It’s something old men say, that those were the days:
“The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature” is a book by Harvard University psychologist and philosopher William James. It comprises his edited Gifford Lectures on natural theology, which were delivered at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland in 1901 and 1902. The lectures concerned the nature of religion and the neglect of science in the academic study of religion.
That book is still in print. It has never been out of print. The whole idea was to look at all religions dispassionately – scientifically – in order to understand what people believe and why, and in what physical and economic environments. Was there a “natural religion” of some kind? It was time to step back and look at religion from the outside for a change. This was the birth of Comparative Religion as an academic field of inquiry that combined anthropology with sociology and psychology. James would go on to develop his philosophy of pragmatism – forget the fancy stuff – work out what things mean practically, in everyday life. And it was all the same. William James found zealots fascinating. And he also found them tiresome and useless. Study them. Don’t hang around with them.
Those were the days. Zealots seem to rule the world now. Those who view any issue dispassionately are often scolded and shamed. This is the time to take sides. Have an opinion. And shout it out. Otherwise you’re useless. Don’t be a coward. Speak up. What the hell do you believe in anyway?
This is not Scotland in 1901 and 1902. This is the United States now. This is where what one believes, deeply, is always in question, a land of proud zealots on the defensive, and on television:
As part of a ‘Morning Joe” discussion about how many Christian evangelicals have set aside their professed beliefs in order to embrace Donald Trump despite his adultery and hateful rhetoric, former Republican National Committee head Michael Steele blew up on what were described as “hypocrites’ during the segment.
With conservative Ben Howe on the MSNBC show promoting his book “The Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values,” Steele brought up a Politico article that noted that a few Christians are parting ways with Trump because of his use of profanity.
“I love this book,” Steele gushed to Howe. “Thank you so much – it’s so long overdue. I have just been fed up with the hypocrisy from these guys.”
Well, that was an odd Politico article:
Using coarse language is far from the president’s only behavior that might turn off the religious right. He’s been divorced twice and has faced constant allegations of extramarital affairs. He previously supported abortion rights, and he has stumbled when trying to discuss the specifics of his religious beliefs, once referring to a book in the Bible as “Two Corinthians” instead of Second Corinthians. Yet to this point, Trump has maintained broad support from evangelicals, including the unwavering backing of some prominent conservative Christian leaders.
“We all wish he would be a little more careful with his language, but it’s not anything that’s a deal breaker, and it’s not something we’re going to get morally indignant about,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest supporters among religious leaders.
But it is a deal breaker:
For evangelicals, Trump’s indelicate language has frustrated religious fans who have otherwise been staunch supporters of his agenda. They agree with his social policies, praise his appointment of conservative judges and extol his commitment to Israel – often tolerating Trump’s character flaws for the continued advancement of all three. But when it comes to “using the Lord’s name in vain,” as West Virginia state senator Paul Hardesty put it, “the president’s evangelical base might be far less forgiving.”
Yes, he can shoot someone dead in the middle of Fifth Avenue and they’d still love him, but he’d damn well better not swear when he’s laughing and pulling the trigger. And that set off Michael Steele:
“As the president stands at these rallies and uses the Lord’s name in vain as we are reminded we shouldn’t do by a lot of these individuals, what’s your take – is it really the political and power pulse here or something more morally corrupt that’s going on inside the evangelical community at this point?” he asked.
“I think it’s both,” the conservative Howe replied. “I mean, the moral corruption is something that frankly took me a while to recognize. I have been an evangelical all my life. My dad was a pastor. He was a Southern Baptist pastor and he worked with Jerry Falwell Jr.’s father at Liberty University.”
“We give passes to the people that we think are doing what we want and we don’t hold them accountable,” he continued. “Trump in a lot of ways exemplifies the exact type of caricature when you think of these evangelicals. You know, the white guy with the shiny teeth telling them the Promised Land is coming.”
Howe is unhappy. His book is Immoral Majority: Why Evangelicals Chose Political Power over Christian Values and here’s a bit of it:
As the debate about how to handle applicants for refugee status at the U.S. southern border gained urgency in recent months, Pew Research Religion waded into the social-media fray on July 7 with a tweet about the results of a poll the organization conducted last year. Pew reported, and online commentators quickly noted, that white evangelical Protestants were the least likely group – amid results sorted by age, race, education and religion – to say that the United States “has a responsibility to accept refugees into the country.”
