Donald Trump and Conservative Christians: A Fatal Attraction

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Published:
February 5, 2020

On Monday Spectrum published an article by Dr. Timothy Jennings entitled, “Donald Trump and Christians: What’s the Attraction?” In it Dr. Jennings attempts to explain why Christians support Donald Trump and why that support can be justified. To his credit, Dr. Jennings pens a far-reaching piece, touching on the realms of biblical analogy, constitutional rights, political correctness, and religious liberty. However, he lands in the place that most Christian defenses of Trump land. To quote Dr. Jennings’ conclusion,

“Thus, I am not distressed by President Trump. Under his administration, I experience greater security of the constitutional protections and want to use this time to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ, realizing that one day (perhaps soon) either from the right or the left (but I suspect the left), our liberties will be encroached upon and our ability to share the gospel will be restricted. As long as our freedoms remain, however, I want people to come to a knowledge of God. So my suggestion is that we focus on function, accomplishment, what is actually happening — and not on mere rhetoric or style.”

While this piece will delve into this further, the notes are the same. Donald Trump’s administration expands the free exercise of conservative evangelical Christians, and so the other odious elements of his administration are worth the expansion of power that we as conservative evangelical Christians feel under his stewardship.1 To be fair, there are some places where agreement with Dr. Jennings’ analysis can be found. However, the main thrust of the argument (as quoted above) logically falls flat for three reasons. First, the biblical analogies presented do not seem to hold up under more strenuous evaluation. Second, Dr. Jennings far too easily dismisses the power of words (rhetoric), in violation of his own analysis. Third, Dr. Jennings promotes a strain of religious liberty that is exemplified by its self-centeredness and seemingly not in the example of Christ.

(A note: As explained above, the work that follows will focus on places of agreement and disagreement with Dr. Jennings’ argument. However, there are several other small points Dr. Jennings makes along the way that deserve some level of response, despite the fact that they may not find a home in a discussion of the high points of the argument. I will do my best to footnote in appropriate places to address points not suited for the broad argument.)

Despite the failure of the main argument, there are two foundations where there can be some agreement. Dr. Jennings lays out two foundational points that should be kept in mind when discussing Trump, and he is correct about both. First, Dr. Jennings outlines that ungodly people can be used for godly purposes and that while someone may have qualities that disqualify them from being a pastor or church leader, those qualities may not disqualify them from being president. He is absolutely correct about this. Donald Trump is a serial adulterer.2 It is a moral failing. Donald Trump is an inveterate liar.3 It is a moral failing. Those truths do not necessarily disqualify him as president although they may give us pause as to his status as a true follower of Christ. And if this was the only concern, then there would not be a problem as far as this issue is concerned.

The problem is that Trump has shown other traits of moral failure that can be seen as being a detriment to doing his job as president. It is not just that Trump is a serial adulterer, or an unrepentant liar. There is also ample evidence in word and deed that Trump is a racist, misogynistic, homophobic, xenophobic narcissist. And while being an adulterer may have no effect on his job performance, his racist past and present should make us all pause when we consider the question of whether he will institute policies that will be of benefit to people of color, for example.4

Second, Dr. Jennings is right in terms of his analysis with regard to the separation of church and state. His use of same-sex marriage as an example is accurate as well. The only comment to make here is that conservative evangelical Christians who would agree with Dr. Jennings’ greater point would not agree with his analysis here.5 In short, this is a very liberal position to take in the midst of a very conservative religious liberty analysis. Credit to Dr. Jennings for staking out this position and supporting it.

Unfortunately, the points of agreement end here. The first place where Dr. Jennings’ argument loses strength is in his comparison of Trump to Nebuchadnezzar.6 Dr. Jennings says that Trump may be a figure like Nebuchadnezzar, who was “ungodly, unconverted, worldly, prideful, and arrogant.” Fair enough. There is a possibility that this may be true. However, it seems the analogy only works at the most shallow level. For example, we are living in a vastly different political context than they were in Jeremiah’s day. Second, it is an oversimplification to describe Nebuchadnezzar as Dr. Jennings does. While at the moment Dr. Jennings cites his description might be accurate, we also have the advantage of hindsight to know that the Babylonian king was someone who wrestled with God throughout his life, several times subjugating himself to God’s will and power. We do not seem to have the same type of experience with Trump. Which leads to the final problem — this type of analysis is best done in hindsight, when we have the advantage of rational analysis. At this point it is as likely that Trump is comparable to no biblical figure as it is that he is Nebuchadnezzar.7

