Evangelicals Love Trump’s “National Emergency” Declaration

Border WallPerhaps you have seen the new NPR/PBS/Marist Poll on Americans reaction to Trump’s declaration of a “national emergency” on the Mexican border. I used this poll to begin my lecture yesterday at the University of Southern California.  If you haven’t seen it yet, here are a few things worth noting:

  • 61% of all Americans disapprove of Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency.  36% approve.
  • But only 26% of white evangelicals disapprove of Trump’s decision to declare a national emergency.   67% approve

 

  • 39% of Americans believe that there is a national emergency at the Mexican border.  58% of Americans do not believe this.
  • But 70% of white evangelicals believe that there is a national emergency at the Mexican border.  22% of white evangelicals do not believe this.

 

  • 36% of Americans believe that Trump is “properly using” his presidential powers by declaring a national emergency on the border.  57% do not.
  • But 69% of white evangelicals believe that Trump is “properly using” his presidential powers by declaring a national emergency on the border.  23% do not.

 

  • 54% of Americans said that they are “less likely” to vote for Trump in 2020 because he has declared a national emergency to build a border wall.  33% of Americans said they were more “likely” to vote for Trump because of the national emergency and the wall.  12% of Americans said the wall will not make any difference in how they vote in 2020.
  • Only 22% of white evangelicals said that they are “less likely” to vote for Trump in 2020 because he has declared a national emergency to build a border wall.  60% said they are more likely to vote for Trump in 2020 because he wants to build a border wall.  15% of white evangelicals said the wall will not make any difference in how they vote in 2020.

These are very revealing statistics.  They tell us a lot about white evangelicals today.  Why are they so supportive of Trump’s national emergency and his border wall and why are they so out of step with the rest of the American population?  Read the report here and draw your own conclusions.

As I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, white evangelicals are fearful that their white Christian nation is eroding and they believe Trump’s immigration policies are the best way to save it.

Thanks to John Haas for calling this poll to my attention.

Believe Me 3d

A Morning with Christian College Provosts and Student Life Leaders

Giboney

Justin Giboney of the AND Campaign.

I was in St. Petersburg, Florida yesterday with the provosts and student development administrators from schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU).  I spoke at a session titled “Christian Colleges in the Age of Trump: Challenges and Opportunities.”  Thanks to CCCU Vice President Rick Ostrander for the invitation.

At some point I might post or publish my lecture, but here is a taste:

As Rick mentioned, in June 2018 I published Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  In that book I tried to explain why white evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Trump in 2016.  I argue that they preferred Trump for three reasons.  First, they privileged an approach to public life defined by fear over an approach to public life defined by hope.  Second, and somewhat related, they privileged the pursuit of political power as a means of bringing change to American society over an approach to civic engagement characterized by humility.  And third, white evangelicals privileged an unhealthy nostalgia for a Christian golden age that is never coming back, or may have never existed in the first place, over a hard, honest, and difficult look into the past.

I have been spending a lot of time on the road with Believe Me, mostly at independent bookstores and college and university campuses.  When I visit these places, I usually make my case for a few minutes and then sit down to listen to people’s stories. Folks tell me why they think Trump is good for America.  Others talk about the spiritual and emotional wounds they have suffered from Trump-supporters in their churches.  My wife tells me that listening is not one of my strong suits, but as I tried my best to overcome this social deficiency in places like Lynchburg, Virginia, Charleston, West Virginia, Louisville, Kentucky, and Columbus, Ohio, it brought more nuance to some of the arguments I made in the book.  At the same time, my experience with readers in these places and others like them also convinced me that the book’s central message is right.  (Not all reviewers agreed!)

We are now two years into the Trump presidency.  My task this morning is not to revisit my arguments in Believe Me.  Donald Trump is now the President of the United States.  I will focus instead on what Trump’s administration has wrought–and how Christian colleges might respond in the next two years and beyond.

Like any good evangelical jeremiad—I have three points.

First, Donald Trump has exacerbated a longstanding American propensity for conflict and incivility. And Christian colleges are ideally suited to enter the breach.

Second, in the Trump administration truth, evidence, and critical thinking are under attack.  But Christian colleges must be places where these things are central to our missions.

Third, Christian colleges must not neglect the church.

I shared this session with Justin Giboney, a co-founder of the AND Campaign, an organization committed to educating and organizing Christians for civic and cultural engagement that “results in better representation, more just and compassionate policies and a healthier political culture.

Giboney unleashed a jeremiad of his own.  One observer said that he had never seen a standing ovation before at a morning session of chief academic officers! As Thomas Jefferson said about his debate with Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton: The Musical, Giboney “brought the thunder.”

GIboney slammed those evangelicals who claim that the Bible does not teach social justice.  He pointed out that we all believe in social justice, especially when it affects us and our loved ones.  In other words, the problem is not a belief in social justice, but the failure to apply social justice equally.

He challenged Christians to engage public and political life, but to resist making politics “an ultimate thing.” The political Right claims to be about truth.  The political Left claims to be about love.  But the choice between truth and love is never a choice that a Christian should be forced to make.  It is time to “disrupt” the political arena for the sake of a better Gospel witness in the public square.

Giboney added that attempts to be always conservative or always liberal on all issues is “intellectual lazy.”  We cannot be “ideological zombies.”  For Christians, “partisan loyalty” is not “Gospel loyalty.” Christians must always be on the right side of history–“redemptive history.”

Finally, Giboney criticized the “mob mentality” that he sees in American politics today.  Mobs, he argued, always judge people on group identity.  They are successful when they demonize the enemy.  Mobs do not want to reconcile with the other side because they believe the other side will never change.   Mobs must always be judged by clear thinking and reason.

Check out more of Giboney’s work at the AND Campaign.  I would encourage you to invite him to speak on your campus.

As for me, I am back home for a couple days. Then it is a quick visit to Southern California for a lecture at USC before coming back to Messiah College to enjoy our annual Humanities Symposium!

What Happens When Evangelical Leaders Get Too Close to Power?

Team of VipersLast week we introduced you to Team of Vipers, White House staffer Cliff Sims‘s book about life in the Trump administration.  Sims, a conservative evangelical and a pastor’s son, confirms just about everything I wrote about and warned-against in my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

Now Sims is talking to Christianity Today writer Ed Stetzer about the evangelical leaders who have gravitated to the Trump’s court.   (I have called them the court evangelicals).  It is very revealing.

Here is a taste of Stetzer’s interview with Sims:

Ed: In the Atlantic article, you were critical of the President’s faith advisors. (Full disclosure, I was asked to be on that faith advisory council and declined.) From the outside, it’s hard to gauge their impact, though I have several friends in that group and they tell me they are being heard. What would you say?

Cliff: Well, first of all I think it’s important to understand how these people came into Trump’s orbit.

For Trump, TV is the be all and end all. So, if you’re on TV, you’re at the top of your field. Whether it’s in business and entertainment. That’s why he had The Apprentice. Or in politics, if you were the best and the brightest reporter, you’d be on TV every day. For him, that same principle, I think, applied to the faith space.

When he sees someone like Paula White on TV, he says to himself, “These speakers must be the best. These must be the people that are at the top of their field.” That’s kind of how he appointed people to these positions. It wasn’t like he agreed with a pastor’s doctrine or anything like that—I don’t think there was much more to the decision than him seeing the individuals on TV.

There’s a story that I tell in the book that really stuck out to me very early on in the White House and made me realize that proximity to power does strange things even to pastors and ministers. When we were trying to plan the first prayer breakfast, Sarah Sanders and I were working together to organize speakers, and I wanted David Platt to come and speak at it.

I talked to David about it, and I don’t think he would mind me saying that he was conflicted about that decision. I think one of the reasons for this hesitation was because when pastors get involved in the political space in a public way, there are drawbacks and it can put pastors in a position where people suddenly view them through a political lens. There’s just a lot of baggage that comes along with such a decision.

But, I was talking to people inside the White House about him coming to speak and someone who interfaces with the faith advisory council inside the White House happened to mention this to Paula White. Paula came to the White House and had a meeting with them and basically trashed David and said something to the effect of, “He believes that the American dream is evil. The President’s going to be really mad when he finds out that you’re bringing in someone to speak at the prayer breakfast who believes that the American dream is evil.”

She was basically just undermining him and trying to stop him from being the one who was chosen to speak.

I think that was the most obvious example that I saw of the back biting that I experienced in the White House between staffers. It was really no different on the faith advisory council. Some of the individuals on the council really wanted to make sure that they were the only ones who got close to the President. They wanted to ensure that no one else came in and stole their access or spotlight away. This happened to the point that a pastor was willing to trash another pastor to keep them from having an opportunity, presumably, to preach the gospel in front of the President of the United States, his senior staff, and, frankly, the whole country. I was just really taken aback by that.

