The Evangelical Deal with the Devil

and why it won’t help them win the culture wars


When Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office, as “a matter  … of loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments”, it acknowledged an argument in his favor:

his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy

but it characterized those benefits like this

no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence.

It worried that ultimately, as Christian leaders tie themselves to this “human being who is morally lost and confused”, Christianity itself will be tarnished.

To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency…. And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and on the world’s understanding of the gospel.

CT’s editor Mark Galli, who wrote this editorial, is too benevolent to use this term, but the Christian tradition (not the Bible itself) contains a perfect description of the kind of bargain he is describing, in which worldly advantage is obtained in exchange for moral corruption: It is a deal with the Devil.

You might think Trump would deny such an implication, but in his tweeted response, the Artist of the Deal emphasized the transactional nature of his relationship to Evangelicals:

No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage.

In other words: You got a good price for your soul, so why are you complaining?

The moral cost. An inescapable feature of a deal with the Devil is that there is always more to it than you bargained for. And so it is here. A simple votes-for-judges bargain might have made pragmatic (if not moral) sense for conservative Christians, and might even make it defensible (if distasteful) to “brush off … immoral words and behavior” when Trump or his policies are grossly incompatible with Christian ethics. But instead of just ignoring sin and injustice, Evangelical leaders have been drawn into actively promoting and defending it.

When the public became aware of the policy of taking children away from their parents at the border, some prominent Christian leaders stepped up to deflect blame away from Trump:

“It’s impossible to feel anything but compassion for these kids, who must be dealing with a great deal of pain and confusion,” [Family Research Council President Tony] Perkins wrote in a June 15 statement. “But the origin of that pain and confusion isn’t U.S. law or the Trump administration. That burden lies with their parents who knowingly put them in this position.” …

Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and one of Trump’s most influential evangelical supporters, acknowledged the plight of the detained and separated children, but said he backs the president’s policy.

“Anybody with an ounce of compassion has to be disturbed by the scenes we are seeing at the border,” Jeffress said. “The only thing more gut-wrenching than the children separated from their families at the border is seeing children like Kate Steinle separated forever from her family.”

Kate Steinle was 30, not a child, when she died, and Jeffress did not explain how Steinle’s death might have been prevented by taking immigrant children — some as young as four months — away from their parents, or (if it could have been) how a Christian might justify such a moral trade-off. (This kind of reasoning is the exact opposite of the argument abortion opponents make against a rape exception: The child-to-be should not be punished for the sin of the father. “You are valuable no matter who your parents are, no matter the circumstances of your conception.”)

After the violent white supremacist rally in Charlottesville (in which a neo-Nazi rammed a car into a crowd of peaceful counter-protesters, killing one and injuring 28), Jerry Falwell Jr. invented reasons to defend Trump’s pandering to the white supremacists in his base, and vouched for his character:

Falwell, president of the Christian-based Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, said Trump likely had more detailed information on protesters when he described “fine people” on both sides.

“One of the reasons I supported him is because he doesn’t say what’s politically correct, he says what is in his heart,” Falwell told ABC’s “This Week” program. “But he does not have a racist bone in his body.”

Think about that: Standing against Nazis is being “politically correct”, while defending them is not racist.

What about sex? You might at least expect Evangelical leaders to denounce Trump’s sexual offenses. After all, we all saw him on the Access Hollywood tape confess to a pattern of sexual assaults, after which two dozen women came forward with corroborating testimony. But Falwell heard only “somebody bragging in a locker room-type environment about something they never did”. Falwell could have stayed silent; he could have withheld judgment — but no, he actively stood up in defense.

When it came out that Trump had cheated on Melania with porn star Stormy Daniels, and then paid for Daniels’ silence just before the 2016 election (a campaign-finance offense for which Michael Cohen is in prison), Perkins thought Trump should “get a mulligan“, as if the entire sleazy mess were just a bad golf shot.

Wayne Grudem, a professor of biblical studies and author of Christian Ethics: An Introduction to Biblical Moral Reasoning, remains unshaken:

I strongly disapprove of adultery and being unfaithful in marriage, but I still support [Trump’s] actions as president. I’m glad he’s president, and I would vote for him again.

Nancy Allen, a Baptist who wrote Electing the People’s President, Donald Trump can read the same Twitter feed that CT characterized as “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused”, but somehow she has invented a New Trump, who (without confession or repentance) has been washed clean.

