The “Court Evangelicals”

John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College, has a new name for the circle of Christian Right sycophants around President Trump: “court evangelicals.” Fea explains:

Not all evangelicals who voted for Trump are what I am describing as “court evangelicals.”  I am going to use this phrase from now on to describe Trump’s inner circle of evangelicals who think it is a good idea for ministers to endorse candidates from the pulpit, have bowed a knee to the political power of the presidency, think Trump is a “baby Christian,” believe evangelicals have found their “dream president” in Trump, and regularly show up at the White House whenever Trump wants to say something about religion.  The court evangelicals sacrifice their prophetic voice to political influence.  The court evangelicals have put their faith in a political strongman who promises to alleviate their fears and protect them from the forces of secularization.

This is genius. It’s a simple and cutting phrase that accurately describes these so-called leaders. While they mouth spiritual platitudes from time to time, they behave like hangers-on to royalty.

They accept and endorse all manner of evil, from constant lying to sexual assault to racism, because to speak as Christians on these matters would cost them their position in the court of their ruler. I wish I were exaggerating. As Fea noted this morning, new reporting in the Chronicle of Higher Education has dug up Falwell’s reaction to the lies and racism Trump used to enter the political stage several years ago:

Throughout their relationship, Mr. Falwell has praised Donald Trump for speaking fearlessly, even when others would say he was speaking falsely. The “birther” issue, Mr. Falwell said, was one such profile in courage.

“He was brave enough to say something that was so politically incorrect,” Mr. Falwell said. “I had no idea where Obama was born or if he had a birth certificate; I didn’t have an opinion on that. But just the fact that he was bold enough to challenge Obama on something like that, because you didn’t see the press challenging Obama much. And so that impressed me that he was bold enough to do it.”

It’s not just that Falwell fails to speak as a Christian in this instance. His perspective is openly barbaric. A vicious lie impressed Falwell because of its sheer audacity. Breaking out of the bounds of conventionally accepted speech was more important than truth itself.

It’s easy to forget, but Falwell was defending Trump’s anti-Christian beliefs years before his run for the presidency. In 2012 Falwell invited Trump to speak at a Liberty University convocation. It went like this:

Speaking to 10,000 students at the convocation, the New York financier and real estate mogul discussed the nation’s ills – high debt, unemployment, dependence on foreign goods, and the oil crisis — and the lack of leadership in the White House to address these ever-growing concerns.

“The world is laughing at us,” Trump told the students. “We just seem to have lost our edge, and now we’re in a position that unless things take place and take place fast, we are going to be, for many, many years to come, in serious trouble to the point that I don’t know we can really come back.”

He then encouraged students to “get even.”

“I always say don’t let people take advantage — this goes for a country, too, by the way — don’t let people take advantage. Get even,” Trump said. “And, you know, if nothing else, others will see that and they’re going to say: ‘You know, I’m going to let Jim Smith or Sarah Malone, I’m going to let them alone because they’re tough customers.”

The comments sparked an outcry from critics, who said Trump was inappropriate to preach his gospel of “get even” at a place that reveres Christian values.

Falwell said Trump’s comments were not out of line.

“The Associated Press quoted where Jesus said, ‘Turn the other cheek.’ But Jesus also ran the moneychangers out of the temple in anger with a whip – and so there is a time to be tough, there’s a time to look out for yourself and for your family and for your country and to defend yourself – and I don’t think that’s contrary to what Jesus taught at all.”

Trump hasn’t changed, and neither have the court evangelicals. Is there anything they wouldn’t do for power? And is there any amount of oppression that ordinary white evangelicals would not support, if they felt safer by it?

I still believe—praise God!—in the reality of the risen Christ. But we, his followers, are the strongest evidence against him.

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