Sixty-eight percent of white evangelical Protestants said the country has no responsibility for refugees. No other demographic group came within 10 points of that result.
And this came from the bottom up:
Some evangelical leaders had been taken aback when the Pew results were originally released in May 2018, and urged their flocks toward change. But back then, the main question about refugees concerned those fleeing the brutal civil war in Syria. “When faced with a potential conflict between prominent evangelicals’ biblical pro-refugee arguments and President Trump’s opposition,” Brian Newman of Pepperdine University noted in The Post, “the vast majority of white evangelicals choose Trump.”
A year later, with the focal point on refugees from Central America, in much greater numbers and more likely to be vilified by the president, evangelical leaders are largely as one with their congregations.
They gave up leading their flocks and joined them:
Consider the response in June when Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the public-policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, ventured this observation on Twitter: “The reports of the conditions for migrant children at the border should shock all of our consciences. Those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion, especially those seeking refuge from violence back home. We can do better than this.”
Moore’s comments didn’t sit well with Jerry Falwell Jr., inheritor of his father’s Christian empire, president of Liberty University and a prominent evangelical figure.
“Who are you @drmoore?” Falwell tweeted. “Have you ever made a payroll? Have you ever built an organization of any type from scratch? What gives you the authority to speak on any issue? I’m being serious. You’re nothing but an employee – a bureaucrat.”
In short, are you a billionaire? No? Well then, shut up. God said so. And if He didn’t say so God would say so, if he weren’t busy elsewhere, so go away.
That was odd but not all that odd:
Some were dismayed by Falwell’s response, but you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone paying attention the past few years that was surprised by it.
Trump, of course, welcomes this way of thinking. Speaking to an assembly of Christian leaders as a presidential candidate in June 2016, Trump said, “You can pray for your leaders, and I agree with that. Pray for everyone. But what you really have to do is you have to pray to get everybody out to vote for one specific person. We can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders, because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes, selling evangelicals down the tubes.”
He may murder babies and pull the wings off flies, and swear a lot, but he won’t sell them out, and that bothers Howe:
The evangelical embrace of Trump has been an electoral positive for the Republican Party, but for those who would evangelize, the new reality is tragic. It is hard to pitch faith as a function of voting.
Christians are instructed in the Bible to attract people to Christ, to convince them, to witness to them. We’re meant to speak the truth in a way that invites strangers in, welcomes them, and that makes them feel loved.
To care for the least of these is a Christian value. Expressing and demonstrating it is spreading the Word.
That’s called evangelizing. A movement that based itself on the term but now embraces its antithesis is becoming difficult to recognize.
Michael Gerson can testify to that:
“There has never been anyone who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump. No one!”
This recent statement by religious-right activist Ralph Reed is objectively true – at least when it comes to sloppy kisses for the president. Considered purely as a political transaction, religious conservatives have gotten two appointments to the Supreme Court who set their hearts aflutter. They, in return, have shifted from the language of political realism to the language of love.
He has their vote:
Trump has not gone back on the conservative promises of his 2016 campaign. More than that, he has not let up in his attacks against liberal elites who disdain religious conservatives. Reed is correct that Trump has “defended us” and “fought for us.”
But this language itself should raise warning signs. Is this really how most conservative Christians view the political enterprise – as the vindication of their own interests rather than the good of the whole?
Ah, Michael, the answer is yes, but Gerson argues that that’s the wrong answer:
A lot of attention has been given to the risks to the GOP (at the national level) of placing all their electoral bets on white voters who resent and fear a morally and ethnically changing country. In 2008, white Christians constituted 54 percent of the population. By 2014, that figure was more like 47 percent and the slide continues. Republicans seem doomed to ride a retreating wave.
There is also, however, much to be said about the risk to evangelicalism. Evangelical Christians are tying themselves to an institution – the GOP – that is actively alienating college-educated voters, minority voters and younger voters. Evangelicals are thus entrenching a public perception that their movement consists of old, white Christians who want to restore lost social status through political power. Maybe this is because the perception is often accurate.