Dr. Jennings spends some time in the second half of his piece arguing that we should ignore Trump’s rhetoric. He even cites the oft-used statement about the difference between how liberals and conservatives view Trump’s rhetoric: liberals take Trump literally but not seriously and conservatives take Trump seriously but not literally.8 Dr. Jennings believes that we should not focus on Trump’s “mere rhetoric,” but we should focus on what he is doing.9 His argument seems to have two prongs. One, his rhetoric and style is an attack on political correctness, which seeks to reclaim the principle of free speech from those who would use shaming and “cancel culture” to “erode our culture’s sense of liberty and put many people under a constrained sense in which they feel they are no longer free to speak their mind…” Two, his rhetorical style incites a reaction that engages both sides.

This is the second place where the argument does not seem to hold, and there are several problems with this argument. First, it seems like Dr. Jennings’ argument doubles back on itself. Dr. Jennings asks his audience not to focus on mere rhetoric, while drawing attention to all the great things that he believes Trump’s “mere rhetoric” accomplishes.10 Second, Dr. Jennings’ analysis of free speech and political correctness misses the mark.11 Donald Trump is doing exactly nothing in the realm of free speech when he engages in “overtly offensive” speech. No one has encroached on anyone’s freedom of speech. The right to freedom of speech is a right vis-à-vis what the government can lawfully punish. Instead some (willfully?) twist the idea of freedom of speech to mean that they should be able to say what they wish without any consequences. Nothing could be further from the truth. Whenever someone says something bigoted, free speech is at work when they are not arrested for their words. Whenever a bunch of people respond and say if you believe what you said then you are a bigot, free speech is again at work when those people are not arrested for what they said.12 Third, to argue that rhetoric should be ignored is to ignore the power of words throughout human history.

As a nation we recently celebrated Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and we quote his rhetoric to this day as the goal for our society to reach in the realm of race relations. We listen and memorize the great lines and speeches in history because we believe in the power of words to convey the best of our aspirations. We believe in the power of the rhetoric of Jesus Christ to save lives. Interestingly enough, I know that Dr. Jennings also believes in the power of rhetoric. Earlier in his piece when he was discussing nationalism Dr. Jennings said, “And the Socialism of Nazi Germany advanced with specific methods, initially with powerful rhetoric and promises of power to the people…” Evidently rhetoric was an important element of the rise of Nazism in Germany, but we should ignore Trump’s powerful rhetoric and its consequences now.13

We ignore the substance of Trump’s rhetoric at our peril. We are already seeing the deleterious consequences of Trump’s “mere rhetoric.” Hate crimes have been increasing during the Trump administration, especially physical attacks.14 There are court cases where Trump’s rhetoric was specifically cited as a motivating force for acts of violence. Trump’s rhetoric was tied to two mass shootings — the El Paso shooting last year and the shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Rhetoric can have very serious consequences, even if the consequences are unintended. There are groups of people in this country who justifiably live in fear because of this “mere rhetoric” and the effect it has on those who are emboldened to commit acts of violence because of it.15  We should note that while Trump has been asked about this several times over his administration, his rhetoric has not changed.16

The third place where Dr. Jennings’ argument appears to fail is when he discusses what Trump is doing that Christians should support. It is important to quote Dr. Jennings again here (italics added):

“Thus, I am not distressed by President Trump. Under his administration, I experience greater security of the constitutional protections and want to use this time to advance the gospel of Jesus Christ, realizing that one day (perhaps soon) either from the right or the left (but I suspect the left), our liberties will be encroached upon and our ability to share the gospel will be restricted. As long as our freedoms remain, however, I want people to come to a knowledge of God.”