Unfortunately, I think these dynamics were a kind of social rule among the group. I don’t want to paint them all with a broad brush—I think there are people with good hearts and with good intentions who are trying to be a picture of the gospel in a place that can be totally devoid of it. They deserve credit and don’t deserve to be smeared. But, I did see a lot of things that made me very uncomfortable.

It’s sad to me that faith leaders were not immune to the side effects that proximity to power had on me and other people in the White House.

Read the entire interview here.  Another segment of this interview will be published soon.   (Thanks to Ed Stetzer for calling this interview to my attention).

Believe Me 3d

My “cry for help” and a plea for fellow evangelicals to “listen and help”

Believe Me 3dAn author at Daily Kos writes:

….Some people believe so strongly in the Mythic Trump they forgive Trump the Man for family separations at the border, a range of criminal acts including running a fraudulent university and a fraudulent charity, selling the US to Russia, grabbing pussy, cozying up to tyrants, and surrounding himself with knaves and dunces. And that is only a partial list.

The question is can anything be done to shatter the myth?

And we all know the facts will never be enough to convince these sort of believers of anything. 

I have chosen two articles that should give us hope and that point the way toward separating the man from the myth.
 

https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2019/01/17/many-voters-think-trumps-a-self-made-man-what-happens-when-you-tell-them-otherwise-224019

https://www.rawstory.com/2019/01/christian-america-still-supporting-donald-trump/

In the first link three sociologists explain their research into what happens when you make voters aware of how much money Donnie got from daddy. Perceptions of Trump’s ability to empathize drop drastically when voters learn what a spoiled rich kid he was and is and will always be. And politicians who aren’t seen as empathetic lose.

In the second a historian reveals the real roots of Trump’s power, Fake History. There is an organized attempt to convince certain Evangelical Christians that the framers of the US Constitution intended the US to be a White Christian state. It is that dubious and frankly fallacious contention that made Trump the President of the United States. 

John Fea has made a start on teaching real history to Evangelicals. The article is a cry for help signal boosting his message. We would all be wise to listen and help. 

Because the alternative is an unimpeachable, unindictable President.

Read the entire piece here.

Sarah Sanders: God “wanted Trump to be president”

Sanders

Press Secretary Sanders made this statement in an interview with the Christian Broadcasting Network.  Michelle Boorstein has it covered at The Washington Post.  Here is a taste of her piece:

White House press secretary Sarah Sanders told a Christian television station Wednesday that God “wanted Donald Trump to become president” so he could support “a lot of the things that people of faith really care about.”

The early, abbreviated transcript provided by the conservative evangelical station CBN, the Christian Broadcasting Network, didn’t include specifics from Sanders. However, many in a devoted segment of Trump’s base have said they consider any drawbacks of his presidency worth it because the president regularly speaks about their priorities and picked two Supreme Court justices believed to oppose abortion. On Monday, Trump lauded proposed state-level legislation meant to bring more teaching of the Bible in public schools.

“Does it kind of blow your mind that someone like Donald Trump, who is sitting in the Oval Office, I know you can list the accomplishments, but at the same time just from a spiritual perspective there are a lot of Christians who believe that for such a time as this –” said David Brody of CBN, trailing off, according to the transcript.

Sanders replied: “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times, and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president and that’s why he’s there. And I think he has done a tremendous job in supporting a lot of the things that people of faith really care about.”

Read the rest here.

I am willing to stand by Sanders on this claim, as long as she is open to the possibility that God made Trump president to expose the political idolatry of American evangelicals.

As for now, we see through a glass darkly.

“Evangelical” Churchgoers and “Evangelical” Non-Churchgoers Rode the Trump Train in the 2016 GOP Primaries

US-VOTE-IRAN-POLITICS

A lot of people in my social media sphere are making a big deal about Timothy Carney’s piece at The American Conservative arguing that Trump’s evangelical support came from self-described evangelicals who do not go to church.  Read it here.

Meanwhile, over at his blog “Religion in Public,” political scientist Ryan Burge sees very little difference among the evangelicals who voted for Cruz in the GOP primaries and the evangelicals who voted for Trump.  Read his piece here.

A taste:

If anything, I think I can make more sense of why white evangelicals so easily shifted their support from Ted Cruz to Donald Trump when it was clear that he was going to be the GOP nominee. It’s for two reasons: many of them supported Trump in the first place. As described above: Cruz only did well with a small portion of white evangelical voters. The other reason is that the jump that many of them had to make from Cruz to Trump was relatively small. Most of the Cruz supporters were statistically the same as Trump supporters on a wide variety of issues, especially fiscal questions. The upshot is this: white evangelicals are fairly monolithic. Sure, some are more socially conservative than others but by and large they are shockingly similar. The idea that there was a strong and significant bloc of socially conservative evangelical Cruz voters who had to drastically change their mind to vote for Trump is not supported by the data that I analyzed.

Burge’s analysis is closer to what I argued in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump

Can the Civil Rights Movement Serve as a Model of Evangelical Political Engagement?

king grave

An excerpt from Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

If you picked up this book and have made it this far, you will not be surprised that I think about evangelical political engagement from the perspective of a historian.  While we always need to be careful about taking lessons from the “foreign country” of the past and applying them to contemporary issues, we certainly should not ignore our natural inclination to find a usable past.  What kind of historical examples can we find of Christians living faithfully–and engaging politically–from positions located outside the corridors of power and privilege?

In June 2017, I spent ten days with my family and several colleagues from Messiah College traveling through the American South on a civil rights movement bus tour.  Our trip took us to some of the most important sites and cities of the movement.  We made stops in Greensboro, Atlanta, Albany, Montgomery, Selma, Birmingham, Memphis , and Nashville.  Along the way we spent time with some of the veterans of the movement.  In Atlanta we heard from Juanita Jones Abernathy, the wife and co-laborer of Ralph Abernathy, one of Martin Luther King Jr.’s closest associates.  In Albany we sang civil rights songs with Rutha Mae Harris, one of the original  Freedom Singers.  In Selma we met Joanne Bland, a local activist who, at the age of eleven, participated in all three Edmund Pettus Bridge marches.  In Birmingham, we talked with Carolyn Maul McKinstry and Denise McNair.  McKinstry was fifteen years old when she survived the Ku Klux Klan bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church on September 15, 1963.  That explosion took the life of McNair’s sister, whom she never had a chance to meet.  In Nashville, we listened to the inspirational stories of Ernest “Rip” Patton , one of the early freedom riders, and Kwame Leonard, one of the movement’s behind-the-scenes organizers.

As I processed everything that I learned on the “Returning to the Roots of the Civil Rights” bus tour, I kept returning to thoughts about the relationship between religion and politics.  Donald Trump had been in office for under five months, but my anger and frustration upon learning that 81 percent of my fellow evangelicals had voted for him were still fresh.  As I listened to the voices of the movement veterans, walked the grounds that they had walked, and saw the photographs, studied the exhibits, and watched the footage, it was clear that I was witnessing a Christian approach to politics that was very different from the one that catapulted Trump into the White House.  Hope, humility, and a responsible use of American history defined the political engagement and social activism of the civil rights movement.

HOPE

 Those who participated in the civil rights movement had much to fear: bombs, burning crosses, billy clubs, death threats, water hoses, police dogs, and lynch mobs–to name a few.  They feared for their lives of their families and spent every day wondering whether they would still be around to continue the fight the next day.  For these reasons, many African Americans, understandably, did not participate in the movement and prevented their children from getting involved.  The danger was very real.

Martin Luther King Jr. knew this.  When we visited the old Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, the church where King was baptized  and where he (and his father) served as pastor, his final sermon, the one he delivered in Memphis on April 3, 1968, was playing over the speakers.  King was in Memphis to encourage sanitation workers fighting for better pay and improved working conditions.  I sat in the back pew and listened:

Well, I don’t know what will happen now.  We’ve got some difficult days ahead.  But it really doesn’t matter with me now.  Because I’ve been to the mountaintop.  And I don’t mind.  Like anybody, I would like to live a long life.  Longevity has its place.  But I’m not concerned about that now.  I just want to do God’s will.  And he has allowed me to go up to the mountain.  And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land.  I may not get there with you, but I want you to know tonight, that we as a people will get to the Promised Land.  So I’m happy tonight.  I’m not worried about anything.  I’m not fearing anything.  Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord

It was a message of hope.  Because of his faith, God had given him–and the men and women of the movement he led–all the strength they would need to continue the struggle.  King made himself available to do the Lord’s will. Now he was looking forward.  Was he talking ab out his eternal life in what now seems like prophetic fashion, or was he talking about God working out his purposes on earth?  No matter: King was confident in God’s power to work out his will. “Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.”  An assassins bullet took King’s life the next day…but the movement went on.

