Vail Daily column: Evangelicals and Trump
“The boisterous sea of liberty is never without a wave,” wrote Thomas Jefferson to a correspondent in 1820. He worried the wave of slavery was splitting the Union. His metaphor bristled with imagery of political storms pounding a shore with wavy surges.
Turbulence engulfs political elections like a hurricane at sea. Current uproar has increased because a majority of evangelical Christians voted for President-elect Donald Trump, whose flawed character didn’t convince them to switch votes.
Formerly, if a playboy forced himself on a married female TV host, bragged how star power gave him a free pass to fondle women and cheated on his multiple wives, evangelicals would denounce his lewd conduct. Instead, many evangelical leaders voted for Trump, even though scripture instructs to “… put to death what is earthly in you: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and covetousness, which is idolatry” (Colossians 3:5).
What’s happened to the “family values agenda” evangelicals have endorsed since the Reagan presidency? Many voted for a thrice-divorced philanderer who brags about his winning business record and avoids divine guidance. Trump denies treating women as toys he’s played with, so he doesn’t need divine forgiveness.
Who qualifies as a family values candidate most evangelicals have spurned? At her Christian wedding, Hillary Clinton pledged fidelity to her husband “for better or worse.” He got worse, running around with other women. She stuck with him in these rough times, forgave him and still is married to him. Isn’t this an enviable track record of upholding family values?
For decades, evangelicals supported leaders who showed character. When we closed the gap between what we promise and how we perform, character is molded. It results from what you do in the dark when no one is looking at you.
Our republic will totter under ungodly behavior’s weight, evangelicals warned, if leaders don’t fix flawed character. William J. Bennett, who played a chief role guarding morality in the Reagan presidency, wrote “The Book of Virtues,” a best-seller. Its first chapter stressed how Christian leaders must live self-disciplined lives.
Reagan’s former secretary of education followed up with another book excoriating President Bill Clinton, titled “The Death of Outrage.” Bennett lamented that Washington’s elite ignored Clinton’s adulterous liaison with Monica Lewinsky. He urged evangelicals to express outrage against Clinton’s lechery.
Now these same evangelicals overlook Trump’s lapses. Jerry Falwell, Jr., president at our nation’s largest Christian school, Liberty University, twists scripture, using Jesus to promote Trump. Responding to a video of Trump bragging about his sexual assaults against women, Falwell wrote, “Let’s stop trying to choose the political leaders who we believe are the most godly, because, in reality, only God knows people’s hearts. You and I don’t, and we are all sinners.”
Wrong conclusion to a right assertion. Falwell’s on target that God monitors our hearts’ motivations better than we do. Still, aren’t Christians obligated to judge character? Although Jesus associated with tax collector and sinners, he didn’t approve of their misbehavior.
Younger evangelicals are rebelling against the older family values crowd that voted for Trump. Evangelical students who started Liberty United Against Trump hit back against Falwell, denouncing him for fudging on Trump’s lack of character.
“It is not enough,” they cautioned, “to criticize these kinds of comments (in which Trump castigates women, Muslims and immigrants). We must make clear to the world that while everyone is a sinner and everyone can be forgiven, a man who constantly and proudly speaks evil does not deserve our support for the nation’s highest office.”
Did Jesus vacillate on character? Neither do this wave of younger evangelicals who are questioning their elders’ compromise on Trump’s moral credibility.
This new breed edits evangelical publications like the flagship magazine, “Christianity Today,” which Billy Graham started in the 1950s. These young editors remind their elders how the Bible warns “not to gain the world at the cost of a person’s soul.” Translated: don’t build a gilded Trump Tower of shoddy conduct if it chips away at character. “Trump has been, his whole adult life, an idolater,” is the verdict of the magazine’s editorial board, “and a singularly unrepentant one.”
Many younger evangelicals don’t shirk character or give a pass to bad conduct by using the excuse that sin stains us all. Character still counts.
Christian blogger Sharon Dingle doesn’t give Trump’s imperfections a passing grade. A rape survivor, her Facebook post expresses how incensed she is that Falwell ignores the Donald’s vulgar behavior. Falwell’s sophistry whitewashes Trump’s serious moral failures.
“If you want to say you stand as a Christian for sexual morality but are willing to excuse this sort of thing,” wrote a disgusted Dingle, “then you’re worshiping your politics and not your God.”
Perhaps this past presidential campaign will jolt Falwell and Republican evangelicals to rediscover character’s merit. That’s what some young evangelicals are doing, chiding elder leaders whose moral reflection lacks discernment and suffers from lack of character.
The Reverend Dr. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax exempt Creative Growth Ministries, (http://www.thelivinghistory.com) which enhances Christian worship through dynamic storytelling and dramatic presentations that make God’s history come alive.