Evangelicals have been getting themselves in compromising political situations for a long time. Here, Paul Conrad lampoons Billy Graham’s slavish support for Nixon in the waning months of a doomed presidency. The scene is a typical Billy Graham revival, except the seats are empty. It’s time for the altar call. “All those wishing to make a ‘Decision for Nixon’ will please come forward,” Graham says. But the only person in the audience is Nixon himself, looking grim. The joke is on both men—Graham, for politicizing the gospel, Nixon, for having lost the public’s trust. No one is going to answer that altar call.
I’ve written before about Graham’s dalliances with political power and how he came to regret them. When I stumbled across a reference to this cartoon yesterday I wanted to track it down and see it for myself. It’s a humorous and apt reminder of the damage done when Christians become enablers rather than prophets in the public square.
Vice-President Mike Pence has concluded his speech at the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention. Yesterday there was a motion to replace the speech with a time of prayer, but it was easily voted down. John Fea has the details here. In defense of the decision to welcome Pence, the chairman of the business committee said this:
On a personal note, if President Obama’s White House had contacted us and I was chairman of this committee, we would have exercised the same judgement and welcomed them to the Southern Baptist Convention.
Some are skeptical of this, but I believe him. Yet it completely misses the point. Everyone knows that SBC is a conservative institution. If Vice-President Biden had spoken at the convention, it would have rightly been understood as an act of hospitality and toleration on the part of the SBC. It would have been a way of saying the convention was open to dialogue with its opponents.
Welcoming political power with which the convention is already so closely aligned is a very different sort of move, one that speaks not of Christian hospitality but of crass conflation of conservative theology with conservative politics. So it looks bad, and it looks far worse when you account for the moral posture of the current administration. President Obama was a decent man. So was George W. Bush. No serious person can say the same of President Trump. Welcoming a representative of an anti-Christ administration to the stage can be defended on its own terms, but let’s not pretend it’s the same sort of act a welcome to a previous administration would have been.
After watching Pence’s speech, it seems the convention’s time might have been better spent in prayer and repentance. Here are the thoughts I jotted down as the speech unfolded:
Introducing Pence, Steve Gaines says, “I am so grateful to have a vice-president who not only loves people but also loves the Lord Jesus Christ.” Pence receives a big ovation from the crowd.
Pence says he wants to begin by bringing greetings from President Trump. Loud applause and cheers. “Four more years!” someone yells. Five minutes before, they were singing worship songs.
Pence talks about all the good Southern Baptists are doing and then segues into his own 1978 conversion experience. “I gave my life to Jesus Christ. It’s made all the difference.”
He says Southern Baptists have always worked for renewal, and our nation is in a moment of renewal, “a new beginning of greatness in America.” The greatest privilege of his life, he says, has been working for President Trump. “500 days of promises made and promises kept.” Loud applause.
Pence is going through the litany of the Trump administration’s “accomplishments.” Yesterday’s summit agreement about nothing gets big applause.
Pence keeps referring back to Trump, the great leader. He has this patented way of communicating that he is Trump’s toady and exercises no independent thought or moral judgment. He’s completely shameless. SBC leaders knew Pence would use this speech to talk about how great Trump is, right? They knew this would be a political speech.
I’m surprised how much of this speech is about North Korea.
Now as he tells a personal story he appears to be trying to cry but can’t quite get there.
Pence says strong American leadership is crucial for the resolution of the Korean conflict, but says he and Trump both know that the “effective fervent prayers” of righteous people are needed. This is a reference to James 5:16.
“Unlike his predecessors, this President kept his word” when he moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem. This line gets a roar and a standing ovation.
Now touting the tax cuts. More cheers. This is just a regular campaign speech with a few religious lines thrown in.
“Under President Donald Trump America is back and we’re just getting started.” Loud cheers.
Pence is emphasizing the Trump Administration’s efforts to protect “religious liberty.” Appointing conservative judges, protecting Christians in the Middle East.
“I couldn’t be more proud to stand with a President who stands without apology for the sanctity of human life. President Donald Trump is the most pro-life President in American history.” This earns a general standing ovation across the convention hall. For anyone outside the Trumpist bubble, it’s very hard to believe that Trump or Pence care about the unborn when they are so cruel to the born.
