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The Evangelical Church Has Traded Jesus For Trump— And They Were Absolutely Made For Each Other

Hatred, Bigotry & Greed Are Much Easier Than Unconditional Love

In the last post, we briefly reprised Adorno’s work on the authoritarian personality. I hope you liked it because I want to stick with it for a bit more— this time in regard to evangelicals, one of the pillars of the MAGA movement and of Trump’s reelection campaign. Former Reagan, Bush I and Bush II speechwriter Peter Wehner, a writer on all things religionist, penned a new piece for The Atlantic, Where Did Evangelicals Go Wrong? He starts for an assumption that they were not always going wrong and that they were at one time followers of Jesus. He set up his premise by noting that “So-called affective polarization— in which citizens are more motivated by who they oppose than who they support— has increased more dramatically in America than in any other democracy. ‘Hatred— specifically, hatred of the other party— increasingly defines our politics,’ Geoffrey Skelley and Holly Fuong have written at FiveThirtyEight. My colleague Ron Brownstein has argued that the nation is ‘confronting the greatest strain to its fundamental cohesion since the Civil War.’” Are evangelicals working to heal these divisions? You already know the answer.

Wehner wrote that “One might reasonably expect that Christians, including white evangelicals, would be a unifying, healing force in American society. After all, the apostle Paul wrote that Jesus came to tear down ‘the dividing wall of hostility’ between groups that held profoundly different beliefs. ‘Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the children of God,’ Jesus said. In that same sermon, Jesus also said, ‘I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.’ Even if those goals have always been unattainable, they were seen as aspirational. Yet in the main, the white evangelical movement has for decades exacerbated our divisions, fueled hatreds and grievances, and turned fellow citizens into enemies rather than friends. This isn’t true of all evangelicals, of course. The movement comprises tens of millions of Americans, many of them good and gracious people who seek to be peacemakers, including in the political realm. They are horrified by the political idolatry we’re witnessing and the antipathy and rage that emanate from it. But it is fair to say that this movement that was at one time defined by its theological commitments is now largely defined by its partisan ones.”

Many churches and denominations stressed personal piety over social engagement. The world was irredeemably corrupt, they believed; the role of Christians was to save souls, not remake the world.
In 1965 a young Independent Baptist pastor, Jerry Falwell, argued that the Church should be separate from the world. “We have few ties to this earth,” he said. The civic responsibilities of Christians were therefore limited: obey the law, pay taxes, vote. But that was about it. “I would find it impossible to stop preaching the pure saving Gospel of Jesus Christ and begin doing anything else,” Falwell said, “including fighting communism, or participating in civil-rights reforms.”
At the same time, some significant evangelical figures, such as the theologian Carl F. H. Henry, were calling for cultural reengagement. “While it is not the Christian’s task to correct social, moral, and political conditions as his primary effort,” Henry wrote, “he ought to lend his endorsement to remedial efforts in any context not specifically anti-redemptive.”
…[T]he 1970s saw the rise of the religious right. It was a response to what conservative Christians considered to be a whole series of rapid, disorienting changes in social and moral norms. The 1960s ushered in the feminist movement and the sexual revolution. There was Woodstock and the Stonewall Riots, the birth of the National Organization of Women, and a wave of campus uprisings.
In the 1970s a whole series of issues— the Equal Rights Amendment, gay-rights ordinances, regulations on Christian schools, the IRS threatening to strip Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status because of its policy against interracial dating, the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision legalizing abortion— convinced many evangelicals and fundamentalists that their values were being subverted, their way of life assaulted. Political activism became a form of cultural resistance— and eventually, they hoped, a means to cultural victory.
…In the 1980s, the Presidential Biblical Scoreboard published by two church-related groups pushed evangelicals to assess candidates under the “biblical-family-moral” framework. But what was at least as significant as the issues that galvanized evangelicals and fundamentalists was the temperament, the cast of mind, that increasingly defined much of the evangelical, as well as the fundamentalist and Pentecostal, world.
The rhetoric had turned apocalyptic. In 1980, Falwell said that America was “floundering to the brink of death.” A year later, D. James Kennedy, the pastor of Coral Ridge Presbyterian Church in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and a leading religious conservative, told 2,000 delegates at a joint meeting of the National Religious Broadcasters and the National Association of Evangelicals that evangelicals should increase their level of political involvement because “secular humanists have declared war on Christianity in this country and they are progressing very rapidly.”
In 1982, the theologian Francis Schaeffer, one of evangelicalism’s most important public intellectuals in the latter half of the 20th century, gave a speech in which he warned that America “is close to being lost.” He warned about “the Humanist conspiracy” and said that if public schools didn’t teach creation as well as evolution, that amounted to “tyranny.” In A Christian Manifesto, the book that emerged from his speech, Schaeffer warned about an “elite authoritarianism” that would systematically destroy the Christian worldview. “It is not too strong to say that we are at war, and there are no neutral parties in this struggle,” Schaeffer wrote.Year after year, decade after decade, the same themes were repeated. America was always on the brink of moral collapse. The secular, progressive barbarians were always at the gates. The threat was existential and unending. It was a zeitgeist of catastrophism.
This attitude catalyzed among evangelicals and fundamentalists an ambience of fear, the belief that catastrophe was just around the corner, a sense that those who didn’t share their views were out to destroy their country, their values, their children. For many evangelicals, politics became a contest between the Children of Light and the Children of Darkness. They raged against their opponents, whom they saw less as fellow citizens than as their enemies. Politics became drenched in grievances and demonization, almost always aimed at liberals and Democrats, especially Democratic presidents. Evangelical leaders set the tone.
One example: In 1994 Falwell sold a videotape that alleged that President Bill Clinton had ordered the murder of “countless people.” (The Washington Post reported that Falwell acknowledged on CNN that he had no independent evidence to corroborate the allegations. And none was ever found.)
The next Democratic president, Barack Obama, was accused of “paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist,” in the words of Robert Jeffress, a significant figure in the evangelical world and pastor of one of the largest Southern Baptist churches in the country. The then-president of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, Paige Patterson, affirmed Jeffress’s claim: “I understand what Jeffress is saying.” This rhetoric was the coin of the realm.

