Trump, Power, Idolatry, and why I worry about American Evangelicalism

By Joshua Penduck

I write this with a heavy heart. I have been pondering about the continued Evangelical support of Donald Trump in the United States, especially after reading about the Pew Report that nearly 80% of Evangelicals hold his Presidency in high regard. This support began during the election campaign. Despite all the knowledge of his sexual misdeeds and crude language towards women – listen here to his comments made over the years on the Howard Stern radio show or here to his disgusting language from Access Hollywood  – his adulterous past, his statements that he has never asked God for forgiveness and that ‘If I do something wrong I just try to make it right, I don’t bring God into that picture’ – Evangelicals still preferred to support him than the committed Christian Hilary Clinton.  Despite the contrast between Barack Obama’s profound statement of faith at the Easter Prayer Breakfast and Donald Trump’s cancellation of that same tradition the majority of Evangelicals still view Obama as a heretic, an atheist, a Muslim, or evil incarnate, whereas Trump is lauded as being a great Christian.

paula-white
Televangelist Paula White

We see this inexplicably strange conundrum in the televangelist Paula White’s statement that opposition to Donald Trump is essentially opposition to God. You can watch the video here. Notice how quickly White turned from saying we should pray for the President – something I deeply support, no matter how much I may disagree with whoever holds that office, this being Scripturally grounded in 1 Timothy 2.2 and Romans 13.1-5 – to saying that opposition to Trump is demonic, simply because the President surrounds himself with Christians. How I wish White had been as equally passionate about defending President Obama when confronted with Evangelical criticism of his administration!

Roy Moore
Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore

I have also been reading about Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for Alabama’s special Senate election, who has been accused of fondling a 14-year-old girl several decades ago when he was in his 30s. The girl, Leigh Corfman, said that Moore touched over her bra and her underpants, and guided her hand to his shorts. If this is not bad enough, Moore was at that time dating the woman who would later become his wife. If this is true, then it is abominable. However, not all would agree: the Alabama State Auditor, Jim Ziegler, stated that if it was true nothing immoral or illegal was done, and indeed it could be compared to the relation between Joseph and Mary (Joseph being the older man, Mary the teenage girl). The fact that an Evangelical Christian like Ziegler is defending such a disgusting act is shocking. That he makes a near blasphemous association with the Holy Family – Our Lord’s parents – beggars belief. Things become even more horrific when Newsweek reported that 40% of Evangelicals in Alabama say they are more likely to vote for Moore since the allegations have been made. It appears that Evangelicals are beginning to support any candidate, no matter how immoral, as long as they aren’t a Democrat. What is happening to the Evangelical world that they can support such figures like Trump and Moore, despite their blatant immorality?

I would suggest this as an answer: idolatry. Admittedly, this is not a conscious form of idolatry. Most Evangelicals wouldn’t even realise it.[1] But it is an idolatry nonetheless. And who is this false god that is unknowingly worshipped?

Power.

It goes back to the culture wars, in particular the issue over abortion. Since Roe-vs-Wade, Evangelicals – rightly, I would argue[2] – have been in opposition to abortion. The Republican Party has traditionally championed this opposition, and Democrats have opposed it. This meant that despite the connection between many Evangelicals and the Democratic Party prior to 1980, these ties have gradually been severed, mainly because of this one issue. Opposition to abortion has become such a focus for Evangelicals that it has blurred the lines between faith and political allegiance. Overturning Roe-vs-Wade has become the prime reason for Evangelical support of the Republican Party.

So, when Donald Trump promised to begin to overturn it by appointing conservative judges to the Judiciary, the Evangelical faction of the US came on board in supporting him. Despite all his personal immorality, his obvious secularism, his boasting, his greed, and his mistreatment of his workers, they decided to opt for Trump because otherwise Hilary Clinton would get into the White House. They saw an opportune moment and made a pact with a man who, if he happened to have been a Democrat, would have been seen as the devil incarnate. I realise that many Evangelicals really struggled with the idea of supporting him, but since his nomination for Republican candidate, much of this was swept away in order to stop the ‘liberal’ Clinton getting into power. Evangelicals in turn seemed to believe any lie about Clinton – such as weird claims over pizza parlours and child abuse – and refuse to accept the well-founded evidence of Trump’s own wrong-doings.

Why is this idolatry? Simply this: it makes getting to power more important than Christian witness, and in doing so it brings the gospel into disrepute.

