White evangelicalism and the Trumpian menace
There is an English saying that he who dines with the devil should carry or use a long spoon. The saying suggests that if you are preparing to deal with an evil person, you should exercise the greatest care or you could be corrupted or even hurt by that individual. In other words, keep your distance. If you know of the person’s bona fides, you would be well advised to not have any dealing with such an individual in the first place.
White evangelicals in America seem not to have heard of this saying, or if they are aware of it, ignored its salience and dined with former President Donald Trump for a considerable period. As history has revealed, they obviously used too short a spoon and now they have eggs splattered over their collective faces.
It is not that they did not know who they were sitting with at the table. From very early in his campaign for the presidency Trump demonstrated who he truly was: a man who would mock the disabled; grab women by their genitals; and be mercurial during his campaigns by encouraging people to bring violence to those who disrupted his meetings and promising to defend their actions. Before he ran for office he had proven himself to be a dean of lawsuits, thus presenting a personality which did not brook compromise. By his own admission, he would exact the highest punishment from those he perceived to be enemies.
Evangelicals knew all this and much more before he got elected. But they genuflected to him anyway, seeing him as the person who could best carry out their agenda as president. They decided to dine with him, especially when he was disastrously elected and entered the hallowed halls of the White House. There Trump doubled down on the most egregious aspects of his obviously chequered personality, and they in turn doubled down on their support for him. They met with him, prayed with him, and some declared him as God’s messiah for the time. Others believed he was anointed by God to be where he was.
They suspended all judgement or criticism of him. Even in the worst medical crisis the nation faced, they remained stunningly silent while the president’s mismanagement of the COVID-19 crisis caused many deaths across the country. They remained silent when he executed policies that were clearly discriminatory of vulnerable groups and minorities. Most importantly, the white evangelical community lost its tongue when Trump egged on a crowd to assault the citadel of the nation’s democracy, the Capitol, with an aim to prevent the counting of the people’s vote in a presidential election. His ultimate aim was to usurp power and continue as president, even if he had to decapitate the people’s legislators in Congress.
During this sordid episode and immediately after, to the best of my knowledge, none of the leaders who supported Trump’s presidency came out to stridently denounce this flagrant attack on the country’s democratic traditions. And they have not had anything to say about the numerous attempts in Republican-governed states to suppress the vote by making it harder for minority communities to vote.
These evangelicals were prepared to suspend any moral integrity they possessed in service to their greater good as they saw in Trump the one best able to carry out their wishes of stacking the courts, including the Supreme Court, with individuals who matched their religious propensities.
In significant ways Trump triumphed in this. He appointed a lot of conservative judges to appellate benches and had three supreme court judges ascend to the bench. This eventually resulted in the evangelical’s coveted desire to overthrow Roe v Wade, the federal law which okayed abortions.
As long as Trump was willing to carry their agenda, they were willing to excuse or ignore his worst excesses. Even if the food was getting less sumptuous in the dining room, they were willing to take one for the cause.
But now some of them are realising that they have been “played” just as much as they tried to “play” Trump. They failed to reckon seriously with the transactional nature of the former president. Now that relations between the two are souring and the food in the dining room has become very stale, Trump is calling them disloyal as the shine is now dulling on his ball. These evangelical weasels are now discovering, treacherously belatedly, that Trump is not to be trusted with power in the future. Some of them are beginning to see what some of us saw from the beginning â€” Trump is not fit for office.
You may be asking why I have been using the term “white evangelicals”. Evangelicals in America are not a monolithic group. The culture of white evangelicalism is distinctly different from that of, say, black evangelicals or Hispanic and Asian evangelicals. So it is not entirely correct to use the term “evangelical” as a general blanket to define evangelicalism in America. They may read or preach from the same Bible, but the black evangelical community has no doubt that their cultural identity, political aspirations, and religious dispositions have no relevance to that of the whites. This distinction needs to be understood as I have heard the term thrown around as a general reference to all evangelical groups in the country.
It is indeed white evangelicalism that sold its soul to Trump and is now disillusioned. One can be sure that if Trump was not diminishing in influence they would still be in his camp. If there was once a moral core that defined this group, association with Trump has led to its dissipation in the public square. During the Trump era, and even today, its leadership has remained largely hypocritical. Their weasel-like behaviour in support of Trump has caused great harm to the preservation of democracy in the country. For this they should be greatly ashamed.
But are they? One thing you know about hypocrites or weasels is that they will fall for anything because for them the end justifies the means. Now they seem to be morphing into a crust of Christian nationalism, an assertion of white nationalist power dominated by so-called Christian leaders. What seems clear is that the congregants, the people in the pews of these evangelical churches, have not relinquished their support for Trump. They are still an essential part of his base, even if their leaders are not. Herein lies the dilemma they will face in the near future as a viable community. How do they disengage from Trump and still maintain their influence over their congregants? How do they now tell them that they were wrong about Trump, that they bastardised the gospel in service to the great Leviathan, the biblical and mythical fearsome monster of the deep?
The lesson for the Church in Jamaica continues to be that leadership at every level, especially the political, must be scrutinised and held to the highest canons of accountability. The rigid and serious contours of the gospel message must never be denuded or put in service of a political directorate, however noble it may present itself. The Church must be able to say at all times, without fear or favour, “Thus saith the Lord.”
Dr Raulston Nembhard is a priest, social commentator, and author of the books Finding Peace in the Midst of Life’s Storm; Your Self-esteem Guide to a Better Life; and Beyond Petulance: Republican Politics and the Future of America. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.