Donald Trump has changed. I believe that with all my heart. He has changed. He hasn’t had any more affairs. Now he’s not perfect, but there’s no perfect person. We know that there has been a change in his heart, and he respects our beliefs and values. And I believe he has some of the same beliefs and values.

Even Christian theology has been corrupted. Numerous Evangelical leaders have paved for Trump (and presumably him alone) an entirely new path of salvation from the one I learned about in Lutheran confirmation: He can be forgiven even while continuing to claim that everyone who accuses him is lying.

 

But why? By many accounts, the justification for the deal is a sense of desperation: Conservative Christians are losing the culture wars, and have to fight back harder. Jerry Falwell Jr. tweeted:

Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys”. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!

Perkins echoes this sentiment.

Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, “were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there’s somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully.”

You may find it bizarre that Obama, who (unlike Trump) was scrupulously polite to his opponents, is seen as “the bully”. As best I can tell, liberal “bullying” consists mostly of recognizing same-sex marriage, enforcing anti-discrimination laws, and requiring Christian businesses to offer their employees a full range of healthcare benefits.

But in addition to these actual affronts to Christian dominance, an array of imaginary threats have been concocted: Christianity will be criminalized! There will be widespread violence against Christians! Civil war! Christians are “one generation away” from a Nazi-like oppression!

Where actual offenses are lacking, terrifying ones can be envisioned in the future.

Why it won’t work. Selling out Christianity for Trumpism might even be justifiable for Evangelical leaders, at least temporarily, if Trumpist “street fighting” did what the Falwells and Jeffresses want: turned the country back towards the kinds of values Evangelicals promote — strict gender roles that reject homosexuality and female promiscuity, and postulate male/female as an either/or fixed at birth.

But the deal with the Devil won’t produce this outcome, because it’s based on a false diagnosis. Evangelicals aren’t losing the culture wars because they haven’t been tough enough. They’re losing because they’re wrong.

At its best, morality provides a way to skip bitter experience, because it offers you the same conclusions you would eventually come to yourself after years of pain and failure. How many people look back on failed relationships, estranged children, lost friendships and think, “If only I’d been honest with everybody from the beginning.”? How often do people confront a tangled web of cover-ups and wish they’d never cut the corner that got it all started? How many grasshoppers reach middle age and envy the ants whose consistent application of higher values have produced thriving careers, loving families, and valued places in supportive communities?

But not all attempts at moral rules work out that way. Some moral rules are arbitrary and bureaucratic. You keep them or you break them, and (unless you’re caught) life goes on with no obvious difference. Other rules are perverse: breaking the rule is the decision you look back on with pride and satisfaction. The regret you live with isn’t “Why did I do that?”, but “Why didn’t I see through that sooner?”

That’s where American culture is with traditional gender roles. We can see this most clearly in the public’s sudden acceptance of same-sex marriage, which went from an absurdity to a majority position in a little over a decade. In most other ways, that decade (roughly the early Oughts to the early Teens) was not a time of tumultuous change in social mores and attitudes. Politically, liberal waves in 2006 and 2008 were followed by a conservative wave in 2010, while approval of same-sex marriage continued to rise.

What changed? As gays and lesbians came out of the closet, more and more straight Americans got to know something about their lives, and came to rely on their own judgments of real people rather than the scare-stories promoted by Evangelical preachers.

Same-sex marriage wasn’t “presaging the fall of Western Civilization itself”, as James Dobson proclaimed in 2004 (and I think as far back as 1998, though I can’t find the link). As real experiences replaced stereotypes, same-sex marriage became the two guys who were renovating the house across the street, or the lesbian couple whose kid belonged to your kid’s playgroup. It was the cousin who could start being herself, or the son or daughter who now felt hopeful about life. Gay and lesbian couples weren’t engaged in some horrifying sham whose purpose was to undermine marriage for the rest of us, they were seeking many of the same happily-ever-afters we all were.

The reason American young people in particular are so accepting of diverse gender identities and sexual orientations is that they have grown up with out-of-the-closet friends. (I love the unconflicted coming-out story the CW Network wrote for its new Batwoman character. In 7th grade, when Johnny told everybody Kate was a lesbian, “I said ‘So what?’ and punched him in the mouth.”) They have seen the reality of the situation, and so will never be convinced that their classmates are minions of Satan.

