One of the main reasons Donald Trump gets greeted by “Hail to the Chief” is the particularly loyal support of white evangelical voters. As a result of Trump’s election, conservative Christians (a larger group than evangelicals, but including most of them) will see fewer trespasses on institutional religious liberty from the executive branch. They will be able to support judges more amenable to their rights. They will be welcomed at the White House and have access to the president. And they are in grave spiritual danger.
In America, we have no state religion. But religious conservatives have become a corporate sponsor of Trumpism, like Visa at the Olympics.
There is no value in re-litigating this choice. Some conservative Christians felt pressured into this partnership due to the monumental unacceptability of Trump’s opponent. Others believed that the future of the Supreme Court should override every other concern.
But here is a little uninvited sermon to my brethren, in three points (as they’d expect).
First, it is a fact – one of those real facts – that Trump’s brand is associated with nativism, particularly the dehumanization of illegal immigrants (as rapists and murderers) and the otherization of Muslims (as internal and external threats). Evangelicals in the governing coalition need to find ways to demonstrate that this was not the reason they supported Trump – that their hard choice was motivated by other, nobler causes.
It should help that the Christian church was one of the first great global, multicultural institutions, with a center of gravity moving from the Middle East to Europe to North America and now to the global south. The very nature of the faith relativizes nationalism – brothers and sisters can be found across the most hostile borders, and any man or woman we encounter will outlast every country. Non-evangelicals might be surprised that a number of Christian megachurches are desegregating because of outreach and changing demographics. (There are 67 languages spoken in Rick Warren’s Saddleback congregation.)
What could evangelicals actually do to show they made a difficult, fallen political choice in spite of Trump’s nativism, not because of it? That is a worthy topic for discussion for the endless cycle of evangelical conferences. Believers should be willing to take on Trump publicly when he speaks in demeaning and dehumanizing ways. And large movements of conscience often begin in inspired groups of three or four, reaching out across divisions.
What of those Christians who supported Trump because of his nativism? God help them. Quite literally.
Second, evangelicals must utterly reject the idea that the protections of the First Amendment apply to them but not fully to Muslims. In the long run, religious liberty is weakened in every case when it is weakened in any case. On this matter, hypocrisy is a form of self-harm. A government with the ability to target or monitor someone just because he or she is a Muslim might eventually be used, with a change in leadership, to target and monitor conservative Christians. Some (wrongly) regard both faiths as fundamentally illiberal and pernicious.
There is more than enlightened self-interest at stake here. Given the fact that many Muslims in America are feeling (understandably) insecure, evangelicals have an opportunity to show their, well, love through a welcoming and tolerant consistency.
Third, conservative Christians need to remember that – throughout the cautionary tale of Western history – when religion identified with a political order, it is generally not the political order that suffers most. It is the reputation of the faith. We do not celebrate the eight white clergy who publicly criticized the Rev. Martin Luther King for being too impatient with injustice; we celebrate the author of the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”
In politics, Christians should not be known primarily for defending their institutional liberty, as important as that is. They should be known for a Christian anthropology that puts the dignity of life – of every life – at the center of the political enterprise. And they should be known for courage in applying this commitment, without prejudice, to every party and ideology.
There are temptations of pride in this prophetic role as well (obviously, some of my regular readers might sigh). It is easy, through an excess of outrage, to become the parody of a prophet. But Christian faith, at its best, points to a transcendent order of justice and hope that stands above politics. So it was in the abolitionist struggle and the civil rights movement. So it needs to be in the Trump era.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.