After the release of Trump’s sex tape last Friday, Utah’s Republican delegation to Congress was quick to denounce the party nominee and withdraw their endorsements. As a Southern Baptist, I expected many evangelical Christians to follow suit. I was wrong.
According to Christianity Today, only one Christian leader repudiated Trump. Instead, many evangelicals have rallied to defend Trump. Dr. James Dobson denounced Trump’s comments and then quickly pivoted to attack Hillary Clinton on abortion and religious liberty, as did Ralph Reed. Franklin Graham said that Trump’s comments “cannot be defended” and does not endorse any candidate, but said that “the most important issue of this election is the Supreme Court.” Sam Rodriguez, head of the National Hispanic Leadership Conference said that God uses “broken people to accomplish great things.”
Many Christians choose to emphasize God’s forgiveness. What they forget in their rush to forgive Trump is that forgiveness requires repentance (Luke 17:3). Has Donald Trump repented? There is no sign that he has. Last year, Trump was unclear on whether he had ever asked for forgiveness and said that he tried “not to make mistakes where I have to ask for forgiveness” according to the Christian Post. The Bible says that all, including Trump, have sinned (Romans 3:23). When asked about repentance, he said, “I think repenting is terrific.”
I shouldn’t be surprised that Christians are excusing Trump’s behavior. They’ve been doing it for the past year. Most of the discussions about Trump’s sex tape discuss it in a vacuum, as if it is the one blemish on an otherwise spotless record. In reality, I realized long before the revelations of the “Access Hollywood” tape that Trump’s career had been a long history of corruption and lies. He had bragged about cheating on his wife. He had allegedly committed fraud with Trump University. He had boasted in the Republican primary about paying elected officials for favors. Trump was vulgar, insulting and a fountain of false statements. Christians loved him.
Franklin Graham reportedly compared Trump to Moses and David and said that he was better than the alternative. Jerry Falwell, Jr. endorsed Trump over all other Republican candidates last January. Christians compared Trump to the Biblical king, Nebuchadnezzar and pointed out that God used ungodly men to accomplish his will. Eric Metaxas, the author of a biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a German Christian martyr who died resisting Hitler, said in Christian Post that “sometimes you have to hold your nose and vote for the person who is going to do the least damage or who is going to pull you back from the brink.”
My neighbor, Carter, had a large “Veterans for Trump” sign in his living room and gushed, “I think we need a successful businessman.” Jay, one of my coworkers and a devout Christian, would watch Trump press conferences and chortle, “I love this guy.”
To be fair, not all Christians loved Trump. There were a few who stood on principle and told the truth about the “truth-teller.” Two Southern Baptists, Russell Moore and Albert Mohler, were among the few who spoke out against Trump early on. The Religion News Service lists more, such as Max Lucado and Erick Erickson. Rep. Reid Ribble (R-Wisc.) penned “the Evangelical Case Against Donald Trump” last February.
In a supremely ironic incident, Mark DeMoss, a board member at Liberty University, was forced to resign after criticizing Donald Trump’s speech there. I had thought that religious liberty and the freedom to speak your mind were major reasons that Christians supported Trump. Those liberties apparently do not extend to opponents of Trump, at least at Liberty University.
Most of my Christian friends who support Trump seem to do so for three reasons. First, is the Supreme Court. Never mind that Trump backed away from the list of conservative jurists that he promised to use to fill court vacancies. Second, is his purported pro-life platform. Never mind that Trump was the only Republican candidate who supported Planned Parenthood throughout most of the primary, only changing his mind last month. Third, is religious liberty. Never mind that Trump refused to support the First Amendment Defense Act and that he seems disagree with Christians on gay rights. Trump’s commitment to religious liberty seems to not extend past allowing churches to be politically active. Fourth, when all other defenses fail, Trump is “not Hillary.”
In fact, Trump is so “not Hillary” that his supporters seem willing to excuse any sin on that basis. I have watched friends and colleagues that I knew and respected reluctantly board “the Trump Train.” Often, when they do, it’s like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” Once they commit to Trump, all moral concerns fail. No matter what Trump does, it’s all about defeating Hillary because no one is worse than Hillary.
