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Trump, American Evangelicals, and “the Establishment”

I know, I know: You’re sick of reading about Trump, thinking about Trump, waking up from nightmares about Trump…me, too. Still, a friend directed me to a letter in the New York Times and asked me to comment. Maybe you’d like to read my comment, too.

Here’s the letter:

To the Editor:

I have been reading columnists of The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and The New York Times as they all — in lock step — excoriate Donald Trump and, by implication, those who support him.

Out here in the hinterland, we evangelicals see things a little differently. We see folks like you as the Establishment. And while it is clear that you do not understand us, we do understand you. You think anyone who would vote for Mr. Trump isn’t very smart.

You scoff at religious-minded Trump supporters as hypocrites. After all, Mr. Trump has been married three times. He does not know that the second book of Paul’s letters to the church at Corinth is known as Second Corinthians, not “Two Corinthians.”

We know he is crass, often cruel and sometimes lacking in oratory refinements. We wish he weren’t so. But we marveled as we watched Mr. Trump demolish the primary tool that has allowed liberalism and secularism to control the debate for decades: political correctness.

Mr. Trump’s posturing, his crassness, his rudeness, his simplistic descriptions of international issues, his demeanor — we see it all. And yet we have decided to vote for him.

For all of Mr. Trump’s faults and sins and deficiencies, he won’t be the first president to have them. That is a basic tenet of Christianity — we know we are all deficient and sinful, and only God’s grace can heal us. We have faith that Mr. Trump will “seek the Lord” when confronted by the awesome duties of leading the greatest country in history.

We are desperate for a change in direction. And in future columns of The New York Times I will be looking for reasons that we should listen to you — part of the Establishment that got us into this mess.


Shirleysburg, Pa.

And here’s what I said in reply:

One of the ways in which I am regularly embarrassed to be a Christian (and no, don’t let me count the ways) is facing yet another instance of what I might call the selective deployment of Christian teachings for the advancement of one’s cause du jour. In the letter above, we see the use of the Christian doctrine of original sin (and the corollary doctrine of the ubiquity of sinfulness) to “zero out” Mr. Trump’s awfulness. Yes, he’s demonstrably no one’s idea of a Sunday School teacher, but hey: we’re all sinners. So that’s that.

In fact, a typical half-truth among evangelicals is that “all sin is sin”—which is true insofar as all sin separates us from God, needs atonement, warrants repentance, etc., but isn’t true if one is implying the moral equivalence of, say, fibbing about whether there is going to be a surprise party versus gunning down everyone at that party.

The author of this letter departs from typical evangelical argumentation, however, by acknowledging with startling candour some repellent traits of Mr. Trump and then suggesting that since other presidents also have had terrible faults, then…well, what? That he’s fine with that, apparently.

It is striking that the letter-writer then offers a highly dubious conviction about an absolutely crucial issue: “that Mr. Trump will ‘seek the Lord’ when confronted by the awesome duties of leading the greatest country in history.” He does so with precisely no evidence to warrant that conviction. Again, this seems an important departure from the way one would expect evangelicals to argue. But many American evangelicals also seemed to think that Ronald Reagan, who attended church less than any American president since George Washington and was himself no paragon of marital virtue, was devoutly concerned to follow God’s will, thus showing us that evangelicals are like everyone else in this respect: We tend to see what we want to see.

Perhaps the last paragraph provides the real source of the author’s preference for Trump: the Establishment got us into the mess we feel we’re in, and Mr. Trump will get us out of it. Yet Donald Trump is an odd tribune for the common man, being so counter-Establishment that he has managed to make (and lose) piles of money in commercial real estate, star on network TV, and hobnob with famous people…including the Clintons.

What’s going on? I provide the translation: Mr Trump says things I want said in public and his hopelessness in making good on those claims (to do better, or even to have the facts straight) doesn’t matter when I’m as angry and marginalized as I feel. Somebody, at least, is saying what I want said, that makes me feel better, and so I’m going to overlook all the negatives in the light of this one self-aggrandizing positive.

And here we do, actually, return to the evangelical zone, American-style. For here is the typical American evangelical attitude of bitter estrangement from, but also a stubborn proprietorship toward, American society—first described, in my reading, in George Marsden’s brilliant account of Fundamentalism and American Culture (Oxford, 1980).

I understood this attitude when it fuelled the Christian Right on behalf of such dubious evangelical heroes as Reagan, Pat Robertson, and “W.” But when it has supported the likes of Newt Gingrich, Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz, or Donald Trump…well, one has to keep emphasizing: #notallevangelicals.


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