WASHINGTON – Oh God – and I mean the entreaty seriously – the Trump/evangelical summit in New York was just as bad as some of us feared.
More than 900 conservative Christian leaders, put in a susceptible mood by a “prayer guide” (“Acknowledge any personal feelings that would keep you from honoring Mr. Trump for his participation”) witnessed Donald Trump field some softball questions. This was reassuring enough to reward him with a standing ovation and a positive buzz. Trump can now (accurately) assume that these clerics and activists won’t be giving him much more trouble.
Many participants insist they haven’t yet given Trump their endorsement. The whole event, however, was taken – by the press, public and Trump campaign itself – as an evangelical stamp of approval. Seldom has a group seemed more eager to be exploited.
No one, remarkably, asked Trump to explain the moral theory that has guided his gyrations on the abortion issue – from supporter of partial-birth abortion to advocate of punishment for women who have abortions. That, presumably, would have been impolite. And few were offended when Trump used the occasion to question Hillary Clinton’s faith. “She’s been in the public eye for years and years,” he said, “and yet there’s no – there’s nothing out there.” It is like watching a man insult a mirror.
In the course of the event, Trump promised to nominate judges whom evangelicals would favor; to change laws that restrict church involvement in partisan politics; and to foster a cultural ethos that allows the unapologetic usage of “Merry Christmas.” “You get racism, misogyny, torture and an authoritarian as commander in chief,” one evangelical leader wrote me, “but you’ll get to hear ‘Merry Christmas’ in stores. Now that’s the art of the deal.”
There is a case for reluctant support of Trump over Clinton – a weak one, I think, but embraced by some serious people. Yet this event was not the tortured search for partial truths in a fallen world. It was a sad parody of Christian political involvement, summarizing all the faults and failures of the religious right.
We were reminded, first, that many religious conservatives are a cheap political date. The late Chuck Colson often described how, during the Nixon administration, religious leaders (as opposed to, say, union leaders) were easily impressed and tamed by the proximity to power. After Tuesday’s meeting, the Christian writer Eric Metaxas, in promoting his radio show, tweeted “I WAS RIGHT THERE!” Why such wide-eyed reactions from some in attendance? A panting desire for affirmation rooted in feelings of inferiority? A disorienting fear of fading cultural influence? Echoes, in embracing a billionaire, of the prosperity gospel? Whatever the motivation, the public has seen a movement content with a pat on the head and a scratch under the chin.
We are reminded, second, that much of the religious right’s criticism of President Bill Clinton’s character was a ploy. Franklin Graham now argues that because Abraham lied, Moses disobeyed God and David committed adultery, Trump should get a pass, not just on his personal behavior, but on his deception, cruelty and appeal to bigotry. It is a non sequitur revealing the cynical subordination of faith to politics.
Third, we are seeing a group focused on the rights and privileges of their own community, rather than the welfare of others – the poor, struggling and vulnerable. Many in that room do wonderful good works. But they have reduced Christian political involvement to a narrow, special interest – and a particularly angry and unattractive one. A powerful source of passion for social justice – a faith that once motivated abolitionism and various movements for civil and human rights – has been tamed and trivialized.
It is not the first time. During the civil rights movement in the 1960s, one of the main organs of white evangelical opinion, Christianity Today, defended “voluntary segregation,” criticized the March on Washington as a “mob spectacle” and took the side of the University of Mississippi against James Meredith. While that magazine is now a vocal advocate for racial reconciliation and social justice, the bad political choices of many evangelicals at a defining moral moment still damn and damage their movement.
It is happening again. Evangelical leaders, motivated by political self-interest, are cozying up to a leader who has placed bigotry and malice at the center of American politics. They are defending the rights of their faith while dishonoring its essence. Genuine social influence will not come by putting Christ back into Christmas; it will come by putting Christ and his priorities back into more Christians.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.