Mike Pence says all Trump’s wonderful accomplishments would not be possible without the support of people like you (meaning Southern Baptists). Pence says Trump has “deep respect” for people of faith. “We respect how you care for the most vulnerable” Pence says, like how you try to help the people Trump and I are trying to oppress. Oh wait, he didn’t say that last part.
Pence is, inevitably, making a fool of himself. Hypocrisy on an almost unfathomable scale. Pence says “in divided times” Southern Baptist values and compassion are needed more than ever. He concludes with a call to keep practicing compassion, “especially for the most vulnerable,” and to “pray for America.” Then he quotes the classic text of Christian nationalists: 2 Chronicles 7:14.
I like the call for compassion, but I wish Pence wouldn’t support racism, sexual assault, tearing families apart, and lawlessness in general. I take the old-fashioned view that what a person does matters. But apparently I’m a snowflake for thinking that. This whole spectacle brings to mind another passage of scripture:
He who justifies the wicked and he who condemns the righteous are both alike an abomination to the Lord.
Vice-President Mike Pence has been invited to speak at the Southern Baptist Convention’s Annual Meeting tomorrow. The press release is…interesting: “We are excited to announce Vice President Mike Pence will be attending this year’s SBC annual meeting to express appreciation to Southern Baptists for the contributions we make to the moral fabric of our nation.”
It is telling that southern baptist leaders think Mike Pence has anything useful to say about the moral fabric of the nation, or that he cares about anyone who contributes to it. It is amazing that they can’t see how this will look to anyone who isn’t already a true believer in their brand of hateful politics.
Mike Pence has repeatedly lied and covered for all kinds of evil in recent years. He supports racism and flagrantly denies Christian teachings on caring for the poor, the sick, and the refugee. He is militantly hostile to Christianity. This is the kind of man the southern baptists want at their convention. Very telling.
Vice President Mike Pence is scheduled to speak to the Southern Baptist Convention on Wednesday, and the evangelical leaders who approved this have just re-committed themselves to the tacit support of a racist, xenophobic, sexist administration and those who support it.
This is not simply about having a Republican official speak at the denomination’s biggest meeting. It’s about this particular administration. This president has engendered particular division among evangelicals and has alienated many black people. A journalist called the steady leak of black members from white evangelical churches a “quiet exodus.” It’s about to get louder.
This move also reinforces the reflexive association of white evangelicalism with Republicanism. I should not be surprised at this move, but it’s still baffling and utterly oblivious.
Last year’s annual meeting featured the alt-rightfiasco. This year everyone thought the story would be about the SBC’s #metoo moment. Now they’ve found another way to make things even worse. I will be watching Pence’s speech tomorrow very closely.
The latest Foxnews poll is a thing of beauty. After finding that 74% of white evangelicals approve of Trump (no surprise there) the poll asked a follow-up question: “why do you approve of the job he is doing?” Look at this:
Most said they approve because of the normal reasons people like any president: the economy is growing, he’s doing a good job, he’s keeping his promises. (That is laugh out loud funny by the way). The pro-life position we’ve heard so much about was cited by 2% of white evangelicals as their reason for approving of his job performance. The margin of error in the poll is bigger than that! Most white evangelicals are not supporting this presidency out of deep pro-life conviction. They like what he is doing in general.
I have an honest and morally serious disagreement with those lonely 2%. Everyone else is just being absurd.
A funny note: the poll also asked people why they disapprove of Trump’s job performance, but the sample size of white evangelicals who disapprove was too small to produce a statistically meaningful result.
Some other white evangelical highlights from the poll:
71% approve of Trump’s handling of immigration. Yeah, zero-tolerance, break up those families, yeah! Sucks to be them! Ha! Get ’em! Losers!
60% have a strongly unfavorable view of Obamacare. Health care is for snowflakes who don’t know how to rely on God.
57% think Russia did not interfere in the 2016 election. Remember, Jesus is truth but all other truths are relative.
Was the country ready for a black president? If Obama advisor Ben Rhodes is to be believed, Obama himself privately wrestled with this question after the 2016 election. Peter Baker reports on Rhodes’ new memoir:
Riding in a motorcade in Lima, Peru, shortly after the 2016 election, President Barack Obama was struggling to understand Donald J. Trump’s victory.
