Last week, a group of 900 evangelicals attended a session with Republican Nominee Donald Trump. We really don’t know much about most of those in attendance. But we do know something of those who were speakers at the session and those who were named to Trump’s “Evangelical Advisory Board“.
For shorthand, let’s call them The Evangelicals™.
In the past, I’ve written about Industry Evangelicalism, that part of evangelical subculture that is caught up in protecting the boundaries of what “good evangelicals” do, write, and promote. These can be represented by national organizations, periodicals, and major websites.
The Evangelicals™ are a special subset of Industry Evangelicalism, and it’s not surprising to see their connection to Trump. I spend an afternoon last week tracking down the biographies of most of the newly named members of the advisory board. (Note: they didn’t volunteer and haven’t agreed to serve, so being named isn’t an endorsement.)
Here’s a general summary of what I found: their average age is 60. Only three are under 50. Most of them are involved in some form of broadcast ministry. Even the two attorneys on the board specialize in getting evangelical books on to the bestseller lists (one of them was the one that got Mark Driscoll’s book on the NYT). For many, the heyday of their fame was about two decades back.
I’ve been studying the transcript of the June 21st meeting. In the midst of an answer on tax exemption (more on that below), Trump says the following:
And over the course of various meetings, I realized that there are petrified ministers and churches. They speak before 25,000 people, the most incredible speakers you could ever see, better than any politician by far (emphasis mine).
I was struck by how much Trump identifies with ministers with large congregations or prosperous broadcast empires. I wonder how he’d relate to the average evangelical pastor with 75 people in a church start in a Cleveland suburb.
As much as it can be frustrating to make sense of Trump’s verbatim comments, I’m particularly interested in the rhetorical frame used by the other speakers.
I’ve been reading Lydia Bean’s The Politics of Evangelical Identity (I’m using in my sociology of religion class this fall). It’s a fascinating ethnographic study of two congregations in Buffalo, NY and two in Hamilton, ON. It allows a cross-national comparison of theologically similar churches. Lydia found that while all four congregations were concerned about what they saw as moral decline in modern society, the American churches attached blame to liberals in government. This is why she found that the American churches had a default orientation to the Republican Party while the Canadian churches didn’t blame a particular party (they tended to blame the collective church).
This theme is easy to see in statements by The Evangelicals™ last week. Consider the following comments from Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell, Jr. (telling a story about his father), James Dobson, and Ronnie Floyd:
This is who we are dealing with, ladies and gentlemen. You know, the ship is about to sail off Niagara Falls, full of passengers and everybody’s about to be killed. You know what we have to do? We have to stop the ship — number one. Number two, we have to turn it around. And number three, we have to sail in the other direction. There are a lot of people who think you can do all of that at the same time. You cannot. First, let’s stop the ship. Let’s do that this fall in massive numbers. We can then turn it around. We can then sail it in the other direction. I’m not going to tell you who you should vote for. I’m just telling you to use your brain.
His last national interview was with Christiane Amanpour of CNN just a few days before his death in 2007, and in that interview he joked that he had dreamed recently that Chelsea Clinton had interviewed him and asked him what are the three greatest threats facing our nation. He replied, “Osama, Obama, and your mama.” Now Osama’s gone, Obama’s on his way out, and we have the chance to make sure that Chelsea’s mama goes out of politics with them.
And yet when Barack Obama became president, I think there was a conscious effort to undermine our religious liberty. You’ve probably seen it from that time to this. Have you noticed that the president and Democrats and Hillary — yes, Hillary — no longer talk about “freedom of religion”? They talk about “freedom of worship.” Why have they changed that? It’s very small, a one-word change. Well, freedom of worship means that you are confined to your churches and your synagogues, but freedom of religion, as identified in the Constitution, is in the public square, it’s everywhere. So they have tried to limit us to our church activity. So we’re seeing more and more of that.
President Obama was the first black president in American history. And, unquestionably, this was a great triumph for the United States, for civil rights. And we all celebrate that moment. Yet, the nation seems today to be more divided racially and there is more violence in the inner cities than when President Obama was elected.
It’s not just that society is operating in a post-Christian framework. It’s that THOSE PEOPLE have done this on purpose . (Carson makes reference to the fact that Hillary knew Saul Alinsky in college — I didn’t know he went to Wellesley!)
There’s a related issue that runs throughout the comments of The Evangelicals™: tax exemption and religious freedom issues. This is what Trump was referring to in the comment above regarding ministers being afraid to speak out.
