Why do so Many Christians Support Donald Trump?

30 Mar

Introduction

In my first three posts, where I surveyed the historical context of American Christian fundamentalism and liberalism, the research led me (somewhat inexorably) to explore a very relevant trend. Why did 80-81% of self-confessed evangelical Christians vote for Donald Trump? I concluded the third article with a question that needs to be explored in further detail, and this is what this article investigates.

Considering that so many American Christians feel that the church (so far as they know it) is embattled, threatened, and perhaps fading into obscurity, how much of those realities had to do with them voting for Trump?

That question leads to a follow-up query: how many of those 80%, who voted for Trump, did so because they believed he would be the best candidate to ensure that their status as American Christians wouldn’t be threatened? The fact is, however, that whether they like it or not, the “church of the past” is rapidly becoming just that—a thing of the past. But what exactly does the future hold for the church, particularly in North America?

This article, then, seeks to explore some of the background context that may help to explain yet another facet of why so many Christians voted for—and continue to support—President Trump. I’ll conclude the article by looking at some possible future scenarios for the American church, if current trends continue, considering what is happening today.

America: “A Christian Nation”?

In my second post, exploring the rise of the so-called “Religious Right,” I demonstrated that American Christianity oftentimes seems to be a funny animal, especially when held up against the backdrop of the birth of the country. In the 18th century, the founding fathers of the nation had a singular goal once they had gained their freedom from Great Britain following the Revolutionary War. They expressly set out to establish a country whereby there would be a pronounced separation between the church and the state.

I don’t remember who said it exactly, but I’ve heard America called the “great Enlightenment experiment”—in other words, this would be a completely new republic, founded on modernist, enlightened principles. America would also stand in stark contrast to most European nations, who historically were ruled over by a noble elite, typically based upon the principle of “the divine right of kings.”

Beyond the fact that so many of the founding fathers were influenced by Enlightenment philosophies, the historical context of that day and age provides further reasons to help us understand why they would want such a separation between church and state. Coming from a (largely) European context, where there had virtually always been a constitutional connection between church and state since the time of Constantine, the founders of America did not want to establish a state church.

While there were seemingly advantages to be gained by such a mutual partnership, the founding fathers had witnessed too many abuses by both sides to warrant such a choice. In the typical state-church partnership, the state strengthens the church by reinforcing Christian hegemony, and by suppressing alternative religious points of view. The church, for its part, says Tennent, “gives legitimacy to the state by supporting the political establishment and tacitly granting divine sanction to the actions of the state.”[1]

As I say, the founding fathers did not want to establish the American nation upon such a relationship, which historically has been rife for abuse on both sides of the fence. Ironically, though, despite the way the founding fathers set up the country in the beginning, the notion that America is somehow a “Christian nation” persists to this day. (By the way, in my first article I touch on the origins of this belief—the unique covenant status that America allegedly enjoyed with God, who would guarantee to bless the nation based on the condition they kept that covenant).

Separation of Church & State?

In other words—and this concept, I think, is very misunderstood even today—the American founding fathers did not want a relationship between the two parties, whereby the state could meddle in—or control, worse yet—the affairs, finances and status of the church. The remarkable aspect of this setup was that even though the state would be unable to control the church, at the same time, however, the church could be involved in affairs of the state. This, of course, goes some of the way toward explaining why historically, so many American Christians have been invested and involved in the political sphere.

The notion of “separation of church and state” dates to the writing of the Constitution in 1789 and the Bill of Rights in 1791; and therefore, based on those documents, ever since then

…the government [of the United States] is prohibited from supporting or endorsing any religion, or promoting one at the expense of another. Among other things, this means it cannot appoint religious leaders, compel worship or prayer, provide official interpretations of sacred scriptures, or define creedal statements of faith. Although this arrangement is widely known in the United States as the “separation of church and state,” owing to the predominance of Christian churches, it also applies to mosques, synagogues, and indeed all religious institutions of any sort. Scholars often use the term “disestablishment” to specify the legal aspect of the concept, but by whatever name it is a core principle and defining feature of American political life.[2]

Christians and American Politics

What strikes so many non-Americans as strange, however, is the startling reality that numerous American Christians—both liberal and conservative, individuals and denominations alike—are so heavily involved in the political sphere. For example, here in Great Britain, where we have lived for more than a decade, one simply does not witness the same sorts of political involvement by churches.

