Jesus will return. Not only are the midterm elections coming, and the Republicans need the Jesus crowd to hold onto what seats in the House they can – that crowd that really does get out there to vote, every one of them – but Donald Trump is in trouble. He’s crass and crude and mean and vindictive, and vain, and he likes to sneer at the halt and the lame, and the poor and the hungry, and the huddled masses yearning to breathe free and anyone in need – the losers. He needs that Jesus crowd to keep the House of Representatives from flipping. They need to keep the House his. He could be impeached, or if not that, he could be neutered – none of what he wants to do would get done. That’s why there will be a lot of Jesus talk. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious person. There’s no evidence he ever thought about God much, and once, when asked if he ever asked God for forgiveness, he said no – there wasn’t much point in that as there had never been anything to forgive. Still, he had to have the evangelical base behind him. Those are the folks who know that Jesus was a Republican, and their votes are the floor upon which Republican victories are built. Trump had to have those votes, as a given, to win in 2016, and he courted that crowd already inclined to vote Republican with some success, in spite of himself. They’re with him.
They have to stay with him. That’s why there will be a lot of Jesus talk. Donald Trump isn’t all that bad. Jesus would like him a lot. Expect that. Back in 2016, Robert P. Jones, the CEO of the Public Religion Research Institute and the author of The End of White Christian America, explained what the bargain was then:
For white evangelical Protestants, Mr. Trump’s general vow to “make America great again” means something specific. Mr. Trump stepped into the spotlight just as the curtain was coming down on the era of white Protestant dominance.
Mr. Trump’s ascendancy has turned the 2016 election into a referendum on the death of white Christian America, with the candidate appealing strongly to those who are most grieving this loss. Mr. Trump instinctively understood this from the beginning of his campaign. Take his speech at an evangelical college before the Iowa caucuses in January: “I’ll tell you one thing: I get elected president, we’re going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” He added that Christianity will be resurgent “because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power – you don’t need anybody else.”
Nostalgia is a powerful god, and a jealous god, and an angry god – so Donald Trump was a man of God after all – just not the god that others assumed.
On the other hand there was the son of Ronald Reagan:
For the first time, an ad inviting viewers to join the Freedom from Religion Foundation is airing on multiple cable news networks. The 30 second spot features Ron Reagan proudly proclaiming his atheist views. It originally aired in 2014, but had been refused by CBS, NBC, ABC and Discovery.
They’re still airing that now, although the Freedom from Religion Foundation doesn’t have much of a budget so it doesn’t pop up that often – but when it does pop up it’s a bit startling. America is changing, and that upsets those on the other side of things:
Michael Reagan, the adopted son of the late President Ronald Reagan, is boycotting MSNBC and CNN for airing the commercial featuring his atheist brother. Now a conservative commentator, Michael Reagan took to Twitter to denounce the ad and called for a boycott of media outlets running it. He said his father was “crying in heaven” about Ron’s endorsement of the atheistic organization.
His father is also dead. Things have changed, and the ad is pretty straightforward:
“I’m Ron Reagan, an unabashed atheist, and I’m alarmed by the intrusions of religion into our secular government,” Ron Reagan says in the ad.
“That’s why I’m asking you to support the Freedom from Religion Foundation, the nation’s largest and most effective association of atheists and agnostics, working to keep state and church separate, just like our Founding Fathers intended.”
He ends the ad with a wry smile, saying, “Ron Reagan, lifelong atheist, not afraid of burning in hell.”
A little humor helps, but Jesus is coming. The word is that Donald Trump isn’t all that bad. The word is that Jesus would have liked him a lot, and likes him now.
Not everyone got the word. The Christian Broadcast Network – now as pro-Trump as Fox News – reports on trouble in their world:
CBN News has confirmed that at least a few people walked out of an intense invite-only evangelical meeting this week at Wheaton College after the affair turned into “crazy Trump bashing.”
The two-day gathering involved a group of faith leaders and was billed as a discussion of the evangelical movement in light of Trump’s presidency. But it became more than that.
Two sources with intimate knowledge of the meeting say the first day turned into a lot of “one-sided venting” against President Trump and the majority of evangelicals who voted for him.
