On Trump and Christianity Today

Since its founding by Rev. Billy Graham in 1956 the magazine Christianity Today has been an influential voice in evangelical circles, but little noticed by the rest of the world. That changed on Friday when it ran an editorial urging that President Donald Trump be removed from office, which got so much attention the magazine’s internet site briefly crashed in the unprecedented traffic.
The editorial was newsworthy because poll after poll has shown that Trump enjoys overwhelming support from white self-identified evangelical Christians, with such self-proclaimed evangelical leaders as Graham’s son Franklin Graham among his most obsequious defenders, and Trump’s critics have long been perplexed by the phenomenon.
Trump boasted in “The Art of the Deal” about the many married women he’s seduced, his third wife is a former nude model, he broke federal laws to cover up an affair with a pornographic video performer, he ran casinos and strip clubs, often curses in front of the kids, once tried to kick an elderly widow of her longtime home to build a parking lot for his limousine, and has earned a reputation for stiffing his employees and contractors and investors. He tells at least two or three outright lies a day, his family was recently barred by the New York courts from running a charity because his foundation had stolen money from a children’s cancer program, he pridefully “punches back ten times harder” rather than turn the other cheek, and while running for the Republican nomination he told a Christian forum that he’s never felt the need to ask God’s forgiveness for any of it.
So far as we can tell, Trump’s white evangelical supporters believe he’s punching back ten times harder on their behalf, and therefore deserves a pass. Although he was a staunch advocate for abortion rights through most of his life, he’s kept a promise to appoint Supreme Court justices and lower court judges who might overturn the Roe v. Wade decision that made first-term abortions a constitutional right. He moved the America’s embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and given his blessings to his expanded Israeli settlements in disputed territories, and has otherwise been a staunch friend to a country that is now more important to America’s evangelical Christians than to its most secularized Jews. Trump has also sought to revoke the Johnson Amendment that forbids tax-exempt churches from advocating for political candidates such as himself, and his controversial Secretary of Education has sought to prevent restrictions on the free speech rights of students.
More importantly, we suspect, is that Trump is despised by the same snooty Hollywood and academic and media types that many evangelicals feel have been sneering down at them during the past many decades of cultural revolution. He longs for a 1950s economy of coal miners and steelworkers and stay-at-home moms, and a return to that same halcyon era when football players stood at attention during the national anthem and protestors were treated roughly and Christianity was a more dominant force in American culture. Trump might not be an exemplary Christian, some of our white evangelical friends will admit, but they note that David was beloved by God and a great leader despite his rather extraordinary sins, and that the Persian King Cyrus negotiated a treaty that protected his kingdom and also gave freedom to the Israelites, so they have faith that Trump is one of those mysterious God ways with which works His will.
We’re white and regularly attend services at a strictly-by-the-Bible low church over on the west side and not embarrassed to evangelize for Christ, and in fact are ashamed by how little we do it, but better Christians than ourselves have never persuaded us to support Trump with any of these arguments.
David had demonstrated his love for God in mortal combat against Goliath and pleaded God’s mercy for his sins, and Trump’s bone spurs and prideful nature have prevented him for doing either. That deal Cyrus struck with the Israelites only forestalled the diaspora and the destruction of the temple and the pogroms and the Holocaust and all the difficulties that still beset a reconstituted Israel. For all its virtues the ’50s was a time of disgraceful institutional racial and sexual inequality, and for all the destructive influences that have been unleashed since we’re glad that the era’s dissenters weren’t beaten into submission. That steelmaking and coal mining economy isn’t coming back, nor are the trade union dominance and high top-bracket tax rates of the era, and we figure it’s better the public should focus on the inevitable high-tech and air-conditioned and less brown-lung-inducing and more female-inclusive industries of the future, and how to get along with one another in a population that will become increasingly diverse no matter what walls Trump builds. Even if Roe v Wade is overturned, the matter will simply be turned back over to the states, where the liberals will likely win lots of elections on the issue.
We’re as appalled at the current state of the American culture as any of our white evangelical brothers and sisters, but the scriptures tell us to put not our faith in princes, and as princes go we’re especially suspicious of this unrepentantly vulgar and profane Trump fellow. He seems to epitomize the Hugh Hefner and Rat Pack hedonism of the ’50s, as well as the decade’s pushy racism and sexism, and his complaints about what have come since seem disingenuous except when they’re overtly racist and sexist or obviously self-serving. God allowed Trump’s election to the presidency, just as he twice allowed President Barack Obama’s, but we believe that in both cases He was granting American mankind its postlapsarian free will and the opportunity to once again screw things up beyond recognition.
At this point, and as always, even the most cocksure Americans of humankind can’t bring about paradise on Earth, so we figure the Church should remain focused on sending as many individual souls as possible to a better place. Having the faith identify itself with its allegiance to Trump won’t help the effort. As the editorial in Christianity Today notes, there’s no disputing the evidence that Trump’s unabashed amorality has led him to abuse the powers of office and obstruct officials to find the truth about it, among other odious things, and there’s no explaining that to the skeptical sinners in need of salvation.
“To use an old cliche, it’s time to call a spade a spade, to say that no matter how many hands we win in this political poker game, we are playing with a stacked deck of gross immorality and ethical incompetence,” the editor-in-chief wrote. “And just when we think it’s time to push all our chips to the center of the table, that’s when the whole game will come crashing down. It will crash down on the reputation of evangelical religion and the world’s understanding of the gospel. And it will come crashing down on a nation of men and women whose welfare is also our concern.”
We’re not saying any damn Democrat would be any better, but we share the hope of Christianity Today and Christians everywhere that there’s something better on the far horizon.

