Today Facebook’s Oversight Board effectively extended former President Donald Trump’s suspension from the platform – though it left the door open for Facebook to reinstate him later. Those of us horrified by Trump’s dangerous speech may well breathe a (small) sigh of relief.
But Facebook or no Facebook, Trump-ism is far from gone. The greatest, lasting damage his rhetoric did was not the January 6 riot –- awful as it was — but rather the impression he has left upon so many well-intentioned Americans that he remains a necessary, even God-ordained defender of their faith and values.
Unrepentant, Trump and his political allies continue to foment many lies, including that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. This behavior not only stokes violence among some of his most ardent supporters, but – perhaps more importantly – continues to cast serious doubt in the minds of good people across the United States about whether they are being duped and conspired against by their own institutions. These fantastic claims lack one shred of evidence, anywhere; and yet, throngs of everyday Americans remain compelled by them.
White evangelical Christians, in particular, make up a notorious proportion of these Americans. As a devout evangelical Christian myself, I have heard the Trump-stoked doubts and fear in personal conversations with my brothers and sisters in the faith. These well-intentioned friends and family of mine continue to cling to Trump-ism as a bulwark against a wide variety of perceived threats, and as a necessity to defend and shore up their very way of life. And they are in no small company.
Trump-ism has stuck, and it has stuck – particularly and perversely – among white evangelical Christians. Trump may no longer have a platform on the world’s most famous social network; but his vile policies and dangerous rhetoric have embedded themselves in the living and breathing communities of this nation’s conservative evangelicals, who remain a powerful voting block. For those of us determined to do the concrete work of redeeming this nation from the ongoing evils of Trump-ism (and, God-forbid, of preventing their resurgence), our focus must now turn to communities such as these: communities such as mine.
As someone who loves and seeks to follow Jesus Christ, nothing sends a shiver down my spine more than certain signs seen brandished around the nation in recent years. They were all over the Capitol and its environs on January 6, dotted amongst the violent extremists who quite literally attacked the seat of American democracy. The absurd message emblazoned on those signs: “God, Guns, and Trump.”
We are all well aware that these particular banners, and the many variations on their theme, do not belong merely to a violent fringe. Far more alarming, their slogan is embraced as a cornerstone by a much larger group of Americans. This population includes many people who did not and would not resort to armed insurrection, but who nevertheless continue to support the extremists’ blind faith in a wild idea: that a hate-spewing demagogue must somehow be the agent of a loving God, and a bullying narcissist the besieged savior of an upright nation.
Many from outside the evangelical community have rightly observed the incongruity of such professions, even from their earliest appearance. And a stalwart minority of leaders from within evangelical Christianity has also called out this agonizing contradiction in terms, which would lift high the name of Jesus in lockstep with the very values he most decried. But these evangelical voices, still, remain all too lonely.
In the wake of the events of January 6, and as 2021 continues to wear on, it has become even more urgent for the American evangelical Christian community – un-monolithic as it may be – to speak with one voice against Trump-ism itself, as an ideology and a value system. Facebook called out Trump’s dangerous speech and drew at least the beginning of an ethical line in the sand. Certainly, we who claim to be committed Christians, who claim serve a God of Love and Truth, must do the same. The Church is in a sorry state indeed if it is willing to leave this moral high ground to a corporation, while itself remaining silent – or worse.
From local pastors to household names, leaders of the evangelical flock must not be content to lament only the most recent climax of Trump-ist violence, which spewed forth, volcano-like, on January 6; they must go further, and also acknowledge and reject the source of that violence. We still have an active volcano churning a hairs’ breadth beneath the ground, and to insist on de-coupling the events of January 6 from their factual, undisguised source is to remain complicit in that violence itself, which was merely a symptom. And it is to help lay the groundwork – wittingly or not – for the next, possibly more fatal, eruption.
Prior to the climactic events of January 2021, a few white evangelical voices did get it right. In a 2019 viral video circulated by Now This, renowned pastor and theologian Jim Wallis declared, bravely and unshakably: “When your policies and your words are antithetical to everything Jesus said and did, those policies are anti-Christ;” and, “to be a Christian is to stand against the anti-Christ policies coming from the [Trump] White House.”
