I would like to have been a fly on the wall at Tuesday’s gathering of more than a thousand evangelical leaders and activists with the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. The meeting has garnered comparatively little media attention thus far, in large part because the assembly was closed to the press—all news outlets, not just those on Donald Trump’s black list—and second-hand testimony is only slowing beginning to come in.
According to an article in the Atlantic, Ben Carson, Jerry Falwell Jr., and pollster George Barna were among those addressing the audience. After Trump spoke, former presidential aspirant Mike Huckabee moderated a scripted Q&A which Christian author Eric Metaxas described in a tweet as “eye-opening.” Hmmm. The most detailed first-hand evidence concerning the substance of Trump’s remarks comes from a tweeted video of a portion of the address from a Christian radio host in the audience. The video captures Trump discouraging the audience from praying for our nation’s officeholders. “We can’t be, again, politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders,” Trump explains, “because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes.”
Three quick reactions come to mind: First, the quote is quintessential Trump—a sweeping declaration unburdened by evidence, appealing to emotion instead of reason, and designed to prey on the fear and anger that it incites.
Second, to the degree that evangelicals buy into such rhetoric, it encourages us to conceive of ourselves as an innocent and aggrieved majority in need of a political savior, rather than as pilgrims and strangers called to be light to a fallen world while recognizing that our citizenship is in heaven.
Finally, given Trump’s self-professed veneration for the Bible (he claims to like it even better than The Art of the Deal), I am struck by his disregard for the New Testament’s stricture that “prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men, for kings and all who are in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and reverence” (I Timothy 2:1-2). I guess the apostle Paul was simply too “politically correct.”
The Trump campaign followed up Tuesday’s gathering by announcing the appointment of an “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board.” According to the official media announcement, the group of twenty-five mostly white male pastors will “provide advisory support to Mr. Trump on those issues important to evangelicals and other persons of faith in America.” The press release goes on to explain that the creation of this board represents Trump’s “endorsement of those diverse issues important to Evangelicals and other Christians, and his desire to have access to the wise counsel of such leaders as needed.”
The announcement continues, supposedly quoting Trump as saying, “I have such tremendous respect and admiration for this group and I look forward to continuing to talk about the issues important to Evangelicals, and to Americans, and the common sense solutions I will implement when I am president.”
So let’s boil this down and see what we have: A candidate known for his erratic inconsistency and unpredictability has just issued a blanket endorsement of “issues important to evangelicals” without naming a single one. A supremely self-confident celebrity famous for going his own way has promised to take seriously the “wise counsel” of evangelical advisers “as needed.” (Who will get to decide when he “needs” it?)
Should anyone find this reassuring? More to the point, would anyone who takes the Constitution’s checks and balances seriously fail to shudder at Trump’s confidence that he can unilaterally “implement” solutions to the issues that concern evangelicals (whatever they are)?
You can find the list of Trump’s evangelical advisers here. I’m not familiar with the majority of those on the list, but a minority I surely recognize: James Dobson, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress, Ronnie Floyd, David Jeremiah, and Ralph Reed, among others. The Trump campaign’s press release makes clear that the individuals named to the board “were not asked to endorse Mr. Trump as a prerequisite for participating on the board,” and some of those named have been openly critical of Trump in the past. And yet, can anyone doubt that Trump will use the very existence of the board as a campaign talking point to buttress his appeal among the evangelical rank and file?
As I write this, I am mindful of a book that I read earlier in the summer: Christianity and American Democracy, by Hugh Heclo. Heclo is a professor of Public Policy at George Mason University and a scholar who has spent much of his career exploring the interactions of faith and politics in American life. In the book, which originated in a major public lecture at Harvard a decade ago, Heclo describes and evaluates the interplay of democratic values and Christian convictions since the American founding. The general pattern that he describes should give every Christian pause: when tenets of orthodox Christian belief have clashed with prevailing democratic values, it is more often Christian belief that has retreated and conformed to the democratic culture, not the other way around.
Even more to the point is Heclo’s timely warning:
Worldly power, being worldly, is always ready and willing to use religion to win fights with political opponents.
Whatever the motives of those who have accepted a position on Trump’s advisory board, I fear that they are being used. And if Heclo is right, the end result is less likely to be a government that is more Christian than a Church that is more worldly.