Both sources confirm that the issue of sin came up in discussing how evangelicals could vote for Trump. “The conversations were difficult” – according to one source who attended both days of the meeting. “There was a lament.”
After that first day, a few people felt so uncomfortable with the rhetoric against Trump they left, forgoing the last day of the conference.
CBN sees that as a real shame and reports on how deluded these “venting” evangelicals were:
It’s important to note that no members of President Trump’s faith advisory group were present or ever officially invited. Rather, this group of evangelicals consisted of many who hold more moderate or progressive views on certain public policy issues.
Pastor Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Dallas is part of the president’s evangelical advisory group and says this gathering is of no consequence.
“It’s a meeting that will have very little impact on evangelicalism as a whole,” Jeffress told CBN News. “Many of them are sincere but they are having a hard time understanding that they have little impact on evangelicalism.”
In short, they were nobody:
Richard Land of Southern Evangelical Seminary also questioned the weight of the meeting given the absence of some well-known names.
“Any definition of ‘thought leaders’ and any definition of evangelicalism that excludes the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association and Franklin Graham is a pale imitation – anemic and incomplete,” said Land.
Other members of Trump’s faith advisory council spoke to CBN News off the record, one voicing his concern over what he sees as this group of evangelicals trying to steal the microphone from those who support Trump. He pointed to the fact that many invited to participate are part of the anti-Trump movement and hold more progressive views on public policy than traditional evangelical Christian voters who supported Trump in 2016.
In short, this was rigged, but these folks are forgiving:
Johnnie Moore, an unofficial spokesman for the faith advisory council, was among the many pro-Trump evangelicals not invited.
“We don’t take it personally; we just pray for them,” Moore said in a statement to CBN News. “I’ve said it many, many times, but I’ll say it again: we have been honored to fight to protect religious liberty that even extends to protecting the rights of those who disagree with us on religious grounds, even when they are unkind.”
Forgive them for they know not what they do – Jesus’ words as He was dying on the Cross. Of course Johnnie Moore would say that, but he needn’t have bothered, as these unkind folks are vastly outnumbered:
A new PRRI survey finds white evangelical support for President Trump at an all-time high, with 75 percent holding a favorable view of the president and just 22 percent holding an unfavorable view. This level of support is far above support in the general population, where Trump’s favorability is at 42 percent.
That support is as solid as ever, and in fact growing:
White evangelical support for Donald Trump has steadily increased over time. Notably, Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals never reached 50 percent during the 2016 primary season. By the early fall of 2016 however, his favorability among white evangelicals had jumped to 61 percent. By the inauguration it increased to 68 percent, and shortly after the inauguration in February 2017 it jumped again to 74 percent. Over the course of 2017, there were minor fluctuations, but Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals never dipped below 65 percent during this time.
Ed Kilgore wondered about that:
I bet if you take white Evangelicals out of the picture, Trump’s standing with the rest of the population is really low. So I emailed the PRRI, and got the non-white-Evangelical numbers from the very same poll.
They’re pretty compelling. Among Americans who are not self-identified white Evangelicals, Trump’s favorability ratio is 36-60, with 41 percent expressing very unfavorable views of the president. Among women who are not white Evangelicals, the ratio is 29-69, with about half – 49 percent – harboring a very unfavorable view of Trump. How about college-educated Americans who aren’t white Evangelicals? Trump’s at 32-65, with 47 percent holding a very unfavorable opinion of him. And outside the ranks of the white Evangelicals, even non-college-educated Americans have a dim view of the MAGA man, disliking him by a 39-58 margin (this obviously includes minority folks) though a mere 38 percent dislike him strongly.
That means that this is pretty much a white thing:
Non-white-Evangelical America is a pretty big part of this great big country, and it’s a place where Donald Trump is really unpopular. Get used to that idea.
Robert P. Jones agrees, but now adds this:
White evangelicals’ bargain with Trump is better understood as a desperate deal born of anxiety in the face of a changing nation than as a fulfillment of their aspirations. White evangelicals were the last soldiers still manning the barricades opposing same-sex marriage, and their resounding legal and cultural defeat on that issue put an end to any lingering serious talk of being “the moral majority” in the country.