In December of 2019, during the first impeachment trial, Christianity Today (incidentally, the magazine founded by world-renowned evangelist Billy Graham), also took a stand. Its then-editor created some ripples in the evangelical community when he wrote:
“That [Trump] should be removed, we believe, is not a matter of partisan loyalties but loyalty to the Creator of the Ten Commandments.”… “To use an old cliché, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that… we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence….”
These and other white evangelical Christian voices were a stalwart minority: the outliers calling their brothers and sisters in the faith to embrace Godly clarity and wisdom and truth. But they remained largely unheeded, often dismissed as that anathema of the American religious right: as compromised “liberal elites” or wayward “progressives” (labels which, while wielded with contempt, are usually left undefined). And today, those of us horrified by the evils of Trump-ism remain minority voices within white American evangelical circles. Polls say that around 8 out of 10 Americans who identify as evangelicals supported Trump, not just in the beginning of his political ascent, but also throughout 2020.
Here’s what needs to happen: every local pastor, and certainly any Christian leader with an even larger following, must, in the words of Christianity Today, “call a spade a spade.” With one voice and without further conditions, the evangelical church in this country needs to repent, and to declare not only that the act of ransacking the Capitol and the physical violence was wrong, but also that Trump-ism itself is a sin. The rhetoric, behavior, and public policy that has always defined this individual is not, by any Christian definition, Godly. To cite only a few examples:
- Lies about the election results, as well as a long-term, definitive culture of lying, led directly to the Capitol riot. Trump’s “gradual and insidious” anti-truth rhetoric laid the groundwork for the violence on January 6, long before that fateful day.
- Lies about the objective realities of COVID-19, as well as the politicization of wearing masks – an absurd phenomenon almost unique to the United States – have led to untold deaths. We cannot chart the causal chain of each death individually, but the science and math of epidemiology confirms them with zero doubt. The science-denial and outright negligence of the Trump administration with regard to the pandemic has already cost a horrific price in human blood: according to health experts at The Lancet, “tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths”.
- Lies about the so-called threat of immigrants have led to horrendous policies that unapologetically defy the basic human rights norms of any civilized society. These policies have irrevocably destroyed and outright ended many innocent lives, each of which would unquestionably be classified by Jesus as one of the most vulnerable, or “the least of these.” All this cruelty in the very name of the One who preached that:
“I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me. I was thirsty, and you didn’t give me a drink. I was a stranger, and you didn’t invite me into your home. I was naked, and you didn’t give me clothing. I was sick and in prison, and you didn’t visit me…. I tell you the truth, when you refused to help the least of these my brothers and sisters, you were refusing to help me.”
- The active choice to lie by omission about our nation’s history – of choosing not to acknowledge the founding violence that our government has consciously inflicted upon African Americans, Native Americans, and countless people of other nations – continues to leave so many of our brothers and sisters marginalized and, yes, actually dead. What greater clarity of historical fact, what greater abundance of contemporary testimony, could possibly be needed to convince those who would deny justice and dignity to their fellows?
- Lies about the reality of the climate crisis may in fact leave us all (or else our unborn children and grandchildren) prematurely destitute or dead; and even should we still manage to avoid a worst-case outcome, Jesus’ “least of these” will, once again, pay the price of the lies first and hardest – indeed, they already are, both within the United States and around the world.
- The arrogant lie of American exceptionalism, and the crass ideology of “America first”, is an active repudiation of the Biblical truth that each and every human being ever created has an equal and intrinsic value, as one who bears the “image of God” Himself. A modus operandi based on one’s own exceptionalism is, by definition, the antithesis of God’s second Commandment to humanity: to “love your neighbor as you love yourself.” It is the very opposite of the sacrificial, brother-loving sacrifice that Christians believe Christ made for all of humanity – who were not merely his siblings, but his unrepentant inferiors — on the cross.
- The embrace of conspiracy theories in general, as well as the kind of knee-jerk and un-critical thinking that leads to them, is not an act of faith – it is the opposite. Willful blindness is not a mark of holiness, but dishonors God by rejecting His gift to us of the human mind and its ability to seek wisdom through reason. To embrace intellectual laziness and outright truth-denial is to reject the Biblical principle of good stewardship of the resources God gives us – including what is perhaps that richest of all divine gifts, our human mind.
