A twitter-spat over Donald Trump’s immigration policy reveals a deep cleavage in America’s religious right
JULY 4TH of all days should be a time of amity for Americans. So many generations have joined in celebrating “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” as basic human entitlements, whatever the myriad interpretations they have put on those exhilarating words.
At this year’s unusual festivities, featuring a thunderous military parade, President Donald Trump tried to strike a unifying note of sorts: “We all share the same heroes, the same home, the same heart, and we are all made by the same almighty God.” In truth, the nation divides down the middle in its visceral reaction to almost anything he does, and the parade was no exception. America cannot even agree, these days, on whether the signatories of the Declaration of Independence in 1776 were villains or heroes. Incorrigible slave-owners, as many on the left now say, or Christian crusaders?
More striking still is the widening ideological and personal schism within the very group of citizens who should be a conservative president’s most natural supporters. That group is the white evangelical Christians, of whom 80% are thought to have voted for Mr Trump. Leading evangelicals are not just sparring over metaphysics, they are also trading insults. Think of the war of words that erupted after June 25th when Russell Moore, a distinguished theologian who heads the Ethics and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, protested over the fate of migrant children on the Mexican border.
Mr Moore (pictured left), whose job involves running the public-policy arm of America’s largest Protestant denomination, had tweeted that conditions for youngsters trapped at the frontier with Mexico should “shock all our consciences” given that all “those created in the image of God should be treated with dignity and compassion.”
Jerry Falwell junior (pictured right), president of Liberty University and a champion among pro-Trump evangelicals, shot back with a personal sneer: “Who are you Dr Moore? Have you ever built an organisation of any sort from scratch? You’re nothing but an employee – a bureaucrat.” Other Trump-minded Christians chimed in to say that protesting over the immigration crisis amounted to an unpatriotic slur on the United States Border Patrol.
Mr Moore is a solid theological conservative and a leading figure in dialogue with Catholics, but also a longstanding critic of Mr Trump, in particular his personal morality. Those close to Mr Moore found Mr Falwell’s line of attack a bit rich: after all, he himself inherited the administration of Liberty University from his namesake and father, a pioneer of the Religious Right, rather than starting from zero.
Admittedly, evangelicals have never been a monolith. As behoves people who take their spiritual destiny seriously, they argue perpetually about many things: for example over whether the fate of a human soul is predetermined, or how exactly a believer can be redeemed from the “total depravity” which is, in the view of John Calvin (1509-1564), the natural state of humanity. Debates which raged between Europe’s 16th-century reformers are rumbling on in America’s influential seminaries.
But according to a new book, “Believe Me”, by John Fea, a history professor at Messiah College in Pennsylvania, all these theological disagreements are being transcended by a more salient issue: whether or not to support Mr Trump wholeheartedly and therefore overlook his character flaws. These days, by far the most important distinction is between what Mr Fea calls “court evangelicals”, who stridently support the president and are rewarded with access to him, and every other kind of evangelical. As a new coalition lines up to fight next year’s election, some of the battle formations which formed in the 2016 contest are coming back into view, with even sharper spears.
Among those who inhabit the court, Mr Fea discerns three main groups: first, a section of the mainstream religious right whose origins go back to the 1980s; second, a cohort of independent “charismatics” who claim the gifts of the Pentecostal tradition (visions, miracles and direct revelations from God) but do not belong to any established Pentecostal group; and third, advocates of the “prosperity gospel” who resemble the second category but put emphasis on the material rewards which following their particular version of Christianity will bring. What defines all these “courtiers” is an insistence that loyalty to Mr Trump must be unconditional. In their world, the president is presented not just as the least-worst political option whose merits outweigh his flaws, but as a man assigned by God to restore America to its divinely set course, and therefore almost above human criticism.
To get round the problems posed by Mr Trump’s ruthless business career, messy personal life and scatological language, they use several arguments, of which one is a comparison with Persia’s King Cyrus, who liberated the Jews from captivity in Babylon and allowed them to return to Israel. From the Jewish or Christian point of view, Cyrus was a pagan, not a worshipper of the one God, but he was still an instrument of God’s purpose. Likewise Mr Trump can be regarded as a divinely ordained ruler, regardless of any personal flaws. Indeed, as Mr Fea notes, the more strongly people believe in a divine hand in history, the more open they are to the idea that God can choose anybody at all to serve his inscrutable purpose.
Another popular view holds that Mr Trump’s rude and rumbustious character is really a merit in a time of great geopolitical and spiritual danger. As Robert Jefress, a megachurch builder and Trump favourite, told a newspaper in his native Texas: “When I’m looking for a leader who’s gonna sit across the table from a nuclear Iran, or who’s gonna be intent on destroying [the jihadists of] ISIS, I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament or his tone or his vocabulary. I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find.”
More pragmatically, pro-Trump evangelicals point out that the president has already given them many things they were hoping for: appointing conservative judges, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and advancing “religious liberty” as conservatives define it, including the right of Christian campuses to impose their own standards on student behaviour and academic life. Having handed the evangelicals so many longed-for prizes, and offered more, why should people jeopardise this by carping when the president occasionally disappoints them? At its purest, Mr Fea adds, pro-Trump sentiment among evangelicals exudes a kind of fascination with political power as an end in itself.
This differs sharply from other Christian approaches to earthly politics, including some which are popular among non-conformist Americans. Among Baptists, there is a still-strong school of thought which insists on the highest possible “wall of separation” between church and state, a phrase coined by Thomas Jefferson. Others recall the Biblical prophets whose mission was to speak truth to power. Others still, drawing on New Testament imagery, say Christians’ response to worldly authority should be one of “salt and light”: in other words they should challenge rulers by exposing their hypocrisy, but without aspiring to wield power themselves.
As an example of a rigorously conservative Baptist who keeps his distance from Mr Trump, take Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, who said during the 2016 campaign that the candidate’s character flaws risked destroying the moral credibility of evangelicals. As a prolific commentator on politics, he always has harsh words for America’s political left and holds traditionalist views on social and bioethical questions. But in the currentwith-us-or-against-us climate, people inside the Trump circle regard Mr Mohler as an adversary, not a critical friend, according to Mr Fea.
In fact, there is a neatish convergence between debates over the present day, and disagreements over America’s foundation. As Mr Fea notes, those who insist that Mr Trump serves a divine purpose are usually the same as those who see the founding fathers of 1776 as instruments of God.
Other American Christians read the Declaration of Independence as a definitive break with old-world ideas of divinely anointed rulers, combined with a bold insistence that man must take responsibility for determining his own destiny in the light of reason, conscience and experiment. That view is not inconsistent with belief in a deity but it stresses the freedom that God has placed on man’s shoulders.
Who is right about 1776? Depending on which founding father you choose and the context, America’s creators can be seen as prayerful Christians or as free-thinking products of the enlightenment. The one thing the 1776 fathers all seemed to have felt was that the sectarian wars which had torn Europe apart should not divide the new republic, and the best way of avoiding that was a regime of religious freedom. In the Trump era, the divisions that imperil America’s cohesion are about the definition of that freedom.