Those who are familiar with the ideological debates in the realm of religious liberty will be well familiar with this argument. Many evangelicals who support Trump support him because they felt he would be the one to protect their rights as Christians to freely exercise their religion with impunity. Dr. Jennings describes it as the “ability to share the gospel” or “advance[ing] the gospel of Christ,” and he hints that these rights may go away soon, but in truth there is no serious movement that seeks to do any of the things he implies. The issues that confound American religious liberty at this moment are the ability of private organizations to impose their religious values on their employees or their customers, or the ability of the state to indirectly fund religious institutions. Those issues are not connected to sharing the gospel.17 Those issues are connected to the ability of Christians to continue to assert their privilege to discriminate against others in a society that is actually becoming more free.18 But even if I were to concede the argument that Trump actually does accomplish this task, it is a task that becomes more difficult because of the association of Christianity with a man as immoral as Trump.

The very people who these Christians are trying to reach are the very same people who will have difficulty understanding how they should now throw their support behind a man who seems to be the antithesis of the very Christian principles they are being called to accept.19 Furthermore, the most appalling element of Dr. Jennings’ argument is his total lack of concern for those who will suffer in order for him (and Christians) to “experience greater security.” It does not seem to matter to Dr. Jennings that his security is acquired by trading the peace and safety of people of color, immigrants, women, refugees, and the LGBTQ+ community.20 If an understanding of our exercise of religious liberty and freedom is supposed to be in line with the example and character of Christ, then our religious liberty ideology should not be so self-centered and selfish. We serve a God of sacrifice, who at every turn was and is willing to subjugate Himself in order for us to live in freedom, even when we use that freedom in ways that He abhors. Paul explicates this principle so beautifully in Philippians 2 when he writes (italics added):

“Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus, who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself, taking the form of a bond-servant, and being made in the likeness of men. Being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”21

Jesus was willing to sacrifice so much for all of us. We will never know what it feels like to give up divinity and experience death, just so that people, many of whom will never acknowledge You, can feel just a modicum of the freedom that You once knew. Yet Jesus went through that for us. This is the Christ that we are called to model ourselves after. This is the Christ that we are called to introduce to a dying world. If we really want to share the gospel, if we want to advance the gospel of Christ, I don’t think we do it by throwing our support behind a politician who panders to us and calls us to the worst within us.22 Instead, like Christ, we subjugate our freedom in order to support the ability for others to live freer lives themselves, and then introduce them to the God that made that freedom possible.

 

Notes & References:

1. Now I doubt Dr. Jennings would describe this as an “expansion of power.” However, I think he would agree with the construction that prior to Trump, Christians were losing their ability to freely exercise their faith and Trump has reversed that. As such, what he would be describing is an expansion of power, even if it may only be an expansion back to where Dr. Jennings would say the freedoms should rightly be.

2. Although mentioned in the letter that frames his piece, Dr. Jennings never explicitly addresses the accusations against Trump as a sexual assaulter. I assume it is part and parcel of his argument that Trump is not a perfect (or even a moral) man. However, Dr. Jennings and I should both examine ourselves about what it means that one of the things we are able to so easily dismiss is Trump’s treatment of particular women in certain contexts.

3. Dr. Jennings attempts to dismiss Trump’s tenuous relationship with the truth as just exaggeration and purposeful hyperbole. While I agree that some of what Trump does is about exaggeration for the purpose of self-aggrandizement, it is also a fact that Trump just lies about facts and events. And he does this more than any President in modern history, even if we exclude the ones where we could reasonably argue that the lie is a purposeful mischaracterization that serves some other rhetorical purpose.

4. The other problem with this immoral man, good president argument is found in the hypocrisy of conservative evangelical Christians on this question over the broad swath of recent history. This argument may not apply to Dr. Jennings in particular, but it does apply to the Christian Right movement as a whole. In some cases, the very same people who made the case that President Clinton could not be president because he had an affair and lied about it are now making the case that Trump’s affairs and attempts to cover them up don’t matter. Both those things cannot be true. It was this hypocrisy that Mark Galli exposed in his now famous Christianity Today editorial. If you were against Clinton in the late 90s you have to be against Trump today because they have the same moral failings. Christians should not be so Machiavellian that the fact that Trump will do what they want becomes a meaningful difference that wipes away the stench of immorality that was once condemned.

5. They wouldn’t agree with him about same-sex marriage, and they certainly wouldn’t agree with him if he were to extend the logic of this argument to an issue like abortion.

6. Dr. Jennings also mentions Cyrus here, but he does not go into detail on that connection and so I will not do so either.