Occasionally I hear white racists opine that blacks were better off under slavery, but I’ve never heard an African-American make that claim. In the same way, I’ve never heard a gay person say, “I wish we were all still the closet.” The era when homosexuality was a shameful secret, like the era when women could aspire only to “ladylike” futures, was a Dark Age. Nearly everyone cares about somebody whose life would be ruined if we really did “Make America Great Again” by going back to the values of the 1950s.

And for what? What possible benefit to straight white men would be worth rolling back the liberalizing waves of the last sixty years?

If the majority of the American people have anything to say about it, we’ll never find out. Not because some demon has tricked them, because of the authentic morality their life experience has taught them.

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Comments

  • Rip Light  On December 23, 2019 at 12:39 pm

    I’m grateful for your gift – in both senses. Your knowledge of the religion and its various traditions, your patience in unpacking the inconsistencies and absurdities of right-wing evangelical ‘thought,’ and the clarity of your analysis make this one more example of why you do the best short-form commentary that I know of. Thank you.

  • madelonw1011  On December 23, 2019 at 1:16 pm

    My take on the op-ed in Christianity Today is that, once again, religion has been brought to the forefront of political discourse. I find this dangerous in a country founded on the principle of separation of church and state.

  • George Washington, Jr.  On December 23, 2019 at 2:32 pm

    “Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency”

    It’s already too late for them. Since the 1980s, the behavior of people like Jerry Falwell and his ilk has forever tarnished the Evangelical Christian brand. The hateful rhetoric spewing from too many pulpits, and the gross hypocrisy shown by church leadership that engages in the same sexual behavior and financial impropriety they condemn in others, are among the reasons why church attendance is plummeting, and the fastest-growing “religion” in the U.S. is “none.” Young people are abandoning religion at a record pace because it appears to offer nothing but hatred of LGBT and relegating women to second-class citizenship.

    Galli’s condemnation of Trump is nothing new in liberal Christian circles, but I can’t help but notice that he doesn’t go so far as to advise anyone to “vote Blue, no matter who.” If Trump is viewed as the lesser of two evils, a reluctant vote for him counts the same as an enthusiastic one.

  • D.  On December 23, 2019 at 4:20 pm

    White reading, I started to wonder about Putin’s deal with the Russian Orthodox hierarchy.

  • Creigh Gordon  On December 23, 2019 at 11:53 pm

    Politicalorphans.com has an excellent column out just today on aspects of toxic religion and its connections to today’s politics. (There are a number of Weekly Sift readers at Politicalorphans, recommendations there are how I found Weekly Sift.)

  • Thomas Paine  On December 24, 2019 at 8:33 am

    The religious ‘leaders’ you cite and who support our nation’s Vulgarian-in-Chief are every bit as much scam artists and conmen as he is. These are not moral people in any sense of the word, and they exist simply to take advantage of those whose authoritarian impulses cause them to let others do their thinking for them.

    Trump’s an asshole, but he’s *their* asshole, and by supporting him regardless of what he does, they are simply trying to harness the cult of Trump in the same manner wackadoodle politicians on the fringe-right do.

    It’s worth remembering Twain’s observation these days: “If Christ were here today, the one thing he wouldn’t be is a Christian.”

  • jh  On December 28, 2019 at 9:16 pm

    I don’t really care what Christianity Today says because they aren’t the gatekeepers anymore. Nor are the pundits at any other national stage. This is mob rage.

    All I can think is this.. I want the Christians to lose it. I want the moderates to wring their hands and go “the evangelicals aren’t real Christians”. I want the Evangelicals to go even harder into Trump. Why? Because the Christians are the worst enemies of their faith. The more they put their faith in Trump, the more obvious that their religion isn’t a valid religion.

    America is seeing how Christians truly are. They are seeing the corruption. And as an Atheist, I’m really really happy at the implosion. This is the time where I am making sure that people understand that Christianity isn’t good. I want people to think “Nazi” when they hear the word Christianity. I mean.. dead kids says it all and Christians like supporting a regime that killed those children.

    Christianity will always exist. It’s like the HIV virus. It’s always lurking in the darkness. But what I hope is that Christianity is so trivialized and worthless that we regard it much like most of us regard astrology or tarot cards. Hey.. we used to think prayers were a good thing. After so many school shootings, most Americans are sick and tired of prayers. They prefer actions.

    My dream is that more and more people walk away from Christianity. And guess what, I don’t have to really do much besides say “Weird. I thought christians were supposed to be kind and good and loving and stuff. Looks like they just like hurting people.”

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