Anytime Christians make the news for doing or saying something patently awful (see: Westboro Baptist Church, Kim Davis, recent outcry over Syrian refugees, etc.), so-called progressive evangelical leaders publicly and loudly proclaim that those engaging in the behavior are not representative of the Christian faith.
Anytime the bloody history of Christianity is laid bare in black, white, and crimson, there is an indignant cry of, “That’s in the past! Things are different now!” Anytime some of the more disturbing elements of the Bible are pointed out to mainstream Christians, they insist that their faith looks different — that it’s one of compassion, forgiveness, and selflessness.
They’re not all wrong. There are certainly Christians who practice their faith in this manner; we’ve all met some of them at some point in our lives. They give charitably, they love unconditionally, and they stand up to those who fail to do the same in their own lives. I have no doubt that these generally good-hearted Christians believe that they are part of the majority.
Unfortunately, they’re wrong.
It’s not that the majority of the American Christian population is actively stoning adulterers or trading their daughters for goats. It’s that despite this insistence that the Christian faith revolves around the ideas of love and charity and an individual commitment to walking the walk in their day-to-day lives, the majority of American Christians continue to support leaders whose beliefs and policies stand in stark contrast to the purported foundation of this “new and improved” Christianity — leaders whose actions and rhetoric have a direct, measurable, and profound impact on those marginalized by society. You know, those same folks Christ told his followers to embrace.
This hypocrisy is visible throughout history, at all levels of government, and along all party lines. In some cases, folks attempt to pseudo-excuse such behavior as a “byproduct of the times.” In others, you’ll hear people use a person’s age and presumed inability to change in their twilight years to excuse the continued embrace of what is a religiously shaped, archaic, and widely condemned worldview. Still others apologetically excuse the contemptuous actions and words of their contemporaries by saying “they were just raised that way.” None of these excuses actually excuse anything, obviously, but that doesn’t stop people from using them.
Except now, over the passionate objections of those attempting to defend their faith, the majority of American Christians aren’t even attempting to make excuses. They’re throwing their support behind racist, sexist, classist, and heartless leaders without shame or caveat. To be fair, that description might apply to a large number of Republican-elected officials and candidates, but this deplorable support becomes crystal clear when dissecting the rapid ascent of The Donald.
While initially regarded as a joke of a presidential candidate, Trump has defied expectations of pundits by consistently topping the polls both nationally and in early primary states for months now. It’s a terrifying reality given the man’s ignorance on so, so, so many issues critical to governance, but scarier still are the reasons he continues to surge in the polls.
He called undocumented Mexican immigrants rapists and drug dealers (but not all of them, he added, as if that made everything okay). He defended telling an employee she’d look pretty on her knees by saying we’re too politically correct these days. He nodded along as an anti-Muslim bigot at one of his events repeated the factually inaccurate statement that President Obama is a Muslim while himself decrying the Muslim population as a “problem” in America. He excused his supporters brutally attacking someone they suspected to be an immigrant by saying his fans are “passionate.” He responded to the Syrian refugee crisis by arguing for the possible shutdown of mosques, requiring all Muslims to register and be tracked in a national database, and bringing back waterboarding. He tweeted out fabricated statistics about black-on-white crime from a neo-Nazi group, later defending the source of the data as the output of “experts.” Most recently, as his supporters beat a protester that had cried out “Black lives matter,” Trump said the man had it coming.
As CNN reported:
Donald Trump suggested Sunday the half-dozen white attendees at his campaign rally on Saturday may have reacted appropriately when they shoved, tackled, punched and kicked a black protester who disrupted his speech.
“Maybe he should have been roughed up because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing,” Trump said Sunday morning on Fox News, less than 24 hours after his campaign said it “does not condone” the physical altercation.
Trump had warned in August after Black Lives Matter activists disrupted a Bernie Sanders campaign event that if the movement’s activists protested one of his events, they would have a fight on their hands.
“That will never happen with me,” Trump said after Sanders, a Democratic presidential candidate, let Black Lives Matter activists take over one of his events.
“I don’t know if I’ll do the fighting myself, or if other people will,” Trump said then.
As Southall took blows on Saturday, Trump tried to press on with his stump speech, but paused to remark at the apparent disruption and said, “Get ’em the hell out of here.”
This kind of stuff is nauseating, but worse has been watching the way voters have responded to Trump’s vile cruelty. Every time he shows just how hateful he really is, his poll numbers skyrocket. Trump feels no shame over his bigotry, and Republican voters are rewarding him for it.
What does this have to do with American Christians? Everything. As the Pew Research Center explained earlier this year:
Republicans lead in leaned party identification by 48 points among Mormons and 46 points among white evangelical Protestants. Younger white evangelicals (those under age 35) are about as likely older white evangelicals to identify as Republicans or lean Republican.
In other words, Christians make up an overwhelming portion of the Republican base that will be voting in the primaries — voters that polls consistently show supporting Trump and his toxic ideology. This isn’t just a function of statistical probability; polls specific to religious affiliation further validate those projections. As NPR points out:
Trump is winning over Christian conservatives in the current Republican presidential primary.
That’s right — the candidate currently leading among the most faith-filled voters is a twice-divorced casino mogul, who isn’t an active member of any church, once supported abortion rights, has a history of crass language — and who says he’s never asked God’s forgiveness for any of it.
If that sounds like an Onion story, it’s not. His blunt talk against a broken political system in a country rank-and-file evangelicals believe is veering away from its traditional cultural roots is connecting. He pledges to “Make America Great Again,” a positive spin on the similar Tea Party refrain of “Take Our Country Back.”
That redeeming message — and his tough talk on immigration, foreign policy and the Republican establishment — is quite literally trumping traditional evangelical concerns about a candidate’s morality or religious beliefs.
The polls so far bear that out. A national CNN poll out last week showed Trump (32 percent) and retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson (28 percent) as the top choices among self-identified evangelicals.
In South Carolina, a state where nearly two-thirds of the GOP electorate identifies as evangelical or born-again Christians, Trump led Carson 33 to 13 percent, according to an August Monmouth University poll. In Iowa, Monmouth had Trump narrowly behind Carson with religious voters.
It’s an astonishing development, particularly considering the rest of the Republican presidential field. He leads a Southern Baptist minister in former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee, two sons of preachers in Cruz and Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, plus former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, who won over Iowa evangelicals four years ago to take the first presidential nominating contest.
So much for “walking the walk,” eh?
Let’s be painfully clear here. Trump is the polar opposite of the supposedly widespread progressive version of Christianity. Trump holds a substantial lead among American Christians. In no world does this picture affirm the persistent refrains of self-proclaimed progressive Christian leadership that today’s Christians are somehow better than those of days gone by. Believing as much in the face of these facts is little more than wishful thinking.
To quote The Who, “Meet the new boss… same as the old boss.”