Trump, American Evangelicals, and “the Establishment”

I know, I know: You’re sick of reading about Trump, thinking about Trump, waking up from nightmares about Trump…me, too. Still, a friend directed me to a letter in the New York Times and asked me to comment. Maybe you’d like to read my comment, too.

Here’s the letter:

To the Editor:

I have been reading columnists of The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times as they all — in lock step — excoriate Donald Trump and, by implication, those who support him.

Out here in the hinterland, we evangelicals see things a little differently. We see folks like you as the Establishment. And while it is clear that you do not understand us, we do understand you. You think anyone who would vote for Mr. Trump isn’t very smart.

You scoff at religious-minded Trump supporters as hypocrites. After all, Mr. Trump has been married three times. He does not know that the second book of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth is known as Second Corinthians, not “Two Corinthians.”

We know he is crass, often cruel and sometimes lacking in oratory refinements. We wish he weren’t so. But we marveled as we watched Mr. Trump demolish the primary tool that has allowed liberalism and secularism to control the debate for decades: political correctness.

Mr. Trump’s posturing, his crassness, his rudeness, his simplistic descriptions of international issues, his demeanor — we see it all. And yet we have decided to vote for him.

For all of Mr. Trump’s faults and sins and deficiencies, he won’t be the first president to have them. That is a basic tenet of Christianity — we know we are all deficient and sinful, and only God’s grace can heal us. We have faith that Mr. Trump will “seek the Lord” when confronted by the awesome duties of leading the greatest country in history.

We are desperate for a change in direction. And in future columns of The New York Times I will be looking for reasons that we should listen to you — part of the Establishment that got us into this mess.

C. ARNOLD McCLURE

Shirleysburg, Pa.

And here’s what I said in reply:

One of the ways in which I am regularly embarrassed to be a Christian (and no, don’t let me count the ways) is facing yet another instance of what I might call the selective deployment of Christian teachings for the advancement of one’s cause du jour. In the letter above, we see the use of the Christian doctrine of original sin (and the corollary doctrine of the ubiquity of sinfulness) to “zero out” Mr. Trump’s awfulness. Yes, he’s demonstrably no one’s idea of a Sunday School teacher, but hey: we’re all sinners. So that’s that.

In fact, a typical half-truth among evangelicals is that “all sin is sin”—which is true insofar as all sin separates us from God, needs atonement, warrants repentance, etc., but isn’t true if one is implying the moral equivalence of, say, fibbing about whether there is going to be a surprise party versus gunning down everyone at that party.

The author of this letter departs from typical evangelical argumentation, however, by acknowledging with startling candour some repellent traits of Mr. Trump and then suggesting that since other presidents also have had terrible faults, then…well, what? That he’s fine with that, apparently.

It is striking that the letter-writer then offers a highly dubious conviction about an absolutely crucial issue: “that Mr. Trump will ‘seek the Lord’ when confronted by the awesome duties of leading the greatest country in history.” He does so with precisely no evidence to warrant that conviction. Again, this seems an important departure from the way one would expect evangelicals to argue. But many American evangelicals also seemed to think that Ronald Reagan, who attended church less than any American president since George Washington and was himself no paragon of marital virtue, was devoutly concerned to follow God’s will, thus showing us that evangelicals are like everyone else in this respect: We tend to see what we want to see.

Perhaps the last paragraph provides the real source of the author’s preference for Trump: the Establishment got us into the mess we feel we’re in, and Mr. Trump will get us out of it. Yet Donald Trump is an odd tribune for the common man, being so counter-Establishment that he has managed to make (and lose) piles of money in commercial real estate, star on network TV, and hobnob with famous people…including the Clintons.

What’s going on? I provide the translation: Mr Trump says things I want said in public and his hopelessness in making good on those claims (to do better, or even to have the facts straight) doesn’t matter when I’m as angry and marginalized as I feel. Somebody, at least, is saying what I want said, that makes me feel better, and so I’m going to overlook all the negatives in the light of this one self-aggrandizing positive.

And here we do, actually, return to the evangelical zone, American-style. For here is the typical American evangelical attitude of bitter estrangement from, but also a stubborn proprietorship toward, American society—first described, in my reading, in George Marsden’s brilliant account of Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford, 1980).

I understood this attitude when it fuelled the Christian Right on behalf of such dubious evangelical heroes as Reagan, Pat Robertson, and “W.” But when it has supported the likes of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, or Donald Trump…well, one has to keep emphasizing: #notallevangelicals.

9 Responses to “Trump, American Evangelicals, and “the Establishment””

  1. Dave Jorgensen

    Dr. Stackhouse: What saddens me is that the TeaPartyChristian movement seems to deliberately ignore the one president in recent memory who truly sought Christ – and served with humility, grace, and kindness. It has been said of Jimmy Carter that he used the presidency of the United States to go on and do better things – certainly his work with ‘Habitat’, to say nothing of his hundreds of other humanitarian endeavours would corroborate that. Our social democracy in Canada seems to be in better shape – we still live in the shadow of one rather rambunctious follower of Jesus – a certain noisy Baptist by the name of TC Douglas. Dast I say it, but some of our [northern] Christianity used to be pretty liberal – and for some of us, it’s still pretty Liberal. Pax, Dave.

