This past weekend, I read with great interest an in-depth look at the First Baptist Church in Luverne, Alabama, published by The Washington Post. The goal of the piece seemed clear. A deep examination of this one church could establish it as a microcosm for evangelical support of Trump. Trump enjoys no greater support than among white evangelical Christians—at 77%. In substance, however, the article surprised little. There was everything anyone following this phenomenon would expect to see: a concern for political issues like Supreme Court judges or abortion, a nationalistic slant to Scripture, and another pastor avoiding the clear moral fault line of support for a politician who flagrantly violates the Ten Commandments. When I think about that church and my church, in light of this article and what it brings to the surface, three points come to mind.
First, it is not that evangelicals do not see the hypocrisy, it is that they do not care about it. In the immediate aftermath of the 2016 election, I believed the evangelicals did not realize what it looked like to support someone with the moral character of Donald Trump. What I realize now is that evangelicals know that Trump is not a man of upstanding character. They may even realize that they questioned the previous President’s moral character despite the fact that there was no outward signs that he was anything other than a brother in Christ. It seems the difference is that Trump will help white evangelicals accomplish their political goals, and so they are willing to trade their discomfort and the church’s moral standing for presidential power and influence. Moreover, the article makes clear that some members of the church believe this to be a matter of Christian survival. This is understandable. For almost fifty years, several different iterations of the Religious Right has stoked the fallacy that Christians are under attack in this country. For almost fifty years, someone taught them that rights are a fully finite object such that social gains made by people of color and the LGBT community were seen as threats to their spiritual existence. This would make sense to me. If I thought my choice was between hypocrisy and destruction, I’d probably choose hypocrisy, too.
Second, the article reminded me how differently white evangelicals and African-American Christians see Trump, and how religion does nothing to help cross that divide. There are very few things I am more sure of than my belief that Donald Trump is a racist.1 At the same time, I am unwilling to paint with a broad brush and say every white person who voted for Trump is a racist. I do not believe that to be true. I do think, however, that splitting the hair of racists vs. nonracist Trump supporters is a distinction without a difference. Even if someone’s support of Trump was not motivated by racial animus, that person still ignored clear racial animus in deciding to support Trump. The end as such is the same—every Trump supporter voted for an unabashed racist, and each voter either knew that or did not care about that enough to make it change his/her vote. So imagine what it must be like as a Black Christian to hear your white brother or sister in Christ describe your struggle for rights as a dangerous time for them orr to look around your multicultural church and realize that many of the people who smile and say “Happy Sabbath” to you voted to make your life more difficult in ways that deny your very humanity.
Finally, reading this article made me truly understand what Jesus meant when he said that the church leaders of his day strained gnats and swallowed camels.2 In essence, the accusation Jesus leveled against the scribes and Pharisees was that their hypocrisy blinded them to the fact that their priorities were out of order. I see the same thing happening in American Christianity now, including the Adventist Church. The church exists as a function of the Great Commission.3 Our primary reason for being is as a vehicle to go, teach, and baptize. Our hypocrisy with regard to Trump’s character is problematic for our witness. We cannot say that character and following the rules is important and then support a political leader who does not live up to that standard.4 When people see Christians supporting Trump despite his racism, misogyny, and narcissism, it sends the wrong message about who we are, and it sends the wrong message about who Jesus is.
Notes & References:
1. I will admit that it is at least possible that Trump just does a lot of racist things without actually being a conscious racist. More than one person has argued to me that he takes advantage of racial animus without being a racist himself. The former is a distinction without a difference, and the latter would make Trump a sociopath.
2. Matthew 23:23-24.
3. Matthew 28:18-20.
4. I should say here that part of the problem is the supporting of any candidate in the first place. I believe if we were more committed to the separation of church and state, we would refrain from political endorsements in the first place.
Jason Hines is a former attorney with a doctorate in Religion, Politics, and Society from the J.M. Dawson Institute of Church-State Studies at Baylor University. He is also an assistant professor at Adventist University of Health Sciences. He blogs about religious liberty and other issues at www.TheHinesight.Blogspot.com.
Previous Spectrum columns by Jason Hines can be found at: http://spectrummagazine.org/authors/jason-hines
Image Credit: Rich Hannon / Spectrum Magazine
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