Worldviews have consequences, both good and bad. Just two days after the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001, Falwell and Pat Robertson—a Baptist minister, religious broadcaster, founder of the Christian Coalition and the Christian Broadcasting Network, and Republican presidential candidate in 1988—had a conversation on Robertson’s television show the 700 Club in which Falwell said, “What we saw on Tuesday, as terrible as it is, could be minuscule, if in fact God continues to lift the curtain and allow the enemies of God to give up probably what we deserve.” He added that the American Civil Liberties Union has “got to take a lot of blame for this,” and Robertson agreed. Falwell went on to say:
I know that I’ll hear from them for this. But throwing God out successfully with the help of the federal court system, throwing God out of the public square, out of the schools— the abortionists have got to bear some burden for this, because God will not be mocked. And when we destroy 40 million little innocent babies, we make God mad. I really believe that the pagans, and the abortionists, and the feminists, and the gays and the lesbians who are actively trying to make that an alternative lifestyle, the ACLU, People for the American Way— all of them who have tried to secularize America— I point the finger in their face and say, “You helped this happen.”
To which Robertson responded, “Well, I totally concur, and the problem is we have adopted that agenda at the highest levels of our government.”
For three and a half decades, apocalyptic thinking, frustration, and fury helped define the politics of evangelicalism and fundamentalism. The intensity of the fear fluctuated, but it never fully waned.
My Atlantic colleague Tim Alberta, the author of The Kingdom, The Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicalism in an Age of Extremism, pointed out in an interview that after the Cold War ended, during the 1990s, a decade of peace and prosperity, “some of that panic starts to fall away a little bit.” But what started to “trip the alarms inside of evangelicalism,” according to Alberta, was the end of the George W. Bush presidency and the election of Obama. Alberta points out that portions of the white evangelical movement were deeply uncomfortable with a Black president, with the leftward shift of the culture, and with advances for gay rights and same-sex marriage.
All of this was happening prior to Donald Trump’s appearance on the political stage. But it went to a whole new level after he won the Republican nomination and the presidency in 2016. The religious right didn’t change so much as the person the religious right supported for president changed. He ushered in a whole new era.
The alliance between the religious right and Trump— a nonreligious, thrice-married man who celebrated his infidelities in the tabloids, paid hush money to a porn star, cheated on his taxes, spread conspiracy theories, mocked POWs and people with disabilities, and was found liable for what the judge in the case referred to as rape— seems incongruous, and in some ways it is. After all, for years evangelicals insisted that good character was essential in political leaders, and especially in presidents. That was certainly the case when evangelicals lacerated Clinton for his moral failures.
…[O]nce Trump won the Republican nomination in 2016, Bauer, like many influential evangelical figures— including Franklin Graham, son of the famed preacher Billy Graham; Jerry Falwell Jr., who was the president of Liberty University before he was ousted amid scandal; Robert Jeffress; Al Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary; James Dobson, the founder of Focus on the Family; Tony Perkins, Family Research Council’s longest-serving president; and Wayne Grudem, a theologian and an author— fell into line behind Trump. In doing so, they embraced a man whose personal, political, and business ethics are not only far more compromised and corrupt than Bill Clinton’s; they are unsurpassed in the history of the American presidency. For evangelical leaders and for those representing the movement, character no longer counted.
…The Calvin University historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez, the author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation, challenges the commonly held assumption that the religious right backed Trump for only pragmatic reasons. She argues that Trump represented the fulfillment, rather than the betrayal, of white evangelicals’ most deeply held values. Kobes Du Mez’s book offers an account of 75 years of evangelical history, showing how the evangelical subculture worked for decades to replace the Jesus of the Gospels with an idol of rugged masculinity and Christian nationalism.
The support for Trump was “the culmination of evangelicals’ embrace of militant masculinity,” she argues, and they condoned his “callous display of power.”
In a 2018 interview with The Guardian, Jerry Falwell Jr.— who referred to Trump as a “good moral person”— described Democrats as fascists and “Brownshirts.” Tony Perkins told Politico that evangelical Christians “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.” And in 2016 Pastor Jeffress told NPR, “I’ve said I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation. And so that’s why Trump’s tone doesn’t bother me.”
White evangelical Protestants are now among the Republican Party’s most loyal constituencies. In 2020, Trump actually expanded his support among white evangelical Protestants, winning 84 percent of their vote after having received 77 percent four years earlier.
White evangelical Christians are the most consistently reliable supporters of the most polarizing and morally depraved president in American history. It has hurt America, and it has done tremendous damage to the witness of the Christian faith.

