In spite of all of the bad news – morally, economically, and politically – which has come out about Donald Trump from the moment he announced his intention to run for the presidency, nothing has been bad enough for his “base,” – which includes a wide swath of white evangelicals- to desert him.
If you have been one who has understood the Christian Right as the torchbearers for morality, family values, and fundamentalist religious practices, you might be confused. How is it that a group of people who set themselves up as paragons of virtue has seemingly renounced their support of their values in favor of a man who seems to have none of what they said they stood for?
The Rev. Leslie Wilson, director of the African American Ministers’ Leadership Council (AAMLC) and the African American Ministers in Action (AAMIA), divisions of People for the American Way, reminds people that the evangelicals use the Bible -specifically Isaiah 45 – as their proof that Mr. Trump has been sent to the office of president by God.
In that chapter, evangelicals remind Christians that God sent Cyrus to take control of Jerusalem. Cyrus was an enemy of Jerusalem and of the Israelites, and yet God used Cyrus to rein the Israelites in. Verse 13 of that chapter has God saying, “I have aroused Cyrus in righteousness, and I will make all his paths straight; he shall build my city and set my exiles free, not for price or reward…” Evangelicals remind us that biblical commentary says that the military victories of Cyrus will include the release of exiled Israelites and the restoration of Jerusalem. The bonus of all of this is that heathen, pagan nations will acknowledge that God is the one true God.
Verse 14 may even serve as further Biblical support of the often-recognized racism of white evangelicals, as it reads, “…the wealth of Egypt and the merchandise of Ethiopia, and the Sabeans, tall of stature, shall come over to you and be yours, they shall follow you, they shall come over in chains and bow down to you…”
In other words, evangelicals believe that Mr. Trump is the fulfillment of Biblical prophecy and that he is being used by God to bring about God’s purposes. Dr. Anthea Butler, an associate professor of Religious Studies and Africana Studies at the University of Pennsylvania, writes that “white evangelical support of Mr. Trump is still at 73 percent, and more than 80 percent…voted for him in 2016.” (www.nbcnews.com/think/opinion/white-evangelicals-love-trump-aren-t-confused-about-why-no-ncna1046826.)
The origin of the white evangelical base, Dr. Butler reminds us, lies in the schisms that happened in many areas when the rightness of slavery was being debated in the 1850s. There were schisms among the Baptists, Methodists, and Presbyterians (see Forrest G. Wood, The Arrogance of Faith) who, says Butler, “defended slavery through their readings of scripture.” Evangelicals, many of whom were wealthy slave owners, were often members of the Ku Klux Klan and, continues Butler, “approved of and/or participated in lynching.” The crosses burned by the KKK, she says, were symbols of white Christian supremacy.”
This group of people call on the name of Jesus and claim to be Christian, but the Jesus they call upon is not the same one upon whom black and brown people call. Mr. Trump reflects their values and beliefs; he appeals to their sense of victimhood, a by-product of white supremacy: they believe they were made superior by God because of their color and they believe the “invasion” of this country by people of color has caused them undue and unfair harm. They are afraid of losing their privilege as white people.
The religious group which seemed so devoted to family values is running scared. Families are important as long as they are white; these people who say they love God are in favor of family separations, they support the ban of immigrants of color from this country, and though they profess to love Jesus, they seem perfectly fine with ignoring Jesus’ commands for us to love our neighbors as ourselves. People of color and people from other, non-white countries, it seems, are not their neighbor and therefore, they have no obligation or responsibility to treat them as worthy children of God.
Mr. Trump, even in this season of turmoil caused by the revelations of his actions which have spurred an impeachment probe, is still riding high among white evangelicals. They may see him as a modern-day Cyrus and they are OK with that. He was sent, they believe, to save the “true” believers – which they believe they are.
Even as white evangelicals are clear about why they love and support the president, the progressive Christians need to be just as clear about why it is problematic to not love and support him, and say it out loud and frequently. Being silent and thinking that this blanket support will erode is unrealistic. People in power will do all they can to stay in power, and what we are seeing now is that battle in real-time.