You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom. You really don’t have religious freedom, if you really think about it, because when President Johnson had his tenure, he passed something that makes people very, very nervous to even talk to preserve their tax-exempt status. It’s taken a lot of power away from Christianity and other religions.
There are two interesting things in the transcript when it comes to this issue. First, notice that blame is laid at the feet of the Johnson administration. But that is factually incorrect. It is the Johnson amendment that prevents 501c(3) organizations (including but not limited to churches) from advocating for a particular candidate for office. But that was Senator Johnson adding the phrase to the Internal Revenue Act of 1954, approved by a Republican congress and signed by President Eisenhower.
Second, the people in the room don’t feel particularly limited by the Johnson Amendment. In spite of their professed concerns, they are clearly supporting Donald Trump. In his opening prayer for the meeting, Franklin Graham includes these words:
And, Father, we pray this election that you will give a man to be the president of this country who will honor life, who will respect our Constitution, who will respect the authority of the office. And, Father, we pray that your will will be done (emphasis mine).
In past election cycles, this might have passed muster as a generic statement of values. But when the other nominee is a woman, the use of “man” says a lot. And I don’t really think he was talking about Gary Johnson!
In spite of Trump’s claims, the Johnson Amendment applies to churches and not to ministers. They remain free to advocate for a political candidate just like any other citizen. Just not in their official capacity representing their church.
Jerry Falwell, Jr. understands that distinction and gave voice to it:
As you know, Liberty University does not support or oppose candidates for public office — a lawyer makes me say that — but I personally feel strongly that Donald Trump is God’s man to lead our nation at this crucial crossroads in our country’s history (emphasis mine).
Falwell doesn’t seem to be “petrified”. And his lawyer reference made me more than a little uncomfortable as it suggests that he might wish his university could endorse particular candidates.
Another tendency of The Evangelicals™ is to cloud over legitimate governmental processes. In following up a religious freedom question, Mike Huckabee says this:
Just to add, I think the Second Amendment is gonna be gone. These are issues that should be decided by the American people through the ballot box, not by a handful of rogue justices appointed for life. [Applause] And I think we just want to know you’re going to appoint people who will respect the constitutional separation of powers and not allow people to be appointed who would go and legislate from the judicial branch. And I think you can give us some comfort that you’re going to appoint people who respect the Constitution rather than completely ignore it (emphasis mine).
Now I grant that a different configuration of Supreme Court Justices might rule that certain legislative adjustments to gun access might be seen more favorably. But we would have gotten there by duly elected legislators, themselves elected through the ballot box, having passed a law. The Justices would then have to rule on the constitutionality of that legislation. There is no way, as Huckabee hints and Trump elaborates, that “Hillary Clinton is going to abolish the Second Amendment if she becomes president.” The suggestion here is that SCOTUS would rule the second amendment to the constitution unconstitutional. It boggles the mind.
I’m not addressing the news that John Fea reported last week. Dobson claimed that “he’d heard” that Trump had become a Christian. I honestly can’t figure it out. It was later reported that Paula White was the leader Dobson was referencing. But the leadership of the Trump meeting were all together the night before and nobody makes reference to that significant fact during the meeting? Huckabee does comment at one point, “Some people are very vocal about their faith, and other people are not.” But when has Trump ever been hesitant about sharing the significance of his views in any context? I’ll leave this for others to sort out.
The Evangelicals™ are not representative of the evangelical church. It takes about ten minutes of time on the internet to find people of deep Christian faith, who believe in the authority of scripture and the saving power of Jesus, who are able to engage in political discourse without demonizing the other party. They recognize legitimate policy differences and attempt to pursue their Christian values with an eye toward the common good.
The Canadian churches in Lydia Bean’s book see the multiculturalism of contemporary society as a given, even a strength, and are figuring out how to engage that pluralistic culture. I think that’s where many evangelicals find themselves. They may be frustrated by Supreme Court decisions or changing social patterns, but they are trying to find the best way forward as people of faith.
The day before the Trump meeting, John Inazu and Tim Keller posted a piece in Christianity Today titled How Christians Can Bear Gospel Witness in an Anxious Age. When I read it, I realized how different it was in style and rhetoric from that of The Evangelicals™.
My copy of Inazu’s book, Confident Pluralism, came last Saturday and I read it in one sitting. It’s worth a blog post of its own which will come tomorrow.