7. Moreover, we do not have enough information about Nebuchadnezzar and his reign to make a reasonable determination about whether the balance between his good and evil is the same as Trump’s. This principle exposes another strange construction in Dr. Jennings’ work. At one point he says that he “want[s] a government to restrain evil, not legislate righteousness.” I also want a government to restrain evil. The problem is that I see this government as committing the evils that I would like to restrain. Furthermore, it seems that Dr. Jennings should also devote much of his time decrying the evils of the conservative evangelical political movement over the last four decades, which quite literally has been asking the government to “legislate righteousness.”

8. By the way, while I think this may have been true during the 2016 primary season, I doubt that you could find many liberals who don’t take Trump seriously. I believe it would behoove many conservatives to take Trump more literally.

9. Dr. Jennings’ argument here implies that while Trump’s rhetoric may be inflammatory, he is not doing anything problematic. I would prefer to walk and chew gum. I believe he has damaging rhetoric, but he is also doing things that are damaging to groups of people in this society. It is way too much to go into in this space, but Trump has instituted policies that have harmed Black people, immigrants, refugees, women, and the LGBTQ+ community at the very least.

10. I leave space for the possibility that what Dr. Jennings actually means is that we should ignore the actual substance of the rhetoric and look at how the rhetoric functions. I don’t believe this is what he meant but it is at least a possibility. If this possibility is accurate than it is poorly communicated.

11. I admit as someone with a law degree, the way the general public misunderstands free speech is one of my biggest legal pet peeves. Dr. Jennings is not alone in his belief about free speech, but that does not make him any less wrong.

12. I don’t want to belabor the point in text, but under a true understanding of free speech, political correctness is actually an expansion of the right of free speech, as more people feel comfortable using their right of free speech to critique the kinds of problematic speech that people at one point in our history felt they could weaponize against the oppressed with impunity.

13. There seems to be a lot that can be criticized in this small section of Dr. Jennings’ piece. It is important to note that Dr. Jennings is running against the tide of historians here too by claiming that Nazi Germany was actually socialism first and not fascism. Also, I found it humorous that he attempts to deem American nationalists as “constitutionalists.” I don’t think that is a proper title, especially in light of the impeachment proceedings we just witnessed. Finally, it was odd that he sees the socialist left as the parallel for Nazi nationalism, while again ignoring the fact that the political leader that the Christian Right supports is using powerful rhetoric and the promise of power to the people to fuel his political movement.

14. To dive into more detail about the rise in hate crimes: in 2018 hate crimes in total were slightly less after rising for a three year period before that. While vandalism was down, violence against individuals increased.

15. While I have labored to make this argument impersonal, this is one place where I think a personal note is important. Dr. Jennings is not a member of any of the groups who have to deal with the violent consequences of the things Trump says. I assume that makes it easier to dismiss his rhetoric as unimportant. To be fair, I am a member of one of the groups that has been violently effected by Trump’s rhetoric, which makes it more difficult for me to dismiss it as unimportant.

16. This is one of the many reasons I call Trump a racist/White supremacist. He either believes his rhetoric, or he does not care about the consequences and that to me is a distinction without a difference.

17. I’m sure Dr. Jennings would disagree, but we most likely have different definitions of what “the gospel” means. If you are interested in my definition, you can find it here.

18. I would also argue that this is an extension of the Constitution to a place it has never been before. Rights have always been held in balance against each other, and no right is totally sacrosanct. As such, asking that free exercise bow to a principle of non-discrimination is not new or unconstitutional at all.

19. I guess one could argue that this is the work of the Spirit, but my entire point is that you could’ve still shared the gospel without tying yourself to someone like Trump in order to do it.

20. This is true in the macro sense that Trump is a total package and therefore his protection of a certain type of Christianity is part and parcel with his rhetoric that leads to violence against other groups. This is also true in the micro sense that Christians are often seeking to discriminate against the LGBTQ+ community and women by restricting services or choices from them.

21. Phil 2:3-8. It is important to note that while Paul was writing to a discreet church, I think this principle holds even when we’re talking about people outside the church.

22. By worst within us, I don’t just mean all of Trump’s moral failings, but also the selfishness that says that our rights must always come before, and at the expense of, the rights of other groups.

 

Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at AdventHealth University. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.

Image Credit: The White House via Flickr.com / Public Domain

 

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