Donald Trump’s emergence as the Bible-thumping leader of America’s evangelical movement is almost too good to be true.
— Glenn Greenwald (@ggreenwald) August 31, 2015
Donald Trump’s obviously phony pandering to evangelical Christians, and his strong showing among them in polls, continue a decades-long tradition of Republican exploitation of conservative Christians.
Journalism has not often done a good job of covering the intersection of religion and politics, partly because the he-said-she-said story form and the tradition of “objective” journalism hinder journalists from calling bullshit on the hypocrisy and exploitation that many journalists see. And religious extremists wouldn’t care what journalists say anyway.
But here are some facts and observations from my decades of covering religion and politics as an editor and reporter, as well as many years when I had different journalistic duties, but still have watched in fascination as a voter:
Today’s conservative evangelical political force didn’t really emerge until the 1980 election. But that was hardly the start of religion’s influence in politics.
Abolitionists of the 19th Century were fierce political activists motivated largely by religion (but still overlooking or rejecting Bible passages that accepted and justified slavery; both noble and evil religious/political movements have relied on selective quotation and interpretation of Scripture).
Three-time Democratic presidential nominee William Jennings Bryan mixed religion and politics freely. He may be best known for prosecuting the Scopes “monkey trial” shortly before his death (the basis for the great movie “Inherit the Wind“).
Prohibition was a religion-driven movement that resulted in a constitutional amendment, which was later repealed. John F. Kennedy, our only Catholic president, had to reassure Protestant voters that he wouldn’t be taking instructions from the Vatican. Religion was a huge force in the civil rights movement as well as in anti-war, nuclear disarmament and other liberal political movements. Jimmy Carter talked openly about his faith during his 1976 campaign, though he didn’t campaign on it.
The Gipper, a Presbyterian, was much different from Donald Trump in personality. Where Trump is bombastic, Reagan was genial. But they were similarly bizarre choices for evangelical voters to support.
In the 1980 election, an emerging religious right movement coalesced behind Reagan, touting family values and supposedly Christian values in politics. Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, formed in 1979, was the first large group leading the movement.
Reagan was an odd icon for a Christian movement stressing family values. He was our first president who had been divorced. Jesus condemned divorce strongly, though he never addressed some issues that have been central to the Christian right, such as abortion and homosexuality. Reagan’s second wife and future first lady, Nancy Davis Reagan, was two months pregnant when they married. Reagan didn’t have close relationships with any of his children. He didn’t go to church. Yet he was the choice of the emerging political evangelical right wing over Carter, a Southern Baptist who taught Sunday school and clearly lived his faith throughout his life.
Without question, the religious right’s embrace of Reagan was based on the selection of political issues it cared about, not about the life or public faith of the candidate. That has always been the case.
Carter wasn’t our most effective president by any stretch, but his greatest achievement, the Camp David peace agreement between Egypt and Israel, lived out Jesus’ “blessed are the peacemakers” exhortation.
Despite the religious right’s embrace of Reagan, Carter lost primarily over two issues unrelated to religion, an economic mess and Iran’s seizure of American hostages for more than a year (Carter finally got them released the day of Reagan’s inauguration).
George H.W. Bush
The elder Bush, an Episcopalian, was a bit more publicly religious than Reagan, but essentially promised a continuation of the Reagan presidency. His primary challenge by televangelist Pat Robertson was mostly a sideshow, the extreme religious right flexing its muscle, but not having much of it. And Robertson’s list of favored issues came from his own political agenda, not from Jesus’ actual teachings.
Clinton, another Southern Baptist, probably quoted the Bible more often than Bush. But he also was as public a sinner as we’ve had in the White House. The religious right piously condemned his sexual sins while forgiving similar sins by politicians within its midst.
Jesus’ political agenda
I need to pause in my recitation of religious politics regarding recent presidents to discuss some issues on which Jesus’ guidance was pretty clear.
I’m not about to tell people how to apply their faith to their politics, and people of the same faith can apply it sincerely to reach different conclusions. Jesus certainly didn’t address every issue in the political arena today, and he addressed them in a different context than politicians face today.
For instance, Jesus never addressed abortion or homosexuality in any of the Gospels. Your conclusion about what your faith teaches in those areas, whichever direction you go on the issues, must come from other parts of the Scriptures or from contemporary guidance offered by leaders of your faith.
But if you claim to be a follower of Jesus, he gave clear guidance on some issues in politics today:
Capital punishment. Jesus stopped an execution that would have been legal under the law of the day (found elsewhere in the Scriptures). He set a new standard for application of capital punishment: “Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” For extra measure, his own execution provided an illustration of capital punishment being used against an innocent defendant. If you claim that Christian faith guides your politics, and you favor allowing sinners to execute criminals, I feel comfortable ignoring your claims as casually as you ignore Jesus’ teaching on this issue that remains politically relevant today.
Taxes. Some hypocrites of his day tried to trick Jesus into saying his followers shouldn’t pay taxes to the Roman Empire, which was certainly as evil as anyone’s view of the U.S. government, whether you think our government today is too liberal or too conservative. Jesus asked whose face was on the coin. “Caesar,” was the answer, and Jesus said, “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s.” If lower taxes are a core political value, that’s your own secular priority, not at all consistent with Jesus’ dismissal of taxes as an unimportant issue.
