John Fea, who writes the excellent They Way of Improvement Leads Home blog (are you reading it? You should be reading it), wrote a recent Washington Post Op-Ed titled “Trump threatens to change the course of American Christianity.” The excellent piece ruminates on Trump’s relationship with his “court evangelicals,” as Fea as labeled them, the small group of celebrity-evangelicals who have attached themselves to the president and who hover about the White House waiting for photo ops in the seat of power (people like Jerry Falwell Jr, Robert Jeffress, and Paula White, among others.) The mock title derives itself from the courtiers who were always to be found around the throne of medieval monarchs, always ready for scraps from the royal table and sycophantic approval of all the king’s words and deeds, no matter how immoral they may be. I highly encourage you to read the op-ed.
Fea draws attention to a response written by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council (himself a court evangelical.) Perkins obviously takes great umbrage at Fea’s piece. He references another op-ed by Fea, from 2012, in which Fea explores the deeply Christian language President Obama used. (For more on the Christian nature of the Obama presidency, I strongly encourage this piece by John Pavlovitz.)
Perkins isn’t convinced, and uses this opportunity to both slam Obama again, and also defend the supposed spirituality of Donald J. Trump. In doing so, he shines a clear light on the moral bankruptcy of much of American evangelicalism (something I touched on Wednesday in my MAGA piece.)
For the last 50 years, [Fea] argues, “evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.” Fea insists that Trump has done little for evangelicals, a charge hardly substantiated by the strides the White House has made on our pro-life and religious liberty agendas. But Fea measures Trump’s sincerity on a different scale: how often he attends church. No wonder he once called Barack Obama “the most explicitly Christian president in American history.” In a column from 2012, he made the staggering claim that the most pro-abortion, anti-faith president to ever occupy the Oval Office was also the most pious.
Perkins himself reinforces a point I make often about so much of American Christianity: it can be boiled down to exactly two facets: opposition to abortion, and opposition to LGBT equality. For the court evangelicals, and for the millions of people who follow them, this is the sum total of what being a Christian in America looks like in 2017. As long as you oppose abortion and oppose gay marriage, you can brag about sexually assaulting women, show a profound lack of knowledge about Scripture, and govern in a way that not just neglects the needy, but goes out of its way to actively do harm to them. Actual beliefs about God or Jesus are beside the point; hence the growing evangelical-Catholic alliance.
Public practice of Christianity doesn’t include any theological grounding, nor does it include traditional forms of Christian social action, such as missions, or care for the indigent. The only public form of Christian action that matters is woman shaming in front of Planned Parenthood, and protests at the Supreme Court anytime they hear a case concerning the LGBT community.
The proof is in the numbers: on Election Day 2016, 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump, despite his clear indifference to faith, his hateful and disgusting comments about just about every group in America outside of straight, white men, and his overwhelming greed and hunger for power. This from the same group of Christians who had a collective aneurysm over the moral shortcomings of Bill Clinton just 20 short years ago.
The court evangelicals are the logical outcome of an evangelical movement that has prostituted itself out to right-wing political power. The evangelical movement has simply become a church-based stamp of approval for whatever regressive piece of public policy or proclamation of hate speech emanates from the conservative movement this week. As long as a politician promises to fight anti-discrimination measures and roll back Roe v. Wade, they will get the evangelical endorsement and can go to Washington to roll back taxes and take away health care and demonize poor people and minorities as much as they like. Empire and power are the means they see to God’s kingdom, rather than the way of love and weakness shown by Jesus. And by God’s kingdom, they just mean a world with no abortion and no gays. Everything else is a sideshow.
But don’t take my word for it. Just ask Tony Perkins.
P.S. I’ve said a lot here, and in the past, about what Christianity isn’t. But if it’s not all these things, you may ask, then what do I think it is? Glad you asked: I’ll be writing a series on that soon!