They may be neither now, and Jones still thinks they will be the ones who will be outnumbered soon enough:
By tying themselves to the Trump brand, white evangelicals risk their movement’s ability to grow. During the sea change in cultural attitudes over the last decade, white evangelical Protestants were also losing demographic ground, dropping from 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 15 percent of the population in 2017. Most of the declines in the overall evangelical population have come from young people, resulting in stark differences in generational representation. White evangelicals comprise 26 percent of seniors ages 65 and older, for example, but make up only 7 percent of Americans under the age of 30.
That makes them dinosaurs:
While white evangelicals as a whole are still fighting the late 20th century culture wars, young adults are moving on: Nearly eight in 10 support same-sex marriage and approximately two-thirds say abortion should be legal in all or most cases and available in their local communities. And while, generally speaking, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric resonates among white evangelicals, young adults overwhelmingly support policies like the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program and a path to citizenship for immigrants living in the country illegally. White evangelicals’ association with Trump’s alleged indiscretions, divisive speech, and policy priorities will likely make retaining and attracting younger members to the faith even more difficult than it would otherwise be.
That doesn’t mean, however, that they won’t go down without a fight. The New York Times’ Jeremy Peters and Elizabeth Dias report on their effort to rescue the Republican Party:
The conservative Christian coalition that helped usher President Trump into power in 2016 is planning its largest midterm election mobilization ever, with volunteers fanning out from the church pews to the streets to register voters, raise money and persuade conservatives that they cannot afford to be complacent this year.
But the cumulative weight of scandals in Mr. Trump’s private and public life is threatening to overshadow what the religious right sees as its most successful string of policy victories in a generation…
“The midterms are going to be very, very tough for the Republicans,” said Robert Jeffress, who leads the First Baptist Dallas megachurch and is one of Mr. Trump’s most loyal evangelical supporters.
That’s why they’re doing their part:
The vast majority of evangelical Christians are digging in for Mr. Trump, despite accusations by a pornographic film star and a Playboy playmate that he had separate affairs with them shortly after his wife, Melania Trump, gave birth to their son. Those controversies, paired with the multiple women who accused him of groping them before the election and his own boasts of sexual aggressions, have highlighted the unyielding support of a political bloc that once put moral behavior at the center of its political judgment.
“Now even the Christian culture is okay with it,” said Jim Daly, the president of Focus on the Family, one of the nation’s largest evangelical groups. “That’s the sadness,” he added. “The next time a Democrat in the presidency has a moral failure, who’s going to be able to say anything?”
They’ve lost the moral high ground. That’s sad, but that had to be done, for the greater good:
Christian conservatives say Mr. Trump has more than honored his end of the bargain that brought reluctant members of their ranks along during his presidential campaign. He has begun the process of moving the American Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, won the confirmation of numerous judges and a Supreme Court Justice who seem likely to advance their anti-abortion cause, moved against transgender protections throughout the government, increased the ability of churches to organize politically and personally supported the March for Life.
“I don’t know of anyone who has worked the evangelical community more effectively than Donald Trump,” said Ralph Reed, the chairman of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, which this year plans to devote four times the money it spent in the 2014 midterms.
The Faith and Freedom Coalition will spend that money, and just shut up about certain matters:
In essence, many evangelical leaders have decided that airing moral qualms about the president only hurts their cause.
“His family can talk to him about issues of character,” said Penny Young Nance, the president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization that is framing the midterm elections to potential donors as a civilizational struggle.
His family can judge him. Evangelicals won’t. It’s time wage this war again. It’s all hands on deck:
Paula White, a pastor for Mr. Trump for more than 16 years, has facilitated events for conservative evangelicals to meet senior White House officials, including a gathering for women and another for pastors of megachurches in recent weeks.
“Let’s pray there’s not apathy,” Ms. White said.
And the Republican Party will help with that:
In the states, leading religious and socially conservative groups will be propped up by the Republican National Committee, which will encourage voter registration at churches and schedule round tables with local pastors and evangelical liaisons close to the president.
Some of the organizers call themselves “the watchmen on the wall,” a reference to guards who looked over Jerusalem from the Book of Isaiah.
The message to energize Christian conservatives has twin purposes: to inspire them to celebrate their victories and to stoke enough grievance to prod them to vote.
