The Complicit Court Evangelicals

COurt Evangelicals

I just finished “Collaborators,” Anne Applebaum‘s brilliant essay in the July/August 2020 issue of The Atlantic. It is subtitled: “What causes people to abandon their principles in support of a corrupt regime? And how do they find their way back?”

Applebaum writes about Trump supporters and members of the administration who have abandoned longstanding principles in order to support the corrupt presidency of Donald Trump. Throughout the essay she compares and contrasts people like South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham and others with similar “collaborators” drawn from her experience covering Eastern Europe under communism.

She writes

Czeslaw Milosz, a Nobel Prize-winning Polish poet, wrote about collaboration from personal experience. An active member of the anti-Nazi resistance during the war, he nevertheless wound up after the war as a cultural attache at the Polish embassy in Washington, serving his country’s Communist government. Only in 1951 did he defect, denounce the regime, and dissect his experience. In a famous essay, The Captive Mind, he sketched several lightly disguised portraits of real people, all writers and intellectuals, each of whom had come up with different ways of justifying collaboration with the party. Many were careerists, but Milosz understood that careerism could not provide a complete explanation. To be part of a mass movement was for many a chance to end their alienation, to feel close to the “masses,” to be united in a single community with workers and shopkeepers. For tormented intellectuals, collaboration also offered a kind of relief, almost a sense of peace: It meant that they were no longer constantly at war with the state, no longer in turmoil. Once the intellectual has accepted that there is no other way, Milosz wrote, ‘he eats with relish, his movement take on vigor, his color returns. He sits down and writes a ‘positive’ article, marveling at the ease with which he writes it.’ Milosz is one of the few writers to acknowledge the pleasure of conformity, the lightness of heart that it grants, the way that is solves so many perceived and professional dilemmas.

And this:

20 months into the Trump administration, senators and other serious-minded Republicans in public life who should have known better began to tell themselves stories that sound very much like those in Milosz’s The Captive Mind. Some of these stories overlap with one another; some of them are just thin cloaks to cover self-interest. But all of them are familiar justifications of collaboration, recognizable from the past. 

Applebaum then lists the “most popular” forms of collaboration or complicity:

  1. “We can use this moment to achieve great things.”
  2. “We can protect the country from the president.”
  3. “I personally, will benefit.”
  4. “I remain close to power.”
  5. “LOL nothing matters.”
  6. “My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse.”
  7. “I am afraid to speak out.”

I could not help but think about Applebaums’s seven forms of collaboration in light of my own work on Trump’s court evangelicals. (She does mention a few of them in the essay).  It seems like most of these forms of complicity, to one degree or another, explain why so many conservative evangelicals stand with this immoral president.

1. “We can use this moment to achieve great things.” When most conservative evangelicals talk about “great things” they have abortion, traditional marriage, and religious liberty in mind. They are thus willing to collaborate with Trump in order to accomplish these things. Applebaum tells the story of a man named Mark, a Trump administration official. Mark works for the administration, he claims, because he believes Trump is going to help the Uighurs.

She writes:

I thought I had misheard. The Uighurs? Why the Uighurs? I was unaware of anything that the administration had done to aid the oppressed Muslim minority in Xinjiang, China. Mark assured me that letters had been written, statements had been made, the president himself had been persuaded to say something at the United Nations. I doubted very much that the Uiguhrs had benefited from these empty words: China hadn’t altered its behavior, and the concentration camps built for the Uighurs were still standing. Nevertheless, Mark’s conscience was clear. Yes, Trump was destroying America’s reputation in the world, and yes, Trump was ruining America’s alliances, but Mark was so important to the cause of the Uiguhrs that people like him, in good conscience, keep working for the administration.

(Since Applebaum published this essay, John Bolton has written that Trump endorsed the mass detention of Uighur Muslims).

Many court evangelicals justify their support of Trump because they believe he will act on the policy issues they care about. They can use Trump to accomplish “great’ things and make the world a better place.

2. “We can protect the country from the president.” I am not sure many court evangelicals are making this argument. Why would they want to protect the country from a president who derives his power from almighty God?

3. “I, personally, will benefit.” On this one Applebaum writes:

These, of course, are words that few people every say out loud. Perhaps some do quietly acknowledge to themselves that they have not resigned or protested because it would cost them money or status. But no one wants a reputation as a careerist or a turncoat.

Of course no court evangelical will ever say that she or he supports Trump to gain a greater following or to become a Christian “leader” or to get rich. But we would be kidding ourselves if we think that this has nothing to do with it. Much of the court evangelical phenomenon can be explained by ambition and money and branding. They know where their bread is buttered. Just listen to Greg Thornbury talk about Eric Metaxas. Or head to Google and type in your favorite court evangelical’s name followed by the words “net worth.”