Such powerful inconsistencies between the Gospel of Jesus and the words and deeds of Trump-ism cannot be dismissed or papered over. To borrow the words of Jesus to the first-century Pharisees, they cannot simply be “white-washed” away as an example of some laudable “authenticity”, or harmless “color”, or even a few less-than-ideal character flaws that are somehow still worth the collateral damage in human suffering. More than a few evangelical Christians like to make the excuse that even though they don’t agree with everything Trump says and does, the purported Biblical ends still justify his “less-than-perfect” means. (Normally, these supposedly righteous ends boil down to only two narrow obsessions: overturning Roe v. Wade and enforcing a traditional view of marriage and gender as bluntly and expansively as possible – often with little regard for the rest of the Gospel.) Such callousness flies in the face of the teachings of Jesus. Those mere “flaws” of Trump, as pretended by his apologists, are actually fundamental character traits, which result in fundamentally evil language and fundamentally evil policies. The only holy action is to denounce them outright, and then work to rescue and restore those who have born the brunt of their cruelty.
Since the insurrection, many of Trump-ism’s staunchest proponents have felt compelled to (finally) adjust their tune – audibly, if just barely. Certain evangelical leaders are no exception. However, while some figures have expressed disappointment at the violence seen on January 6, and their reactions do suggest a softening in tone, their proclamations are tepid, at best.
Franklin Graham, son of the evangelist Billy Graham, could be called a mega-celebrity of sorts within evangelical Christian circles. Since the political rise of Trump-ism, Mr. Graham has stood fervently by the candidate and then the President. Post-insurrection, he did tweet that Americans should pray for President-elect Biden and for a divided nation to find healing; and yet, on January 14, he wrote on Facebook:
“Shame, shame on the ten Republicans who joined with Speaker Pelosi and the House Democrats in impeaching President Trump yesterday. After all that he has done for our country, you would turn your back and betray him so quickly? … the House Democrats impeached him because they hate him and want to do as much damage as they can. And these ten, from his own party, joined in the feeding frenzy. It makes you wonder what the thirty pieces of silver were that Speaker Pelosi promised for this betrayal.”
“Thirty pieces of silver” is a reference to Judas Iscariot’s famous betrayal of Jesus Christ, as recounted in the Gospels; in speaking of the second impeachment of Trump, Graham is simutaneously alluding to the pivotal act that led to the crucification of Jesus himself. It would seem that for Graham, fealty to Trump — the unabashed liar who openly incited the Capitol mob — and fealty to Jesus were somehow connected.
Far from offering a repudiation of the vile policies and speech that have always defined the now- former president, Graham declares that “we knew he had flaws when he ran for office in 2016. But I, and millions of others, voted for him because of the platform and policies he promised. I still support those.” It is an inexplicable exoneration of Trump’s character and words and policies, which led directly to the very violence Graham so laments. It’s cognitive dissonance and it’s dangerous.
Other prominent evangelical supporters of Trump, such as Pastor Robert Jeffress of Dallas, Texas, have also ultimately conceded that Biden legitimately won the Presidency and that the violence of January 6 was wrong, even “sinful.” Yet in a January 9 opinion piece for Fox News, Jeffress affirms that his support for Trump’s policies remain firm, as they stem from his interpretation of the Bible. And, while lamenting the bitterness and division on full display in the nation, he paints it as a general malaise coming from “all over the political spectrum”. He not only refuses to connect the dots between the violence and its source, but he continues to affirm his support for that source as a principled, faith-led choice.
We have heard all this before. It’s the old narrative that we all just need to get along. It chalks up the turmoil to two disagreeing sides of equal power who are (allegedly) both responsible for the carnage, even though only one of them wields the lion’s share of privilege and power, and only one has such a blatant and documented trail of violent language and policy. We heard the same “on many sides” argument from Trump himself in 2017, after neo-Nazis marched on Charlottesville, Virginia wielding, quite literally, torches of fire.
Such a pseudo-lament and call for “unity” at the expense of truth is not only inadequate, it is hypocritical and, yes, sinful. Real unity can only come as a function of justice, when we acknowledge the hurts and transgressions of the past: when we – as Jesus himself declared – repent. In the refusal of these purported Christian leaders to do so, one cannot help but be reminded of certain religious elites of first-century Palestine, for whom Jesus had choice words. In Chapter 23 of Matthew’s Gospel, Christ famously declares:
“Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. ….on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness.”
