The Chris­tian right sur­ren­ders faith for pol­i­tics

Cecil Whig - - FRONT PAGE - Michael Ger­son

— Oh God — and I mean the en­treaty se­ri­ously — the Trump/evan­gel­i­cal sum­mit in New York was just as bad as some of us feared.

More than 900 con­ser­va­tive Chris­tian lead­ers, put in a sus­cep­ti­ble mood by a “prayer guide” (“Ac­knowl­edge any per­sonal feel­ings that would keep you from hon­or­ing Mr. Trump for his par­tic­i­pa­tion”) wit­nessed Don­ald Trump field some soft­ball ques­tions. This was re­as­sur­ing enough to re­ward him with a stand­ing ova­tion and a pos­i­tive buzz. Trump can now (ac­cu­rately) as­sume that these cler­ics and ac­tivists won’t be giv­ing him much more trou­ble.

Many par­tic­i­pants

WASH­ING­TON

in­sist they haven’t yet given Trump their en­dorse­ment. The whole event, how­ever, was taken — by the press, pub­lic and Trump cam­paign it­self — as an evan­gel­i­cal stamp of ap­proval. Sel­dom has a group seemed more ea­ger to be ex­ploited.

No one, re­mark­ably, asked Trump to ex­plain the moral the­ory that has guided his gy­ra­tions on the abor­tion is­sue — from sup­porter of par­tial­birth abor­tion to ad­vo­cate of pun­ish­ment for women who have abor­tions. That, pre­sum­ably, would have been im­po­lite. And few were of­fended when Trump used the oc­ca­sion to ques­tion Hil­lary Clin­ton’s faith. “She’s been in the pub­lic eye for years and years,” he said, “and yet there’s no — there’s noth­ing out there.” It is like watch­ing a man in­sult a mir­ror.

In the course of the event, Trump promised to nom­i­nate judges whom evan­gel­i­cals would fa­vor; to change laws that re­strict church in­volve­ment in par­ti­san pol­i­tics; and to foster a cul­tural ethos that al­lows the un­apolo­getic us­age of “Merry Christ­mas.” “You get racism, misog­yny, tor­ture and an au­thor­i­tar­ian as com­man­der in chief,” one evan­gel­i­cal leader wrote me, “but you’ll get to hear ‘Merry Christ­mas’ in stores. Now that’s the art of the deal.”

There is a case for re­luc­tant sup­port of Trump over Clin­ton — a weak one, I think, but em­braced by some se­ri­ous peo­ple. Yet this event was not the tor­tured search for par­tial truths in a fallen world. It was a sad par­ody of Chris­tian po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment, sum­ma­riz­ing all the faults and fail­ures of the re­li­gious right.

We were re­minded, first, that many re­li­gious con­ser­va­tives are a cheap po­lit­i­cal date. The late Chuck Col­son of­ten de­scribed how, dur­ing the Nixon ad­min­is­tra­tion, re- li­gious lead­ers (as op­posed to, say, union lead­ers) were eas­ily im­pressed and tamed by the prox­im­ity to power. Af­ter Tues­day’s meet­ing, the Chris­tian writer Eric Me­taxas, in pro­mot­ing his ra­dio show, tweeted “I WAS RIGHT THERE!” Why such wideeyed re­ac­tions from some in at­ten­dance? A pant­ing de­sire for af­fir­ma­tion rooted in feel­ings of in­fe­ri­or­ity? A dis­ori­ent­ing fear of fad­ing cul­tural in­flu­ence? Echoes, in em­brac­ing a bil­lion­aire, of the pros­per­ity gospel? What­ever the mo­ti­va­tion, the pub­lic has seen a move­ment con­tent with a pat on the head and a scratch un­der the chin.

We are re­minded, se­cond, that much of the re­li­gious right’s crit­i­cism of Pres­i­dent Bill Clin­ton’s char­ac­ter was a ploy. Franklin Gra­ham now ar­gues that be­cause Abra­ham lied, Moses dis­obeyed God and David com­mit­ted adul­tery, Trump should get a pass, not just on his per­sonal be­hav­ior, but on his de­cep­tion, cru­elty and ap­peal to big­otry. It is a non se­quitur re­veal­ing the cyn­i­cal sub­or­di­na­tion of faith to pol­i­tics.

Third, we are see­ing a group fo­cused on the rights and priv­i­leges of their own com­mu­nity, rather than the wel­fare of others — the poor, strug­gling and vul­ner­a­ble. Many in that room do won­der­ful good works. But they have re­duced Chris­tian po­lit­i­cal in­volve­ment to a nar­row, spe­cial in­ter­est — and a par­tic­u­larly an­gry and unattrac­tive one. A pow­er­ful source of pas­sion for so­cial jus­tice — a faith that once mo­ti­vated abo­li­tion­ism and var­i­ous move­ments for civil and hu­man rights — has been tamed and triv­i­al­ized.

It is not the first time. Dur­ing the civil rights move­ment in the 1960s, one of the main or­gans of white evan­gel­i­cal opin­ion, Chris­tian­ity To­day, de­fended “vol­un­tary segre- gation,” crit­i­cized the March on Wash­ing­ton as a “mob spec­ta­cle” and took the side of the Univer­sity of Mis­sis­sippi against James Mered­ith. While that magazine is now a vo­cal ad­vo­cate for racial rec­on­cil­i­a­tion and so­cial jus­tice, the bad po­lit­i­cal choices of many evan­gel­i­cals at a defin­ing moral mo­ment still damn and dam­age their move­ment.

It is hap­pen­ing again. Evan­gel­i­cal lead­ers, mo­ti­vated by po­lit­i­cal self-in­ter­est, are cozy­ing up to a leader who has placed big­otry and mal­ice at the cen­ter of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics. They are de­fend­ing the rights of their faith while dis­hon­or­ing its essence. Gen­uine so­cial in­flu­ence will not come by putting Christ back into Christ­mas; it will come by putting Christ and his pri­or­i­ties back into more Chris­tians

Michael Ger­son is a syn­di­cated colum­nist. Con­tact him at michael­ger­son@wash­post. com.

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