The Church Shares the Blame
“When wealth is lost, nothing is lost; when health is lost, something is lost; when character is lost, all is lost.” (Brainy Quote, n.d.)
“I hope I shall possess firmness and virtue enough to maintain what I consider the most enviable of all titles, the character of an honest man.” (Washington, n.d.)
"With all the power that a President has, the most important thing to bear in mind is this: You must not give power to a man unless, above everything else, he has character. Character is the most important qualification the President of the United States can have." (PBS, n.d.)
One of the things that suddenly hit me after dreaming about the president’s all-white presumptive victory gathering was that Republicans had lost the White House because they refused to challenge the exclusionist notion that Making America Great Again most certainly looked like making her white again. I’m a lifelong Republican who voted for Reagan, Bush I, Dole, Bush II, and McCain. How did my party so easily come to the conclusion that it could regress to a less inclusive vision of America that didn’t include very many people that looked like me? Further and more importantly, how did my Christian leaders, national and local, go to the wall, in ride-or-die fashion, for the most exclusionary, openly racist, and divisive president in my lifetime?
One article called part of the pro-Trump demographic “a white evangelical tsunami”:
“As partisans and analysts puzzle over the higher-than-expected turnout for President Trump (nearly 6 million fewer votes than for President-elect Joe Biden, but still high), they are poring over groups and subgroups: White, non-college-educated men. Suburban women. Young Black men.
But much of the Trump 2020 phenomenon can be explained by a far simpler way of looking at the electorate: There are White evangelical Christians — and there is everybody else.
White evangelicals are only 15 percent of the population, but their share of the electorate was 28 percent, according to Edison Research exit polling, and 23 percent, according to the Associated Press version…This means White evangelicals turned out in mind-boggling numbers. Because they maintained their roughly 80 percent support for Republicans (76 percent and 81 percent in the two exit polls) of recent years, it also means some 40 percent of Trump voters came from a group that is only 15 percent of America.” (Milbank, 2020)
It would be different if the motivation to support the president was based on some Christian ideal, but it’s not. Sadly, the research shows that the president appeals along racial lines were the reasons for record white evangelical turnout:
“White evangelicals have, in effect, skewed the electorate by masking the rise of a young, multiracial and largely secular voting population. The White evangelicals’ overperformance also shows, unfortunately, why the racist appeal Trump made in this campaign was effective. White evangelicals were fired up like no other group by Trump’s encouragement of white supremacy.
A Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary graduate who now runs the Public Religion Research Institute, Robert P. Jones, argues that Trump inspired White Christians, “not despite, but through appeals to white supremacy,” attracting them not because of economics or morality, “but rather that he evoked powerful fears about the loss of White Christian dominance.”
The Institute’s American Values Survey from September found overwhelming majorities of White evangelical Protestants saying that police killings of African Americans were “isolated incidents,” and that Confederate flags and monuments are symbols of Southern pride rather than racism. (Smaller majorities of White mainline Protestants and Catholics felt the same way.) Majorities of White evangelicals also perceived discrimination against Christians and Whites, and rejected the idea that slavery and longtime discrimination make it difficult for Black Americans to succeed.
Such findings aren’t surprising. White evangelicals abandoned the Democratic Party after the Voting Rights Act of the 1960s. They became an active political force in the early 1970s in large part to defend the ban on interracial dating at Bob Jones University (they didn’t embrace abortion as an issue until 1979). The Republicans’ Southern strategy stoked White resentment for decades but never as overtly as Trump did. White evangelicals responded passionately: Pre-election, 90 percent said they were certain to vote, and nearly half of those voting for Trump said virtually nothing he could do would shake their approval. There was little evidence of differences among White evangelicals by gender, generation or education.”
As I look back on 2016, I would have voted for Mike Pence, Jeb Bush, or Chris Christie, but the Republican party chose the candidate whose first campaign homerun was the vilification of Mexicans. The candidate whose morality and character were suspect long before he became a candidate. They chose the person least qualified to represent Christian family values, the least qualified to talk about running a successful business, the least qualified to govern with no political governing track record, the least qualified to represent integrity, etc.
But as we have learned, the Republican party and the Church chose the one most qualified to divide America by stirring up division along racial lines and boldly inviting into the Republican fold Kyle Rittenhouse, the Proud Boys, and other white nationalist groups. The president’s faulty premise was that enough of America felt like he did, believed like he did and that he could win again in 2020 with this exclusionary vision of America. He fell about 6 million votes short but much closer than I could have ever imagined.
One article explains the Republican and evangelical wholesale support of the president as a transaction:
“This is politics at its most transactional. Trump was being hired by evangelicals to do a job — to defend their institutions, implement pro-life policies and appoint conservative judges. The character of the president was irrelevant so long as he kept his part of the bargain. Which Trump largely did…
How could such a thing happen in the GOP? It is not an aberration. It is the culmination of Trump’s influence among Republicans, and among White evangelical Christians in particular. Their main justification for supporting Trump — that the president’s character should be ignored in favor of his policies — has become a serious danger to the republic. Trump never even presented the pretense of good character…Republicans accepted it as part of the Trump package. And some of his most fervent defenses came from White evangelicals.
A group that was once seen as censorious became the least strict chaperone at Trump’s bacchanal. Under the president’s influence, White evangelicals went from the group most likely to believe personal morality matters in a politician to the group that is least likely. ‘We’re not electing a pastor in chief,’ explained Jerry Falwell Jr., the former president of Liberty University. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, argued that ‘outward policies’ should matter more than ‘personal piety.’ Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition made his case for Trump’s re-election based on conservative deliverables. ‘There has never been anyone,’ Reed said, ‘who has defended us and who has fought for us, who we have loved more than Donald J. Trump.’” (Gerson, 2020)
Timothy Dalrymple, president of Christianity Today Magazine, wrote an editorial that I included in MGA Vol I that describes the transactional relationship between the Republican party and evangelicals as the “`hyper-politicization of the American church,’ the great sickness that causes evangelical Christians to continue to be loyal to a president who is ‘extravagantly immoral.’” I previously quoted Mr. Dalrymple as saying that “American evangelicalism is not a Republican PAC.” In that quote, he also said that the Church should “collaborate with political parties” but stand apart so that it can continue to “to be what Martin Luther King, Jr. called ‘the conscience of the state.’” (Thompson, Vol I)
As evangelicals sided with the president, despite his character flaws and his efforts to divide America along MAGA lines, they lost their ability to be “the conscience of the state.” Vice President Joe Biden said that he’d be “a president for all Americans.” I know that most Trump voters and evangelicals will reject and even demonize him. President Trump, however, only showed that he’d be a president for half of America, the MAGA half. When the chips were down, he ramped up his appeal to his base and gambled that it would be enough to put him over the top, and it wasn’t.
Four years from now, we can’t blame “Biden/Harris” if Republican values aren't advanced. The Church and Republicans have to look at themselves in the mirror and consider this paradox: that it chose MAGA over character, division over unity, and that they may have helped usher in a decline in “conservative values” in the areas they claim to value the most.
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