“What if we were wrong?” he asked aides riding with him in the armored presidential limousine.
He had read a column asserting that liberals had forgotten how important identity was to people and had promoted an empty cosmopolitan globalism that made many feel left behind. “Maybe we pushed too far,” Mr. Obama said. “Maybe people just want to fall back into their tribe.”
His aides reassured him that he still would have won had he been able to run for another term and that the next generation had more in common with him than with Mr. Trump. Mr. Obama, the first black man elected president, did not seem convinced. “Sometimes I wonder whether I was 10 or 20 years too early,” he said.
In the weeks after Mr. Trump’s election, Mr. Obama went through multiple emotional stages, according to a new book by his longtime adviser Benjamin J. Rhodes. At times, the departing president took the long view, at other points, he flashed anger. He called Mr. Trump a “cartoon” figure who cared more about his crowd sizes than any particular policy. And he expressed rare self-doubt, wondering whether he had misjudged his own influence on American history.
This is a fascinating window into President Obama’s state of mind after the election. A few thoughts:
1. What does it mean to be “too early”? If the timing of progress is measured by the scale of the backlash to it, then the civil rights movement was too early, and by a lot more than a decade or two. Would it have been better to listen to the white moderates in the 50s and slow down? This isn’t even a question most people consider because it seems obviously wrong. When freedom is not demanded, it is not granted. If we’re thinking about backlash, emancipation was about a century too early! Justice can’t wait for oppressors to change their mind.
In the immediate shock of the backlash I understand why Obama would feel as he did, but this is what change usually looks like. Only after the fact, with the passage of time, do we craft tales of progress out of the chaos and uncertainty through which people actually lived.
2. Still, I continue to be astonished by the preternatural restraint Obama showed throughout his presidency. In the face of the Republican Party’s descent into outright racism and conspiracy theory, how could Obama not wonder, on an emotional level, every single day of his presidency, whether he had arrived too soon? I had profound moral disagreements with President Obama, but he demonstrated a decency and strength of character that is sorely missed.
In this respect I am a staunch social conservative. I have an old-fashioned belief that the moral standards of our entertainers and leaders really matter, not only for their jobs, but for setting an agenda and tone for the entire country. I hate that our popular culture is a cesspool of sex and violence. I hate that pornography is mainstream and acceptable. I hate that our President is an evil man who embodies all these things. I miss President Obama!
3. Obama probably did misjudge his influence on American history, and would have been well-served by more self-doubt throughout his presidency. This was one of his weaknesses.
4. A lot of this isn’t about Obama. We’ve probably underestimated the degree to which sexismplayeda role in the 2016 election. All else being equal, it seems there are a significant number of Americans who would rather be led by stupid men than competent women.
It’s interesting to imagine how different American politics would be if there was a significant pro-family faction in the Republican Party. A lot of people are under the illusion that there already is such a thing, but maybe you can understand my skepticism:
The number of migrant children held in U.S. government custody without their parents has surged 21 percent in the past month, according to the latest figures, an increase driven by the Trump administration’s “zero tolerance” crackdown on families who cross the border illegally.
Although the government has not disclosed how many children have been separated from their parents as a result of the new measures, the Department of Health and Human Services said Tuesday that it had 10,773 migrant children in its custody, up from 8,886 on April 29.
Under the “zero tolerance” approach rolled out last month by Attorney General Jeff Sessions and Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, anyone who crosses into the United States illegally will face criminal prosecution. In most cases, that means parents who arrive with children remain in federal jails while their children are sent to HHS shelters.
Those shelters are at 95 percent capacity, an HHS official said Tuesday, and the agency is preparing to add potentially thousands of new bed spaces in the coming weeks. HHS also is exploring the possibility of housing children on military bases but views the measure as a “last option,” according to the HHS official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the agency’s preparations.
White evangelicals will no doubt cheer this on. It’s not their families on the line, so who cares?
At the Catholic Prayer Breakfast in Washington, House Speaker Paul D. Ryan said: “We see moral relativism becoming more and more pervasive in our culture. Identity politics and tribalism have grown on top of this.” Ryan went on to talk about Catholic social doctrine, with its emphasis on “solidarity” with the poor and weak, as “a perfect antidote to what ails our culture.”