Would that today’s American evangelical religious establishment finally heeded these words from their Savior – without qualification, and with one accord. By the grace of God, it is not yet too late.
Jesus Himself made the radical and – yes – divisive claim that:
“Anyone who isn’t with me opposes me, and anyone who isn’t working with me is actually working against me.”
Genuinely faithful people are being confused as to what to be for and what to be against – as to what is true and what is false – and it is the silence of so many of their faith leaders that allows such vast numbers of them to be led astray.
It is hardly the first time the Christian church has seen such a phenomenon. In 2016, historian Joe Loconte recounted “the sad story of when Christians anointed another political bully”, well “before Donald Trump”, circa AD 800. One may of course find many moments in human history where religion – Christianity included – has been manipulated to justify horrendous evil in the name of righteousness, and often with the full-throated endorsement of pious authorities. But hindsight is 20-20. We must also be able to recognize these evils when they rear their heads in our own time, and when they emerge not as some external, Other-ized threat, but from the flawed depths of our own beloved communities.
We in the American evangelical community will never agree on exact theologies, and even less so on exact policy prescriptions for how to apply even our shared theology within a pluralistic, democratic society. But we must – at the very least – stand shoulder to shoulder against any word or deed that egregiously defies the Kingdom of God we claim to seek.
You don’t have to be in the so-called “progressive” faction of American evangelicals to believe that all human life must be shown dignity, whether it’s a foreigner seeking refuge, an unborn baby, or a scared, pregnant teenager trapped in poverty with limited options; that our democracy is precious; that objective truth and evidence-based knowledge is important; that an ethic of personal responsibility, not rants and tantrums, is the only Godly way to behave; that love of neighbor and especially of enemy may take many forms, but that it (most emphatically) does not, cannot look like the words and policies emanating from a person like Donald Trump. It’s time evangelical leaders stopped worrying about offending people politically, lest by keeping silent, they offend Jesus Himself. These are not shades of gray. The phenomenon playing out in front of us is the epitome of Dangerous Speech, which has been shown across countries, cultures, and centuries to lead to dangerous deeds and ultimately to violence. We have already seen it happen here and now, most recently and obviously on Capitol Hill; but we know it is capable of far worse destruction if left unchecked.
“Beware of false prophets who come disguised as harmless sheep but are really vicious wolves. You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act. Can you pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? A good tree produces good fruit, and a bad tree produces bad fruit. A good tree can’t produce bad fruit, and a bad tree can’t produce good fruit. … just as you can identify a tree by its fruit, so you can identify people by their actions.”
The Gospels make it clear: there is no possible congruency with evil for followers of Jesus Christ. It is a contradiction in terms. God does not work out His divine will in alignment with those who perpetrate evil. He works out that will in spite of them. He stands against them; and his followers, by definition, must do the same. To do so is not to be partisan – it is to stand by Jesus Christ. And to do anything less is to dethrone the word of God and to preach another gospel, whether explicitly or implicitly.
The wolf in our midst today is barely even disguised, and yet many well-intentioned, faithful followers of Jesus continue to be deceived. Even to this day, after a direct incitement to insurrection and as the wolfish features glare beyond transparency, too many evangelical leaders continue to do the unthinkable: to cover their eyes. They deny the presence of the wolf before them, some even doubling down on the impossible and imagined sheep-like credentials of this false idol. Enough. The shepherds of God’s flock must speak out, or they will continue to lead themselves, their flock, and perhaps even the country itself, straight into the wolf’s mouth.
It is long past time for the American evangelical community – with one, unified voice – to follow in Jesus’ footsteps, to overturn the tables of the money changers in our own temple, and to call out a would-be King Herod for the murderous evil that lies at the heart of his political speech and his political (and personal) deeds. We need not agree on much more, but at least on this foundational point, the Church must finally cry out in unison. For each and every Christian, and most especially for Christian leaders, it is now or never. This moment demands nothing less than holy anger and — in the words of one notoriously authentic man of faith, “good trouble”. True American patriotism demands it; and still more does the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Jessica Haney is an American political analyst and writer. Her work focuses on the relationships between religion and politics, as well as trends in democratic and authoritarian forms of governance. She is a devout evangelical Christian.