They quickly fall into the moral equivalence trap. They criticize Hillary’s lies, but never mention Trump’s. The condemn Bill Clinton’s behavior, but make excuses for Trump’s. They argue against Hillary’s liberalism, but dismiss Trump’s. One friend, Martin, dismisses Trump’s outlandish and insulting comments as saying “silly things.” Any criticism of Trump leads to the accusation that I must be a closet Hillary supporter and a liberal. They are no longer the people that I had known and respected, using logical fallacies in an attempt to defend the indefensible.
But I still wonder why Mormons, who share many moral beliefs with Christians, are much more outspoken against Donald Trump. It may be because Trump poisoned the well against Mormons during the primary. The socially conservative sect is at odds with Trump’s crude, profane, materialistic lifestyle. As Religion News Service points out, most Mormons are also not anti-immigrant, their forebears having been forced to flee other parts of the country for their religious beliefs. When Trump proposed his Muslim ban, the politically neutral LDS Church responded with a statement on religious freedom.
Trump also has made statements that Mormons consider insulting.
While Trump was alienating Mormons, he was pandering to Christians. Early on, he made the promise that people could say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” if he was elected. But haven’t we always? Buzzfeed revealed in August that Trump needed prepping from his handlers to know how to answer questions about Christianity and social conservatism. An early tipoff of his insincerity was his “Two Corinthians” flub. Trump blamed Family Research Council Tony Perkins for his gaffe according to CNN.
If Donald Trump is biblically illiterate so are most Americans. That is another reason Christians have been slow to offer opposition. A recent survey by Lifeway found that most Americans believe the Bible, they just don’t know what it says. The survey found that, as a whole, evangelical Christians actually knew less about Christian beliefs than Americans at large.
If Christians were reading their Bibles, they might know that Paul commanded them “not to associate with sexually immoral people” (1 Corinthians 5:9) and that “bad company corrupts good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). As Donald Trump bellowed, “I alone can fix it” at the Republican National Convention, they might have thought about Jesus’ warning that “false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24).
One bright spot is that evangelical women seem to be waking up. The Christian Post reports that author Beth Moore and Chelsen Vicari, Evangelical Action Director at the Institute of Religion, have both condemned Trump’s lewd remarks.
In another Christian Post piece, Julie Roys, a host for the Moody Radio Network, says, “I honestly don’t know what makes me more sick. Listening to Trump brag about groping women or listening to my fellow evangelicals defend him.” She also calls the prospect of Hillary Clinton “a disaster of historic proportions.”
“Donald Trump may do less damage to the country than Hillary,” Roys wrote, “but he’s done far worse damage to the evangelical church than anyone in recent history. And let’s remember, the church — not politics — is the only real hope of reforming the character of this nation and saving it from destruction. That’s why the witness of the church is simply not worth trading for a political victory.”
Roys is right. Trump has revealed many Christians to be moral hypocrites. This has hurt their standing in their communities. On a business trip to Atlantic City last spring, my friend Rob, who is an atheist, gleefully snapped pictures of the Trump Taj Mahal. He said that he wanted to use the photos to show Christians who they were campaigning for. The character of many Christians will remain tarnished long after the election is over.
Roys acknowledges the difference between a reluctant vote for Trump and actively making excuses for him. “If you feel you must vote for him to prevent a Clinton presidency, then go ahead, plug your nose and vote,” she writes. “But please, don’t argue like Ralph Reed of the Faith and Freedom Coalition that ‘a 10-year-old tape of a private conversation’ should ‘rank low’ on our “hierarchy of concerns.”
After the election, when the smoke clears and the Trump supporters wake up to the hangover of four years of Hillary Clinton, elected because of their unfaltering support for an extremely flawed, dishonest candidate, maybe Christian Trumpers will realize what they have wrought. Their defense of Trump’s immoral behavior has degraded the whole culture and done serious damage to American Christianity. The church has become hot for politics and “lukewarm” on Jesus and morality. It may be time for a rebuke.