Donald Trump and the heresy of white evangelical Christianity
As Donald Trump leaves the White House in disgrace, the time has come for the evangelical Christians who supported him to examine their consciences and embark on the road to repentance, writes Joshua Searle
Throughout his term in office, Trump has used Christianity as a convenient tool. For Trump, Christianity has served as a hammer to drive an even deeper wedge into American society. Whether it was inflammatory rhetoric about Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” or telling non-White American-born members of Congress to “go back to their countries” or describing far-right extremists and anti-Semites in Charlottesville as “fine people”, Donald Trump’s goal has been clear all along: to divide the country into warring factions and to leverage this factionalism in order to intensify the sense of grievance and to win popular support.
Trump’s attempts to sow discord and conflict have found resonance among two groups whose adamantine support for Trump has remained rock solid throughout all the scandals, lies and corruption of his term in office. These two groups are: (1) white supremacists; and (2) evangelical Christians. In the Trumpist movement, these two groups coalesce into a political movement that is fuelled by dangerous falsehoods, blind faith, post-truth disdain for scientific expertise and objective reality, violent hostility towards enemies (imaginary and real), and conspiratorial thinking.
The pernicious fusion of pseudo-Christian piety and far-right extremist ideology has been plain for all to see since Trump was first propelled into the White House on a wave of support from white evangelicals – over 80 per cent of whom voted for him in 2016 and 75 per cent in 2020. On 6 January, during the storming of the Capitol Building, we witnessed what happens when delusion, ignorance and violence collide. During this infamous raid, we saw the appalling spectacle of white supremacist nationalists marching literally shoulder-to-shoulder with evangelical Christians through the citadel of American democracy.
Among those pious Christians who led the murderous rampage through the Capitol was a group of far-right extremists known as the “Proud Boys”. These “Proud Boys” had presumably been on “stand by”, waiting for this day, ever since their chief promoter, Donald Trump, notoriously told them to “stand back and stand by” ahead of the election.
Before setting out on the march, many in this group (who were dressed in paramilitary apparel and donning t-shirts emblazoned with the slogan, “God-Guns-Trump”), knelt down in prayer and recited biblical passages. They asked for divine assistance for the violent assault that they were about to launch as part of their holy crusade to overturn the result of a democratic election in favour of a would-be dictator.
Once inside the Capitol, the pro-Trump mob gathered inside the Senate chamber. In one disturbing video clip, filmed by one of the rioters, a group of men can be seen gathered around the seat in the centre of the chamber, lifting their hands to heaven and loudly invoking the name of Jesus. They then begin praying to “our heavenly Father” and thanking “god” for their “Christian nation”, while in the background a protester can be heard shouting obscenities and protesting about a “stolen election.”
The deplorable spectacle of anarchy and violence was thus rendered doubly abhorrent by the sight of Christian rituals, images, and symbols. Amid the various pro-Trump paraphernalia (such as t-shirts printed with preposterous QAnon conspiracy slogans, MAGA hats, Confederate flags, and neo-Nazi and anti-Semitic placards), were large banners displaying the words “Jesus 2020” and “Jesus Saves”. Some rioters brandished crosses in one hand and “Trump 2020” banners in the other. Others wore t-shirts and carried flags that displayed biblical verses alongside quotes from the conspiratorial “QAnon” movement.
Although not all of the protesters would have identified as evangelical Christians, the violent march on 6 January 2021 was, among other things, a demonstration of White Evangelical Power. Many evangelical rioters believed that they were engaged in a holy war. This was an example of White evangelical jihad being waged against all kinds of enemies, real and imaginary: “liberals”, “RINOs”, “never-Trumpers”, “the mainstream media”, the “deep-state”, etc.
The evangelical Christians who participated in this “Save America Rally” presented the conflict in apocalyptic terms as a battle of Good versus Evil. According to this apocalyptic worldview, “Good” is equated with Trump and anyone or anything that supports Trump; “Evil” is equated with anyone or anything that is opposed to Trump. It seems that for some evangelicals, Trump trumps even the Gospel of Christ as the ultimate source of revelation and truth and criterion of good and evil.
It is hopefully self-evident to those reading this article that the idolisation of a corrupt autocrat, the use of violence and the promotion of preposterous conspiratorial falsehoods have nothing to do with the teachings of Christ or with the ancient traditions of orthodox Christianity. The Bible is full of dire warnings of the disastrous consequences that ensue when a nation abandons faith in the living God and turns to the worship of idols. If we were living in the first centuries of the church, it is likely that there would have been an ecumenical council by now in order to condemn the new heresy of “White Evangelical Christianity.”
This is not, of course, to condemn all white evangelicals as heretics. The censure applies only to those who self-identify as evangelical Christians, but whose conduct, attitudes and values are totally opposed to the Gospel of Christ, and who elevate the idols of political ideologies, race, nationhood and false messiahs above Christ and the Gospel.
In my experience, most white Trump-supporting evangelicals, in contrast to the “Proud Boys” and other extremist groups, are not bigots, racists or white supremacists. On the contrary, many are sincere, pious, godly people who genuinely believed that Trump would save American Christianity from the “socialists”, “Marxists” and “Antifa”. These sincere supporters of Trump are victims of the massive and sophisticated disinformation campaign that emanates from Trump himself and is reinforced by influential evangelical leaders and then amplified in social media echo chambers. They have been deceived and misled, but they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ.
There is therefore a way back for Trump-supporting White evangelicals, but the way leads along the road of repentance. It is important to say that repentance is not a matter or firing off a Tweet or a statement on Facebook that expresses a vague sense of regret. Biblical repentance is about so much more than a verbal apology that we say once and then we’re finished. Repentance from a biblical perspective is a way of life. Repentance requires a constant vigilance against the ever-present threat of idolatry. Repentance means turning our lives away from idols and walking towards the light of Christ.
My hope and prayer for my fellow evangelicals in America and throughout the world is that we can learn the painful lessons of the last four years about what it means to be both citizens of our countries and disciples of Christ. Here in Britain we might take comfort in the thought that “this could never happen over here.” But it would be wrong to assume that we in the UK (or anywhere else in the world) are immune from the appeal of authoritarian strongmen who use Christianity as a cudgel to wield in their struggle to obtain political power and popular support.
If any good comes out of the chaos and destruction of Trump’s disastrous misrule, it may be that the global evangelical Christian community will be able to learn important lessons about the need to cherish gospel values of truth, compassion, peace and reconciliation. Those who follow Christ today must learn to reject falsehood, hatred, violence and conflict — even when these things are promoted under the banner of Christianity. Perhaps this is a naïve and absurdly optimistic hope, but I still believe in the power of the Gospel of Christ to change hearts and to lead even those in the deepest darkness back towards the light. The falsehoods of Trump and QAnon, powerful and alluring as they may appear, are as nothing compared to the truth of Christ and the power of the Gospel.
So far, Joe Biden’s simple humanity and dignity have presented a stark contrast to Trump’s monstrous narcissism and posturing. Whatever our political affiliations, I hope that all Christian people will come together to pray for Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as they take office and begin the slow and difficult process of healing and reconciliation.
Image | History in HD | Unsplash
Joshua T. Searle is Tutor in Theology and Public Thought; and Director of Postgraduate Studies at Spurgeon's College
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