Evangelicals are naked before the world

“There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”

This recent statement by religious-right activist Ralph Reed is objectively true, at least when it comes to sloppy kisses for the president. Considered purely as a political transaction, religious conservatives have gotten two appointments to the Supreme Court who set their hearts aflutter. They, in return, have shifted from the language of political realism to the language of love.

Trump has not gone back on the conservative promises of his 2016 campaign. More than that, he has not let up in his attacks against liberal elites who disdain religious conservatives. Reed is correct that Trump has “defended us” and “fought for us.”

But this language itself should raise warning signs. Is this really how most conservative Christians view the political enterprise — as the vindication of their own interests rather than the good of the whole? Were Christian political activists of the 19th century — such as William Wilberforce , Frederick Douglass , Charles Grandison Finney and Harriet Beecher Stowe — primarily concerned with the respect accorded to their own religious community? No, they were known for taking the side of the oppressed and vulnerable.

It now seems like a different world. Maybe even a different conception of God.

Religious conservatives are now firmly allied in the public mind with a leader who practices the politics of exclusion. And there is every indication that this community will hold Trump in an ever-tighter embrace. Even if the Democratic nominee is Joe Biden, the process of securing that nomination will push him further to the left on social issues (which he demonstrated in his about-face support for federal funding of abortion). This will make the contrast between Trump and his eventual opponent all the more dramatic on social issues.

A lot of attention has been given to the risks to the GOP (at the national level) of placing all their electoral bets on white voters who resent and fear a morally and ethnically changing country. In 2008, white Christians constituted 54 percent of the population. By 2014, that figure was more like 47 percent . And the slide continues. Republicans seem doomed to ride a retreating wave.

There is also, however, much to be said about the risk to evangelicalism. Evangelical Christians are tying themselves to an institution — the GOP — that is actively alienating college-educated voters, minority voters and younger voters. Evangelicals are thus entrenching a public perception that their movement consists of old, white Christians who want to restore lost social status through political power. Maybe this is because the perception is often accurate.

But there is no strategy of Christian evangelism that would take the Republican political strategy as a model. There is no conception of the Great Commission that would present Hispanic migrants as villains or encourage millennials to continue their flight from religious association. (Around 36 percent of people age 18 to 34 never attend religious services — a percentage that has roughly doubled since 2004.)

The moral consequences of being a loyal part of Trump’s political coalition come into ever-sharper focus. During the 2016 presidential election, evangelical Christians could comfort themselves that it was possible — just possible — for Trump to grow in office and become something greater than the sum of his tweets. Doesn’t someone whom James Dobson called a “baby Christian ” deserve a chance to grow up? Isn’t that the essence of grace?

This argument was a small fig leaf when it was made. Now, evangelical Christians are naked before the world. Trump’s cruelty (see the treatment of migrant children), his bigotry (see Charlottesville), his obstruction of justice (see any fair reading of the Mueller report), his vanity (see any time he speaks in public), his serial deception (also see any time he speaks in public) have become more pronounced and unrepentant over time. Can there be any question that reelection would result in Trump unbound?

At the same time, some evangelical Christian leaders have become more effusive in their praise of the president. More willing to defend the indefensible on his behalf. More dismissive of the importance of character in public life.

In the process, evangelical Christian leaders have placed themselves — uncritically, with open eyes — into a political coalition that is inspired by ethnic nationalism. Such are the occupational hazards of calling good evil and evil good.

Cincinnatus Lays Down the PowerPoint

In a normal time, the announcement that the Republican speaker of the House is retiring to spend more time with his family — after just a few years on the job — at a moment when Republicans control the federal government and have more officeholders nationwide than at any time in almost a century and the economy is roaring would be almost unimaginable.

Most politicians are actually pretty boring

Many are conniving and needy

Very few of them are intellectually interesting

.. I’ve long argued, friendship can be far more corrupting than money

.. if you personally hate Paul Ryan, that’s an indicator to me that you’re an unreasonable person.

.. But if you buy the claptrap from the Krugmanite Left or the Bannonite Right about Ryan, if you think he’s evil or a fraud, I’m going to assume you’re part of the problem in our politics.

