David French on the Unsurprising Relationship Between Evangelicals And Trump
[guest post by Dana]
You know I’m a fan of David French. I find him to be a sharp, insightful thinker, as well as having an extraordinary understanding of man’s fallen nature and an intimate knowledge of God’s grace. Certainly, that understanding must be what keeps him from erupting at the exasperating displays of hubris, vanity, arrogance, and self-aggrandizement by our political leaders. I also respect that he isn’t compelled to reflexively defend the Republican Party or the Christian church. David French has talked about the relationship between Christians and Trump during the past five years (and we’ve discussed it too), and in a recent (Feb.2021) interview at Vox he makes some interesting points on the subject. Here are a few of his observations:
You call this moment a particularly “dangerous time for Christianity.” What makes it so dangerous?
There are a few things. I think when you see such a large segment of American Christianity, of white evangelicalism in particular, tie itself so closely to one political party and to one man, Donald Trump, you’re not exactly tying the faith to virtue. That’s obvious enough.
There’s really some fascinating research done by Ryan Burge, who is a statistician and a scholar of religion at Eastern Illinois University. He has shown how different American religious strands, whether it’s Black Christians, Mormons, atheists, Catholics, they all maintain some distance in their ideology from the party they most affiliate with. But this isn’t true for white evangelicals. It is an exact overlap. The identification between white evangelicals and the GOP is almost perfect.
That’s a problem because it means your faith is now tied to an entire array of both personalities and political positions that do not naturally flow from biblical ethics. Any time you’re going to tie faith to ideas and people who do not either personify biblical ethics or positioned to flow from biblical ethics, you’re creating a real problem. They’ve essentially politicized their faith.
But why Trump? Is he just a random but convenient vehicle for Christians? Or is there something particular about him — his celebrity, for example — that makes him a perfect fit for the modern Christian ethos?
Man, that’s a big question. Part of it is simple. White evangelicals are Republicans, and Republicans are white evangelicals, which has been the case for a long time now, and Trump was just the Republican nominee, and so he had to work incredibly hard to lose their support.
I’d say he worked pretty damn hard to do just that, David —
Right, you could say he worked hard to do that by engaging in all kinds of behaviors that are obviously un-Christian, that are contrary to Christian ethics, that are deeply harmful to other people. But that’s where it gets complicated. I tell people all the time that live in other parts of the country, in non-MAGA parts of the country, that they have to remember where white evangelicals tend to get their information about the world.
When it comes to politics, most evangelicals are not getting their information from the pulpit. I think it’s a misconception that a lot of people who are outside of the evangelical world have, that at church they’re getting a ton of politics. No, but what’s happening is a lot of Republican Christians are getting catechized in politics through conservative media, through Fox News, through talk radio. As I’ve told a lot of people, if you had the information inflow that a lot of my neighbors have [French lives in Tennessee], you’d be MAGA also. A lot of it is just a product of information that makes it not that hard to support Trump, if that’s your information flow.
The other thing is that a lot of these people genuinely believe, because of where they get their information, that the country is in some kind of emergency that justifies the extremism of Trump. They believe they need someone who’s willing to be very aggressive in taking on the left, their so-called enemies. Trump was also very shrewd about granting access to evangelical supporters and to outright grifters and opportunists. That’s a big part of what happened as well.
And then there is this spot-on observation by French who is asked whether it’s fair to say that Christians sacrificed their credibility and the substance of their faith when they embraced the GOP as a vehicle to power:
The embrace of political power carried with it a number of dangers that ultimately the church couldn’t escape. I’ve heard a number of people who’ve reflected on the beginning of the religious right and this decision to not just engage in politics, but to engage in politics through the GOP almost exclusively. You can engage in politics, and you can be intellectually independent, but to engage in politics through the GOP specifically in pursuit of political power was a big mistake…The right may have acquired political power, but the left was much more effective at achieving cultural power, and if you believe, as I do, that politics is downstream from culture, the quest for pure political power was always going to be limited. The religious right lost the culture and with it their ability to impact the world the way they envisioned.
The Trump years encapsulate this perfectly. The right went all-in on Trump. White evangelicals went all-in on Trump. They won the presidency. They won the House. They won the Senate. They had the judiciary. Is anyone going to say that the United States of America is now more fundamentally Christian in 2021 than it was in 2017? I don’t think so. Most people would say the cultural left has been empowered during these years. So the religious right got what they wanted in a lot of ways, politically speaking, but I don’t think they achieved their long-term goals by any stretch of the imagination.
I appreciate French’s unflinching look at the church, especially as so many Christians sacrificed their personal credibility and their witness by supporting and defending Trump. The problem, of course, is that the Christian right could easily deify another very flawed individual in 2024. Maybe even stick with Trump. After all, has their thinking really changed?
French also addresses masculinity in the church:
I’d say that there is a perverted version of masculinity that is common in Southern evangelical circles that rendered the church vulnerable to the Trumpian influence. I’ve seen that with my own eyes. There’s a deep-seated insecurity that exists about masculinity in the church for lots of interesting reasons, some of them related to the way the secular culture has cast a lot of aspersions on traditional masculinity as being “problematic.”
One of the things that has been so bizarre to me has been this equation of Donald Trump with virtuous masculinity. We don’t need to go into all of the details, but this is a man who evaded military service, who has serially cheated on wives, who is terribly out of shape, is so cowardly in a lot of his personal interactions, that he delegates to others the task of firing people. There’s so much that if you were going to map out who is the archetype of the masculine leader prior to Trump, he would be the opposite of that.
If I could pull something out of the Christian hat that illustrates the bizarre culmination of Trump’s influence on evangelicals and the danger of their devotion to Trump, I think it would be this crazy report about a Baptist pastor in Missouri:
Now in professional counselling, a Baptist preacher drew backlash from his congregation for a sermon he gave last month in which he told women to smarten themselves up. “Don’t ever forget this, God made (men) to look and you want them to look at you — not some hottie out there or someone on a computer screen.”
Pastor Stewart-Allen Clark said it was “really important” for men to have a beautiful woman on their arm. “Now look,” he said, “I’m not saying every woman can be the epic trophy wife of all time like Melania Trump, I’m not saying that at all,” but “you don’t need to look like a butch either.” He then advised them on makeup, hairstyles, fashion tips and sexual intimacy.
In the sermon, Clark, 55, had asked “Why is it so many times that women, after they get married, let themselves go?” He criticized them for wearing sweatpants, flip-flops and pyjamas, and not watching their weight. “Men have a need for their women to look like women,” he said.
He told his General Baptist denomination that “Most women can’t be trophy wives, but you know … maybe you’re a participation trophy.”
[Ed. I’m going to follow David French’s example of extending grace toward fellow members of the church body with whom he disagrees and exercise self-restraint by not excoriating this sniveling little pustule who made a mockery of Christ by spewing such inanities from the pulpit.]