The Republican political strategist and media consultant Rick Wilson coined the phrase: “Everything Donald Trump touches, dies.” Considering his six bankruptcies, his failed attempt to sell steak, his bankrupt casino, his marriages, his joke of a university and the steady stream of employees who have left the White House with their careers in ruins, the description seems appropriate.
So – in hindsight – when a man with the touch of death embraced American Evangelicals, perhaps they should have been a bit more cautious. Instead, they embraced him, too – and it hasn’t gone particularly well for either of them.
There was a time when evangelical Americans took the faith and character of their presidents very seriously – or at least appeared to. In 1976, nearly half of all American evangelicals supported Jimmy Carter – whose progressive evangelical positions concerning the poor, human rights and peace – were welcomed by his fellow Christians. Just four years later, voters turned their back on a Southern Baptist Church elder – largely on the issues of abortion and increasing the size of America’s military – and opted to support Ronald Reagan.
Since then, Democrat presidents have had a hard time convincing evangelical voters to support them, while Republican candidates have had to do very little to please them. Helped by Fox News, President Obama – a dedicated family man, who regularly went to church and was a caring father – was vilified for everything from wearing a tan suit to secretly being a Muslim and supposedly lying about where he was born. Evangelical leaders like Franklin Graham refused to even say Obama was a Christian.
Then came Donald Trump. His spiritual and moral failings have always been well known – and frankly are too many to list here. Meeting with Christian leaders, he famously said he never asked God for forgiveness because he never did anything he needed forgiveness for. And yet Franklin Graham has said Trump “defends the Christian faith more than any president in my lifetime” and following revelations about Trump’s affair with a porn star and paying for her silence out of campaign funds goes on to say “I believe Donald Trump is a good man.”
But what Tony Perkins has called the “mulligan” that evangelicals give to Trump also extends to other Republican politicians. In the recent Alabama special election, 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Republican Roy Moore – a racist, misogynist, accused pedophile who blamed 9/11 on gays. It seems like no matter how poorly Republican politicians act, their evangelical voters are willing to give them the benefit of the doubt, whereas Democrats – even near-saints like Jimmy Carter – can’t rely on their fellow Christians to vote for them.
There are, as always, lots of theories about why this is so. Some, like former Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson – have traced it back to the falling out between American Christians and science around the time of Darwin and higher criticism of the Bible. Others have suggested that racism has always played a part in white evangelical churches, and that only now are we seeing it more clearly.
Whatever the cause may be, the effect is clear. By turning a blind eye to Trump’s immorality, bullying, philandering, racism, lying, cheating and vulgarity – and declaring him, as James Dobson did, a “baby Christian,” American evangelicals are starting to draw the ire of their fellow Americans. “Evangelical” in many circles has grown so synonymous with “hypocrite” that some organizations are beginning to abandon the name.
And maybe that’s not such a bad thing. For one thing, the term “evangelical” has become a catchall for “any protestant conservative church” – and as such is an almost useless term anyway. And for another, forcing churches to reconsider the use of the term – now so closely associated with the political worldview of a sitting President as to be indistinguishable from it – may also force churches to look at their core values.