— Bud Norman

Another One of Those Off-Years

Several off-year elections were held around the country on Tuesday, and on the whole they went well enough for the Republican party that the respectable press is fretting for the Democrats. The Associated Press gamely tried to claim that the results offer “Warning Signs for Both Parties,” but The Washington Post glumly conceded that “From coast to coast, conservatives gain big victories,” and the once venerable Atlantic Monthly went so far as to worry that “Liberals are Losing the Culture Wars.”
The AP’s assessment is easily refuted by the Post’s more factual post, which notes that Republican Matt Bevin won a poll-defying victory in Kentucky’s gubernatorial race, Democrats failed to pick up a seat in Virginia’s Senate, a legalized marijuana initiative in Ohio and an “equal rights” referendum in Houston associated with the Democratic party both failed, and even in the far-left Democratic stronghold of San Francisco the Sheriff who had steadfastly defended the city’s “sanctuary” status was voted out. The Atlantic Monthly’s dire warning might prove premature, but Republicans have reason to be hopeful.
Bevin’s unforeseen-by-the-pollsters victory in Kentucky came in spite of his figurative and photographed literal embrace of the County Clerk who created a national contretemps by refusing to issue same-sex-marriage licenses, and perhaps even because of it, and we don’t doubt that there’s still some resistance to the Democrats’ enthusiasm for the brave new homosexual world. That Ohio initiative to legalize marijuana involved a convoluted crony capitalism deal that would have granted a monopoly to a group of wealthy investors who were backing the measure, and we’re certain that a large number of potheads who would have supported a more straightforward legalization effort wound up voting against it as a result, but surely some anti-pot sentiment still lingering from the days of Jack Webb’s rants on “Dragnet” was also part of the landslide opposition.
The Houston Equal Rights Ordinance, so named for the resulting “HERO” acronym, seems to have gone down to defeat because the finer print allowed any man claiming to be a woman to hang around women’s restrooms, and the overwhelmingly black and Latino and otherwise reliably Democratic voters within the city limits decided they weren’t all that wedded to such an abstract notions of human rights. That Sheriff in San Francisco reportedly had some unsurprising ethical issues that also contributed to his defeat, but we’d like to think that even in his hippy-dippy jurisdiction there’s some resistance to the idea that career criminals should be able to continue their careers just because they’re also in the country illegally, and that in more sensible parts of the country the Democrats are on the unpopular side of that whole issue.
Still, the Associated Press can plausibly go on about demographics and the Democrats’ continuing domination of those densely populated blue spots on the electoral map, and the turnout in those off-year elections is not what you’ll see in a presidential year when even the most uninformed voters have some misinformation that will send them to the voting booth. We can read nothing from such off-year tea leaves, and can only hope that it indicates the coalition of libertine white liberals with the more socially conservative and far more numerous black and Latino Democrats is proving hard to sustain. All the people who vote in off-year elections can be counted on to vote in presidential elections, and perhaps the the next one will add some of those uninformed voters, so one can be hopeful.

— Bud Norman

Culture War and Waffle Fries

Wednesday was another hot one here in Wichita, with the late afternoon temperature soaring to a sizzling 108, but no one in the long line that snaked around the local Chick-fil-A’s parking lot seemed to mind. It wasn’t the appeal of the fast-food chain’s chicken sandwiches and waffle fries that brought out the unusually large crowd, although everyone we talked to assured us that both are quite delicious, but rather an unquenchable hunger for freedom.

