January 28, 2016

Evangelicals, it’s time for a gut check on Trump (COMMENTARY)

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U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points to Liberty University President Jerry Falwall, Jr. after speaking in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 18, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump points to Liberty University President Jerry Falwall, Jr. after speaking in Lynchburg, Virginia, on January 18, 2016. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Joshua Roberts

(RNS) The tragedy of billionaire Donald Trump’s popularity in the Republican presidential nominating contest has many concerned citizens asking: How can this be happening?

People horrified at the specter of Trump’s becoming the Republican nominee would do well to consider how they are culpable in this travesty.

With Jerry Falwell Jr.’s endorsement of Trump for the GOP nomination this week, the Christian right political movement is due for a long moment of sober reflection.

Republicans have not succeeded electorally because people find philosophical arguments for conservatism convincing. They’ve succeeded because of a groundswell of anti-government, anti-elite and nativist sentiment among fearful or aggrieved whites.

In a similar vein, if the Christian right consisted of winsome evangelical Ph.D.’s and their Twitter followers, it would not be very influential. But because the movement encompasses loudmouthed preachers, obnoxious broadcasters and every American who claims to cherish “traditional family values,” it is powerful enough to guide party platforms, propel candidates and exercise influence on government and policy.


RELATED STORY: GOP debaters will keep Iowa’s evangelical voters in mind


Every movement must negotiate the tension between principles, ideals and purity on the one hand and breadth, power and prestige on the other.

But the Christian right faces a critical choice: It can be small and have integrity, or it can be “yuge” and disastrous.

While conservative Christian political engagement has become more thoughtful in recent years, evangelicals enforce their movement’s boundaries very selectively.

Leaders have labored tirelessly to keep LGBT-affirming people outside the big tent of evangelicalism. But evangelicals have been timid in explaining the meaningful distinctions between their faith and the ideology of crude and stridently partisan radio hosts like Rush Limbaugh and Erick Erickson.

In the early days of the Christian right, religious leaders and political strategists knew they needed showmen, mega-pastors and media-savvy communicators to rally the troops. The Rev. Jerry Falwell fit the bill perfectly.

Liberty University was a self-proclaimed bastion of fundamentalism. Today, it strives to be in the evangelical mainstream.

There’s a cost to regarding institutions like Liberty and its president, Jerry Falwell Jr., as evangelical like any other.

Christian leaders who don’t stand up to their crude brethren lack standing to evict Trump disciples from the evangelical big tent.


RELATED STORY: Trump gets official and unofficial endorsements from 2 leading evangelicals


The religious right learned about the trade-offs of political clout. Sometimes the relationship between power and integrity seems to run in opposite directions. At the height of its influence, the movement completely ignored or sloppily reinterpreted Christian teaching on most issues not directly related to human sexuality.

The late David Kuo, an evangelical Bush administration staffer who came to see his work as a “sad charade,” suggested in a 2006 book that Christians “fast from politics for a season.”

Some did, retreating from blind partisanship and claiming a more rigorous and theological higher ground.

But power is seductive, as this new generation of evangelical activists will eventually discover when a Republican administration comes to power and offers them plum jobs, connections to fame and fortune, and seats at the president’s table.

Evangelical leaders must do more than make the case that an informed Christian conscience cannot support Trump for president. They need to explain why figures like Jerry Falwell Jr. should not be heeded.

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at Religion News Service and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University. His website is www.jacoblupfer.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jlupf. Photo courtesy of Jacob Lupfer

Conservative evangelicalism has an easy time saying farewell to anyone who affirms LGBT inclusion in the church. But it struggles to break definitively with individuals and institutions that are more Republican than Christian but nevertheless adhere to the “right” doctrines.

Evangelicals are reliable advocates for unborn children and for religious freedom. Some advocate for the poor, the sick and the outcast. But they need to say more clearly that the Republican Party is an idol, that the politics of exclusion and racial resentment are un-Christian and that candidates’ rhetoric should be as kind and compassionate as their policies.

Only then can they begin to make Christian political engagement great again.

(Jacob Lupfer is a contributing editor at RNS and a doctoral candidate in political science at Georgetown University)

 

  • Yes, the article needs more subtlety. And it needs to explain that tradeoffs exist only when there is to be something gained, but that desired gain is not a biblical prize. For what some of my fellow religiously conservative Christians want is control over those who are different. And that is what political charletons like Donald Trump and most of the other Republican candidates offer.

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  • G Key

    i agree, Curt Day. It’s a shame that so many Americans who cherish “traditional family values” forget that one of those cherished traditional family values is respecting the equality and privacy of their neighbors.

  • Awren

    This is not about religion. Its about power….
    Now I get it.
    Donalds new found spiritual connection with the evangelical community has lest to do with scripture and more to do with authority. He sounds like he is ready to kick some left wing behind. His new found religious conviction like sheets flapping in the wind are hard to pin down. The life style of this man doesn’t matter it’s the sound of his battling voice that excites all and drowns out everything else.

  • Junebug

    Curt Day, some of my fellow Christians are extremists who sincerely believe that laws must mirror their beliefs. Denying others freedom of conscience is to, in their view, save America from God’s wrath. They have gained political power in the recent years and anyone who disagrees is branded a heretic. Hence there is no compromise in Congress. Kinda scary.

  • Jack

    This is a well-meaning piece aimed at evangelicals who mindlessly and disobediently back Trump for president.

    But it’s coming from a narrow liberal position, replete with stereotypes about conservatives & evangelicals.

    The way to reach evangelicals is this: Show how Trump, based on word and deed, is inimical to Christian values & beliefs no matter how they’re defined or who does the defining. He is a boastful, bullying, cruel, vindictive man who lacks the character, self-restraint, moral rectitude, or emotional stability needed to perform the duties of the world’s most powerful office. He has the character of a petty pagan tyrant rather than a Christian statesman.

    Falwell and others need to be called out on this. By supporting him, they become responsible before God for enabling him. And in so doing, they forfeit their right to lead any institution which bears the name of Christ.

  • Jack

    I’m not fooled one bit by Trump nor are millions of other evangelicals. The trouble is, an equal number of other evangelicals are fooled by him. God needs to give them a swift kick in the behind.

    The Gospel is not about barring every Muslim from America. It’s not about deliberately killing innocent family members of evil terrorists. It’s not about worshipping guns, though the right to bear arms by itself is fine and is rooted in the human right of self-preservation.

    All of this is about fear of the “other,” the stranger. The Gospel is not about fear of the stranger; it’s about welcoming the stranger and leading the stranger into the Kingdom. Yes, it’s right to get tough on illegal immigration. Without it, borders mean nothing and we don’t have a country. But no, it isn’t right to bar every refugee out of worldly fear. We should fear nothing if we are Christians. We should be willing to take prudent risks to help other human beings.

  • RustbeltRick

    Why would it be any better if evangelicals all vote for a Ted Cruz? That man only wants to carpetbomb children as he has said multiple times. Handwringing only about Trump seems like we’re missing the larger problem of an entire party turned insane.

  • Jack

    You make a good point, RustbeltRick, although I would broaden your critique by saying that American politics across the board have turned insane.

    Everybody on both sides is flawed. But I would say that three stand out in particular: (1) Hillary, who actually could get indicted (2) Bernie, who is fine if you’re willing to drink the pure socialist Kool-Aid and (3) Trump, who is fine if you’re willing to elect a 10-year-old trapped in a senior citizen’s body.

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