Can evangelicals recover this confidence in God’s power–not just his wrath against their enemies but in his ability to work out his purposes for good?  Can they recover hope? The historian Christopher Lasch  once wrote this: “Hope does not demand a belief in progress.  It demands a belief in justice: a conviction that the wicker will suffer, that wrongs will be made right, that the underlying order of things is not flouted with impunity.  Hope implies a deep-seated trust in life that appears absurd to most who lack it. ”  I saw this kind of hope in every place we visited on our trip.  It was not mere optimism that things would get better if only we could elect the right candidates.  Rather, it was a view of this world, together with an understanding of the world to come, forged amid suffering and pain.  Not everyone would make it to the mountaintop on this side of eternity , but God’s purposes would be worked out, and eventually they would be able to understand these purposes–if not in this life, surely in the world to come.  The people in the movement understood that laws, social programs, even local and voluntary action, would only get them so far.   Something deeper was needed.

There was something kingdom-oriented going on in these Southern cities.  I saw this kind of hope  in the eyes of Rip Patton as he sat with us in the Nashville Public Library and explained why (and how) he had such a “good time” singing while incarcerated with other freedom riders in Parchman Prison in Jackson, Mississippi.  I heard this kind of hop e in the voice of Rutha Mae Harris as she led us in “This Little Light of Mine” and “Ain’t Gonna Turn Me’ Round” from the front of the sanctuary  of the Old Mount Zion Baptist Church in Albany.  As I walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge  in Selma, Alabama, I wondered if I could ever muster the courage of John Lewis and Joanne Bland as they marched into the fact of terror on Bloody Sunday.  Such audacity requires hope.

Humility

It is nonsensical  to talk about the civil rights movement in terms of political power, because even at the height of the movement’s influence, African Americans did not possess much political power.  Yes, the movement had its leaders, and they did have time in the national spotlight.  But when movement leaders entered the “court,” they were usually there to speak truth to the king, not to flatter him.  Martin Luther King Jr., for example, was willing to break with Lyndon Johnson when he disagreed with him on the Vietnam War, even if it meant losing access to the most powerful man on earth.

Most of all, though, the civil rights movement was shaped by people of humble means who lived ordinary lives in ordinary neighborhoods.  Many of them never expected to step onto a national stage or receive credit for leading the greatest social movement in American history.  These ordinary men and women fought injustice wherever God had placed them.   And they offer us a beautiful illustration of what James Davison Hunter has called “faithful presence”:

A theology of faithful presence first calls Christians to attend to the people and places that they experience directly….the call of faithful presence gives priority to what is right in front of us–community, the neighborhood, and the city, and the people in which these constituted….It is here, through the joys, sufferings, hopes, disappointments, concerns, desires, and worries of people with whom we are in long-term and close relation–family, neighbors, co-workers, and community–where we find authenticity as a body of believers.  It is here where we learn forgiveness and humility, practice kindness, hospitality, and charity, grow in patience and wisdom, and become clothed in compassion, gentleness, and joy….

I thought about Hunter’s words as I stood in the hot Selma sun and listened to Joanne Bland explain to use the significance of a small and crumbling patch of pavement in a playground behind Brown AME church.  This was the exact spot, she told us, where the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches began.  For Bland, who was raised in the housing complex across the street from the church, this was a sacred place.

The humility on display during the civil  rights movement was just as countercultural then as it is now.  This is usually the case with nonviolent protests.  Those who participated thought of themselves not as individuals but as part of a movement larger than themselves.  Rip Patton was a twenty-one-year old  music major at  Tennessee State University when he met Jim Lawson in 1959.  Lawson trained Patton (and others) in nonviolent protest.  Soon Patton found himself seated at a lunch counter in downtown Nashville, where he would be spit on, punched , and covered in ketchup, mustard, salt, and water.  Patton did not retaliate because he had been educated in the spiritual discipline necessary for a situation like this.  Martin Luther King Jr. was leading a political and social movement, something akin to a religious revival.

The civil rights movement never spoke the language of hate or resentment.  In fact, its Christian leaders saw that all human beings were made in the image of God and sinners in need of God’s redemptive love.  Many in the movement practiced with theologian Reinhold Niebuhr described as “the spiritual discipline against resentment.”  They saw that those who retaliated violently or with anger against injustice were only propagating injustices of their own  .   Instead, the spiritual discipline against resentment unleashed a different kind of power–the power of the cross and the resurrection.   This kind of power could provide comfort amid suffering and a faithful gospel witness in the world.   The Mississippi voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer said it best: ” The white man’s afraid he’ll be treated like he’s been treating the Negroes, but I couldn’t carry that much hate.  It wouldn’t  have solved any problems for me to hate white because they hate me.  Oh, there’s so much hate!  Only God has kept the Negro sane.”

HISTORY

As we saw in chapter  5, many African Americans find American nostalgia troubling because they recognize that there is little in our nation’s history to yearn for.  The leaders of the civil rights movement could not make appeals to a golden age.  They could only look forward with hope….When they did turn to the past, it was often an appeal to ideals such as liberty, freedom, or justice, ideals written down in our nation’s sacred documents that had yet to be applied to them completely.  History was a means by which they challenged white Americans to collectively come face to face with the moral contradiction at the heart of the republic. As King said in his April 1968 sermon in Memphis, “All we say to America is, ‘Be true to what you said on paper.'”  As I listened to to the veterans of the civil rights movement tell their stories, I was surprised how often I heard them describe America as a “Christian nation.”  But this was not the Christian nationalist nostalgia of David Barton, Robert Jeffress, or the court evangelicals.  It was a gesture of what they hoped the United States might become….

The early civil rights movement needed its leaders to have a working knowledge of American history, but these leaders did not use the past as fodder for a national reclamation project.  They knew there was little to reclaim.  Instead, they used the past as a means of  moving forward in hope and calling the church and the nation to live up to the principles they were built on.  While many white Americans today succumb to the narcissism that tells them that their place in the story of the nation is not worth serious reflection, King and his followers had a clear-eyed understanding of the past.  They desperately wanted to be grafted into this imperfect but hopeful story, and to contribute their gifts and talents to the writing of future chapters of that story.

Trump is Down 13% With White Evangelicals

donaldtrumppatrobertsonhandshake_si

Here are the results of the latest National Public Radio/PBS/Marist poll:

A new NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll finds Trump’s approval rating down and his disapproval rating up from a month ago. He currently stands at 39 percent approve, 53 percent disapprove — a 7-point net change from December when his rating was 42 percent approve, 49 percent disapprove.

And the movement has come from within key portions of his base. He is:

  • Down significantly among suburban men, a net-positive approval rating of 51-to-39 percent to a net-negative of 42 percent approve, 48 percent disapprove. That’s a net change of down 18 percentage points.
  • Down a net of 13 points among white evangelicals, from 73-to-17 percent approve to 66-to-23 percent approve.
  • Down a net of 10 points among Republicans, from 90-to-7 percent approve to 83-to-10 percent.
  • Down marginally among white men without a college degree, from 56-to-34 percent approve to 50-to-35 percent approve, a net change downward of 7 points.

Read the rest here.

Conservative Evangelicals Defend Steve King and Want Kevin McCarthy to Apologize

King and trump

Perhaps some of you missed it.  Iowa congressman Steve King, in an interview with the New York Times, said this: “White nationalists, white supremacist, Western Civilization–how did that language become offensive?”

King later tried to back away from the statement, but it was too little, too late.  House minority leader Kevin McCarthy removed King from the House Judiciary and Agriculture Committees earlier this week and he was almost censured.  King’s remarks were the latest in a long career defined by racist and nativist comments.

Not everyone is happy with what McCarthy, the House Republicans, and Congress have done to King.  Right Wing Watch has brought to my attention news of a group of Christian Right leaders who are supporting King.  The group is led by Janet Porter, a Christian Right activist who served as the spokesperson for Roy Moore’s 2017 Alabama  Senate race.  Porter is asking Christian Right leaders to sign a letter to Kevin McCarthy.  Here is the text of that letter:
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Dear Leader McCarthy,

We are appalled that Republican leadership would choose to believe a liberal news organization famous for their bias over an outstanding member of Congress who has served the people of Iowa and the United States honorably and faithfully for 16 years.

If Congressman Steve King believed and stood by the outrageous misquote of the New York Times, then the actions taken against him would have been warranted, but the opposite is true.

Unlike North Korea, we in the United States are “innocent until proven guilty” and hold to the principles of Western Civilization, as Rep. King so admirably does. The foundational principle begins with the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.” These are the principles to which Rep. King was referring and which he has championed for more than two decades of public service.

