The opinions expressed in this article are the author's own.
Evangelicals who rationalize Donald Trump's misbehavior are sacrificing their moral authority at the altar of politics.
Before the election, I warned my fellow evangelicals to not vote for Trump, that associating with a person of Trump's character would damage us.
"But a revival won't be jumpstarted by voting for Trump, a person whose values are antithetical to all the Church holds dear," I wrote at the time. "If anything, backing Trump will only stunt the growth of the Church in America."
Now, two years into the Trump presidency, I'm sad to report I was correct.
Polling data shows that most white evangelicals have been influenced more by Trump's race-baiting and anti-immigrant rhetoric than the Bible. An October 2017 PRRI survey found that 61 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump's temporary ban on immigration from majority-Muslim countries. A July 2018 PRRI survey found that about half, 52 percent, of white evangelicals decried the trend of America becoming increasingly non-white.
Amid sexual misconduct scandals, Americans are rethinking the wisdom of the sexual revolution and its "anything goes as long as there is consent" sexual ethic. What a wonderful opportunity to point out what conservative Christians have been saying all along — sex is a spiritual act and should be saved for the covenantal devotion of marriage. Instead, many of us are supporting a misogynist who bragged about assaulting women, and paid hush money to a porn star and a Playboy bunny. Why should anyone trust us?
One common argument is that, despite all the problems with backing Trump, the alliance will ultimately be fruitful because it will lead to the overturning of Roe v. Wade. This is a powerful argument for pro-lifers, who've worked long and hard to put an end to legalized abortion. Personal sacrifices are certainly worthwhile to stop the death of unborn babies. No one should believe protecting their public persona is more important than this.
But backing Trump won't end abortion. Just the opposite. In aligning with Trump, pro-lifers are only extending the time that will ultimately be required to end abortion because they're losing their moral authority to speak on this issue.
If you use double standards, you are harming your ability to convince others. The reasoning of hypocrites isn't trusted.
Suppose that through Trump's judicial appointments, the Supreme Court achieves a majority willing to overturn Roe. (The odds of this happening appear good after the appointment of Brett Kavanaugh.) Most likely, the Court will not ban abortion nationwide, but return to allowing each state to decide its abortion laws. This means the fight to end abortion will not be over with the overturning of Roe. We would still need to convince the public and state governments that abortion should be illegal.
At its core, the fight for the life of the unborn has always been more about persuasion than legal victories. Foremost, we pro-lifers should be working to convince the public that abortion is wrong, a fetus is a human who should have a chance at life, and there is no such thing as an unwanted baby. While ending Roe would be an important step toward making abortion illegal, doing so while diminishing our moral authority puts us one step forward but two steps back from convincing pregnant moms in crisis to not seek an abortion, and the public that abortion should be illegal.
On another issue that evangelicals care deeply about — Christian persecution — Trump's evangelical supporters have failed to successfully use their access to the president. Trump drastically cut back on the number of refugees able to seek asylum in the U.S. We should try to help all refugees, but notably, many of those for whom Trump is denying aid are our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ. Evangelicals urged Trump not to do this, but he did it anyway. So, what have evangelical Trump supporters gained with their access to the president? Have they been swindled by a con artist?
Before Prison Fellowship founder Chuck Colson became a Christian, he was a ruthless political operative who helped Richard Nixon devise his "Silent Majority" strategy. In his 1987 book, Kingdoms in Conflict, he described how he helped Nixon build this silent majority coalition, which included Southern evangelicals.
Colson would bring various leaders to the White House to enthrall them with the mystique of political power. He wrote,
"First, they [evangelical leaders] dined with me in the executive dining room located in the basement of the West Wing. I would escort my guests past saluting guards, down a long corridor lined with dramatic photographs of the president in action, then pause at the door to the dining room, pointing to another door to the right. 'That's the situation room,' I'd say in hushed tones. They all knew of the legendary super-secret national-security nerve center. The very words conjured up images of map-covered walls, whirring computers, and a bevy of generals studying the movements of Soviet aircraft. (Actually, it was then nothing more than a large crowded office with some communications equipment and old charts on the wall ….)"
The ruse worked most of the time, Colson wrote, but those who "needed more prodding" were taken to the Oval Office, perhaps even to meet the president himself.
"Invariably, the lions of the waiting room became the lambs of the Oval Office," Colson recalled.
The only exception, he said, were labor leaders. Pageantry didn't impress blue collar representatives. Christian leaders, on the other hand, were the most easily duped.
In a paragraph that every evangelical leader should heed in the age of Trump, Colson added,
"Ironically, none were more compliant than the religious leaders. Of all people, they should have been the most aware of the sinful nature of man and the least overwhelmed by pomp and protocol. But theological knowledge sometimes wilts in the face of worldly power."
Evangelical Trump-supporting leaders are making the same mistake today, thinking that this time is different, that they are different, that they can play with fire and not get burned. They are wrong.
Colson also recalled how he and Nixon won the support of one particular Christian leader they thought they needed to win certain Northeastern and Midwestern states in the 1972 election. The leader was invited to a private dinner with Nixon on the presidential yacht. In Colson's view, he was an honorable person, and to his credit was able to extract some promises from Nixon during their conversation. Yet, Colson concluded, "even such a wise, honorable, and religious person could not help but be impressed by the trappings of power."
Trump uses some of the same techniques with his Evangelical Advisory Council that Colson and Nixon used on religious leaders of their time.
At one of the White House dinners for these leaders, Trump gave them an unplanned (or was it?) guided tour of the second floor (the private residence area) of the White House. Many of these leaders expressed their enthusiasm for the personal attention they were given by a sitting president. They "were reduced to being like children," Pastor Greg Laurie said about the experience. At other times, cell phone cameras have documented these pastors' presence with Trump in the Oval Office.
They tout their access to the president. The mystique of political power trickles down. "My pastor has access to the president," congregants can then say.
In an August 26, 2017 interview with Vox, Terry Heaton, a former producer of Pat Robertson's TV show, "The 700 Club," talked about Robertson's relationship with Trump. The description is remarkably similar to how Colson described Nixon's relationship with Christian leaders of his day.
When asked about Robertson's relationship to Trump, Heaton said,
"I think that’s very, very scary. As smart as Pat Robertson is, and as good as he is at marketing, he is also highly susceptible to his own hype. In that way, Trump plays him like a piano. If you watch his most recent interview, some of the things that Trump says to Pat are really way out there in terms of manipulating Pat. He builds him up like a salesman would, and Pat is susceptible to that, I think. But he wouldn’t be susceptible if Trump didn’t speak the language that Pat wants."
For reasons I've laid out above, I don't think evangelical leaders should align themselves with Trump or participate in his evangelical advisory board. But I recognize the decision would be difficult if offered a position, and some good can be accomplished on the Board, if they are willing to exert their influence.
For those who have chosen to be on the board, I offer this advice: 1) Don't participate in public events, such as signing ceremonies. 2) Stop snapping photos with Trump, especially during a prayer, and sharing them on social media. 3) You don't have to share what you say to him privately, but don't feel obligated to defend him publicly. 4) Criticize him publicly when he does something wrong.
Evangelical Trump supporters will continue to face a choice between God's values and Trump's values. Will they face the fiery furnace? Are they prepared to be thrown to the lions? Unlike Daniel, Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, they wouldn't face the death penalty for opposing their political leader, but they do face a loss of moral authority for supporting him. Will they have the courage to publicly oppose Trump when he offends God's values? All evangelicals, not just those close to Trump, must ask themselves this question in the age of Trump.
Adapted from the author's book in progress.
The Christian Post published a response to this op-ed by Michael Brown on Thursday.