There is a profound disconnect when a Trump supporter says “moral relativism” and imagines that people of goodwill can believe he is sincere. So Gerson goes in for the kill:
And how did Ryan address the issue of Trump’s habit of dehumanization at the Catholic Prayer Breakfast? By avoidance, under a thick layer of hypocrisy. The Wisconsin Republican complained that politicians are too often in “survival mode” — trying to “get through the day,” rather than reflecting on and applying Catholic social teaching.
Ryan was effectively criticizing the whole theory of his speakership. He has been in survival mode from the first day of Trump’s presidency, making the case that publicly burning bridges with the president would undermine the ability to pursue his vision of the common good (including tax reform and regulatory relief). This, while a weak argument, is at least a consistent one. But by making the Christian commitment to human dignity relative to other political aims, Ryan can no longer speak of “moral relativism” as the defining threat of our time.
It is instructive to think about what moral claim Ryan could have reasonably made. Is there anything he could have said that people of sincere Christian belief could take at face value? Is there any moral principle he could have laid claim to without it ringing hollow? I can’t think of one. I believe that Ryan is sincere in his Catholic faith. We’re all pretty good at living with contradiction. But I find it fascinating that Ryan doesn’t feel a profound sense of shame when he talks about morality in a public setting (or private for that matter). This is what supporting Trump does to you. You become a hypocrite simply by telling your kids to be honest and respectful.
My tradition of evangelical Protestantism is, if anything, even worse. According to a recent Pew Research Center poll, white evangelical Protestants are the least likely group in America to affirm an American responsibility to accept refugees. Evangelicals insist on the centrality and inerrancy of scripture and condemn society for refusing to follow biblical norms — and yet, when it comes to verse after verse requiring care for the stranger, they don’t merely ignore this mandate; they oppose it.
This represents the failure of Christian political leadership — not only from the speaker but from most other elected religious conservatives, too. Even more, it indicates the failure of the Christian church in the moral formation of its members, who remain largely untutored in the most important teachings of their own faith.
Christians who are following Trump (by that I mean they feel a strong sense of support and approval for him) are not following Jesus. To love the one is to hate the other. We shouldn’t shrink back from exposing their sin and calling them to repentance. Christians who say we need to work hard to maintain unity in the church in this divisive era are correct in a limited sense, but risk making a serious category error. Trump followers are not engaging in reasonable political behavior; they are separating themselves from Christianity and working to oppress their fellow Christians. It is hard to stay unified with people who do that.
There is a bizarre assumption at work in our politics today. Many people have got the idea in their heads that the President of the United States is patriotic. Ordinarily, this is such a safe assumption that we don’t really have to think about it. Yes, Ronald Reagan was patriotic. So was Barack Obama. All but the most rabid partisans will acknowledge that.
But when we extend the same presumption to Donald Trump, we’re actually reading against the evidence. Of course we’d like to believe the president of the United States is patriotic. But in this case there isn’t really any reason to think so.
In an interesting item today, Jonathan Chait calls Trump the “most unpatriotic president ever.” This isn’t true. That honor belongs to Andrew Johnson, who believed that people who had lately been killing as many United States soldiers as possible deserved more sympathy than citizens who remained loyal to the United States. Trump does appear to clear the low bar that Johnson set, so you can at least say that for him.
As Chait notes, the case that Trump is unpatriotic does not rest on asserting that one brand of patriotism is the only “real” patriotism. You can have Obama’s “more perfect union” kind of patriotism, or the “my country right or wrong” sort, or even Johnson’s execrable brand of patriotism explicitly premised on white supremacy. All of these sorts of patriotism, even if loathsome, can coherently reflect a genuine pride in one’s idea of a national community.
But profiteering at the public’s expense seems hard to square with any brand of patriotism we know of. It would be really odd for a patriotic person to use the office of the presidency to enrich himself at the risk of damaging the country. But of course, this is exactly what Trump does. Maybe the simple answer is the right one: he just doesn’t care about the country because he only cares about himself.