  2. Curt Senka

    A very insightful analysis. Thank you, sir.

  3. Matthew Young

    Outstanding. I am an evangelical Presbyterian minister here in Central PA, about an hour or so away from Shirleysburg. I just saw a sign the other day, “Farmers for Trump.” I think your reflections are spot on. It comes down to anger and reactivity driving much of this. Your insights will help me as I seek to pastor people toward discipleship in Christ, in these crazy times.

  4. Kurt Kenobbie

    You did a thorough job of making clear the deficiencies in this man’s theological justifications for supporting “Trump’s awfulness.” Also, I think you were quite sensitive and cerebral in your speculations of “What’s going on?” in this guy’s mind. What I think you missed is the emotion in, “We are desperate for a change in direction.” Hope is a powerful emotion and is not easily explained with reason, logic, probability, or empirical evidence. I think a lot of Americans, whether evangelical or not, see Donald Trump as the only candidate that offers them hope for a change in direction – whatever that means to each one. One thing we can know for sure is at least during the primary process, their votes count just the same as the snarky erudite elite who refer to them in their many “discussions” as “low information voters.” As an independent, I won’t know until after the conventions who my choices are. It will be interesting to see whether or not the will of the people will prevail at the conventions.

    • John

      I’m not sure I *missed* the idea of hope, Kurt: I do talk (in the fourth-last paragraph) about “the real source of the author’s preference for Trump”–before indicating how badly placed that hope is. Anyhow, “change,” however much needed, can be for the worse, and the analytical, moral, and political chaos that is Donald Trump would be for the worse.

      • Steve Wilkinson

        Worse than what, though? While I don’t think I could vote for Trump, if it would come down to Trump vs X, does one simply refrain from voting or hold their nose and pick who they feel is the best of the worst?

        While I can’t hardly believe some of the stuff Trump says and does, I’ve also sat through eight years of someone who likewise does and says things I can’t believe, just with a layer of teleprompter sophistication slathered over the crudity.

        Unfortunately, there is no candidate running in the USA that should be anywhere near the office they will hold… so what to do?

        Kurt, Obama also ran on a ‘hope for change’ type of platform, and look where that got us? Lots of change, but arguably, none of it positive (and lots of ‘the same’ and/or negative change to go along with it). I hope we’re not down to blindly just making changes for change-sake!

  5. Not a Trump fan but Evangelical

    Not sure I get your point. Seems rather silly, since it could be applied to all of the other candidates. I too am perplexed by Trumps advantage of evangelical support. However you seem to think the Trump supporters are the same people who fueled the Christian Right. They already have Cruz and Rubio. You also fail to see why supporters see Trump as an outsider. Your selective tidbit about Reagans church attendance provides some insight into your ideology. Trump is fairly open about telling us how he feels. Do you really believe that the other politicians (besides Sanders) are as open and as transparent as Trump?

    • Steve Wilkinson

      I’m not really all that surprised. ‘Evangelical’ is pretty much a meaningless term these days. It ranges from so liberal (on the theological spectrum) so as to apply to prosperity gospel, emerging church, or possibly even Mormons. Across to the ‘Bible-thumpers’ and cultish groups like King-James-Onlyism. And, in the broad middle, it just means some kind of sentimental, nationalistic, cultural-Christian identity. To these people, I suppose Trump *is* a Christian, as he claims.

      And, in the sense that he’s not a career politician (and in comparison to the other candidates!), he’s certainly an outsider. I think there is, actually, a rather accurate perception there, of how unified and corrupt the government now is – across party lines. We’re being fed a story by the parties themselves and the media, of how polar opposite the parties are, when in reality, aside from their pet projects, they are peas in a pod in terms of the continuation of the game they’ve got going.

      The question is… would Trump really be able to crack that, no matter how unorthodox he seems? And, how much damage might he do in the process? I suppose many of these people simply don’t care anymore, as they are that ticked off. I get that, trust me, but I’m also not sure it’s the right way to go about it.

      IMO, where a grass-roots effort could be more effective, is actually paying attention to what is going on in Congress (I highly recommend Congressional Dish podcast!), and getting rid of nearly everyone there, and getting good people in. That’s not nearly as rigged as the presidential process.

      BTW, Michael Horton recently wrote what I thought was a really good piece on the Trump and evangelical situation: http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2016/march-web-only/theology-of-donald-trump.html
      (Not sure if you caught that John, but I’d be curious to hear your take on it.)

      • John

        Mike Horton’s piece fills out some of that toward which I gesture in my post.

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