and we almost always fall for it. Heck, even the Anabaptists have the horrors of Münster in their history, and they’re almost all pacifists! At times in the history of America this toxic cocktail has also be mixed here. In Commonwealth New England the use of the sword to keep dissenters in line was all too common. In fact, it’s what drove Roger Williams to flee for his live and eventually found Rhode Island. In the wake of the election of Thomas Jefferson in 1800 clergy in New England attempted to flex this type of muscle and pull the New England states from the Union. They failed spectacularly, but the fact they thought they could wield that sort of power is telling. In the lead up to the Civil War Christians in North and South stepped away from the call to be the conscience of culture 3 and championed instead their respective affiliations.
In the recent past, this toxic cocktail has been mixed again. A significant portion of Evangelicalism had spent years devoting its energy to fighting the “culture wars” — mostly in the 80’s and 90’s 4. Most of these culture warriors were against things — liberals, the gay agenda, evolution, female clergy, “main stream media,” liberals, etc.
They lost. Not only did they lose, they sustained string of defeats which reached epic proportions over the course of decades. This changed something in the psyche of this segment of Evangelicalism. Rather than a hopeful desire to right the ship of a listing culture, many Evangelicals returned to the type of pessimistic apocalyptic narrative which had previously emerged in this country in the immediate wake of the American Civil War. The end of the world was immanent, this narrative declared, so things were only going to get worse. 9/11 was, for many subscribed to this philosophy, a validation God was intent on destroying our civilization.
It’s this pessimistic negativity which draws many of this portion of Evangelicalism to Trump’s message. It doesn’t matter if he’s a horrible person, or possesses a temperament which reveals he’s unsuited to hold the office of President. The only thing which matter is he sees the world like these Evangelicals see the world. Their shared pessimism creates a bond which ignores all other considerations, and leaves this portion of the Evangelical community wide open to Trump’s manipulations. With this movement, the Christian faith has become ripped from the actual message and teaching of Jesus, and grafted on to a sense of political anger and rage.
Jesus, forgive us, we really don’t know what we’ve done.
- I haven’t considered myself an Evangelical for years, but many of my Christian friends are from this community and are equally amazed by the level of support he’s getting from some quarters. In other words, don’t assume all Evangelicals are anywhere near backing this man’s candidacy. ↩
- Many people, both Christian and otherwise, are under the misconception Christianity is pessimistically hoping for the end of the world. This is absolutely not true, Christianity looks forward to re-creation and a world made new. As a pastor I must shoulder part of the responsibility for failing to make this hope abundantly clear to those who come under my care. ↩
- And the reality the Church was ever divided on the African Slave Trade is just one more example of how temporal power became the dominant force in forming Christian attitudes. ↩
- I really shouldn’t only point out Evangelicals here, as folks from the more liberal wing of the Church fought these wars as well. I call out Evangelicals mostly because I was one. ↩