4. “I must remain close to power.”  I wrote extensively about the court evangelical pursuit of power in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. Virtually every Christian Right operative who has left the movement or criticized it has said something similar to former Moral Majority leaders Cal Thomas and Ed Dobson. Here is what I wrote in Believe Me:

…in 1999, Dobson and Thomas reflected soberly on their experience with Falwell and the Moral Majority in their book Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America? They concluded that the answer to the subtitle’s question was a definitive “no.” Neither Dobson nor Thomas left evangelicalism or ceased their commitment to conservative causes; but they were forced to admit that the political strategy they helped to forge in the 1980s had failed. Despite their efforts, Roe v. Wade had not been overturned. The Internet had made pornography more accessible than ever. Drug use had not subsided and crime had not dissipated in any significant way. In the process, the prophetic witness of the evangelical church was subordinated to political power and all its trappings. As Cal Thomas put it, in a reference to Palm Sunday, “Who wanted to ride into the capital on the back of an ass when one could go first class in a private jet and be picked up and driven around in a chauffeured limousine?

Thomas, who parlayed his Moral Majority fame into a nationally syndicated newspaper column, did not mince words when he disparaged the evangelical pursuit of political power. “Christian faith is about truth,” he tells his readers, and “wherever you try to mix power and truth, power usually wins.” Through his years with Falwell, Thomas learned how power is the “ultimate aphrodisiac.” It is not only seductive, but all affects the judgment of the one who “takes it.” Thomas warned his evangelical readers who the case for political power threatens the spread of the gospel. He quoted the late Catholic priest Henri Nouwen: “The temptation to consider power an apt instrument for the proclamation of the gospel is the greatest temptation of all.” Thomas pointed to the myriad ways in which the Moral Majority–and the Christian Right agenda that it spawned–played to the fears of white evangelicals. 

5. “LOL nothing matters.” I don’t think any court evangelical would embrace the kind of nihilism Applebaum writes about under this category, but I wonder if the rapture beliefs of some conservative evangelical Trump supporters might be relevant here. If the world will end at any moment, and true believers will be lifted from this earth to be with Jesus in heaven, then why not take a risk on a chaos candidate? If he defends the rights of churches, there will be more opportunities to preach the Gospel and get people to heaven.

6. “My side might be flawed, but the political opposition is much worse.” On this point, Applebaum addresses court evangelicalism. She writes:

The Republican senators who are willing to express their disgust with Trump off the record but voted in February for him to remain in office all indulge a variation of this sentiment. (Trump enables them to get the judges they want, and those judges will help create the America they want.) So do the evangelical pastors who ought to be disgusted by Trump’s personal behavior but argue, instead, that the current situation has scriptural precedents. Like King David in the Bible, the president is a sinner, a flawed vessel, but he nevertheless offers a path to salvation for a fallen nation.

The three most important members of Trump’s Cabinet–Vice President Mike Pence, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Attorney General Willial Barr–are all profoundly shaped by Vichyite apocalyptic thinking. All three are clever enough to understand what Trumpism really means, that is has nothing to do with God or faith, that it is self-serving, greedy, and unpatriotic. Nevertheless, a former member of the administration (one of the few who did decide to resign) told me that Pence and Pompeo “have convinced themselves that they are in a biblical moment.” All of the things they care about–outlawing abortion and same-sex marriage, and (though this is never said out loud) maintaining a white majority in America–are under threat. Time is growing short. They believe that “we are approaching the rapture, and this is a moment of deep religious significance.”

If one’s political philosophy is shaped by this sense of apocalyptic urgency, it makes sense the Hillary Clinton (and now Joe Biden) may be the Antichrist. It would also make perfect sense to instill fear in followers about what might happen if Trump is defeated in 2020.

7. “I am afraid to speak out.”  Applebaum writes:

In the United Sates of America, it is hard to imagine how fear could be a motivation for anybody. There are no mass murders of the regime’s political enemies, and there never have been. Political opposition is legal, free press and free speech are guaranteed in the Constitution. And yet even in one of the world’s oldest and most stable democracies, fear is a motive. The same former administration official who observed the importance of apocalyptic Christianity in Trump’s Washington told me, with grim disgust, that “they are all scared.”

They are scared not of prison, the official said, but of being attacked by Trump on Twitter. They are scared he will make up a nickname for them. They are scared that they will be mocked, or embarrassed, like Mitt Romney has been. They are scared of losing their social circles, of being disinvited to parties. They are scared that their friends and supporters, and especially their donors, will desert them…They are scared, and yet they don’t seem to know that this fear has precedents, or that it could have consequences. They don’t know that similar waves of fear have helped transform other democracies into dictatorships….

To what extent are court evangelical leaders and pastors scared to stand-up to Trump’s immorality because they might lose their congregations or donations for their evangelical media empires? Sometimes this kind of fear is covered-up by pious rhetoric about “civility” and “unity in the body of Christ.” Christian leaders of all stripes don’t want to rock the boat because they might offend Trump supporters.

You can read Applebaum’s entire piece here.