Candidate Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell, Jr., at Liberty University, VA

Certainly, there are British Christians who are politically active, but one rarely hears the same type of political, Christian rhetoric from British churches or Christian organizations that is so common in the States. During election years, for example, oftentimes my British friends will ask me to explain exactly why it’s so important for presidential candidates to be seen publicly as “church-attending Christians.”

I explain to my British friends that in America, if a presidential candidate isn’t somehow identified as a “Christian,” he or she stands little chance of getting into office. This also clarifies why the testimony of such a highly-regarded evangelical leader, like Focus on the Family founder Dr James Dobson, was so important for Trump in the run-up to the election.

The issue became even more acute when the infamous “p***y-grabber” Access Hollywood tape of Donald Trump, boasting to Billy Bush about his attempt to have an affair with a married woman, was leaked to the media. Virtually every political pundit believed that this appeared to be the death-knell of his presidential candidacy, for sure; certainly in the past, other presidential hopefuls–like Gary Hart, for example–had their campaigns virtually destroyed for similar indiscretions.

But it might not derail the Trump Train, so long as certain high-profile evangelical leaders continued to support him. This was the major question: given his lecherous, offensive and misogynistic comments, could he in any way be considered a “Christian,” and thus still eligible for the presidency? For his part, Trump stated words to the effect that while he considers himself a Christian–growing up attending Norman Vincent Peale’s church in New York–he “never needed to ask for forgiveness from God.” Why? Simple: because he had never done anything in his life that would require forgiveness. Sounds suitably Christian, doesn’t it?

Dr James Dobson, Founder of Focus on the Family

Perhaps bizarrely, though, many Christian leaders continued their support for him by utilizing a process of compartmentalization. Let me give you a couple of examples.

When addressing the question “Is Donald Trump a Christian?” Dobson admitted that while no one truly knows the heart of a person, he’d heard that pastor Paula White had “led Mr Trump to Christ.” Dobson then went on to state: “If anything, this man is a baby Christian who doesn’t have a clue about how believers think, talk and act.”[3]

In this way of thinking, then, Trump’s words from 11 years previously couldn’t now be held against him, according to Dobson’s neatly-compartmentalized logic. According to Dobson, it was a simple matter: Trump wasn’t a Christian back when he made those statements. Now that he (allegedly) was a Christian, anything he currently stated that might be offensive or crude could be excused, because he was only a “baby Christian.”

In a revealing statement, that is highly relevant to this article (and the previous post), Dobson displayed the type of thinking that allowed so many Christians to overlook Trump’s lewd behaviour, and yet still vote for him. He went on to state:

All I can tell you is that we have only two choices, Hillary or Donald.  Hillary scares me to death. And, if Christians stay home because he isn’t a better candidate, Hillary will run the world for perhaps eight years. The very thought of that haunts my nights and days.[4]

No wonder, then, why so many Christians voted for Trump, citing the reason that Hillary was the far worse candidate. Ironically, however, it has since been pointed out that while Trump had several scandals attached to him while he was a candidate, Hillary only had 1: the e-mail server scandal. Unfortunately for her campaign, she was unable to shake that scandal, or satisfactorily explain it away.

In an email sent to BuzzFeed.com, shortly after the infamous “p***y-grabber” video was leaked to the media, a spokesperson for Dr Dobson clarified the basis behind his support of Trump: abortion and religious liberty. He stated that

“The comments Mr. Trump made 11 years ago were deplorable and I [Dr Dobson] condemn them entirely. I also find Hillary Clinton’s support of partial birth abortion criminal and her opinion of evangelicals to be bigoted,” Dobson said in the statement. “There really is only one difference between the two. Mr. Trump promises to support religious liberty and the dignity of the unborn. Mrs. Clinton promises she will not.”[5]

Myriam Reynaud, however, in her article, argues that evangelical leaders, like Dr Dobson, were actually out of touch with that Christian evangelical voting bloc they purport to represent. The two major issues that Dobson identified as the reasons for his support of Trump were not echoed by that 80% who voted for him. As I showed in the previous article, the two main issues why evangelicals stated they voted Trump were 1) the economy and 2) national security. Abortion and religious liberty were far less of a concern; she argues that there was an “opinion gap” between preachers, evangelical leaders, and the people for whom they claim to speak. Worries about the economy, she maintains, took precedence over their distaste for Trump as a person.

