I Was So Wrong About the Religious Right

Say What?

“We evangelicals have been guilty of a lot of bullshit against gay and lesbian folks over the years. And I am so, so sorry.”

(F.A.D. note: I believe it was important for me to use that particular word when I did. It was the best way to capture, and to honor, the depth of the emotions brought up during the group discussion that I’m about to describe.)

It’s been several years since those words were spoken. I know, because they were mine. My voice shook and my eyes spilled over with tears as I talked, addressing about 30 other discussion participants at a conference about the role of women in resolving armed conflicts. In total, a couple hundred of us from around the world had gathered at the University of San Diego, many representing faith groups.

While my words that afternoon were shared with everyone in that small, packed room, I was speaking in particular to a civil rights attorney from New England. She had shared during that session that as a lesbian, she was deeply afraid of evangelicals. She mentioned the efforts of some American evangelicals to support a bill in Uganda that proposed to make homosexual relations punishable by death. (In the law’s final version, the penalty was changed to the still-horrific punishment of life in prison.)

So I poured out my heart, confessing the historic utter failure of evangelical Christians to treat members of the LGBTQ community as human beings. I added, “That’s not how the Jesus I know would have acted.”

Then the discussion turned to the widespread media influence of evangelicals who take a hard line on LGBTQ issues. I offered, “Please don’t be afraid. Younger evangelical leaders are calling out the old guard. Their influence is waning.”

Three years later, the election of Donald Trump, on a tidal wave of 81 percent of the white evangelical vote, would prove me absolutely wrong. Previous Republican presidents had been elected by a coalition of religious conservatives, fans of business deregulation, small government and balanced budget advocates who opposed any new taxes, and foreign policy hawks who believed in growing the size of the American military. Trump had needed only one solid group, the Religious Right.

I had been so incredibly wrong. Far from waning, the old guard was ascending. They had elected an American president.

The Man Who Would Be King

In the time since President Trump’s inauguration, the Religious Right has most prominently taken the form of his enthusiastic evangelical supporters. They have advanced certain biblical analogies to justify backing him, despite his litany of immoral and unethical deeds and words.

Example one: They have likened Trump to the greatest of Israel’s monarchs, King David, reasoning that though David committed several very serious sins, he was still called a man after God’s heart, likely due to his willingness to seek God’s forgiveness. (David’s most infamous episode included taking one of his troops’ wives for sex and then covering up her resulting pregnancy by sending the soldier on essentially a suicide mission.) Trump, according to this metaphor, is like David in that he has screwed up in some major ways in life, but like the ancient king, he can still be celebrated as a God-honoring leader.

Example two: They have called Trump a new Cyrus the Great, after the Persian emperor who, though not a godly man, became God’s chosen agent to bless His people by sending them back to their homeland 70 years after they had been deported en masse.

Both analogies are fallacious. First, David was called a man after God’s heart before he was anointed king and because he had lived a God-honoring life up to that point; he certainly didn’t stay that way while on the throne. In fact, David’s misdeeds destroyed his family and got at least 70,000 of his countrymen killed. The analogy doesn’t even hold up in the best sense: while it’s true that David often sought God’s forgiveness, Trump is legendary for never expressing remorse for anything he’s ever done.

Second, Cyrus didn’t single out the Israelites for special treatment; his policy was to send all exiles back to their homelands, reversing the previous empire’s practice of deportation, and to promote the respect of all minority religions. But Trump clearly gives evangelical Christians special treatment over others and has repeatedly used his office to persecute Muslims in word and deed, even fomenting hate crimes against them. So Trump isn’t Cyrus, either.

(F.A.D. note: If we’re going to traffic in biblical analogies for Trump, the best one is that of King Akhàv, or as he’s most commonly known, Ahab, monarch of the northern Israelite kingdom between eight and nine hundred years B.C.E. Like Trump, he was well known for his dark moods when he didn’t get what he wanted, and he often comes across in the biblical accounts as rather insecure. He could resort to ruthless means to acquire real estate, and he was known for his construction projects, including one particular ostentatious landmark, an ivory palace. He also worked hard to look respectful of the God of Israel, all the while doing what he pleased, which likely involved a lot of sex due to his known religious practices. (The worship of fertility deities Baal and Asherah included orgies. I’m not kidding. You learn these kinds of things in seminary!))

If You’re Not with Us …

These analogies evidence the degree to which the theology of Trump’s evangelical enthusiasts has become perverted. This morning, I was confronted by another powerful example of this via the Franklin Graham-led day of “prayer” for Trump on June 2, announced in his Facebook post below:

At first glance, most Christians might view this as a good thing. After all, we’re commanded to pray for our leaders.

But this is far from simply a “pray for our president” day. People of many faiths through American history have prayed for presidents from the first through the current, Washington through Trump, regardless of the president’s party affiliation, be it Federalist, Democratic-Republican, Democratic, Whig, or Republican. But this is a brazen attempt to persuade Christians that:

  • Trump’s enemies are God’s enemies.
  • If you stand against Trump, you are hastening an irreversible moral decline in our country that foreshadows Armageddon.
  • If you stand against this president, you are siding with demonic powers.

Now, I do not believe Mr. Graham and his fellow evangelical Trump enthusiasts are intending to do harm. They think they’re doing good. But they have either been deceived or deceive themselves that Trump is God’s man in the White House, and in turn, they cause others to fall into the the same trap. But that’s not the worst part of all this.

Bye, Bye, Bye

The worst is that more than anything else I’ve seen in my 30 years as an adult, evangelical enthusiasm for Trump has damaged the Christian witness for Christ. I say this as someone who is very familiar with conservative Christian culture. I earned a master’s degree in theology from one of the most respected evangelical seminaries in the world, and I still hold to the doctrine of biblical inerrancy. I volunteered at the 1992 Republican National Convention in Houston and voted for both George H. W. Bush and George W. Bush (for his first term). I pastored Southern Baptist churches for more than eight of my twelve years as a minister.

I’ve also spent the last several years actively engaged in progressive spaces, particularly in advocacy for women’s rights. And based on conversations too numerous to count, I can say with the strongest assurance that evangelical Trumpism is turning people, both inside and outside the faith, away from Jesus in droves.

CNN yesterday quoted a UPenn poli-sci professor when discussing Graham’s day of “prayer” and evangelical enthusiasm for Trump in general. She said, “There are religious leaders who are very worried about the downstream effects in 15 or 20 years.” She added, “They don’t think there will be a politically driven exodus from evangelicalism,” although she herself thinks there could be.

I don’t know what research statistics are showing, but the anecdotal evidence from my own conversations and others I know of is overwhelming. There is without a doubt, right now, a “politically driven exodus from evangelicalism,” as well as the deepest disillusionment I’ve ever seen toward Christianity from non-Christians. They are shocked at how much of Trump’s egregiously bad behavior that evangelicals are willing to minimize and even overlook to achieve their policy goals.

So while I will continue to pray for the president and our country’s other leaders, I hope you’ll join me in not participating in Mr. Graham’s day of “prayer.” It’s based on perverted theology and serves as a barely veiled attempt to shame and/or scare Christians into supporting Trump’s politics.

If anything, let us pray that people, both those who identify as Christians and those who don’t, can see beyond the mess that we American Christians have made of ourselves. May they see Jesus in all His beauty, in spite of us.

Featured photo: Mark Wallheiser took this famous shot at an August 2015 campaign rally for then-candidate Donald Trump in Alabama.