In Trump Era, Christianity Goes Astray

Donald Trump with the Rev. Pat Robertson in 2016 at Virginia's Regent University, founded by Robertson. (Photo: Aileen Devlin/Flickr/cc)

In Trump Era, Christianity Goes Astray

White evangelical Christians support Trump because their pastors say they should, they do not believe what the media says about him, and he is furthering their goal of a Christian nation 

When I was a teenager, my grandfather Harry used to dine with us most nights. After dinner he would deliver a homily; usually, "Beware the Russians!" Grandpa Harry warned us about the Russians because they had no ethics: They would say and do anything to win. If he was alive now, Harry would still fear the Russians, but he would also warn of Christians, because some of them are willing to say and do anything to win. Witness their support of Donald Trump.

Although their numbers are declining, roughly 72 percent of Americans identify as Christians--approximately 240 million, the largest Christian population in any nation. More than 10 percent of U.S. Christians do not belong to a congregation. Of those who do belong to a congregation, the largest group contains evangelical Christians--although their numbers are declining, roughly 60 million are white evangelical Christians.

Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016. In their recent study, Make America Christian Again: Christian Nationalism and Voting for Donald Trump in the 2016 Presidential Election, sociologists Andrew Whitehead, Joseph Baker, and Samuel Perry conclude that for many White Evangelicals, "voting for Trump was... a symbolic defense of the United States' perceived Christian heritage."

Whitehead, Baker, and Perry used data from the latest Baylor Religion Study (pdf) to unearth the core beliefs of white evangelical Christians. The sociologists identified six questions as measures of Christian nationalism: The first is "the federal government should enforce strict separation of church and state." Christian nationalists reject this because they believe that the United States has a special relationship with the Christian God. White evangelical nationalists respond positively to these five notions:

  • "The federal government should declare the United States a Christian nation."
  • "The federal government should advocate Christian values."
  • "The federal government should allow the display of religious symbols in public spaces."
  • "The success of the United States is part of God's plan."
  • "The federal government should allow prayer in public schools."

White evangelicals support Trump because he appears to agree with them. In an interview with The Huffington Post, Whitehead noted that since his election Trump has given Christian nationalists direct access to the White House. This has led them to forgive his conduct: "They believe God can use anyone, 'even a thrice married, non-pious, self-proclaimed public playboy,'" to form a Christian nation]. "For Christian nationalists, the end goal is a society that favors Christianity in various aspects... How that project is achieved is of little consequence to them."(emphasis added)

If my grandfather was alive, he'd be shocked that these Christians have adopted the "say and do anything to win" morality of the Russians. The white evangelical nationalists have abandoned mainstream Christian ethics.

Christian ethics is an elastic concept and you'll get different definitions from Christian to Christian.

If we focus on the teachings of Jesus--that is, emphasize the ethical teachings promoted in the New Testament--three ethical principles stand out. The first regards personal integrity: mainstream Christians believe that those who call themselves Christians should be straightforward and honest; they should speak the truth. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5) Jesus said: "You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, 'Do not break your oath, but fulfill to the Lord the vows you have made.' But I tell you, do not swear an oath at all... All you need to say is simply 'Yes' or 'No'; anything beyond this comes from the evil one." Christians should be forthright; they should not lie.

The second ethical teaching is about social relations: mainstream Christians believe that Christians should be fair and compassionate. In the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7) Jesus said, "Whatever you desire for men to do to you, you shall also do to them." Treat others as you would like them to treat you.

The third ethical teaching is about equality: mainstream Christians believe that Christians should treat regard others as equals. Jesus brought a message of love: "A new commandment I give you, love one another." (John 13:34) Paul summarized this as: "There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus." (Galatians 3:28)

Donald Trump does not practice these ethical teachings. He is a liar, bully, sexist and racist. He is an apostate.

Why then do white evangelical Christians support Trump?

There are three explanations. The first is that they do not believe what the mainstream media says about Trump. They do not believe that he is a liar, bully, sexist, and racist. White Christian evangelicals live in an information silo where they get their information from pro-Trump sources and, therefore, trust Trump over mainstream media sources such as The Washington Post.

The second explanation is sociological. The White evangelical Christians support Trump because their pastor or preacher tells them they should. That is, these Christians--and their friends--do not decide independently how to vote, or what is right.

The third explanation is theological. White evangelical Christians recognize Trump for what he is but they do not care because Trump is furthering their goal of a Christian nation and "how that project is achieved is of little consequence to them." From this perspective, Christian nationalists have abandoned mainstream, New Testament Christian ethics and instead adopted Old Testament ethics where--because of the omnipresence of evil--it is permissible to say and do anything to win.

Whenever white evangelical nationalists support Trump, they are abandoning mainstream Christian ethics. They, too, are apostates.

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