As Donald Trump’s first term rolls on, two realities are emerging that work devilishly together to corrupt the American evangelical moral witness. First, when it comes to policy, Trump has proven to be better than many evangelicals hoped. Second, however, when it comes to his character, Trump has proven to be just as bad as most Americans feared. Combine these realities, and you confront evangelicals with an overwhelming temptation to excuse and rationalise his worst conduct for the sake of preserving a positive influence on his better policies.
To make this concrete, for Christian conservatives his judicial nominations have been outstanding. His cabinet agencies, especially to the Department of Health and Human Services, have aggressively defended religious liberty and rights of conscience. The military has been effective in fighting ISIS, and by all accounts his administration has been responsive to concerns about Christian persecution abroad. In many important ways, then, Trump has delivered concrete returns to the constituency that did more than any other to put him in office.
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At the same time, however, Trump’s character deficiencies have been on full display. Details keep emerging of an alleged affair with a porn star — and of hush money payments made just before the election. He launches vicious, deeply personal attacks against critics, lies with regularity, and continues to fend off claims that he’s sexually harassed or assaulted more than a dozen women.
A healthy evangelical movement could applaud the administration’s good decisions while still condemning his character defects. A healthy evangelical movement could apply the same standard to Trump as it does to Democrats who’ve engaged in similar behavior. In other words, a healthy evangelical movement could act as the conscience of the administration.
Yet we’ve seen something different. We’ve seen evangelical leaders go the extra mile to excuse behaviour they’ve once condemned. We’ve seen evangelicals flip from being the American population most concerned with character in political leaders to the population least concerned. In other words, time and again, when evangelicals are asked to choose between long-held moral and political principles and Donald Trump, they choose Trump.
I’d suggest the reasons are rooted both in human nature and in the unique character of the president. The human nature element is simple. People like to think of themselves as good and moral, and they want to be part of political movements that are good and moral. It’s one thing to vote for the so-called “lesser of two evils,” it’s another thing entirely to keep supporting a man you don’t like or respect. It turns out that evangelicals don’t want to be part of an “evil” movement at all — even if it is “lesser” than the alternative. They want to be part of something good and if Trump isn’t good in real-life, he can at least be good in their imagination.
Spend much time, then, in conservative Christian circles, and you’ll find a deep unwillingness to believe the worst charges about Trump combined with an eagerness to believe that he’s (deep-down) a generous and, yes, Christian man. So they’ll actively disbelieve the women who claim Trump assaulted them — even though they’ll willingly believe similarly-sourced claims against progressives. They’ll focus on mainstream media exaggerations and mistakes (and there have been many) to the exclusion of troubling evidence. And they’ll eagerly share stories from people who claim to “really” know him and swear that he’s a “young believer” or “deeply respectful” of the Christian faith.
The result is a picture of Trump in much of white evangelicalism that is utterly alien to most of the rest of America. To evangelicals, he’s a blunt, plainspoken and wrongly-accused man who’s had struggles in life but is basically good and decent. He’s flawed and colourful, to be sure, but he’s also misunderstood and under-appreciated. His actions are good, they argue. His tweets and insults? They’re “just words.” Pay them no mind.
But there’s also another force at work. When talking to evangelicals about Trump, you’ll hear a lot about “loyalty.” Trump demands loyalty, they say, and when you’re loyal to him, he’ll be loyal to you. No defences, no victories.
Think of the incentives here. The desire to be on the side that is good and holy makes evangelicals want to believe the best about Trump. At the same time, the knowledge that Trump values loyalty and punishes his enemies makes evangelicals believe that they need to defend Trump to maintain their influence. If they see Trump for what he is — and act accordingly — they may well lose the benefits from an administration they fought so hard to put in power. So they see him for what he isn’t, wrap both arms around him, and try their best to justify that decision to themselves and others.
There is a high cost to this approach. It’s driving a wedge between white evangelicals and Christians from minority communities — people who’ve felt the sting of Trump’s obvious racial divisiveness. It’s causing generational tensions within white evangelicalism, as younger Christians are less likely to overlook Trump’s many sins. And it’s increasing the already deep and bitter divide between Christian conservatives and secular America.
Some Christians are actually fond of comparing Donald Trump to King David — arguing that God used David in spite of his immense flaws. The comparison is laughable. David was flawed, yes, but he repented deeply of his sins. Where is Trump’s repentance? Where is Trump’s humility?
David’s story is instructive in other ways. When David was at his worst, the prophet Nathan had the courage to confront him. Nathan didn’t sally forth to the town square to describe word of David’s affair as “fake news.” He didn’t defend David as “no worse than Saul.” He didn’t tell the people of Israel that David’s philandering was less important than the king’s wondrous policies. He confronted a sinful man.
That’s the proper role of a Christian leader. It’s not to rationalise. It’s not to excuse. The Donald Trump temptation is proving too much for conservative Christians to resist.