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The Moral and Spiritual Bankruptcy of White Evangelicals

Photo by James Thompson | CC BY 2.0

According to 2016 exit polling, 80% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, surprisingly more than for Christian conservative George W. Bush. This was in spite of the overwhelming evidence of Trump’s inveterate lying, his misogynistic comments and behaviors, his racist statements and proposed policies, his frequent attempts to humiliate real and imagined opponents, and—what should be of relevance to evangelical voters—a lack of knowledge or interest in Christian scripture.

Since the election, white evangelical support has remained high (75%).[1]Again, this is despite women speaking out about how Trump treated them, hush money to a porn star, reports of failing to pay workers, numerous ethics investigations of people he selected for his Cabinet, his seeming incapacity to take responsibility for anything other than his “successes,” and his ongoing desire to humiliate and intimidate opponents.

Only recently, a few white evangelical leaders have tepidly spoken out in opposition to the Administration’s policy of separating immigrant parents from their children. Though, leaders, like Franklin Graham, did not blame Trump. Instead, Graham blamed the situation on the last 20-30 years. Also, these very same leaders support Trump’s other draconian immigration policies.

While some people may view evangelicals’ stalwart support of Trump as hypocrisy, I view it as moral bankruptcy. Let me offer three reasons. First, evangelicals have for decades espoused the view that moral (read Christian) character is a key criterion for political and religious leadership. While Christian voters differ on the specifics, it is easy to assent to the idea that moral character is important for leaders to possess. I suspect people of other faith traditions and agnostics/atheists would agree that moral character is a key factor. A leader’s character was so important that most evangelicals were outraged not only by Bill Clinton’s sexual acting out with an intern, but also by his lying about it. Part of George W. Bush’s appeal to these voters was that he restored probity to the Office of President, overlooking or excusing his consistent lying to the American people about WMDs in Iraq. Two decades later, we hear white evangelicals say, in response to voting for Trump, that they voted for a man rather than a saint or savior, which I take to mean that the idea of character has lost any moral meaning, becoming something that simply refers to eccentricity. In this sense, white evangelicals have gladly and consistently sacrificed principle for expediency, which means that when it comes to political leadership morality no longer matters.

More evidence of moral bankruptcy is seen in the acceptance of or the indifference to Trump’s lies. Of course, all presidents lie to some extent, but Trump has taken this to a new level. The website Politifact, which tracks and evaluates the truth claims of public persons, indicates that Trump lies over 70% of the time. A remarkable feat for any person, except perhaps a sociopath. If we imagine that evangelicals know he is lying, yet continue to support him and avoid calling him into accountability, then it is clear that evangelicals have sacrificed the importance of truth and facts vis-à-vis the public-political arena. This would be one version of moral bankruptcy, which is especially disturbing given evangelicals’ claim to follow Jesus who proclaimed the truth. But it may be that many evangelicals do not know that Trump is lying, despite clear and pervasive evidence that he is. In this case, they are not sacrificing the truth, because they are incapable of recognizing it. They have opted for what Harry Frankfurt (2005) called bullshit and we know bullshitters are not known for moral character. Again, if we turn to evangelicals’ claim to follow Jesus, I can find nowhere in the Gospels where Jesus sought out, displayed, or accepted bullshit from his followers or religious and political leaders. Whether jettisoning the truth or opting for bullshit or illusion, many white evangelicals manifest a moral bankruptcy.

The third feature of moral bankruptcy is found in the notion that the ends-justifies-the-means approach to politics. Over the months I have heard white evangelicals indicate some discomfort with some of Trump’s behaviors, which suggests, in that moment, they are not completely morally bankrupt. Yet, this is quickly followed by pointing to how Trump is getting things done—things they want, such as a more conservative Supreme Court, more border protection, etc. This sounds very much like an ends-justifies-the-means approach to political decision making. White evangelical Christians seem to have conveniently forgotten that this kind of approach was antithetical to Jesus’ ministry and Christian ethics. Indeed, in the Gospels, Jesus repeatedly demonstrated that he would not follow the ways of the world, such as accepting the temptations in the desert or calling on an army of angels to rescue him from his impending torture and death at the hands of the imperium. Evidently, this Jewish carpenter knew that if the means are evil, then the ends are already corrupt. Jesus possessed the moral integrity to know that it is impossible for unjust means to bring about just ends. The means must reflect the ends, which is why Martin Luther King Jr. opted for non-violent resistance. He recognized that violent means corrupts one’s character and damages the soul. Sadly, most white evangelicals have drained their banks of integrity to purchase a sordid character who will help them to achieve their ends.

The idea of the soul moves us to the idea of spiritual bankruptcy, which is the other side of the evangelical sacrifice of principle for expediency. Spirituality is a protean term, but simply stated it refers to beliefs, values, and behaviors aimed at a common good or goods. If we consider the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, we might say that goods are primarily compassion, love of enemies, mercy, and forgiveness, which are represented in Jesus’ solidarity with the poor and oppressed.  To be sure, he had harsh words for leaders and wealthy people who exploited the poor, but this, like prophets before him, was aimed at bringing them into accountability and realignment with covenant values. The good Jesus was incarnating was evident in acts of healing, guiding people to God, and reconciliation.  I cannot imagine that white evangelicals could so twist the Gospels as to suggest that Trump’s predilection to humiliate anyone deemed to be an opponent, his inveterate lying, and his cruel policies toward poor people and immigrants reflect in any way the spirit of Jesus or the spirituality of a Christian. It is one thing to have a leader who is spiritually bankrupt, it is another to have putative Christian devotees unquestioningly support him.

One might argue that white evangelical’s support of Trump does not prevent them from living the spirit of the Gospel in acts of love in their daily lives. But this kind of mental gymnastics is reminiscent of those “good” Catholics and Protestants who supported Hitler or Mussolini.  I am not comparing Trump to these tyrants, though clearly Trump has a tyrannical or authoritarian side. I am instead saying that preaching love, while supporting someone who has little idea of the truth, who loves himself and his family but no others, who humiliates real and imagined opponents indicates spiritually bankruptcy. I am reminded of a scene in Robert Bolt’s play, “A Man for All Seasons.” At one point in the trial of Thomas More, Norfolk perjures himself, placing More in a precarious position. More turns to Norfolk, with some sadness and disappointment, and says “For Wales Norfolk, For Wales?” More knew that Norfolk had sacrificed moral and spiritual principles in order to gain greater power and prestige. More obviously thought that Wales was hardly worth jettisoning one’s character. To vote for and support a man like Trump so that white evangelicals can feel as if they have power to achieve their ends and re-establish their prestige (e.g., Make America Great Again), reveals a common, tragic tendency to empty one’s moral and spiritual assets for the fool’s gold of a false prophet.

Notes.

[1] I need to point out that there are some progressives, like Jim Wallis, among white evangelicals. In this article I am focusing on conservative white evangelical support for Trump.

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