Don’t make the fatal mistake of turning the reins of the U.S. Congress over to the liberal media, allowing them to target, misquote, and falsely brand any member of Congress they wish to remove. 

We call on you to do the right thing as Minority Leader: issue a public apology and reinstate Rep. King to his committee assignments.  If we don’t stand with this good man against the media-manufactured assault today, none of us will be safe from it tomorrow.

The Christian Right leaders who signed this letter include:

  • The scandal-ridden former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay
  • Court evangelical and family values radio host James Dobson
  • Court evangelical and charismatic media mogul Steven Strang
  • Paul Blair, president of an organization called Reclaiming America for Christ
  • Rick Scarborough, a conservative Southern Baptist political activist
  • Lance Wallnau, a court evangelical who claims to have prophesied Donald Trump’s election.
  • Rena Lindevaldsen, a law professor at Liberty University
  • Jim Garlow, a pastor and prominent court evangelical who recently co-authored a book with David Barton.
  • Cythnia Dunbar, a member of the Republican National Committee who is probably best known for trying to bring Christian nationalist ideas into American history books in Texas.  (She also claimed that Barack Obama, if elected POTUS, would work with terrorists to attack the United States within his first 6 months in office).
  • William Federer, a Christian nationalist known for collecting quotes about the founding fathers

I discuss Dobson, Strang, and Wallnau in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.

This letter may be more revealing for the people who DID NOT sign it, including Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ralph Reed, Gary Bauer, Franklin Graham, Paula White, Johnnie Moore,  Eric Metaxas, and other court evangelicals.

*BUNK* Picks “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as Best American Religious History Read of 2018

BUNK is a history website founded by award-winning American historian Ed Ayers and edited by Tony Field.  It is published by the University of Richmond.  Read more about it here.

Today I learned that BUNK chose my Atlantic Monthly piece  “Evangelical Fear Elected Donald Trump” as the best American history read of 2018.  (Of course, if you want the extended argument, get a copy of my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump).

This means a lot to me, especially in light of the other winners.

Here are the winners:

Narrative History
The Train at Wood’s Crossing [Brendan Wolfe, brendanwolfe.com]
The long-forgotten story of a Charlottesville lynching is unearthed in a lyrical and deeply researched piece of writing that twists together strands of personal, local, and national history.

Honorable Mention:
The Counterfeit Queen of Soul [Jeff Maysh, Smithsonian Magazine]

Local History
As Goes the South, so Goes the Nation [Imani Perry, Harper’s]
A Thanksgiving trip home to Alabama occasions this tour de force through the state’s twisted past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Little Mayors of the Lower East Side [Laurie Gwen Shapiro, Lapham’s Quarterly]
In the Hate of Dixie [Cynthia Tucker, Bitter Southerner]

Legal History
Black Lives and the Boston Massacre [Farah Peterson, The American Scholar]
Do you know the story of Crispus Attacks, the black man who was the first American casualty of the Revolutionary War? If so, it’s probably incomplete. In this compelling essay, a law professor explains why, and what the omissions have to do with the struggle for racial justice today.

Honorable Mentions:
Separation of Power [William Hogeland, Lapham’s Quarterly]
No Law Without Politics (No Politics Without Law) [Jedediah Purdy, Law and Political Economy]

Religious History
Evangelical Fear Elected Trump [John Fea, The Atlantic]
Fea, a scholar and practitioner of evangelical Christianity, offers a nuanced take on four centuries of people “failing miserably at overcoming fear with hope, trust, and faith in their God.”

Honorable Mention:
The Fight to Define Romans 13 [Lincoln Mullen, The Atlantic]

Reported History
We Saw Nuns Kill Children: The Ghosts of St. Joseph’s Catholic Orphanage [Christine Kenneally, Buzzfeed News]
A devastating longread based on years of interviews with alleged survivors of systematic abuse.

Honorable Mentions:
Payback [Natalie Y. Moore, The Marshall Project]
A Cool Dip and a Little Dignity [Erin E. Tocknell, Bitter Southerner]

Labor History
A Culture of Resistance [Charles Keeney, Lapham’s Quarterly]
The teachers’ strikes that sprang up around the country last year caught many observers off-guard. Here, Keeney explains why labor activism in red-state West Virginia is not the anomaly it may seem to be.

Honorable Mention:
Where Did it All Go Wrong? [Gabriel Winant, The Nation]

Watery History
In the Dismal Swamp [Sam Worley, Popula]
As is the case with each of the honorable mentions below, this piece defies the terra firma of historiographical categorization, combining currents of environmental, cultural, political, and local history into a profound exploration of what it means to “drain the swamp.”

Honorable Mentions:
The Water Next Time? [Danielle Purifoy, Scalawag]
The First Floridians [Jordan Blumetti, Bitter Southerner]

Historical Reenactment
Natural History in Two Dimensions [Whitney Barlow Robles, Common-Place]
Another fascinating genre-buster that will tell you everything you ever wanted to know?—?and then some?—?about the lost art of fish-flattening.

Honorable Mention:
Revisiting an Explorer’s Northwest Passage ‘Disappointment’ After Nearly 230 Years [Brian Castner, Atlas Obsura]

Museum Review
Real Museums of Memphis [Zandria Felice Robinson, Scalawag]
A gut-punching portrait of Memphis by a daughter of the city, written from the shadows of the National Civil Rights Museum on the occasion of MLK50. “[W]e have to keep track of how our memories and experiences are being gentrified in a notion of progress that has no meaningful proof or original referent.”

Honorable Mention:
Our Nukes, Ourselves [Kelsey D. Atherton, The New Inquiry]

Debunk
How Social Media Spread a Historical Lie [Jennifer Mendelsohn & Peter A. Shulman, Made by History/Washington Post]
When an erroneously captioned photo of a KKK march went viral, the authors sprung into action, correcting the record and explaining how Google, Wikipedia, and other digital platforms amplify the falsification of the past.

Honorable Mentions:
The Myth of the Criminal Immigrant [Anna Flagg, The Marshall Project]
We’re Never Going to Have Our “Have You No Sense of Decency, Sir?” Moment [Rebecca Onion, Slate]

Obituary
An Obituary for Orange County, Dead at Age 129 [Gustavo Arellano, Los Angeles Times]
A clever use of the form to give historical context to L.A.’s midterm election results. “The death shocked everyone who hadn’t bothered to pay attention for decades.”

Honorable Mention:
Larry Eisenberg, 99, Dead; His Limericks Were Very Well Read [Margalit Fox, New York Times]

Reputation Revision
Living With Dolly Parton [Jessica Wilkerson, Longreads]
Wilkerson grew up in East Tennessee idolizing the region’s most famous native daughter. Now a historian, she sets out in this lyrical, personal piece to more fully understand Parton’s enduring appeal in the post-industrial South.

Honorable Mentions:
Why Tamika Mallory Won’t Condemn Louis Farrakhan [Adam Serwer, The Atlantic]
Paul Bremer, Ski Instructor: Learning to Shred With the Bush Administration’s Iraq War Fall Guy [Aaron Gell, Task & Purpose]
My Fellow Prisoners: On John McCain [George Blaustein, n+1]

Origin Story (Culture)
Bad Boys [Tim Stelloh, The Marshall Project]
A fascinating piece that chronicles the unlikely story of ‘Cops,’ one of television’s most successful, influential, and polarizing shows ever.

Honorable Mentions:
How Auto-Tune Revolutionized the Sound of Popular Music [Simon Reynolds, Pitchfork]
The Story Behind the Poem on the Statue of Liberty [Walt Hunter, The Atlantic]
My Dad Painted the Iconic Cover for Jethro Tull’s ‘Aqualung,’ and It’s Haunted Him Ever Since [Robert Silverman, The Outline]

Origin Story (Trumpism)
How Do We Explain This National Tragedy? This Trump? [T.J. Stiles, Zyzzyva (via Lithub)]
There was no shortage of contestants to this category in 2018. And while no single account can do justice to all the factors responsible for our current moment, I especially appreciated Stiles’ personal, wide-ranging, and not altogether pessimistic approach to the question.

Honorable Mentions:
Trumpism Before Trump [Robert L. Tsai & Calvin Terbeek, Boston Review]
The Religion of Whiteness Becomes a Suicide Cult [Pankaj Mishra, New York Times]
The Roots of Trump’s Immigration Barbarity [Daniel Denvir, Jacobin]

Origin Story (Plastic)
American Beauties [Rebecca Altman, Topic]
Before Americans had to learn to reuse their grocery bags, they had to learn to thrown them away. Behold one of my favorite pieces of the year, chronicling the rise and fall (hopefully not in a tree near you) of the plastic bag.

