The Religious Right Will Rise and Fall with Donald Trump

Commentary
By Jim Wallis 10-19-2017
Image via Reuters/Yuri Gripas.

President Donald Trump is the logical hero for the "religious right," judging by how he was welcomed to their Values Voter Summit last weekend. These Christians rallied around the billionaire playboy, political bully, ethno-nationalist, and purveyor of racial bigotry. As a result, he has become the moral definition of their movement.

The religious right will now rise and fall with Donald Trump.

Trump is the natural conclusion to how the religious right movement began, and what it has become. When it comes to this movement, the operative word is clearly not “religious” (or even “Christian”), but “right.” (And for the vast majority of “values voters” who are white Christians, the operative word is not “Christian” but “white.”)

The longest applause for President Trump from the right-wing white evangelicals gathered in Washington D.C. last Friday was when he brought up the flag, not the cross. Those standing and shouting “USA! USA!” were making a clear statement against black athletes who have been protesting racial injustice and police brutality during the national anthem.

Steve Bannon showed up, too, and his revivalist message of economic and cultural nationalism also wowed the crowd, with an altar call to make “war” on the Republican establishment, because “you are the transmission of the best values of the Judeo-Christian West.”

Bannon’s far-right media platform makes clear what the racial implications of this cultural nationalism are. Of course, the fact that Jewish and Christian values actually abhor the exclusion of other human beings, and hold every society accountable for how we treat the poorest and most vulnerable, was not mentioned. Muslims, of course, were also not mentioned, except for accusations of false religions and implied terrorist threats to America.

Let’s be clear. “America First” is not just a political statement — it is a theologically heretical statement. The body of Christ is the most international and racially diverse community on the planet, in keeping with the teachings of Jesus' gospel. But that got passed over for another gospel — that of white American ethnocentrism, a worldview hateful of “others” including immigrants, refugees, Muslims, and black athletes who take a knee. Curiously, Jesus didn’t come up very often at the Values Voter Summit, except tangentially, in Trump’s pledge that everyone will once again say “Merry Christmas” at our shopping centers—where we revere the one born in a manger by lining up for holiday sales.

“You look in Matthew, and go through the Beatitudes. Every single Beatitude. You go through Jesus' teaching, what he says he wants people to be. Donald Trump is the antithesis of just about every single thing that Jesus Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount.”

That was Joe Scarborough, a conservative Republican, on his "Morning Joe" show the Tuesday after the president’s weekend appearance at the Values Voter Summit.

Mike Gerson, former speech writer and policy advisor to President George W. Bush, wrote a Washington Post column on the same subject:

“When Christians ally their faith with bias and exclusion, they are influencing how the public sees Christianity itself. They are associating the teachings of Jesus Christ — a globalist when it came to the Great Commission — with ethnonationalist ideology…the faithful give standing ovations to the purveyors of division and prejudice. When anything takes priority over the faith, there is a good strong word for it: idolatry. And the word is unavoidable as religious conservatives carry their golden calf into Bannon’s battles.”

Why did 81 percent of white evangelicals support Donald Trump? The polling shows it was not mostly about abortion, gay marriage, and religious liberty, as some of their leaders suggest. Especially given the Democrats’ extremism on issues like abortion, some of that would be understandable. But those “moral issues” were not the main motivators for the white evangelical vote. Instead, it was guns, taxes, how much they would make from the economy, anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiment, and anti-terrorist and anti-Muslim visions of national security.

Fox News seems to have set the white evangelical political agenda, more so than the Bible all evangelicals claim to believe.

And for that political agenda, the Values Voter Summit decisively showed how the religious right has set aside its own alleged moral values for a political leader who clearly has none at all. President Trump shows us every day that he is devoid of the most basic values of humanity, empathy, respect for others, and basic human decency. The president’s utter lack of empathetic capacity was again painfully revealed this week in the way he politicized the death of fallen soldiers, and turned deep family grief into issues all about himself.

He is always all about himself.

Donald Trump is the consummate worshipper of money, sex, and power — to which Christian history has always tried to provide an alternative. Trump literally embodies what Christian ethics and history have been against — and all for a political deal with the religious right.

A widely-respected white evangelical leader recently expressed to me his personal agony over how “white evangelicalism has destroyed the ‘evangel’ of Jesus — the bringing of ‘good news’ to the poor.” Another leader of a top national evangelical organization told me in a personal conversation that evangelical support of Trump “will destroy our integrity for at least a generation.”

The issue really isn’t just politics. It goes much deeper than that. Political differences and dialogue and debate is healthy in the Christian community. We are much better as practical independents, who evaluate candidates, parties, and platforms by our Christian values — true “values voters.” But the ideological captivity of white evangelicals, and their conformity to white identity politics, raises the deeper issue of discipleship. White American evangelicals have become “conformed to the world,” as Romans 12 warns us not to do. Rather, we must become “transformed by the renewal of our minds” — what the apostle describes as our “acceptable worship.”

Faithful discipleship and acceptable worship are now what are most threatened by the false gospel of the religious right and the state-church they are creating for Donald Trump, who is indeed the “anti-thesis” of everything Jesus Christ stands for and calls us to be.

Jim Wallis is president of Sojourners. His book, America's Original Sin: Racism, White Privilege, and the Bridge to a New America, is available now. Follow Jim on Twitter @JimWallis.

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