Gerson then joins Howe on the moral consequences of being a loyal part of Trump’s political coalition:
During the 2016 presidential election, evangelical Christians could comfort themselves that it was possible – just possible – for Trump to grow in office and become something greater than the sum of his tweets. Doesn’t someone whom James Dobson called a “baby Christian” deserve a chance to grow up? Isn’t that the essence of grace?
This argument was a small fig leaf when it was made. Now, evangelical Christians are naked before the world. Trump’s cruelty (see the treatment of migrant children), his bigotry (see Charlottesville), his obstruction of justice (see any fair reading of the Mueller report), his vanity (see any time he speaks in public), his serial deception (also see any time he speaks in public) have become more pronounced and unrepentant over time. Can there be any question that reelection would result in Trump unbound?
Evangelical Christians might want to think about that:
Some evangelical Christian leaders have become more effusive in their praise of the president. More willing to defend the indefensible on his behalf. More dismissive of the importance of character in public life.
In the process, evangelical Christian leaders have placed themselves – uncritically, with open eyes – into a political coalition that is inspired by ethnic nationalism. Such are the occupational hazards of calling good evil and evil good.
Perhaps, but good and evil seem ambiguous now, so the Atlantic’s Emma Green decided to interview Howe about these things, and she opens with this:
Ben Howe is angry at evangelicals. As he describes it, he is angry that they didn’t just vote for Donald Trump in record numbers, but repeatedly provide moral cover for his outrageous failings. He is angry that leaders of the religious right, who long claimed to be the champions of American morality, appear to have gladly traded their values for power. He is angry that Christians claim they support the president because they want to end abortion or protect religious liberty, when supporting Trump suggests that what they really want is a champion who will mock and crush their perceived enemies.
To redeem themselves, Howe believes, evangelicals have to give up their take-no-prisoners culture war.
Green notes that that’s just what Howe did:
He grew up attending Falwell’s church in Virginia, Thomas Road Baptist Church, down the street from Liberty University, where Howe’s father, a Southern Baptist pastor, taught classes. In other years, Howe’s family attended First Baptist Church in Dallas, which is now pastored by one of Trump’s most vocal supporters, Robert Jeffress. After being raised in the bosom of the religious right, Howe went on to become a filmmaker, a Tea Party activist, and a blogger for the conservative website RedState, where he spent a not insignificant portion of his time trolling progressives. He was later fired from that website, along with other writers, because of his vocally anti-Trump views, he claims.
That seems to be what happened but what he says now matters more:
Emma Green: What bothers you so much about the wholesale evangelical support for Donald Trump?
Ben Howe: There is not necessarily anything inherently wrong with a transactional relationship with a president. But Trump brings a few problems. The first is the kind of support he demands, which is a loyalty even when he does something wrong. If you want to stay on his good side, you have to support what he did and even laud him for it. The late ’70s, with Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority – the whole idea was that they were bringing something to Washington: expectations of morality and character. Now it seems like evangelicals are there to put faith around basic Republican politics.
So, evangelicals now provide the window dressing, but the odd thing is their motivation:
Green: You talk a lot about the bitterness that motivates evangelicals in the realm of politics. Where does that come from?
Howe: It comes from a reasonably understandable place. If people feel that their motives are impugned, if they feel they’re not bad people but are being told they are—being told they’re racist or misogynist—it can foster a mentality of victimhood.
In the minds of a lot of conservatives, the left exists to impugn their motives, and the Republican Party regularly lied to them and said they would defend them and then didn’t. And that was the establishment. Trump became their hero, because he hated the establishment, and he beat up on the media, and he was fighting back against all these forces. The more he fights, the more they feel justified, like, He’s our hero because we needed someone to do this for us.
Trump’s appeal is not judges. It’s not policies. It’s that he’s a shit-talker and a fighter and tells it like it is. That’s what they like. They love the meanest parts of him.