Honorable Mention:
Disposable America [Alexis Madrigal, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Reconstruction’s Legacy)
Today’s Voter Suppression Tactics Have A 150 Year History [Gregory Downs, Talking Points Memo]
There was a ton of terrific writing this year about Reconstruction, but this one stood out. It widens the lens on the story of disenfranchisement, explaining that “though rebels perfected the art of excluding voters, it was yankees who developed the script.”

Honorable Mention:
Citizens: 150 Years of the 14th Amendment [Martha S. Jones, Public Books]

Commentary (Historic Preservation)
The Archivists of Extinction [Kate Wagner, The Baffler]
The said archivists are none other than the contributors to a Flickr page devoted to images of defunct Kmarts. If that seems intriguing to you, I promise you that it is. Come for the Kmarts, stay for the withering critique of capitalist destruction.

Honorable Mention:
The Death and Life of a Great American Building [Jeremiah Moss, New York Review of Books]

Commentary (80s Movies)
In the Dark All Katz are Grey: Notes on Jewish Nostalgia [Samuel Ashworth, Hazlitt]
With what is probably the finest opening line of any on this list, this piece is a poignant meditation on nostalgia, the Borscht Belt, and why Dirty Dancing is actually a Jewish horror film.

Honorable Mention:
Brett Kavanaugh Goes to the Movies [Marsha Gordon, The Conversation]

Commentary (Covert Operations)
Did You Know the CIA ______? [Malcolm Harris, n+1]
In this review of Errol Morris’ latest miniseries, Harris examines the inability of Americans to confront the crimes that have been committed in their name. “If cold war is the name for the third world war that didn’t happen, what’s the name for what did?”

Honorable Mention:
The U.S. Needs to Face Up to Its Long History of Election Meddling[Peter Beinart, The Atlantic]

Commentary (Statue of Liberty)
Sentinel [Francesca Lidia Viano, Places]
To read about the Statue of Liberty’s origins is to become ever more aware of the contradictions baked into America’s most cherished symbols. I highly recommend chasing this read with the Slate piece below, which pushes the story forward into our crazy modern times.

Honorable Mention:
Who Does She Stand For? [Paul A. Kramer, Slate]

Commentary (Futility of War)
A Hundred Years After the Armistice [Adam Hochschild, New Yorker]
A standout in a year full of WWI retrospectives. Among other things, Hochschild tells us that more soldiers were killed after the Armistice had been signed than would die on D-Day in Normandy 26 years later. They died, in other words, for no political or military reason whatsoever.

Honorable Mention:
Remembrance of War as a Warning [Christopher Preble, War on the Rocks]

Commentary (Country Music)
Canon Fodder [Shuja Haider, Popula]
Another fun read from Popula, on policing the genre boundaries of popular music. If you’ve ever winced to hear somebody say that they like all kinds of music ““except rap and country,” then this one’s for you.

Honorable Mention:
Agriculture Wars [Nick Murray, Viewpoint]

Periodical Single Issue
Boston Review, “Fifty Years Since MLK” [Forum V (Winter 2018)]
Just in time for the 50th anniversary of King’s assassination, Boston Review published a knockout of an issue that was, in many ways, the perfect antidote to Dodge’s Superbowl ad from a few weeks earlier. Every article is a must-read.

Honorable Mention:
The Baffler, “Tramps and Millionaires” [Issue ?42]

Recurring Series
Overlooked [New York Times]
An ongoing effort by the Times’ obituaries desk to remember the lives of notable women who were left out of the paper of record the first time around.

Bibliography
Confederate Monuments Syllabus [Kevin M. Levin, Civil War Memory]
If there’s one person up to the challenge of keeping track of the latest skirmishes in the Confederate monument wars, it’s Levin. He recently compiled this wide-ranging collection of online resources in an effort to help teachers and students make sense of it all.

Jerry Falwell’s “Two Kingdoms” View is Not Only Wrong, It’s Dangerous

File Photo: U.S. Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump shakes hands with Jerry Falwell Jr. at a campaign rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa

Many of you have seen court evangelical Jerry Falwell Jr.’s interview with Joe Heim of The Washington Post.

Falwell Jr. says:

There’s two kingdoms. There’s the earthly kingdom and the heavenly kingdom. In the heavenly kingdom the responsibility is to treat others as you’d like to be treated. In the earthly kingdom, the responsibility is to choose leaders who will do what’s best for your country. Think about it. Why have Americans been able to do more to help people in need around the world than any other country in history? It’s because of free enterprise, freedom, ingenuity, entrepreneurism and wealth. A poor person never gave anyone a job. A poor person never gave anybody charity, not of any real volume. It’s just common sense to me.

When Heim asked Falwell if there is anything Trump could do that would endanger evangelical support for the President he answers, based on his political theology, with one word: “no.”

Over at Slate, writer Ruth Graham responds to Falwell’s one-word answer:

At one point, reporter Joe Heim asked Falwell whether there is anything Trump could do that would endanger his support from Falwell and other evangelical leaders. He answered, simply, “No.” His explanation was a textbook piece of circular reasoning: Trump wants what’s best for the country, therefore anything he does is good for the country. There’s something almost sad about seeing this kind of idolatry articulated so clearly. In a kind of backhanded insult to his supporters, Trump himself once said that he could “stand in the middle of Fifth Avenue and shoot somebody” without losing his base. It’s rare to see a prominent supporter essentially admit that this was true. 

Graham also notes that Falwell’s views seem to contradict the mission statement of Liberty University.  This is true.

In its “Statement of Mission and Purpose,” Liberty claims to “promote the synthesis of academic knowledge and a Christian worldview in order that there might be a maturing of spiritual, intellectual, social and physical value-driven behavior.”  This kind of “worldview” language suggests that students at Liberty will learn to think Christianly about all things, including the ways Christianity intersect with politics and government.  After all, wasn’t this Falwell’s father’s vision for Liberty University?  Wasn’t Liberty University directly linked to Falwell Sr.’s Moral Majority–an attempt to bring Christianity to bear on government and politics?

Falwell Jr. seems to believe that the only thing Christianity teaches Christians about their responsibility as citizens is that Christianity has no role to play in our responsibility as citizens.  If I am reading him correctly, he is arguing that the promotion of capitalism, entrepreneurship, free-markets, and the accumulation of wealth is the essence Christian citizenship.  In other words, Falwell Jr. assumes that Christianity and capitalism are virtually the same thing.  I would love to hear from a Liberty professor on this point.  Is there anything about capitalism (as defined by the accumulation of wealth, free markets, and entrepreneurship) that contradicts the teaching of Christianity?   I know some Liberty professors and I DO think that they would say there is a difference between the two, but I wonder how free they are to make that critique in public.

I also wonder if Falwell Jr. believes that there is anything within the Christian tradition that might provide a critique of government.  I don’t have the time to search, but I am sure it is pretty easy to find Falwell Jr. making some kind of theological or Christian critique of Barack Obama.

It is important to note here that Falwell is not arguing, as other court evangelicals have done, that evangelicals should support Trump because he will deliver a conservative Supreme Court or defend religious liberty.  Remember, in this interview he says that there is NOTHING Trump can do to lose his support.  NOTHING!  This, of course, means that if he would commit adultery in the oval office, appoint a radically pro-choice Supreme Court justice, call for the end of the Second Amendment, or shoot someone on 5th Avenue, Trump will not lose Falwell’s support.  I don’t know of any American–Christian or not– who would be so confident about a political candidate.

The Statement of Mission and Purpose also notes that Liberty University will “encourage a commitment to the Christian life, one of personal integrity, sensitivity to the needs of others, social responsibility and active communication of Christian faith….”  Apparently Falwell believes that all these things can be practiced without any connection to politics or government.  In other words, Falwell wants to train students to live personal lives of faith, but never apply that faith to democratic citizenship.  I am not sure his father would have agreed with this.

Which leads me to one more question:  What is taught at the Jesse Helms School of Government at Liberty?  (Yes, THAT Jesse Helms). According to its website, the Helms School of Government develops “leaders who are guided by duty, honor, and morality.  It also claims to instill “a Christian sense of justice and civic duty in our students….”  Dr. Stephen Parke, the Associate Dean of the Helms School, lists his favorite Bible verse as Isaiah 1:17: “Learn to do right!  Seek justice, encourage the oppressed.  Defend the cause of the fatherless, plead the case of the widow.”  This is an interesting choice for a dean at a Christian school of government and politics at a university run by Jerry Falwell Jr.

It is also worth noting that legitimate advocates of a Two Kingdoms approach to church-state relations would also reject much of what Falwell has to say in this interview.