That’s the plan, to rescue the party, not Donald Trump:
Leaders of the Christian right have not only largely accepted Mr. Trump’s flaws and moved on; they seem to almost dare the president’s opponents to throw more at him. Ms. Nance said she heard a common sentiment from volunteers and supporters who did not seem bothered by the allegations of Mr. Trump’s infidelity. “We weren’t looking for a husband,” she said. “We were looking for a body guard.”
Peters and Dias then offer their assessment of all this:
The danger for Republicans is the many evangelicals who do not like what the president is doing. His petty insults, coarse language, lack of humility and private life are difficult to square with Christian faith, opponents say. The president has helped devalue character, morality and fidelity as essential qualities in political leaders, they say…
But for evangelicals loyal to Mr. Trump, the criticism is irrelevant. They say that as challenging as the political realities may be, they remain hopeful that voters understand what is at stake. “We are living in unusual times,” said Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University and one of Mr. Trump’s earliest evangelical supporters.
These are unusual times. Louis XIV famously said L’état, c’est moi – which Donald Trump has been saying for a year now, in his own way. Now he can also say L’église c’est moi – because the two are pretty much the same thing now. Donald Trump doesn’t seem to be a particularly religious person, but now he seems fine with being “the state” itself – as “only he can fix it” – and the head of the “state church” too. It’s come to that.
As for what happened at Wheaton College where the pro-Trump evangelicals walked out, that event might have been organized by John Fea, who chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, in central Pennsylvania. He now says it wasn’t him – but last year he wrote about how Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity – where he talked about “court evangelicals” who “like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seek influence.”
He said not all evangelicals are like that:
Not all evangelicals are on board, of course. Most black evangelicals are horrified by Trump’s failure to understand their history and his willingness to serve as a hero of the alt-right movement.
The 20 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump – many of whom are conservative politically and theologically – now seem to have a lot more in common with mainline Protestants. Some in my own circles have expressed a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.
Other evangelicals are experiencing a crisis of faith as they look around in their white congregations on Sunday morning and realize that so many fellow Christians were willing to turn a blind eye to all that Trump represents.
He won’t, and Nancy LeTourneau also covered what happened at Wheaton College, as she saw this:
One of the speakers was Dr. Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary. His speech resonated with a theology that takes an entirely different view than the one we hear so often from the likes of Robert Jeffress, Pat Robertson, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell, Jr. He acknowledged that evangelicals are at a moment of crisis, but it is historical, not recent.
She cites him putting all of this in context:
We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election – a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing – and tragic – continuity with the past.
Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves.
On power, he also said this:
In much of the last century, American evangelicalism has had a complex relationship with power. On one hand, it has felt itself marginalized and repudiated, defeated and silenced. On the other, it has often seemed to seek – even fawn over – worldly power, mimicking in the church forms of power evident in our culture…An evangelical dance with political power has been going on from the time of Billy Graham, through the Moral Majority and the religious right, to the Tea Party, and most recently with the white evangelical vote…
This points to an evangelical crisis over so many issues of power: racial, political, economic, cultural, right against left, Republican against Democrat, rich against poor, white against black, men against women, and so on. But winning power was the goal of Judas, not Jesus…
Abuse of power is central in the national debates of the moment. Whether we think about US militarism, or mass incarceration, or the #MeToo movement (or mistreatment of women in general), or the police shootings of unarmed, young, black men, or the actions of ICE toward child and adult immigrants, or gun use and control, or tax policy – all this is about power. The apparent evangelical alignment with the use of power that seeks dominance, control, supremacy, and victory over compassion and justice associates Jesus with the strategies of Caesar, not with the good news of the gospel.
It’s no wonder the Trump Evangelicals walked out. That wasn’t “nice” – it was only true – and LeTourneau, noting that many Trump supporters do feel threatened and frustrated and marginalized, adds this:
I would suggest that this country has faced down that challenge twice in our relatively short history: the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. While blood was shed, we eventually got it right both times. Unfortunately, as Labberton pointed out, the majority of white evangelicals were also on the wrong side of those struggles.
But they do have Donald Trump on their side, for now. That may not last. They may not be able to rescue him. On the other hand, they might get their souls back.