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.

Blame China? Jesus Doesn’t Play That Game

Luke 4

Luke 4: 21-30 (image from a 12th c. French ms., depicting the event).

Earlier today I wrote a post about how the court evangelicals were pushing Trump to exact revenge against China for its role in the spread of coronavirus to U.S. shores. Read it here.

Christian historian John Haas recently published his own thoughts about this on his Facebook page and he was kind enough to let me share.  He offers a good Holy Week reminder for followers of Jesus:

In the US a consensus is forming that the best response to Coronavirus is to blame China (either for inaction or for deliberately deploying it as a biological weapon), and to exact some kind of revenge (economic disengagement, reparations, etc.). China is returning the favor with heightened anti-Americanism.

In India, a consensus is forming that the best response to Cornavirus is to blame Muslims, and to exact some kind of revenge. I suspect when we get a chance to drill down into other nations and societies, we’ll find similar responses that involve targeting traditional enemies and minorities.

This is the typical human reaction: It’s actually immensely comforting. It tells us that our anxieties and fears regarding whoever have been correct all along, that they’re more dangerous than we thought, that the problems afflicting us aren’t anything to do with “us” but come from outsiders and others, and it paints a route forward towards safety and regeneration: The containment, weakening, or even elimination of the outsider or other.

Much of what’s most radical about Jesus’s life is his refusal to play along with these games. It’s what the people–at that time, and at this–want from him, however. They want Jesus to put his imprimatur on their fear, their xenophobia, their prejudices, and their yearning to hate. Instead, Jesus reminds them that God helps Syrian generals and pagan widows as much or more than the children of Israel.

His counsel runs against every natural instinct, against human nature itself; then and now, it provokes outrage. A good way to tell if someone is preaching Jesus is whether it feels unfair, unwise, and unsafe. A good way to tell that they aren’t is if it feels satisfying and exciting, because it fingers familiar enemies and encourages us to gear up for battle against them. This will invariably involve a demand that we unite around some leader and demonstrate our loyalty to them in some way. We will be asked to stay silent about any failures of the leader, or to redirect our energies to the fight against the designated enemy. A speaking Jesus will become a clear and present danger; he must be dispensed with, usually to be replaced with a “God” imagined after our own current image, prejudices and all.

40,000 People Have Arrived in the United States on Direct Flights From China Since February 2, 2020

Trump corona speech

Donald Trump loves to claim how well prepared he was for the outbreak of the coronavirus by noting how he stopped Chinese immigration to America on February 2, 2020. Since then, 279 flights and 40,000 people have arrived in the United States from China.

Here is The New York Times:

Since Chinese officials disclosed the outbreak of a mysterious pneumonialike illness to international health officials on New Year’s Eve, at least 430,000 people have arrived in the United States on direct flights from China, including nearly 40,000 in the two months after President Trump imposed restrictions on such travel, according to an analysis of data collected in both countries.

The bulk of the passengers, who were of multiple nationalities, arrived in January, at airports in Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Seattle, Newark and Detroit. Thousands of them flew directly from Wuhan, the center of the coronavirus outbreak, as American public health officials were only beginning to assess the risks to the United States.

Flights continued this past week, the data show, with passengers traveling from Beijing to Los Angeles, San Francisco and New York, under rules that exempt Americans and some others from the clampdown that took effect on Feb. 2. In all, 279 flights from China have arrived in the United States since then, and screening procedures have been uneven, interviews show.

Mr. Trump has repeatedly suggested that his travel measures impeded the virus’s spread in the United States. “I do think we were very early, but I also think that we were very smart, because we stopped China,” he said at a briefing on Tuesday, adding, “That was probably the biggest decision we made so far.” Last month, he said, “We’re the ones that kept China out of here.”

Read the rest here.

The World Tells the United States to Stop Using the Phrase “Wuhan Virus”

Pompeo 2

Here is The Washington Post:

Foreign ministers representing seven major industrialized nations failed to agree on a joint statement Wednesday after the Trump administration insisted on referring to the coronavirus outbreak as the “Wuhan virus,” three officials from G-7 countries told The Washington Post.

Other nations in the group of world powers rejected the term because they viewed it as needlessly divisive at a time when international cooperation is required to slow the global pandemic and deal with the scarcity of medical supplies, officials said.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has brushed off criticism of his use of the term, saying it’s important to point out that the virus came from the Chinese city of Wuhan and that China’s government had a special responsibility to warn the world about its dangers.

When asked about a report that his insistence on including the term caused a rift at the Group of Seven meeting, Pompeo did not deny the charge but said that any disagreements among the group were tactical and not sweeping in nature.

Read the rest here.

What Happened in Today’s Coronavirus Press Conference?

Rion

One America News reporter Chanel Rion

In case you missed it, Philip Bump of The Washington Post has it covered.  Here is a taste of his recent piece:

One of the reporters he likes, Chanel Rion of the sharply pro-Trump cable network One America News, asked a question a bit later. (“OAN. Very good,” Trump said when she began speaking. “Thank you very much. You treat me very nicely.”)