Again, here is Falwell:

It’s such a distortion of the teachings of Jesus to say that what he taught us to do personally — to love our neighbors as ourselves, help the poor — can somehow be imputed on a nation. Jesus never told Caesar how to run Rome. He went out of his way to say that’s the earthly kingdom, I’m about the heavenly kingdom and I’m here to teach you how to treat others, how to help others, but when it comes to serving your country, you render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s. It’s a distortion of the teaching of Christ to say Jesus taught love and forgiveness and therefore the United States as a nation should be loving and forgiving, and just hand over everything we have to every other part of the world. That’s not what Jesus taught. You almost have to believe that this is a theocracy to think that way, to think that public policy should be dictated by the teachings of Jesus.

Martin Luther also believed that government action should not be based on the Sermon on the Mount and other teachings of Jesus.  For example, Luther defended the right to private property.  As a result, he believed government should not be based on Jesus’s idea of abandoning all of our material possessions and giving them to the poor. (Although he would have certainly warned against materialism rooted in the accumulation of private property).

But Luther’s Two Kingdom belief, as I understand it, is more nuanced and complex than what Falwell Jr. makes it out to be.  (I am happy to be corrected here by Lutheran theologians). In fact, I don’t think Luther would have recognized Falwell Jr.’s political theology.

Ruth Graham links to Missouri-Synod Lutheran writer Lyman Stone’s First Things piece titled “Two Kingdom Theology in the Trump Era.”  Stone writes:

Is it the case that Lutheran theology favors brute political realism, mercilessness in state operations, perhaps even docility in the face of tyranny? Historically, the answer has often been “yes.” But it needn’t have been, if Luther’s Two Kingdoms doctrine had been understood correctly.

The Two Kingdoms Doctrine originates in Martin Luther’s 1518 tract, “Two Kinds of Righteousness,” though before that it has resonance with Augustine’s City of God, which had influenced Christian church-state relations in the West for a millennium. In the 1518 tract, Luther lays out an idea that is central to all Lutheran teaching: There are two kinds of righteousness, civil and spiritual. By civil righteousness, Luther meant that people, by the powers of reason with which they are endowed, can refrain from murdering one another, or stealing, or lying. But no amount of civil righteousness amounts to spiritual righteousness, that is, the right-acting that may earn salvation. Perfect civil righteousness does not undo the basically sinful nature of man; only spiritual righteousness does that, and spiritual righteousness is nothing else than faith in Christ. Without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation. With faith in Christ, no felonious indecency can forestall the saving power of grace.

Stone reminds us here that God has ordained the civil kingdom–the realm of government.  God rules in both kingdoms and he rules, according to Lutheran theologian Paul Althaus, in “goodness, mercy, and love.”  Althaus adds: “Through the political authorities, God protects his people from the violent acts of evil men.” Luther believed in a state where justice prevails as a glimpse–but only a glimpse–of the kingdom of God.

As Christians, we are called to different vocations in this civil kingdom  As Stone writes, “without faith in Christ, no amount of civil righteousness obtains salvation.”  But this does not mean that Christians are not called by God to be engaged citizens.  We must exercise citizenship as a vocational act.

Stone adds:

Does this mean that Luther’s Two Kingdoms should be viewed ignominiously today? I do not think so. Rather, Lutherans should reconsider this doctrine in light of Luther’s teaching on vocation.

In this light, several facts become clear. Citizens have a different vocation than subjects. Modern governments place a duty and a burden upon citizens, demanding that they participate in governance. No modern American has a ruler, in the sense that the Christians did to whom Paul wrote his letters. All the scriptural teachings about governments apply, but the reality of democratic and participatory governments means that a vocation-centered theology cannot view Christians as merely the subjects of the state: By having voice, Christians are participants in the rulership of their state. As such, when considering what sins they should confess, they must consider sins of rebellion against lawful sovereigns and sins of misgovernment, that is, failures to discharge the duties of self-governing citizens.

Beyond this, Lutherans must avoid the mistake of the Reformation leaders who failed to cry out against the sins of monarchs. We must exhort all “sword-bearers,” that is, all agents of the state and public servants, from schoolteachers to the president, to live up to the demands of their vocations. Our Lutheran forefathers failed in this task; all the more reason Lutherans today must not.

Conservatives who fear that President Trump may be more like the decadent Belshazzar, feasting while the kingdom falls, than like the liberating Cyrus must pray that Lutherans remember the Two Kingdoms Doctrine. How we discharge the duties of citizenship—whether by accepting the creeping authoritarianism of the last two decades, or by raising our voices on behalf of the laws and democratic norms of our country—is a question of moral conscience, suitable for confession, and demanding repentance if we err.

A similar Two Kingdoms argument comes from Glenn Tinder in The Political Meaning of Christianity: An Interpretation.  He writes:

Christianity, then, requires acceptance of society, and such acceptance cannot be a matter simply of bowing to bitter worldly necessity.  It is more appreciative than that.  Even if society is not community, it serves community in various and essential ways; and a responsible person will feel obligated to defend society when it is threatened…. (pp. 56-57).

Christians are traditionally, in their relations with governments, obedient yet disrespectful.  Thus, they violate the ethos of both secular radicals (disobedience grounded in disrespect) and of conservatives (obedience grounded in respect).  Eschewing absolute principles, they are unreliable allies of either left or right.  Their attitude, however, is anything but frivolous.  It goes down to the first principles of Christian faith.  Estranged from God, from human beings, and even from ourselves, and in our perversity continually reaffirming our estrangement, we would be overwhelmed by chaos if we did not ordinarily submit to the order contrived by political rulers.  On the other hand, we are, in the Christian vision, recipients of the mercy of God, and if we obeyed unconditionally, we would replace the exalted individual with exalted governments…As an eschatological being, man is always critical, normally acquiescent, and potentially rebellious. (p.210-211).

Falwell Jr’s view of government is dangerous.  It is a corruption of the Two Kingdoms view.  Such a corruption is what led German Lutherans to sit quietly as the Nazis took control of Germany in the 1930s.  Here is University of Virginia theologian Charles Marsh in Strange Glory: A Life of Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Acting in the name of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms–that God has established two kingdoms (zwei Reiche): the kingdom of the earth, which he rules through human government and law; and the kingdom of heaven, which he directs by grace and through the church–the German Christians determined to achieve an accommodation (however tortured) of the Fuhrer principle and Aryan paragraph under church law.  And this they would do in a spirit of obedience to God!  Under this accommodation, baptized Jews, being a difference race altogether, could no longer serve in the German Protestant Church, whose identity was now rooted in ethnicity, or racial sameness, rather than in the confession of Christ as Lord. (p.162).

In 1938, Freidrich Werner, the director of Germany’s Protestant consistory, was tasked with bringing Lutheran clergy into line with Hitler.  He required that all clergy swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler and the Third Reich.  Marsh writes:

Refusing the oath subjected one to dismissal and criminal detention.  To some degree, the underlying idea was consistent with the traditional Lutheran doctrine of two kingdoms: Christians must be obedient to the earthly authorities unto God.  But Werner went to an unprecedented extreme, turning a doctrine that had historically yielded a variety of views on church-state matters into an absolutist principle: make a “personal commitment to the Fuhrer under the solemn summons of God,” and forge an “intimate solidarity with the Third Reich” and with the saintly man who both “created that community and embodies it.”  “Submit to Hitler with a joyful heart, in gratitude, as pleasing to the Lord.

In the end, Christians–whether they embrace the Reformed, Catholic, or Lutheran tradition–are called to live out their vocations as citizens.  In this sense, they agree with my good friend Philip Vickers Fithian who believed, with the authors of Cato’s Letters, that “political jealousy” is a “laudable passion.

The Johnson Amendment is Good for the Church

Johnson Amendment

The Johnson Amendment is the news again.  As you may recall, the Christian Right has been trying to remove Lyndon Johnson’s 1954 addition to the tax code for a long time.  The amendment bars churches (and other non-profit entities) from endorsing political candidates.

Here is Jacob Lupfer‘s recent piece at Religion News Service:

But since we now have this debate every time Congress has to pass a tax bill, let’s at least be honest about what is really at stake here.

If, hypothetically, Congress ever does repeal the Johnson Amendment, a lot could go wrong, and probably would. Democrat-aligned groups would demand that bureaucrats censor sermons. Republican advocates would have to answer for why they cheered as churches devolved into Super PACs.

As Maggie Garrett, vice president for public policy at Americans United for the Separation of Church and State, recently told me, “Changing the law would allow endorsement activity to permeate throughout tax-exempt organizations, transforming them from charitable organizations to tax-exempt partisan campaign organizations.”

The question is, in short: How much more damaging and obnoxious do we want politicized religion to become in this country?

We already live in a world in which Trump’s most eager evangelical lap dog, Southern Baptist megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress, hosts the Fox News All-America Christmas Special from his church. This event gives us the obscene spectacle of Trump disciple and hack journalist Todd Starnes standing in the pulpit where Baptist legends like George W. Truett and W.A. Criswell once preached.