In short, he will humiliate and torture and punish their enemies. Let him murder babies and pull the wings off flies, as long as he inflicts as much pain as possible on their enemies, as long as he doesn’t swear when he’s inflicting that pain, and Howe has had enough of that:
Green: You’re really willing to throw evangelicals under the bus but less willing to focus on movement conservatism. Have you rethought Republican policies around policing, or mass incarceration, or racism, or poverty?
Howe: I’ve rethought the likelihood that no matter how ideal we may believe our perfectly magnificent free-market ideas are, they exist in a perfect world that we don’t live in. So I’ve changed on that.
What? He’s a liberal now? Perhaps so, but that’s not all:
Green: Have you rethought the right’s hatred of Barack Obama, particularly given your argument that character is the most important quality in a leader?
Howe: Between Trump and Obama, there is just no question that Obama exhibited more Christian behavior. I rethought what was scary, I guess. There was stuff I thought was scary back then that’s funny to me now.
Green: You didn’t know how good you had it in the Obama years?
Howe: I don’t think that phenomenon is exclusive to me. George W. Bush’s polling has gone way up since Trump. And I think it’s the same effect. I’ve heard people say that, looking back on Bush, they disagree with so much that he did, but they realize at least he thought he was doing the right thing – which is a hell of a lot better than being happy to do the wrong thing. I have to say it: Trump has made me like Obama.
Perhaps that means that now God hates Howe. Ask an evangelical about that, or read Heather Parton:
I see people who love a lying asshole like Trump because he’s a “shit-talker” and it seems obvious to me that they really are deplorable. And the truth is that, for me, this is a relatively new thing. I impugned the motives of their leadership over the years and rightly so. But it’s only with the advent of Trump and the ecstatic reaction from GOP voters to his disgusting Nuremberg rallies that I realized how far gone they really were.
I have always assumed that most Republicans were basically normal Americans with an ideology I opposed. I knew that some were racists but I never thought it would add up to 90% or more of the Party! I certainly assumed that they would be appalled by Trumps obvious psychological and intellectual insufficiency, much less his clear immorality. It’s very hard to have respect for people like this…
I know you are not supposed to say this. I get reprimanded every time I mention it. But it is my honest observation and in this day and age I think it’s important to be honest about what you see. The Republican rank and file is in thrall to an unfit racist demagogue and he’s not hiding it. So it’s on them.
The Washington Post’s Colbert King agrees with that:
Life is short. So, don’t waste it trying to prove President Trump is a racist, a bigot or a white supremacist… If by now minds haven’t been made up about Trump’s repugnant racism and religious intolerance, nothing said or done from this moment on will make a difference.
The sad truth is that with all that Trump has said and done, millions of Americans don’t see where he has ever crossed the line.
And these are a few of those lines:
Slurring Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists? Calling for a ban on all Muslims coming into the country? Suggesting that a U.S.-born judge overseeing a Trump University lawsuit should recuse himself because of his Mexican heritage (“He’s a Mexican,” Trump said)? Saying people in the United States from Nigeria will never “go back to their huts”? Referring to Haiti and African countries as “s—hole countries” while wishing the United States would take more people from places like Norway? Tweeting that four black and brown members of Congress — three of them born in the United States — should “go back” to their countries of origin? Launching a slimy birther crusade against President Barack Obama? Constantly resorting to racially charged language?
That’s a partial list, but that will do:
What about those acts, you might ask? Shouldn’t they prompt folks in Trump’s camp to start striking their tents?
That’s not going to happen:
Within the ranks of Trump’s “Make America Great Again” disciples are people who believe he is all that stands between them and an earthly perdition where their version of Christianity is on the ropes. That helps explain why they cheer Trump on when he moves against the LGBTQ community, makes life miserable for “invaders” along the southern border and when he launches ugly racist attacks on women of color, oh yeah, and slurring that black congressman from Baltimore who dressed down a white federal bureaucrat over the treatment of detained migrant children. Put him in his place.
It doesn’t bother them at all when Trump resorts to racist, sexist and religiously intolerant tropes in his onslaughts.
Face it. They helped put and are now fighting like mad to keep a prejudiced president in the White House. What does that say about them?
What does it say about the rest of us if we let them?
That’s a thought. Go vote this time. Four more years of this white guy with the shiny teeth might be the end of everything. Be pragmatic.