Nonetheless, many other high-profile Christian leaders continued  their support of Trump, despite the numerous scandals that dogged him during his candidacy. They were apparently able to do so by—just as Dobson did—by making two critical moves. On the one hand, they denounced his words and actions (which were clearly indefensible). On the other hand, though, they focused on his policies and campaign promises, and by comparing them to Clinton’s (whom they clearly feared and hated), they felt justified in continuing to support Trump.

Losing the Culture War

But one glaring problem that so many of these evangelical leaders overlooked, in their compartmentalization of the situation, and continuing support of Trump, was this: the damage they were doing to the public image of American Christianity in the process. In other words, they may have “won the battle” (by helping get Trump elected), but “lost the war” (the culture and image war).

John Pavlovitz, who has been named “The Pastor of the Resistance,” comments on this move, and its implications for both evangelical leaders and their faithful followers:

The opportunistic religious leaders began publicly framing the vile, profane, relentlessly offensive Trump as a flawed, imperfect tool of God‚ and American church folk raised on a faith of fear and conditioned to believe they are perpetually in danger—began buying it. Little by little, it became okay, even sensible to call Donald Trump a Christian. (Talk about a miracle.)[6]

The Fading Relevance of American Christianity

The reality is that the church in the West is in the process of fading into obscurity, as the modernist worldview is in the process of giving way to postmodernism. Here’s the main problem with such a shift, for the church: in many ways, the church has so identified with the values of modernity that it has become its very identity. Therefore, in the increasingly postmodern intellectual and cultural environment, not just in the West but spreading world-wide, this is a potential problem. Leiderbach and Reid comment that “there is a growing disenchantment with the worldview assumptions of modernity, and this is not only causing intellectual and moral tremors in the culture but it is also unsettling the evangelical church.”[7]

The very fact that such high-profile Christian leaders could support Trump, and condemn Hillary to the extent that they did, demonstrates this glaring reality: they are desperate to preserve their toe-hold in American culture, even as the relevance of the mainstream church diminishes.

The church in the West is in the process of being pushed to the margins from its once-influential place in the center. Tennent comments: “The Western world can no longer be characterized as a Christian society/culture in either its dominant ethos or worldview. Christendom has collapsed…”[8]

Theologian and biblical scholar Walter Brueggemann notes that at least two major shifts have occurred in the last few decades. First, Western Christianity has been disestablished; and second, in the process, the social hegemony of the church has collapsed. Due to these major shifts, he points out that the Western church can no longer “count on the support and collusion of dominant culture.”[9]

Conclusion

Although many will undoubtedly mourn the passing of the Christian culture in America (at least as we have known it), at the same time this situation heralds a new opportunity.  Brueggemann makes the connection between the current religious and political situation in America when he states: “My sense is that the ministry of the American church is in many ways fatigued and close to despair. That is so because we are double-minded…the church is so fully enmeshed in the dominant values of our culture that freedom for action is difficult.”[10]

For many American Christians, the increasing slippage of their beloved past (which has all-too often been baptized), and traditional ways of “doing church” represents the loss of a structured, “reliable” world. This may explain some of the unbelievable, and frankly offensive, levels of triumphalism among Christian Trump supporters, both during and after the election.

Whatever divides there were before his election between churches and mainstream American society have surely only been widened further.

The church has, in many ways, confused its identity with so-called “American values”: God bless America; pray for our troops; wrap oneself in the flag, and pursue the American dream—to the detriment of the rest of the world. On the one hand, we have witnessed in this election the personification and apparent triumph of “American Christianity.” Enough Christians voted, and this bloc helped propel Trump into the White House.

Moreover, his campaign slogan tapped into the so-called “American golden age” (whenever that was), by saying he would “Make America Great Again.” But when exactly was America “great”? During the period of slavery, or when there was legal segregation in the South? For certain marginalized and oppressed segments of the American society, it never was really all that “great.”

Despite this, Trump succeeded by tapping into a nostalgic yearning to re-create whenever it was that America was great for somebody. Most likely, this encompassed a lot of those 80% who voted for him, and therefore Trump’s slogan worked to propel him into office.