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The Cross, the sovereignty and power of God revealed

The prime public outworking of the Christian is to be a witness to Jesus Christ in word and deed, in worship and life. The Cross and Resurrection demonstrate that for Christians, the victory is already won. This means political victories, as well as spiritual ones. There is no more need for fear about the future of our world. God has not elected America to be the world’s salvation – he elected his Son Jesus Christ. It is in him and him alone that all our salvation – both spiritually and politically speaking (for they are ultimately one and the same) – is found. In his victory God’s sovereignty is fully revealed. When Jesus comes again in glory at a time of his Father’s choosing, it is then that the problems of the world will truly be put to right. This means that while Christians long for that day, it is not their job to make it happen. It is by grace, not by works. In the meantime, until Christ’s glorious appearing the Christian’s primary aim in public, after the worship and glorification of God, is to bring others into that loving relationship with Jesus Christ through the witness of their life.

Even in their political decisions, the Christian should be a witness. Their primary question should not be, ‘Who can implement policies I agree with?’, as that prioritises power over God’s sovereignty. Instead, the question should be: ‘Which candidate do I support that in my very support of them those who do not know Christ may be so compelled to seek after Christ?’ It’s not always an easy decision to make positively, but it may help rule out bad candidates. By their life, Christians are to be an attractive presence in the world that causes people to bless God. We see this in the early church: when plagues hit Rome, it was the Christians who stayed in the city to care for the sick whereas others fled. In doing so they brought the Christian faith into such good repute that it caused thousands to be baptised. Yet the Scripture is also clear: we must be aware that people may blaspheme God because of unchristian living amongst the people of God. When this happens, it is not the blasphemous that receive the divine ire, but the people of God themselves. In Romans 2.24, Paul sums up the hypocrisy of legalistic Judaism by citing Isaiah 52.5 and saying, ‘The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.’

By choosing to support a deeply immoral man like Donald Trump because of his opposition to abortion, Evangelical Christians have caused the name of God to be ‘blasphemed amongst the Gentiles’. Christianity is seen by many non-Christians as being associated with support of President Trump. Therefore in rightly rejecting Trump for his immorality, they also tragically reject Jesus Christ. Again and again, I find people making diatribes against Evangelicals for their support of Trump. Evangelicals may claim that it is because of their faith that they are ridiculed: it is not. It is not the foolishness of the Cross which causes mocking laughter, but the hypocrisy of Evangelical politics: for decades they have criticised the immorality of ‘liberals’ such as Bill Clinton, and yet in order to get a piece of power to achieve their aims they have jumped into bed with one of the most personally immoral Presidents of history.

What Evangelicals should have done – like one of my friends from South Missouri – is refuse to vote for Trump. If that meant that they could not in conscience vote for Clinton either, so be it. They need not vote at all. ‘But that would have meant Hilary would get into power!’ is the response. Probably. Why is that something to fear? Would that overthrow the victory of the Cross? Would that impede Jesus Christ’s return? Is God no longer sovereign? Is Hilary Clinton getting into power a worse result than people being turned away from the gospel out of disgust for Evangelical support for Donald Trump?

When we allow our lives to be consumed with idols like Power we see in Romans that God ‘gives us over’ to the lusts of our heart. As Paul writes in Romans 1, ‘Claiming to be wise, they became fools.’ And what is happening to Evangelicalism in America? From the perspective of rest of the world, it is unbelievably foolish. In Alabama, they would rather support a man who has been accused of sexually abusing children rather than a Democrat. Nationally, they would rather say of a man who has no indication of true faith that he is a Christian and a good man, and that a lifelong Christian who happens to be a Democrat is of the devil. In the words of Isaiah 5.20, ‘Woe to you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!’ The extremity of this is seen in the way that Paula White announces that Donald Trump has been given a kind of divine authority, a kind of authority that should be given to one man, and one alone: Jesus Christ the Lord.

Understand I’m not saying this of all Evangelicals. But it is the case that the vast majority of American Evangelicals have become so caught up with getting power that that becomes more important than being a faithful witness to the increasing numbers of secularised young people in America. When Power becomes an idol – whether we are conscious of it or not – it is the integrity of our witness that suffers.

 

[1] I make this statement knowing that I also have unconscious idols in my life. I speak as a sinner amongst sinners.

[2] I understand that this is a controversial statement for many, who would like to oppose it. I’m not about to get into any debates about this, however.

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