Back to Adorno’s research into the authoritarian personality for a moment. With white and Hispanic evangelical beliefs— if not white and Hispanic evangelicals’ actions— emphasizing a strict moral code and adherence to traditional family values, the values that political leaders like Trump profess to stand for— traditional values and social order— are very attractive. Further, Adorno suggests that those with authoritarian personalties, respect strong authority figures and readily submit to them. This obviously connects to the strong emphasis on religious hierarchy and leadership found in evangelical churches. And since authoritarians view the world in terms of “us” v “them,” favoring their in-group and distrusting outsiders— “saved” and “unsaved’—and focus on the dangers of secular culture, they are easy prey for a manipulative liar like Trump who tells them exactly what they want to hear. Wehner seems reluctant to come right out and say it, but white evangelicals— other than in just a very pro forma way— are now almost entirely divorced from the gospel of Jesus.

As Wehner wrote, if the religious right began as a defensive reaction to what they saw as the aggressions of the modern world, it is now in what he calls “a very different and troubling place.” He calls on Christians to reacquaint themselves with the Jesus of the New Testament, not the Jesus of the American right… The real Jesus demonstrated a profound mistrust of political power and did not encourage his disciples to become involved in political movements of any kind. The most meaningful emblem of Christianity is not the sword but the cross, which is the antithesis of world power. Jesus made clear time and again that his kingdom is not of this world. And the New Testament does not provide anything like a governing blueprint. The early Church did not hand out voter guides. What it did do, according to the sociologist Rodney Stark, was create ‘communal compassion’ and social networks; care for the sick, widows, and orphans; welcome strangers and outsiders; respect women; and connect to non-Christians. That is how a tiny and obscure messianic movement in the second and third centuries became the dominant faith of Western civilization. That is how it transformed the ancient world and the course of human history.”

Wehner is still and will almost surely always be a rotgut Reagan conservative who invariably tries to balance his blistering critiques of fascism with vague and moronic warnings against “the left,” but read what he just wrote— virtually the underpinnings of the left-wing project. He’s just blind to that and it makes him harder to take seriously, even when he’s correct, like when he writes that “A proper political theology would prevent Christians, Christian institutions, and churches from becoming pawns in political power games... [F]ar too many evangelical Christians… are tools of a dangerous movement and of a dangerous former president… [P]olitically active Christians [need] to move away from a spirit of anger toward understanding, from revenge toward reconciliation, from grievance toward gratitude, and from fear toward trust.”

Wehner recommends that Christians “internalize and act on the lessons from the parable of the Good Samaritan, which speaks to this moment in a powerful way. In the story, a Samaritan comes across a Jew who has been beaten, robbed, and left dying on the side of a dangerous road from Jerusalem to Jericho. After a priest and a Levite both ignore the wounded man, the Samaritan rescues him and, at his own expense, nurses him back to health. ‘Go and do likewise,’ Jesus says. At the time, Samaritans and Jews despised each other, and had few dealings— a first-century version of the political, ethnic, and religious tribalism we know too well. The point Jesus, a Jew, was driving home is that we need to break down the walls between us. We are called to love our neighbors— a category which, according to the parable, includes those who are racially, religiously, ethnically, and culturally different than we are— and to help them in their need in the most practical way, materially and physically. Instead, too many Americans view the ‘other’— for some, that refers to refugees, Muslims, or Mexicans; for others, it’s rural southerners, gun owners, or religious fundamentalists— with a combination of suspicion and contempt that is eating away at our sense of national unity.”

Trump didn’t create these societal fissures but he works at widening them everyday, which is even worse than just using them to further his own pernicious agenda.


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nazis are old testament christians. there is no conflict with their actions and the old testament. read it. you'll see.

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