.. boils down to simply two things: The idea that character matters and the idea that ideas matter.

.. The fact that Paul Ryan was a man out of place in his own party says far more about the state of the GOP than it does about the man.

Consider this week alone:

  • A president who cheated on his first wife with his second and “allegedly” cheated on his third with a porn star is tweeting that Jim Comey is a “slimeball.”
  • The president’s personal PR team over at Hannity HQ is calling Robert Mueller the head of a crime family.
  • The CBO just announced that we’re in store for trillion-dollar deficits for as far as the eye can see.
  • The president is tweeting taunts about how his missiles are shinier toys than Putin’s.
  • The president’s nominee for secretary of state, Mike Pompeo, a once passionate and thoughtful defender of Congress’s sole right to authorize war, is now invoking law-review articles as justification for a president’s right to wage war on a whim.
  • The president’s lawyer’s office was raided by the FBI (not Bob Mueller’s team, by the way) after getting a warrant from a judge and following all of the onerous protocols of the Justice Department, and the former speaker of the House — and avowed historian — is insisting that the Cohen and Manafort raids are morally equivalent to the tactics of Stalin and Hitler. I’m pretty sure the Gestapo didn’t have “clean teams” to protect attorney-client privilege (particularly of dudes named “Cohen”), and last I checked the KGB wasn’t big on warrants.
  • On Monday evening, the president convened a televised war council and spent the first ten minutes sputtering about how outraged he was by an inquiry into a pay-off of his porn-star paramour.

Why Not Mike Pence?

our first openly Hefnerian president gets impeached

.. If Trump were impeached and removed from the White House, the presidency would devolve to precisely the kind of man whom much of pre-Trump religious conservatism insisted that it wanted in the Oval Office: an evangelical Christian family man with a bluenose’s temperament and a boring Reaganite checklist of beliefs.

.. evangelical leaders currently fretting about Trump’s political position would face a case where doing the consistent thing — namely, returning to their Bill Clinton-era position that character counts in presidents and using illegal means to conceal gross infidelities are impeachable offenses — would actually deliver something closer to what they claimed to want, not so very long ago: not a liberal in the White House, but President Mike Pence.

.. We do not have a parliamentary system where party leaders fight internal battles and get replaced by their internal rivals on the regular; instead, we elect a quasi-monarch, whose removal seems as traumatic as a regicide. And thus party loyalists tend to identify with their leaders the way royalists identify with their kings, and regard the prospect of impeachment not as an opportunity for a change of leadership but a revolutionary threat.

.. Sure, making use of Donald Trump to keep Hillary Clinton from being president is a fascinating flourish by history’s Author, but the idea that the Almighty might use a porn star to make Mike Pence president represents, if anything, an even more amazing miracle.
.. So anyone interested in looking for the hand of God in history should probably welcome that miracle’s arrival
.. That God is using Trump not as an agent of his good work but as a kind of ongoing test of everyone else’s moral character seems like a not-unreasonable inference to draw.

.. And for those same religious conservatives to pass up the chance, preferring a scorched-earth battle in defense of priapism, would be a sad confirmation of the point that a beloved Christian author made many years ago: The doors of hell are locked on the inside.

Character Should Still Matter

In the throes of the campaign in September 2016, Mike Pence told a crowd at the Living Word Bible Church in Mesa, Ariz.:

“I’m old enough to remember back in the last Clinton administration where America really had a debate over whether character mattered to the presidency. We don’t need to have that debate again. We don’t need to have that debate again. Character matters to the presidency and Donald Trump will bring the highest level of integrity to the highest office in the land. You can count on it.”

.. “Trump’s seeming imperviousness to the scandal is stunning given the opinions Americans profess to hold on issues of character. In the most recent Politico/Morning Consult poll, 91 percent said honesty is ‘very important’ for elected officials to embody in their personal life in order to carry out their official duties. Seventy-five percent said the same about morality. On the question of extramarital affairs, 80 percent said they were morally wrong.

.. They see judges, tax cuts, nationalism, a boatload of phobias and permission to be hostile to people whose lifestyles or very existence unnerve them. They count that as more value than the devaluation of American integrity that Trump represents.