The Christian Churches in the USA are no less divided about President Trump than the rest of the country. His return from Singapore was like a surreal re-enactment of Chamberlain’s landing after Munich. There was a paper with two signatures on it. He wisely didn’t wave it at the cameras. The paper promised peace in our time but lacked substance. Peace-loving Christians were hopeful. But many commentators thought what little it did promise would prove to be a snare and a delusion.
It is always high season for hyperbole with Mr. Trump. His Singapore performance as the great deal-maker was rewarded. His popularity rating within his own Republican Party rose to 87%, ten points more than that other actor-President, Ronald Reagan at the same stage in a Republican presidency. When considering the ‘his’ in ‘his Party’, think of the poor host bird giving the large cuckoo in its nest a huge vote of confidence.
White evangelical Christians will have significantly contributed to the rise in Trump’s ratings. Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount calls peacemakers ‘children of God’. So, after the alleged agreement with North Korea a rise in popularity is understandable in religious terms. But 17 months ago the votes of white evangelical Christians – 80% of them voted for him - played a major, possibly determinative, role in Trump’s election, and they now sustain his position, despite his known character and policies. How, you wonder, do they accept his unashamed admiration for power, money, and what St. Paul calls fornication, in direct contradiction to the teachings of Jesus?
Michael Gerson in The Last Temptation, the cover story of the April edition of The Atlantic magazine, provides a detailed historical account of how and why 80% of a large white Christian community have come to support a President whose personal conduct and national policies are antithetical to the Christian tradition. An evangelical Christian himself, and a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, Gerson has written a poignant and passionate denunciation of the views of fellow white evangelicals “whose political narrative is adversarial, an angry tale about aggression and evangelicalism’s cultural rivals”. And who see “their rights as fragile, their institutions as threatened, their dignity as assailed….a besieged and disrespected minority”. Today the doors of the White House are open to such white evangelical leaders. Being pro-Trump is to be protected from being marginalized by the rival, socially liberal culture of the Democrats. What an illusion.
This is not the only face of the American evangelical Churches; they have not always been, and still are not, all defensive and Right-wing. The story goes back to the 19th century to the confidence and moral concern for social justice of the New England Northern evangelicals and their opposition to slavery, and also to the growth of a radically different Southern black evangelical world which re-emerged powerfully in the 1960s civil rights movement. Obama understood the black evangelical world but related to it with caution.
The best known representative of the white tradition is Billy Graham and his Southern Baptist Crusades. But the best of progressive evangelicalism is seen today in a variety of forms: most strikingly in the progressive mega-church, “purpose-driven life”, led by Pastor Rick and Kaye Warren, and in Jim Wallis’ Sojourners movement. These are forms of evangelical religion, recognizable from a British evangelical perspective which dates back to the anti-slavery movement, Wilberforce and the religious revivals of the 19t Century.
Gerson does not talk much about racism in evangelical circles from the 1960s nor how the electoral victory of a Trump relied on it. But the great racial divide in the USA today is reflected in the congregations of the American evangelical Churches. Thanks to the Evangelical Church Alliance, British mainstream Churches with their different history and early mission outreach, though far from immune to racism, have been spared such a profound division. From the 1840s the Evangelical Alliance has sustained its own tradition of social concern, from anti-slavery campaigning to the work of its former general-director, Pastor Joel Edwards, on poverty, debt and globalization. When the Archbishop of Canterbury was happy with the invitation to an evangelical black American bishop to preach at a royal wedding in Windsor, he was expressing and recognizing the strength of this tradition and demonstrating how evangelical religion remains close to the heart of British Protestantism.
The question raised by Trump for Christians is not just one for evangelicals in the USA. About 56% of Catholics and other Protestants also voted for him. Obama and Hillary Clinton’s hardline on abortion certainly helped Trump, right across the theological board, but there was far more to the Christian vote than sexual ethics and beginning and end of life issues. Views about them had been changing rapidly. The Episcopal Church for example had spearheaded advocacy for gay rights before it gained momentum. Since the days of the ‘Moral Majority’ white evangelical positions have remained reactive, as have those of many other Christians.
The Trump presidency can be funny. Does he really want people to treat him like Kim Jong-un? Doesn’t Republican applause for him on Capitol Hill go on long enough already? But what he is doing isn’t funny. Trump poses particularly urgent questions to all the Churches, about truth, about American values, about describing the poor with contempt as ‘losers’, about the absolutely clear instruction in the Bible concerning love and compassion, on how to treat strangers and foreigners. In the recent words of Jim Wallis, evangelical writer, activist and theologian, at stake now in the USA is “the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith”.