George W. Bush
I covered religion for the Des Moines Register from 1998 to 2000 and wrote about the role of religion in the 2000 Iowa caucus campaign.
I had a second-row seat for a Republican debate in which a moderator asked George W. Bush and other candidates what political philosopher had most influenced them. The first couple candidates answered by naming actual politicians or philosophers. Bush answered Jesus. You’d be hard-pressed to explain how Jesus was a political philosopher at all. But you simply couldn’t see how he had influenced Bush at all on capital punishment or taxes. Bush aggressively heaved the first stone as governor of Texas, presiding over 152 executions, and his solution to pretty much every economic problem was cutting taxes. And, when he was president, Jesus’ command to “love your enemies” didn’t even play a factor in Bush’s rush to war in Iraq.
I think Bush, a Methodist, has a deeper and more personal faith than his father. But you can’t argue that the younger Bush’s faith influenced his policies. If it applied faith to politics at all, he was extremely selective and ignored the Scriptures many times.
Evangelical critics didn’t quite know what to do with Obama. First they worried that he was too much influenced by his Christian pastor, Jeremiah Wright, pastor of Trinity United Church of Christ in Chicago. Others insist that Obama is Muslim, ignoring both all factual evidence and our First Amendment freedom of religion (the accusation is made as though it were some sort of crime). Some radical evangelicals just can’t wrap their heads around a faithful church-going Christian who disagrees with them on so many issues.
And that’s not even addressing the racism that many American Christians have practiced, tolerated or made excuses for throughout our nation’s history.
Another area where Jesus’ position on a current issue was clear is immigration.
Christ, whose parents fled their homeland after his birth, addressed immigration in the context of Judgment Day. In his parable, people who fed the poor, clothed the naked, visited prisoners and tended the sick were welcomed to heaven. Also on that laundry list of good deeds: “I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” We often hear the positive first part of that Bible passage, which rewards good deeds. But then Jesus addressed those who failed:
‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
It’s right there in Jesus’ words: If you don’t welcome strangers (that’s another word for immigrants), you’re going to hell. You simply can’t use your Christian faith as an excuse to support a candidate whose core issue is deporting immigrants and walling them out. You’re welcome to choose that position because you think it’s best for our country. But admit that your position is based in politics (or fear or bigotry), and don’t claim that Jesus influences your politics.
Honest people can disagree politically about how to deal with people who have not immigrated legally. And you can disagree about whether it is possible, affordable or wise to round up and deport immigrants, whether immigrants help or hurt our economy, whether it’s practical to build a Berlin-style wall along one of our borders. (Scott Walker gets points for consistency, if not practicality, by suggesting we need a similar wall along the Canadian border.)
Maybe Scott Walker just realized Ted Cruz is from Canada.
— Gary Pearson (@captainpearson) August 31, 2015
We can disagree over whether Trump’s bluntness is refreshing candor or bombastic demagoguery.
But in a Republican field of candidates who proclaim their Christian values to varying degrees and in varying ways, not a single one takes Jesus’ position of welcoming immigrants. We can say, as a matter of fact, not opinion, that Jesus is not influencing these candidates one whit, at least not on this issue about which the Christian savior spoke clearly and passionately.
Trump, like Reagan a sort-of Presbyterian, has made hostility toward immigrants the centerpiece of his campaign, so, whenever an aide chooses a favorite Bible verse for him to cite, you can be sure that it won’t be the one about welcoming strangers. Or about Jesus’ instruction to the rich man to give away all that he had to the poor. Or about lust. Or about the camel going through the eye of a needle. Or, well, it’s hard to imagine a Bible verse that would fit with Trump or his campaign at all. Except for the hilarious fake verses in the #TrumpBible:
“She touches the fringe of my garment, but I’m like, I don’t do miracles for women with blood coming out of their wherever.” #TrumpBible
— Carly Robinson (@carlyrobinson92) August 29, 2015
Jesus said, “It is finished.” With that, he bowed his head and gave up his spirit. Because he’s a loser. #TrumpBible
— Mimi Johnson (@mimijohnson) August 29, 2015
To him who has much money, much much more will be given. But to him who has none, even what he has will be taken away. #TrumpBible
— Sam Allberry ن (@SamAllberry) August 29, 2015
God said to Abraham, “gimme your first-born son.” I woulda negotiated him down to second-born. #TrumpBible
— Tom Buttry (@tsbuttry) August 29, 2015
Let’s be clear about one thing: Though polls show Trump leading among evangelicals, most evangelicals don’t favor him. Any religious group — evangelicals, Catholics, any Protestant denomination, black Pentecostals, Jews, Muslims, atheists — doesn’t vote in unison. And the generalizations I have made here certainly don’t apply universally to all evangelical Republicans, Trump supporters or not, or any other group I’ve mentioned. But as generalizations, they’re accurate.
The fact is, we all vote our political priorities, whether we blame religion for our choices or not.
Personal note: I seldom write about politics here, but I was a religion reporter and columnist for two years, so writing about religion and politics has been a part of my journalism career. I decided this post fit in this blog, which is mostly about journalism. In 2004, I explained evangelicals and politics in a piece for Poynter, making similar points to some I make today.
Correction: I removed an inaccurate reference from the original post, about 9/11 terrorists entering the nation at the Canadian border.
Another good post on this topic:
The New Republic: Why Is Donald Trump Winning Over Evangelical Voters?