Evangelicals need to follow Christianity’s morals, not Trump’s
The Washington Post, by Michael Gerson, Dec. 23, 2019
Though it won’t be remembered as a classic Christmas movie such as “Elf” or “Die Hard,” “Bombshell” richly deserves your time this holiday season. It tells the sordid story of how powerful men at Fox News tried to gain sexual favors from some young women in exchange for professional advancement. At the drama’s center is the lardaceous, lecherous, loathsome Roger Ailes, who once ruled the conservative world from behind a bodyguard of enablers, before Gretchen Carlson, Megyn Kelly and other courageous women exposed his predation.
My first reaction to the movie was to suppress a gag reflex at the thought of Ailes with his zipper down (which is, mercifully, implied, not shown). I was also struck by the fact that the single most influential conservative institution of the past few decades was run by men who combined social Darwinism and the Playboy philosophy, resulting in the survival of the scummiest. Millions of conservatives, including religious and family-values conservatives, absorbed their view of the world from a source characterized by misogyny, cruelty, immorality and contempt for the powerless.
It is in this context that the recent commentary by Mark Galli in Christianity Today calling for President Trump’s removal from office should be read. Here, in contrast to Fox News, is an institution trying to use a specifically Christian lens to examine the president’s conduct in office. Galli argues that cheating to influence a presidential election is not merely a threat to the Constitution but also “profoundly immoral.” Trump’s lies and slanders on Twitter are “a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.” The corruption and cruelty of the president and those around him have “rendered this administration morally unable to lead.”
Trump’s swift, disproportionate, mendacious response to the editorial — falsely accusing Christianity Today of a leftist slant and promising he would never again read a magazine he has likely never read before — indicates how crucial to his political survival he believes lockstep evangelical Christian support to be. The president’s most visible evangelical Christian supporters — doing their best to mimic Trump’s tone and approach — brayed in agreement. And some conservative writers were highly critical of the editorial. My colleague Hugh Hewitt pronounced himself “bewildered” that anyone would “seek an absolutist political opinion from a website about evangelical faith.” “Whether Trump is good or bad for the republic isn’t a theological question,” said Hewitt. “It is a political one.”
Evangelical institutions such as Christianity Today, in other words, should be content to stay in their lane. They should defer to the political experts. Like Fox News. Like conservative talk radio. Like conspiratorial Internet sites. Wouldn’t it be easier for all involved if evangelical Christians simply accepted the proposition that a political coalition with ethnonationalists, led by a malicious, immoral buffoon, is good for the cause of justice and for the cause of Christ? Isn’t it obvious that the appointment of conservative judges should satisfy all the other moral convictions of Christian citizens?
This, after all, isn’t a theological matter. It isn’t a theological matter that evangelical Christians — influenced by conservative media and white identity politics — have become the religious group most hostile to refugee resettlement and most supportive of a policy of family separation at the border. It isn’t a theological matter that loyalty to Trump is making an older generation of evangelical Christians look like crude hypocrites in the eyes of their own children, who are fleeing the tradition in droves.
From the perspective of Trump partisans, a less carnal version of the Ailes arrangement still applies. Evangelical Christians will be given rhetorical deference, White House access and judges and regulations of their liking. All they need to do is set aside their criticisms of cruelty, deception, misogyny, racism and contempt for the vulnerable. All they need to do is forget decency and moral consistency.
From the standpoint of committed evangelical Christians, the calculus should be more complex. Christians are called to be representatives of God’s kingdom in the life of this world. Betraying that role not only hurts the reputation of evangelicalism; it does a nasty disservice to the reputation of the Gospel. It is time, and past time, for Christian believers to listen to Christian sources on Christian social ethics, including the small, clear voice of Christianity Today.