The Johnson Amendment works great, protecting us from our worst instincts in religion and politics, and saving us from ourselves. Well, most of us.

Read the entire piece here.

Here is what I wrote about The Johnson Amendment in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump:

Believe Me 3dAnother religious-liberty issue that concerns many of the court evangelicals is the clause in the IRS tax code commonly referred to as the Johnson Amendment.  The Johnson Amendment is a part of the code that forbids tax-exempt organizations such as churches from endorsing political candidates.  Since 1954, when the Johnson Amendment was added to the code, only one church has ever lost its tax-exempt status for violating it.  Trump first learned about the amendment during some of his early meetings with evangelicals in Trump Tower.  Since that time he has become fixated on it: he realized that the IRS would not allow evangelical pastors to endorse him or any other candidate without losing their tax-exempt status.  Trump promised his evangelical supporters that, if elected, he would bring an end to the Johnson Amendments.

For many evangelicals and their followers, Trump fulfilled that promise on May 4, 2017.  In an outdoor ceremony a the White House, with court evangelicals and other religious leaders by his side, Donald Trump issued an executive order on religious liberty.  Section 2 of the order included the statement: “In particular, the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective.”  The statement was a reference to the Johnson Amendment without explicitly naming it.  After he signed the order, Trump told the faith leaders present: “You’re now in a position to say what you want to say. . . no one should be censoring sermons or targeting pastors.”

Court evangelicals cheered the new order, but in reality it did absolutely nothing to change the Johnson Amendment.  The order was little more than a symbolic gesture meant to appease evangelicals and keep their support.  What may have been a public relations victory for Trump and the court evangelicals did not amount to anything because the president does not have the authority to change the tax code–that job belongs to Congress.  And when Congress did overhaul the tax code in December 2017, the Johnson Amendment was not removed.

But the attempts to repeal the Johnson Amendment exposed something deeper: a serious flaw in the way that many conservative evangelicals think about the relationship between church and state.  According to a 2012 poll, eighty-six percent of evangelical pastors believed that clergy should not endorse political candidates from the pulpit.  Those who do want to endorse candidates from the pulpit, and have turned the Johnson Amendment into a political issue, seem more concerned about freedom of speech than they are about the way this kind of political partisanship undermines their gospel witness. There is an old Baptist saying about religion and politics that goes something like this: “If you mix horse manure and ice cream, it doesn’t do much to the manure, but it sure does ruin the ice cream.”  When the government starts telling evangelical pastors what they can and cannot preach in terms of theology, biblical interpretation, or ethics (even sexual ethics), we have a problem; but the Johnson Amendment is not this kind of problem.  Evangelicals should be thankful for the Johnson Amendment: it is a useful reminder from an unlikely source about the spiritual dangers that arise when sanctuaries are used as campaign offices.

More on “Fairness for All”

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What is “Fairness for All”?  Get up to speed here.

Over at Religion News Service, Yonat Shimron covers a motion championed by the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities and the National Association of Evangelicals that is bound to bring more division to the evangelical community.  I was happy to contribute to Shimron’s reporting.

Here is a taste:

Last week, World Magazine reported that two respected evangelical institutions, the National Association of Evangelicals and the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, both quietly adopted a set of principles that call for comprehensive religious freedom protections combined with explicit support for LGBTQ protections in employment, education, housing and adoption, among others.

Neither group is backing down from the belief that marriage is between one man and one woman. But the two groups want to work toward federally recognized protections for sexual orientation and gender identity alongside strong religious exemptions.

Specifically, they plan to soon unveil a draft of a bill they are working on with input from legal scholars, theologians and LGBTQ advocates that they say accomplishes those goals. The evangelical groups hope several members of Congress will sponsor the bill, tentatively called “Fairness for All,” in the session that begins Jan. 3.

“Fairness for All says we have to do this together because there are interests on both sides that ought to be protected,” said Stanley Carlson-Thies, director of the Institutional Religious Freedom Alliance and a consultant in discussions about a possible bill.

Read the entire piece here.

A Trump Cult?

U.S. Republican presidential candidate Trump greets supporters after a campaign event in Bentonville Regional Airport near Bentonville

Writing at The New Republic, Alexander Hurst wonders if Trump supporters make-up a kind of cult.  He writes, “Millions of Americans are blindly devoted to their Dear Leader.  What will it take for them to snap out of it?”  Here is a taste:

Personality cults are a hallmark of populist-autocratic politics. The names of the various leaders are practically synonymous with their movements: Le Pen, Farage, Duterte, Orbán, Erdogan, Chávez, Bolsonaro, Putin. Or if we were to dip farther back into history: Castro, Franco, Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin. Like religious cult leaders, demagogues understand the importance of setting up an in-group/out-group dynamic as a means of establishing their followers’ identity as members of a besieged collective.

Trump, like the populist authoritarians before and around him, has also understood (or, at least, instinctually grasped) how indispensable his own individual persona is to his ultimate goal of grasping and maintaining power. Amidst his string of business failures, Trump’s singular talent has been that of any con man: the incredible ability to cultivate a public image. Of course, Trump did not build his cult of followers—his in-group—ex nihilo; in many ways, the stage was set for his entrance. America had already split into two political identities by the time he announced his campaign for president in 2015, not just in terms of the information we consume, but down to the brands we prefer and the stores we frequent. And so with particularly American bombast and a reality TV star’s penchant for manipulating the media, Trump tore pages from the us-against-them playbook of the European far right and presented them to a segment of the American public already primed to receive it with religious fervor.

In an interview with Pacific Standard, Janja Lalich, a sociologist who specializes in cults, identified four characteristics of a totalistic cult and applied them to Trumpism: an all-encompassing belief system, extreme devotion to the leader, reluctance to acknowledge criticism of the group or its leader, and a disdain for nonmembers. Eileen Barker, another sociologist of cults, has written that, together, cult leaders and followers create and maintain their movement by proclaiming shared beliefs and identifying themselves as a distinguishable unit; behaving in ways that reinforce the group as a social entity, like closing themselves off to conflicting information; and stoking division and fear of enemies, real or perceived.

Read the entire piece here.

Believe Me 3d

I don’t want to debate whether or not pro-Trumpers are part of a cult, but I am struck by the fact that Hurst does not mention conservative evangelicals in his analysis.  Granted, not all of the 81% of self-identified white evangelicals who voted for Trump wear MAGA hats and scream “lock her up “at Trump events.  But a lot of them do. (I am reminded of the time Trump came to Harrisburg, PA during the campaign and I saw some members of my local church standing in line waiting to get into the rally).

Maybe instead of trying to figure out how many white evangelicals actually voted for Trump we should be trying to figure out how many people are members of the “cult.”

Did George H.W. Bush Enable the Christian Right?

Bush and Falwell

Yes.

Check out Neil J. Young’s piece at The Washington Post:

Following Wednesday’s state funeral for George H.W. Bush at Washington National Cathedral, the former president’s casket will be flown to Houston where a memorial service will be held at St. Martin’s Episcopal Church the following day.

Unlike his son George W. Bush, the elder Bush, a lifelong Episcopalian, was less known for his religious faith. He was certainly not thought of as a champion of the religious right, the powerful political movement most associated with his predecessor, Ronald Reagan.

Yet it was Bush, the moderate establishment Republican whose family helped found Planned Parenthood, who secured the religious right’s permanent place in American politics. While historians largely credit Reagan’s presidency with helping religious conservatives move from the shadows of American public life into its spotlight, it was the Bush presidency, particularly its disappointments and defeat, that entrenched the religious right as the center of the Republican Party and guaranteed its ongoing influence.

From the moment he entered the 1980 Republican presidential primaries, Bush drew the ire of religious right leaders — so much so that people like Moral Majority founder Jerry Falwell objected to Reagan’s selection of Bush as his running mate. Conservative organizations tracked Bush closely throughout the primaries, scrutinizing his conservative credentials, reviewing his record and documenting his every misstep. Bush’s questionable history included having written the foreword to a 1973 book advocating the benefits of family planning in developing countries. As a congressman from 1967 to 1971, Bush’s enthusiastic support for federal funding for Planned Parenthood and other family planning groups was so well-known it had garnered him the nickname “Rubbers.”

Read the rest here.

Evangelical Gaslighting

Dallas First

This summer I visited twelve independent bookstores to speak about my book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump.  These were public talks sponsored by the stores.  I had no idea what kind of people would show-up.  I expected verbal sparring at nearly every stop. I girded my loins (to use a biblical phrase) and prepared each night to face Trump voters who I expected to respond to my book with angry dissent.  I tried to anticipate every pro-Trump talking point and prepared myself to answer to each one of them.

