Last week Tony Perkins, head of the Family Research Council (FRC), kindly granted President Trump a “mulligan” upon the news of his likely affair with adult film actress Stormy Daniels. The FRC is a conservative Christian group that is ostensibly concerned with moral conduct and family values. Despite that public posture Perkins and other Christian leaders supported the President all through his “grab ’em by the pussy” phase. The mulligan comment showed that this support will be eternal, even if Trump’s presidency fails to last for his entire term.
Many commentators, such as the minister John Pavlovitz and the columnist Charles Blow, have pointed out the racial double standard in giving Trump such a free pass. Given that the Christian Right has thrown all in with a Birther who also denigrates Muslims and Mexicans, this does mean that many church leaders are racist…or at the very least are willing to condone racism in order to see the people they want remain in power.
While sociology of the church is vital to understanding how things reached this shameful state, today I wish to offer a more personal take on the matter. I grew up attending a church that is now prime Trump country, and am shocked and saddened that this is actually the case. If there is any person who perfectly personifies a worldly and ego-filled rejection of all Christian teachings, it is the current President.
This post offers some reflections on what it means to be an evangelical Christian; an affirmation of the decency of the people in my childhood church; and a recognition that the quest for power — of exactly the kind that Jesus rejected and renounced — is what has led the modern church into its indefensible and unholy embrace of Donald J. Trump.
Being an Evangelical Christian: Evangelical Christians believe that God sent his only son Jesus, born of a virgin birth, to die with His (yes, capital H) hands and feet nailed to a cross as atonement for the sins of the world. This means that the only way to go to Heaven, which is defined as living in close and happy proximity to God for all of eternity, is to ask forgiveness for your sins and to “accept Jesus into your heart.” If you don’t do that, the hot fires of hell will roast you in flames for all of eternity. Heaven is in the sky, hell is below the ground. Hell’s chief resident, Lucifer, is a fallen angel who defied God and was straightaway bounced from Heaven.
So there’s a choice we all must make — Heaven, or Hell? And once anyone has made the choice to accept Jesus, they can’t stop there. They must evangelize too—that is, to spread the “Good News of the Gospel” to everyone, whether or not those other people want to listen.
This is a binary system. It’s either Jesus and the cross, or Lucifer and hell. Anything besides Christianity— all those other fake belief systems — also equals hell. Buddhist? Shinto? Hindu? Muslim? Daoist? Jew? Atheist? Hell. Hell. Hell. Hell. Hell. Hell. And for you sir the most absolute hell, closest to the hottest flames.
This is why evangelizing is so important. It is the only means possible of saving the residents of an ungrateful world from their certain eternal doom.
There was indeed a Jesus of Nazareth who was persecuted by local authorities in ancient days. But the transmutation of this time-bound oppression into the only means ever possible of salvation for anyone in the world is — shall we say — a stretch.
In college I finally met people who practiced other religions and concluded that it was arrogant of me to assume they were all doomed for hell. End scene, when it comes to Marcus and evangelical Christianity.
And yet, millions of people still believe this creed. Billions, if we go around the entire world. This is what I thought until I was 20 years old, and during some of those years I wanted to be a preacher of the good faith myself. There was a period in which I only read the Bible and only listened to Christian radio. So I understand taking comfort in a strong faith. Many of my family and friends are still in the pews, still singing the hymns, still asking for prayers on Facebook and offering them up too. They are not stupid and they are not crazy. Anyone without this faith background who attempts to question or criticize the faith will quickly learn just how impervious and hermetically sealed the evangelical Christian community can be. Indeed, such critiques and questions play right into the narrative of a hostile “world” that is always out to challenge the one true faith.
I am not a Christian and will never be again. Today I an agnostic for the highly technical, left brain reason that nobody can know for certain whether a God exists or not. If the Christian faith, or any faith tradition, provides comfort and meaning to someone I am very happy for them. Just as it is arrogant for evangelicals to proclaim the one true path to heaven, it is equally arrogant for atheists like Sam Harris or Richard Dawkins to demean anyone who disagrees with them. As with the Bible, their atheist rage tracts are mainly designed to reinforce settled and fixed opinion.
Even though I am not a Christian anymore, one aspect of the faith that does still resonate is the imperative to be decent to others and to care for the most vulnerable. (These are part of all faith traditions, of course). This is why the evangelical embrace of Trump is so painful, as he is so obviously a cruel and malicious bully. For more than a decade now I’ve taken a “to each their own” stance with respect to people I know who still follow the Christian faith. But now it is obvious that the faith has been co-opted to serve evil ends. I feel that this points to a disconnection between the Christian faithful and its leadership, which is the focus of the rest of this essay.
The Christian Community: When I was a Christian, the appeal was not only with reading the Bible and listening to radio preaching. It was also the community at the church. My aunt died of leukemia when I was 9 years old, and it felt like the entire church came out to celebrate her legacy and honor her memory. The head minister met with me to discuss my emerging doubts about the faith, and did so openly and honestly and without any effort to scold me (which I had feared). When I graduated from high school my reception was at the church, and all decorations were provided for free by a church member who just wanted to do so. I went to services on Sundays and Wednesdays, and for a while edited the newsletter of the teenage youth group. We regularly raised money for charities. And so on, and so forth. This was a full community, filled with complex people with good and bad qualities just like anywhere else. While I cannot say I believe the church creed anymore, I do know that the church is filled with decent people. But as long as these church members do not reject the embrace of Trump declared by their church leaders, then their personal decency will not count for much in the end.
Gaining the World While Losing Your Soul: “For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?” (Mark 8:36, King James Version).
The Faustian bargain struck between church leaders and Donald Trump is not so hard to understand. He promises to roll back abortion rights, which has been a chief cause of the Christian right from the moment Roe vs. Wade was decided. (Our church bulletin, timed with the anniversary of Roe vs. Wade each year, contained a page filled with crosses to denote all abortions in the United States since this right became legal). And the President is making it easier for people to use their faith to claim the right to discriminate against others, particularly with the provision of health care services. This is a hard right policy agenda the likes of which the nation may never see again. Get it while you can.
Any victories achieved would be pyrrhic victories, though — short-term gains achieved at long term cost. All policy wins will be overturned later. Most of the country is not evangelical, and so for now we are being governed by a rump minority. The deeper cost is to the moral standing of the Christian leadership in the United States. The veil has been lifted, and — not surprisingly, really — the real endgame for church leadership always lay in achieving power. That Jesus stuff was just a cover story.