And despite his many missteps in his first few months in office, there is still a large bloc who continue to overlook the glaring flaws, outright lies, political incompetence, bullying, and so forth. It is a strange reality that people are apparently willing to believe almost any amount of incorrect information, so long as it fits into their political worldview.[11]

But on the other hand, for Christians willing to be reflective, advises Brueggemann, they will “find themselves increasingly at odds with the dominant values of consumer capitalism and its supportive military patriotism.”[12] Considering such a context, is difficult to envisage a way forward for the American church that is not merely reactionary, but rather is proactive.

It will be interesting to see, therefore, what will happen to the American church in the months and years ahead. Will it succeed in clinging to the increasingly-outmoded ways of the past, and fighting for its measure of control, even as it slips from its grasp? Or will it, as Brueggemann challenges, find a way forward and begin to act with intentionality? To go back to the past is to live in denial; and denial leads directly to a lack of vitality and risk, both in ministry and in life.

As a final thought, reflect on this, which I lifted from a post on the website thickspirited.com. Do these haunting words reflect the situation I’ve just described?

Eulogy for the Church

With a traumatic death comes shock, dismay and disbelief. Sudden madness from the loss, the jarring realization that life will never be the same. But, the church hasn’t died a sudden death, there was no last ditch resuscitation in the trauma room, with doctors yelling out orders and the surge of adrenaline that comes with trying to save a life. The Church didn’t die that death. We’ve been sick with a slow growing cancer, we’ve had inexplicable aches and pains that we’ve explained away, all in a masterful attempt to deceive ourselves that this couldn’t be the end, couldn’t be it. And yet, things began to get worse- we coughed up the blood of the saints and allowed ourselves to be tube fed political idolatries. We looked sick, everyone knew it but no one said anything. Didn’t want to hurt our feelings, didn’t want to acknowledge our weakness.

We medicated ourselves with delusions of grandeur and absorbed the morphine of worldly power and numbing greed. Things got worse, we forgot who we were because the drugs of the world are so good, makes you forget the foolishness of grace and the stupidity of forgiveness. Makes you forget that power was never the point, that we worshipped a weak and vulnerable man on a cross- one who didn’t even try and save himself- let people kill him for something as childish as salvation. He said he died so that we didn’t have to, and yet here we are.

Footnotes

[1] Tennent, Timothy. Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publishing, 2010: 18.

[2] The Boisi Center Papers on Religion in the United States, “Separation of Church and State,” p.1: http://www.bc.edu/content/dam/files/centers/boisi/pdf/bc_papers/BCP-ChurchState.pdf (Accessed 30 Mar. 17).

[3] Dobson, James. “Dr James Dobson on Donald Trump’s Christian Faith.” http://drjamesdobson.org/news/dr-james-dobson-on-trumps-christian-faith (Accessed 30 Mar. 2017).

[4] Dobson, “Dr James Dobson on Donald Trump’s Christian Faith.”

[5] Gray, Rosie. BuzzFeed, “Prominent Evangelicals Still Backing Trump after Lewd Video.” Oct. 8, 2016: https://www.buzzfeed.com/rosiegray/prominent-evangelicals-still-backing-trump-after-graphic-vid?utm_term=.wtRlm6QMB#.kbMM5bkjg (Accessed 30th Mar. 2017).

[6] Pavlovitz, John. Stuff that Needs to be Said, “It’s Time we Stopped Calling Donald Trump a Christian.” Feb. 2, 2017: http://johnpavlovitz.com/2017/02/02/its-time-we-stopped-calling-donald-trump-a-christian/ (Accessed 30th Mar. 2017).

[7] Leiderbach, Mark, and Alvin Reid. The Convergent Church: Missional Worshipers in an Emerging Culture. Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2009: 49.

[8] Tennent, Invitation to World Missions, 19.

[9] Brueggemann, Walter. The Word Militant: Preaching a Decentering Word. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2007: 57.

[10] Brueggemann, Walter. Hopeful Imagination: Prophetic Voices in Exile.  London: SCM Press, 1992: 7.

[11] Foran, Clair. The Atlantic, “Why do so Many Republicans Believe Trump’s Wiretap Claims?” Mar. 29, 2017: https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2017/03/trump-wiretap-claim-obama-republicans/521244/ (Accessed 31 Mar. 2017).

[12] Brueggemann, The Word Militant, 133.

 

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