Things did not go as I expected.  I ran into a few rabid Trump supporters.  I also ran into many sober-minded, even thoughtful, Trump voters.  And, as you might expect at a book talk at an independent bookstore, I met a lot of folks who occupied a political space that is left of center.

But each night I also met people–sometimes many people–like Elizabeth Baker of Katy, Texas.  Here is what Baker had to say recently in a piece she wrote for the Huffington Post:

I don’t sleep through the night anymore. I suffer from near daily panic attacks and almost constant anxiety. The source of my joy, my security and my identity has vanished, leaving me with an angry grief that almost no one in my immediate circle understands. I have relationships that were once life-giving but have turned toxic. I feel manipulated, deceived and abused. And why?

The church that raised me is gaslighting me.

I am a 39-year-old, white, straight, suburban mom. And I am a Christian ― at least I think I still am. I grew up in a privileged bubble, in deep red Republican country, where identifying as a Christian didn’t set me apart from the majority of my peers. Being a Christian certainly wasn’t any risk to my life or reputation. I spent my childhood in Sunday school, church camp and youth group, learning Bible stories about heroes who battled a giant with a slingshot, survived a lions’ den due to unshakable faith, and led an entire group of people out of slavery and into a promised land.

The church also taught me the story of Jesus, the son of God, whom God sent to earth as a defenseless human infant. Jesus spent 33 completely sinless years on this planet, only to be brutally murdered as a sacrifice for me, because of me. I was born with my sinful nature and no matter how good I try to be, how many prayers I pray or Bible study gatherings I attend, I am ultimately a sinner ― and the wages of sin is death. According to the church, I deserve death, simply for existing.

But the church also claims there’s good news! Even though I deserve death, Jesus’ bloody crucifixion and subsequent bodily resurrection saves me from a fiery eternal hell ― all because I believe this supernatural story and earnestly accept the gift of his grace. And because of this sacrifice, I owe him a lifetime of gratitude, worship and a commitment to follow his commandments (even though, because of my human flesh, I will always ultimately fail him).

Night after night men and women like Baker waited in line for me to sign their books and tell me their stories.  One young man thanked me for writing the book and then said that he felt more at home spiritually in the bookstore that night than he usually does at his own evangelical church.  His eyes were filled with tears as he told me about the like-minded people he met in the audience and how freeing it was to talk to them.  It was clear that many of these folks had a lot to get off their chests about evangelicalism and they saw me as a sympathetic ear.  Sometimes I tried to offer encouragement, other times I joined them in their lament, sometimes I prayed with them, but most of the time I just listened.  (And if you know me, listening is not always one of my strong suits.  I’m working on it, though!).

I did not expect this.

As I read Baker’s piece, I thought again about all the people I met this summer.  Here is another taste:

It simply does not matter to the evangelical church that Trump is racist and that his dehumanizing rhetoric is emboldening radicals and costing Americans their lives. Americans are dying in mass shootings at the hands of white supremacists, while the church is celebrating the nation’s return to traditional values. For Christians who reject the MAGA mindset, this is absolute crazy making.

No wonder I live with crippling anxiety and spiritual trauma. The church that warned me against moral relativism now calls me a heretic when I apply the very principles they taught me to real situations, with real stakes for real people. I don’t know where to turn or whom to trust. Is any of it true? Have I wasted my life on a religion that hurts more than it helps?

I stopped attending church regularly almost two years ago, but I am more invested in my spiritual life than ever before. Although I’ve lost the majority of my local Christian community, save for a few precious friends, I still cling to the true teachings and example of Jesus to inform my politics and moral code. I now understand that Scripture pays more attention to serving the needs of the oppressed than to regulating their lifestyle. Sin is not as much about my behavior as it is about my inability to love people well.

Meanwhile, I’ve diversified my bookshelf, podcast subscriptions and Twitter feed to include voices speaking truth to power from the perspective of marginalized people ― the same voices that the Trump administration continually tries to silence. I’ve joined online communities of people also working through spiritual trauma and gaslighting by the evangelical church. This fall, I attended the Evolving Faith conference, a gathering of more than 1,500 people in different stages of the deconstructing of their faith. As I’ve worked through my grief and anger, I’ve discovered I am not as isolated as I once believed. My hope is to someday find a local church again, one that is progressive, open and affirming, but I am not actively searching.

I wish the evangelical church would wake up and realize how many of us there are out there feeling manipulated and abused. This community of wanderers is dealing with grief both privately and collectively. Together we weep, we rage and we try to rebuild what’s left of our shattered spiritual lives. Healing is slow and it’s painful. I’m working hard to separate the true, worthy parts of Christianity from the bullshit. I do hope to return to church someday, but I will never again be gaslighted by an institution that sells out Jesus for political power.

Read Baker’s entire piece here.  There are a lot of folks out there who will recognize her spiritual struggles because they are also their struggles.  Perhaps Trump really is changing the course of American Christianity

An Evangelical-Voters Typology for the Age of Trump

Trump court evangelicals

Most of the people in this picture–the court evangelicals– would probably fall into categories 1-2 below.

I just discovered religion journalist Terry Mattingly’s “evangelical-voters typology.” (I am assuming he means “white” evangelicals).  He lays out six types of white evangelical approaches to Donald Trump.  If you are a white evangelical, which category best fits your relationship to the POTUS?

(1) Many evangelicals supported Trump from the get-go. For them, Trump is great and everything is going GREAT.

(2) Other evangelicals may have supported Trump early on, but they have always seen him as a flawed leader — but the best available. They see him as complicated and evolving and are willing to keep their criticisms PRIVATE.

(3) There are evangelicals who moved into Trump’s tent when it became obvious he would win the GOP nomination. They think he is flawed, but they trust him to – at least – protect their interests, primarily on First Amendment issues.

(4) Then there are the lesser-of-two-evils Trump evangelicals who went his way in the general election, because they could not back Hillary Clinton under any circumstances. They believe Trump’s team has done some good, mixed with quite a bit of bad, especially on race and immigration. They think religious conservatives must be willing to criticize Trump — in public.

(5) There are evangelicals who never backed Trump and they never will. Many voted for third-party candidates. They welcome seeing what will happen when Trump team people are put under oath and asked hard questions. … However, they are willing to admit that Trump has done some good, even if in their heart of hearts they’d rather be working with President Mike Pence.

(6) Folks on the evangelical left simply say, “No Trump, ever.” Anything he touches is bad and must be rejected. Most voted for Clinton and may have yearned for Bernie Sanders.

I am probably in group 6, although I don’t define myself as part of the “evangelical left.”  (Although I am not sure I really have any other place to go right now).

If 81% of white evangelicals voters pulled a lever for Trump, they would all find themselves in the first four categories.  I would like to see a breakdown of the 81% by these six categories.

Why You Should Hit the Golf Links With a Trump Evangelical

Trump golf

Daniel J. Conny’s November 26, 2018 letter to The Buffalo News sums it up pretty well:

Evangelical Christians (and other God-fearing folk) have taken to looking the other way when it comes to President Trump’s ethical and moral shortcomings. The president’s pattern of behavior is forgiven because he is unconventional but delivers on key issues.

Pastor Robert Jeffress observed that, “Evangelicals knew they weren’t voting for an altar boy when they voted for Donald Trump.”

Rather than attempt to deny or defend Stormy Daniels’ allegation that she had an affair with Trump, Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, simply said: “We kind of gave him – ‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.’”

In amateur golf, a mulligan is an extra stroke allowed after a poor shot. The President has been granted multiple mulligans in the case of what many religious folks have traditionally held to be guiding life principles. Some examples:

• Fidelity in marriage is to be honored. At best, Trump has a checkered marriage history. Ignore “for better or worse.”

• Honesty is a virtue. 6,000+ lies and counting.

• Do not incite resentment for individuals of another race or religion. Charlottesville. Muslim ban. “Invading” caravan. Ignore “we are all God’s children.”

• Honor the family. Trump separated children from their parents – some never to be rejoined.

While I disagree that ends justify means, evangelicals are more welcome to join my foursome the next time I tee it up. Their generosity with mulligans would help my score.

Daniel J. Conny

Orchard Park

A Suggestion for that Black Friday (or Cyber Monday) Purchase

Believe Me 3dYou just returned from Thanksgiving dinner with your family.  Members of your family are Trump supporters and evangelical Christians.  Political debates took place over turkey, stuffing, and pumpkin pie.  You held firm to your anti-Trump convictions, but you struggled to persuade many of your pro-Trump family members.

You are already thinking about the upcoming December holidays.  How will you be able to convince your evangelical family members (civilly, of course) that hitching their wagons to Trump is a bad idea?

Perhaps this resource might help.  You have about a month to read it before Christmas.  🙂 (It also makes a great Christmas gift!).