There is a line of dialogue in Werner Herzog’s film Aguirre, The Wrath of God that should stand as a warning for Christian organizations throughout all time.
As the insane Aguirre, who has led a Spanish expedition into disaster, is preparing to execute a rival, the cowardly priest Gaspar de Carvajal tells the doomed man’s mistress: “You know, my child, for the good of our Lord, the Church was always on the side of the strong.”
American evangelicals are now displaying a similar attitude of power-worship in the age of Donald Trump. More than the result of this election is now on the line, as the mounting hypocrisies may herald the last time that the evangelical voice will even matter in the public square.
After a quarter-century of believing that “character counts” and insisting that President Clinton pay the stern price of impeachment for his adultery, most evangelicals (if polls are to be believed) are ready and even delighted to pull the lever for a man who made his money through stiffing contractors, repeatedly lied to public officials, profited from gambling, divorced two women, dodged the draft, was credibly accused of raping his first wife and has bragged of seducing the married wives of others. Instead of caring for the lame, the halt and the blind, he gives almost nothing to charity and has ridiculed a disabled reporter in front of a crowded hall.
Trump’s religious literacy is surface-level when it is even existent. Despite laughable boasts like “nobody reads the Bible more than me,” he cannot cite a favorite Bible verse, he boasts that he never asks God for forgiveness, he famously tried to quote “Two Corinthians” during a rally, and seemed to be so unfamiliar with the communion plate at First Christian Church in Council Bluffs, Iowa, that he tried to put money into it, which was perhaps a fitting move for the real estate promoter who once referred to the Eucharist as “my little wine” and “my little cracker.”
This would make for a fine 21st century reenactment of Mark Twain’s “The Man Who Corrupted Hadleyburg” were the stakes not so high for the continuing relevance of evangelicals in the public square. Their alliance with Trump may be the triggering “deal with the devil” that scuttles their credibility and moral authority for a generation or more — and not just on matters of politics.
Despite some fuzziness about what the term “evangelical” means to pollsters, approximately 78 percent of white evangelical voters say they will support Trump in November. Many infrequent churchgoers — the amorphous group sometimes derided as “NASCAR Christians” whose beliefs are more cultural than deeply theological — probably account for much of this majority, but a significant number of figures in the conservative religious pantheon have joined them, including James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Ralph Reed and Tony Perkins.
One of Trump’s most vociferous pastor-apologists is Rev. Robert Jeffress, who holds the pulpit at the powerful First Baptist Church of Dallas. Contradicting forty years of evangelical shouting that “character counts” in a president, he has said he does not even want a president who embodies the values that Jesus taught in the gospels.
“I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation,” he told right-wing talk show host Mike Gallagher. He added: “Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find — and I believe that’s biblical.”
(Given his newfound lack of concern for Biblical values in the public sphere, one wonders why Rev. Jeffress even bothered to conceal his profanity with a “you-know-what,” but never mind).
Despite his comical boast that the IRS decided to audit him because he is somehow viewed publically as “a strong Christian,” Trump is not tied to any serious religious thought-movement whatsoever, except perhaps, as Peter Wehner has theorized, a Nietzschean glorification of the self — hardly a follower of the Savior who said “blessed are the meek,” and who commanded us not to strike back again a rival instead of striking them back “ten times as hard,” in Trump’s favorite formulation.
Through his constant praise of dictators like Vladimir Putin of Russia, Abdel Fatah al-Sisi of Egypt and, incredibly, even Saddam Hussein of Iraq, with admiring words like “strong” and “tough,” without any regard for liberty or democratic values, Trump has made it plain that raw strength is the only virtue he worships. His rhetoric has no patience for basic norms of fairness or due process, and certainly not the “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” spoken of in Galatians 5:22-23.
What is it, then, that would drive a believer to throw in their lot for him over Hillary Clinton, who has given multiple and persuasive accounts of how her Methodist upbringing and concern for the poor inspired her to seek public service?
The answer is a lust for worldly power: a temptation for the church since its beginning days. Jesus himself was taken to a high place and shown the “kingdoms of the world” by the devil and resisted the temptation to rule them. And he specifically warned against believing that his kingdom was of this world. His sacrifice on the cross was a conundrum and a challenge for his followers hopeful he would lead a rebellion against Rome to restore Israel’s self-government.
But Trump has spoken to evangelicals in the only thuggish language he understands, and they have listened. He has explicitly offered them the prestige and clout they desire, if only they would follow him. Here is a good summary of the sordid bargain he offers:
“I’ll tell you one thing: I get elected president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” he told a forum at Dordt College in Sioux Center, Iowa on Jan. 23. “Just remember that. And by the way, Christianity will have power, without having to form. Because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power. You don’t need anybody else.”
Consider the implication of that for a second. You don’t need anybody else.
There is no more classic trap for the ambitious individual believer or the institutional church: the tendency to want earthly prizes for the sake of spreading the Word at some forever-postponed future date, as in the sad prayer of a struggling Christian actor or singer: Oh please, Lord, let me get this booking so that I might use my fame and riches to proclaim your glory. Oh God, can’t you see this is a win-win for both of us? I promise to mention you in my acceptance speech!
Evangelicals have been seduced once again by the lure of power over the bigger love of the gospel.
The Missouri pastor and theologian Reinhold Neibuhr observed that Christianity “is more frequently a source of confusion than of light in the political realm.”
He added: “The tendency to equate our political with our Christian convictions causes politics to generate idolatry.”
There have been a few notable high-profile holdouts, Russell Moore among them, and a significant number of believers who are genuinely horrified by the prospect of the likes of the chief huckster of the Trump University scam holding the most exalted office in the nation — “the one-man distillation of the American people,” in the memorable words of presidential historian Clinton Rossiter. But they are in the minority.
The dishonorable flirtation, if not outright embrace, of one of the most anti-gospel values candidates in recent memory is not only a scene out of Aguirre The Wrath of God in which a cowardly church is ready to ally itself with absolutely anybody with strong fists. It also raises the question about where evangelicals have squandered their moral voice and their future credibility; their Nathan-like ability to tell the king he is wrong and must repent. After the “character counts” reversal and the rush to paper over Trump’s gleeful and unrepentant sins of the flesh, why would anyone want to listen to these guys ever again?
The words of Luke 16:10 seem appropriate here. “Whoever can be trusted with very little can also be trusted with much, and whoever is dishonest with very little will also be dishonest with much.”
Trump-supporting evangelicals have pointedly turned away from their past insistence on the moral bona fides of a politician. They seem unwilling to face the truth about the woefully unprepared man to whom they would entrust the keys of the nation, let alone their own motivations for supporting him.
An unchurched observer would be within their rights to ask: If they have displayed such a lack of integrity on Donald Trump, how can we therefore trust evangelicals to tell us the truth about anything at all? This erosion of public confidence could be the most lasting impact of the Age of Trump upon the church.