Rion, who partnered on several obsequious reports about Ukraine with Trump personal lawyer Rudolph W. Giuliani, first asked Trump whether he thought the expression “Chinese food” was racist. It was an obvious effort to bolster Trump’s recent focus on linking China to the virus and condemnation of his referring to it as a “Chinese virus.” Trump, predictably, did not think the term was racist.

“Major left-wing news media, even in this room, have teamed up with Chinese Communist Party narratives and they’re claiming you’re a racist for making these claims about Chinese virus,” she said. “Is it alarming that major media players, just to oppose you, are consistently siding with foreign-state propaganda, Islamic radicals, and Latin gangs and cartels — and they work right here at the White House with direct access to you and your team?”

This question, regurgitating common rhetoric from conservative social media and repackaging it in a truly bizarre way, was odd enough that even Trump mostly ignored it. (How does one “team up” with a “narrative”?) He did use it, though, to tee off on media coverage that annoyed him.

“It amazes me when I read the things that I read,” he said. “It amazes me when I read the Wall Street Journal, which is always so negative. It amazes me when I read— the New York Times is not even— I barely read it. You know, we don’t distribute it in the White House anymore, and the same thing with The Washington Post.

“Because you see, I know the truth,” he continued. “And people out there in the world, they really don’t know the truth. They don’t know what it is. They use different slogans and different concepts for me almost every week trying to catch something. Last week, it was, oh, chaos. You see me, there’s no chaos. No chaos. I’m the one telling everybody to be calm. There’s no chaos at the White House. We have unbelievable professionals. It’s really — I mean, I think I came up with the term, I hope I came up with the term, but it is fake news. It’s more than fake news, it’s corrupt news.”

He complained generally about not being called by news outlets writing stories, focusing on one Wall Street Journal article in particular (which may have been the spur for the day’s frustration with the media overall). By way of full disclosure, he went on to say that The Post had been “going wild lately” and that the newspaper is very dishonest.

“This administration has done a great job, but the press is very dishonest,” he concluded.

Read the rest here.

Here is Bump’s tweet on his piece:

Trump Edits His Notes to Replace “Corona Virus” with “Chinese Virus”

I wrote about this earlier today. In that post, I asked if Trump and conservative pundits are using the phrase “Chinese virus” to promote division in the country.  A taste:

There are many Americans–especially Chinese-Americans–who are offended by people calling COVID-19 the “China Virus.” So why do we continue to call it that? It now seems like Metaxas, Starnes, and Kirk (and Trump)–all self-identified white Christians–are defending this description of the coronavirus (and others like it) precisely because they want to throw more salt in the wounds of those who are offended by it. Why else would they continue to insist on calling it the “China virus?”

Sadly, it looks like I was right. Jabin Botsford of The Washington Post snapped this picture during Trump’s press conference today:

Chines Virus

Here is Allan Smith of NBC News:

President Donald Trump on Thursday was photographed reading from notes at the daily coronavirus task force press conference where the word “corona” was crossed out and replaced with “Chinese” to described COVID-19.

The photograph, taken by a Washington Post photographer, showed the word crossed out in what appeared to be Sharpie and in the president’s own handwriting.

The image comes as Trump has ramped up his description of the coronavirus as a “Chinese virus” as he’s been questioned about whether he considers the label to be racist.

“It’s not racist at all,” Trump told reporters Wednesday. “It comes from China, that’s why.”

Read the rest here.

A Case for American Exceptionalism: The Liberal Arts

Peking University

If you watched or listened to my conversation with Geoffrey Harpham of The National Humanities Center, you heard him say that he is convinced that “mass liberal education is one of the greatest ideas this country has ever had.”  He argues that mass liberal education is the “secret for our dynamism, creativity, and democracy.”

On two recent trips to China, Harpham spoke to the administration and faculty at five of China’s leading universities.  During his conversations he found that Chinese academics and educators are worried that they are being “outcompeted by the United States” because the “Chinese education system is not liberal enough.”  As a result they are throwing massive amounts of money into the promotion of liberal arts education so that they can catch up with the United States on this front.

The irony is thick.  At the same time that Barack Obama, the President of the United States, is ignoring the humanities and liberal arts in favor of the STEM disciplines, China is doubling down on the humanities and liberal arts because its leadership believes that these disciplines and fields cultivate the kinds of creative and fertile minds that can innovate in a way that leads to economic growth.

Why doesn’t the President and his staff get this?

I thought about this again after reading Michael Roth’s piece at Inside Higher Ed.  Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, also recently visited China and found the same enthusiasm for the liberal arts.  Here is a taste of his piece:

I’d imagined, so wrongly, that talk about challenging the prevailing consensus would have met with a chilly reception at Peking University. On the contrary, the professors and students in the audience were looking to their own traditions and to those of the West for modes of aversive thinking that would empower them to meet the massive challenges facing their society. In the conversations after the talk, they spoke of an evolving education system that would be less concerned with plugging people into existing niches, and more concerned with teaching the “whole person” in ways that would liberate students’ capacities for finding their own way while making a positive difference in the world. Free speech and free inquiry will be crucial for that evolution.

A similar argument has also been made by Karin Fischer, a reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education.