The Evangelical Right’s Disingenuous Support Of Donald Trump
I was eleven-years-old on election night 2004. Not unlike the majority of my other childhood memories I stood in the sanctuary of the church I spent my adolescence. I walked into the room only to be surrounded by approximately one hundred, overwhelmingly white, all Republican, Christ-followers deep in prayer, petitioning God for His will to be done and to give us a leader who would set an example of Godly wisdom for our nation.
The GOP and it’s loyal Christian following have maintained a mutually beneficial relationship for upwards of sixty years. You can peg this relationship, as many do, on Billy Graham. As his rallies and revivals took a grip on the 1950s American public, he became the face of American Evangelicalism and subsequently the voice of Godly wisdom in his friendships and advisory roles with Presidents Eisenhower, Johnson, and Nixon.
Graham’s legacy is one of solid integrity. If he can boast anything, he has introduced more people to God than anyone alive before or since. In the 1950s an 60s, he was a staunch supporter of integration and led rallies with Martin Luther King, Jr., once even bailing King out of jail. When the Watergate tapes came out, he publicly admonished President Nixon and suspended his friendship with him over his use of profanity. Graham had the integrity to call out the men he called friend, who were also presidents, on their less than exemplary behavior. He understood the weight of his influence on his supporters and used that role to be an example of what is and what is not acceptable by Christian voters.
In my old church that election night, no one said George W. Bush, no one said Republican, and no one said GOP. Not one person in that room was uncertain on exactly whose victory they were all in fervent prayer for. It was easier to be a Republican then. Family values meant just as much to voters as it did to those they were voting in to office. Voting Republican as an Evangelical was instinctual in 2004, but a lot changes in twelve years. When it comes to the results of the 2016 election, the Evangelical Christian base is either overwhelmingly satisfied or betrayed, depending on who you ask.
No one felt the need to offer George W. Bush a religious test to validate his effectiveness as a leader for Christ and our nation. However, with Trump, it is difficult to not see his pandering to the religious right as a facade. Have we ever seen a presidential candidate feel the need to surround himself with religious leaders? Have we ever felt so compelled to challenge a presidential candidates newfound references to God and the Bible? The speech at Liberty University, his “the Bible tells us,” lead off during his inauguration speech, and his Christian refugee prioritization in his executive ordered travel ban all speak to a preferential treatment of Christians.
In the early days of the campaign, the last question of the first Republican Primary debate in August 2015, featured a voter question. This particular question was from a Facebook user who inquired as to if any of the 16 candidates, “received a word from God on what they should do and take care of first.” No DNC sponsored event would ever pose a question like that during a major debate. But for a GOP sponsored event, the question is almost imperative to ask and have answered. The moderator, Megyn Kelly, first opened the question to Ted Cruz — perhaps the most vocal of the group about his Christianity, and the early favorite among many Republican Christians — who gave a rousing, if not overly rehearsed answer. The debate ended before Trump was given the chance to respond.
Billy Graham stepped away from public speaking in 2005, handing the reigns of his ministry over to his son, Franklin Graham. Franklin, along with Jerry Falwell, Jr. and other high ranking religious leaders have proudly stood by Trump. Neither are able to formally endorse him due to their tax-exempt statuses. After the Access Hollywood tapes surfaced, Graham called Trump,“a changed man,” without offering any proof of the aforementioned change. When Trump’s electoral win became certain, Graham called it evidence of “the hand of God.” In the days before the election, Graham implied that the Republican candidate [Trump] should be an easy vote for Christians. And it was: 81% of white Evangelicals voted for Trump.
Christian leaders were complicit in banding together with the GOP to elect Trump and sell him to the Evangelical base. Passing him off as a Christian with platitudes rather than substantial evidence of leading a life resembling something Christ-like, should be just as offensive to Christians as an irreverent joke on Family Guy or South Park. The politicalization and monetization of what is a spiritual endeavor is perhaps the greatest threat to the separation of church and state and the integrity of the church as a whole. TV shows and pop music aren’t the worldly threats I was brought up to give a critical eye toward. A larger threat to Christian culture are the people already inside the system manipulating scripture and their own narcissism in order to lead a majority base toward an ideology or person who more often than not stands for very little that actually models Christian values. Belief is not a reality show. For many, it is a real and honest experience — a journey that brings hope and joy. To undermine that by placating authenticity with language manipulation is vastly erroneous.
While difficult to ever truly love everything a candidate has to offer, Trump made himself both difficult and endearing. His brash and brazen approach was off-putting, but the tell-it-like-it-is, no holds barred attitude was palatable enough to gain a following. It has long been established that the biggest issue for Christian Republicans is a candidates position on abortion. This particular election cycle noted an emphasis on the SCOTUS nomination(s) and immigration. Regardless of how much Christian voters may have disliked Trump personally, voting for policies more in line with their own agendas — also taking into consideration the opposing candidate — was a more convincing argument than anything.
At the risk of sounding sanctimonious, especially for someone who doesn’t consider herself a Christian, authenticity is key. The GOP and Republican voters would have stood by Trump regardless of his religious status, but his outrageous behavior was in need of a redemption story. It is not up to the GOP to intercede for Trump’s soul, so they gave Christians the opportunity to use their support for Trump as a missionary pursuit of his better judgments. There was no reason for Christian leaders to vouch for Trump’s feigned interest or actual belief in Christianity, they simply played into the same trap the GOP sets for them every four years. Their unofficial endorsements give him a pass to malign a voter base, a move that is wholly unnecessary and ultimately disingenuous.
Washington, D.C. isn’t a hot spot for tales of Hollywood reality stars, turned politicians, turned Bible-toting Christians. Men of true integrity aren’t typically found on Capitol Hill. The expectation for Christian leaders with the famed family values is that their endorsements and words of praise be reserved for those who are truly worthy of it. Donald Trump may win some points from time to time, but he is still an apprentice. If he wants to be a long-term winner with the Christian right, there will come a time for Christian leaders and their congregants to demand more from him. Should Trump fail to produce evidence of a Christ-centered life, the time will also come for congregants to demand more from their leaders.