As most literate Americans know by now, Chick-fil-A franchises are the latest battleground in the ongoing culture war. The owners of chicken sandwich chain are Christians who hold to their religion’s traditional prohibition against homosexuality, they don’t mind stating their opposition to same-sex marriage publicly, and the reaction to this formerly mainstream point of view by the self-styled forces of “tolerance” has been fierce. After the company’s owner spoke his opinions on a little-known Christian radio program, and admitted to donating money to like-minded organizations, the mayors of Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco went so far as to say that the company would not be allowed to do business in their cities. Some of the many people who were appalled by this brazen attempt to use the power of government to deny private individuals their rights to freedom of speech and freedom of religion responded by designating Wednesday “Chick-fil-A Appreciation Day,” urging consumers to voice their support for the embattled company by forking over a few bucks for a chicken sandwich.

Press reports indicate that the call was answered with long lines such as the one that materialized in Wichita at locations around the country. If success in the culture war can be measured in cash receipts, Chick-fil-A clearly won Wednesday’s skirmish.

Each of the friendly folks we spoke with said they had decided to patronize the business because they agreed with the ownership’s opposition to same-sex marriage, but they were quick to add that it was also a matter of defending freedom of speech. We’d like to think that the long lines included a few same-sex marriage proponents who were willing to take a stand for freedom of speech even when they disagree with it, but such principled commitment to the First Amendment seems to be a rare commodity in these times.

Even without the support of the left’s feckless “free speech brigades,” who seem quite confident that such tactics won’t be used against them, the attempts to bully the remaining religious Americans seems to have provoked a backlash that could prove overwhelming. They have the numbers, they have the chicken sandwiches people seem to like, and they can take the heat.

— Bud Norman

Enter Santorum

Savvy political observers will downplay the long-term significance of Rick Santorum’s Tuesday night sweep of Colorado, Minnesota and Missouri, where few delegates were at stake and the campaigning was light, but there’s no denying the short-term effect. Santorum has at least temporarily supplanted Newt Gingrich as the conservative alternative to putative front-runner Mitt Romney.

Despite a significant disadvantage to Romney in funding and organization, the former Pennsylvania senator might fare better in the challenger role than did his many successors, all of whom faded under the spotlight. He seems a likeable guy, unlike the scowling Gingrich, and in a regular blue collar background kind of way, unlike the blue-blooded Romney, and he’s not a foreign policy fruitcake, unlike Ron Paul. The more orthodox conservatives will point to his past support for earmark spending, No Child Left Behind, the prescription drug entitlement, and other Bush-era heresies, but his right-wing credentials are at least as righteous as Gingrich’s, more consistent than Romney’s, and don’t entail the foreign policy nuttiness of Paul.

Santorum’s conservatism on social issues is unquestioned, and although that has not been the main theme of his campaign it will certainly be the old-line media’s favorite storyline in the coming months. Santorum has the same position on gay marriage as Barack Obama, but he will be portrayed as a heartless gay-basher. Despite his clear and consistent declarations that he will not seek to ban contraceptives, his personal opposition to the practice will be offered as proof that he’s a modern day Anthony Comstock. Never mind that Santorum belongs to the same Catholic church as John Kerry, Nancy Pelosi and Kathleen Sebelius, it will be duly noted with undisguised disdain that unlike the others he actually believes in all that stuff.

For the most part American political discourse has been blissfully free of the social issues since the economic downturn that began in 2008, and Santorum probably prefers it stay that way, but the old cultural conflicts that have been kept on the back burner are starting to boil over into the news. The resent decision by the White House to force Catholic hospitals and schools and other religious institutions to provide insurance covering contraception and abortifacients is one example, a judge’s ruling to overturn California’s popular referendum against gay marriage is another, and Santorum’s past and present opposition to abortion will now be one more.

A renewed culture war will not only distract attention from the historically weak economic recovery, the looming debt crisis, and a rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East, among other more pressing problems, but the left will also expect to find itself on the winning side. They might be in correct in that calculation, but the White House has been widely criticized by members of both parties for the insurance ruling, that was a popular referendum that the judge overturned, and Obama’s abortion policies are arguably further from the center than Santorum’s. Obama has lately been mentioning his own religious convictions, partly in an attempt to sell his domestic policies with the old social gospel pitch, and several of his most ardent admirers have assured he doesn’t really mean any of it, but the fact that he feels the need to resort to religious language suggests there’s still a sizeable audience for it.

A continued emphasis on economics would serve Santorum well in the primary race, and especially in a general election if he gets that far, that fact he unabashedly holds religious beliefs should not be an insurmountable problem. If it is, this country has bigger problems than Barack Obama.

— Bud Norman