As Chait mentions, Trump also regularly insults the United States in terms that would make conservatives apoplectic if uttered by a Democratic President. Maybe—and I’m just spitballing here—he insults the country because that’s how he really feels about it. And maybe, just maybe, his lack of patriotism is part of the reason he hates Americans who demonstrate a sincere desire to improve their country.
After posting a coupleexamples of 1960s-era white evangelical debate yesterday, today I present a master class in criticism for the crisis of our era. David French has impeccable conservative credentials, is a devout Christian, and will frequently write things that infuriate you if you’re a liberal. Precisely because of all that, his takedowns of white evangelical Trump supporters are rather extraordinary:
Taken together, [the words of Scripture] indicate that our life on this Earth should glorify God, demonstrate profound virtue, and count even our lives forfeit in the pursuit of eternal truth. We are told — promised, even — that in living this life we should expect the world’s scorn. We are told — promised, even — that we will suffer trials of many kinds, and those trials can include brutal persecution.
We are not told, however, to compromise our moral convictions for the sake of earthly relief, no matter how dire the crisis. We are not told to rationalize and justify sinful actions to preserve political influence or a popular audience. We are not told that the ends of good policies justify silence in the face of sin. Indeed — and this message goes out specifically to the politicians and pundits who go on television and say things they do not believe (you know who you are) to protect this administration and to preserve their presence in the halls of the power — there is specific scripture that applies to you:
“Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!”
The president of the United States has paid hush money to a porn star — apparently to cover up a tryst that occurred shortly after the birth of his son. And that’s hardly his only affair. More than a dozen women have accused him of sexual assault or some form of sexual harassment. He has been caught lying, repeatedly and regularly. Yet there are numerous Christians of real influence and prominence who not only won’t dare utter a negative word about the president, they’ll vigorously turn the tables on his critics, noting the specks in his critics’ eyes while ignoring the sequoia-sized beam in their own.
I’m sorry, but you cannot compartmentalize this behavior, declare that it’s “just politics,” and take solace that you’re a good spouse or parent, that you serve in your church and volunteer for mission trips, or that you’re relatively charitable and kind in other contexts. It’s sin, and it’s sin that is collapsing the Evangelical moral witness.
Read it all. I’m reminded of my own little contribution to this genre, “Things Trump Supporters Can’t Teach Their Children.” Somehow Trump’s evangelical defenders don’t realize they’ve forfeited their ability to make any moral claims. The oddest thing about it is that they seem genuinely unaware that they have thrown away their Christian witness.
It is common to make distinctions between northern and southern white evangelicals during the civil rights era. Northerners are cast as more moderate, while southerners are assumed to be more reactionary. Even if this interpretation captures a truth about the overall posture of these regional groupings, it definitely undersells the extent to which segregationist theology had made inroads among white evangelicals nationwide.
In June, 1964, an editorial in Eternity critiqued white evangelicals as a group with little regional distinctiveness:
Let’s face it. Most evangelicals, whether they are from the North, South, East or West, are supporters of the status quo, and consequently tend to be segregationists. They would rather not discuss the matter at all, but if you press them, they will spout almost the same defensive arguments as the most reactionary Southerner, whose white-dominated world really is threatened. They speak bitterly against the liberals who, they say, substitute social action for the gospel of redemption.”
This is another remarkable critique of white evangelicals from white evangelicals. I find these sorts of documents fascinating in part because it helps us to see how the intra-evangelical debates of today are very old. We’ve seen this movie before. In the age of black lives matter and Donald Trump, the claims and counterclaims and misunderstanding among fellow evangelicals feels very, very familiar.
In that same 1964 editorial, the authors described themselves as “editors of an evangelical magazine that has suffered for taking a position on the racial issue.” Perhaps a dig at the wishy-washy cowardice of Christianity Today is implied there.
Yet even Eternity placed sharp limits on its support for black aspirations. The moment protestors turned to violence the editors were prepared to condemn their behavior with particular venom. After a civil rights protest in Cleveland left a white pastor dead and black protestors attacked the driver of the bulldozer who had inadvertently crushed the man, Eternity described the “animal-like fury” of their assault and condemned “demonic” efforts to “whip up the passions of the crowd.” These descriptions betray a visceral horror lacking in their criticisms of white violence of the same period.