Vail Daily column: Why evangelicals support Trump
Donald Trump is the candidate of choice for about one-third of evangelicals, the same margin of voters who supported John McCain in 2008 and Mitt Romney in 2012 in primary elections. These Christians say they support presidential candidates who show robust character, possess Christian consciences and reflect Christ’s humility as humankind’s suffering servant.
Except, evangelicals abandon these qualifications by endorsing Donald Trump for president. Why?
His campaign suspended, evangelical Ben Carson recently excused Trump’s lies. “What politician doesn’t shave the truth?” shrugged Carson. Trump is merely one in a crowd of campaigners who discredits what’s true.
Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University who defends traditional Christianity, gushed how Trump ranked as “one of the greatest visionaries of our time.” Pat Robertson, founder and chairman of the Christian Broadcasting Network, sounded like an adoring teen at a Justin Bieber concert, exclaiming during a Trump interview, “You inspire us all.”
What prompts this switch from evangelical family values formerly espoused? Trump’s been married three times. After cheating on his first wife, he publicly humiliated her. The Donald plastered his name on a casino, which housed a strip club. Students have sued him for fraud after falsely advertising now-defunct Trump University.
Trump’s religious history is spotty; his Christian literacy low. Puffing his chest on stage, his curses turn the air blue and stain evangelical Christian values.
Yet, Trump gets endorsed by a surprising number of the faithful. How so?
Some evangelicals sacrifice principled Christianity on the altar of star power. They believe Donald Trump is the likeliest candidate to restore their once-held social status and political clout, which have waned since evangelicals won a second term for President George W. Bush in 2004.
Power-brokers call the shots. Evangelicals are mad. They’ve felt “had” since the 2004 presidential election. Trump makes them glad again. With him winning the presidency, there’s a chance to re-introduce prayer and bible reading into public schools and make America great again by renewing its Christian identity.
Evangelicals base Christian belief on biblical imagery that sketches epic battles. Forces of good wage cosmic war against “satanic principalities and powers.” Much scripture addresses God as the “divine warrior” who defeats evil empires.
Donald Trump’s combative rhetoric fits this militant biblical imagery. When his security team roughed up protesters, Trump’s supporters showed “… delight in the clash, and the frisson of implied violence was unmistakable. The same gladiatorial mojo that powers football, war movies, professional wrestling and Judge Judy Trump transposes into a political key,” writes Time magazine’s David Von Drehle (“Destination Unknown,” March 14).
“The rage of a king is like the roar of a lion,” (Proverbs 20:22). Evangelicals lionize Trump’s huffy posturing. They accept his top-of-the-heap braggadocio. He’s a political king of the jungle who means business — including restoration of evangelical national power.
Trading principled Christianity for political expediency that leads to renewed power isn’t a new evangelical tactic. Since Ronald Reagan rivaled incumbent President Gerald R. Ford in the 1976 primaries, evangelicals have perfected it.
Evangelical movie producer Billy Zeoli sent daily biblical meditations to Episcopalian Ford, who regularly read these devotionals. Still, evangelicals at the 1976 Republican National Convention favored a divorced Hollywood actor who grudgingly accepted being identified as “born again.” Ronald Reagan regularly skipped Sunday worship for horseback riding at his California ranch. Such backsliding didn’t offend evangelicals.
During the 1980 presidential campaign, they abandoned “born again” Southern Baptist Jimmy Carter. He taught Sunday school and memorized huge portions of the Bible. Evangelicals dumped Carter because he, like Ford, didn’t sound tough enough. Ford and Carter refrained from promoting the evangelical constituency as Ronald Reagan did. “Evangelicals admired Reagan,” writes conservative leader Ralph Reed, “because he was pro-life and cast the Cold War in starkly moral terms. Those stands trumped Mr. Carter’s piety.”
Because President Barack Obama wasn’t tough enough toward foreign foes, 78 percent of the evangelical vote supported Mormon Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election. Even Billy Graham hosted Romney at his North Carolina home, despite the theological divide separating traditional Christians from Mormons.
Riding the fastest, most powerful political horse has dangers that evangelicals ignore. They might get thrown off and lose credibility. Late 19th century historian Henry Adams, upset with President Theodore Roosevelt’s bold personality, warned, “Power is poison. Its effect on presidents (has) been always tragic, chiefly as an almost insane excitement at first, and a worse reaction afterwards; but also because no mind is so well-balanced as to bear the strain of seizing unlimited force without habit or knowledge of it.”
Acquiring unprincipled power makes us hungry for more, warns Adams. It’s a red-flag some evangelicals lower to their peril when faith’s exercise turns into a power grab.
The Rev. Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries (www.thelivinghistory.com), which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations aimed to make God’s history come alive.
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