The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Evangelical conservatives are proving their harshest critics right

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders. (Pablo Martinez Monsivais/Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

For years, Democrats accused Christian conservatives of being closet theocrats, seeking to impose Christianity on the country and refusing to accept, let alone embrace, American diversity. That was a generalization, but it turned out to be more true than not.

The evangelical defense of President Trump has taken on a religious fervor immune to reason. The Post reports:

Although some say the Trump-evangelical alliance harms Christianity, it’s common to hear other conservative Christians say that Trump’s unexpected win — down to the electoral college — shows that God had a more-deliberate-than-usual hand, and has put Trump there for some reason.
Brian Kaylor, a Baptist pastor with a PhD in political communications who has written several books about religion and politics, thinks [White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee] Sanders holds this view of a divine plan and it gives her confidence at the podium.
“When you have to stand up there and defend whatever he’s done, it’s more than you are defending a politician, or even a president; you are defending God’s chosen leader for this time,” he said of Trump’s defenders.

That’s stunning to the many Americans who think the divine right of kings was what we fought against in the American Revolution. A God-chosen president can do no wrong, tell no lie, make no error. And that, it seems, has been the default setting for many of Trump’s most loyal supporters among the religious right.

Facebook Live host Libby Casey talks to Washington Post religion reporter Sarah Pulliam Bailey about how Donald Trump appealed to white, evangelical voters. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Chip Somodevilla/The Washington Post)

The notion that lies don’t matter, that politics is akin to a religious mission, strikes many Americans as a scary repudiation of the Constitution’s establishment clause. Protecting Trump and dodging critics who raise legitimate issues about his behavior have now become acts of faith. The Post relates the following:

[Christian network CBN’s David] Brody said his viewers were wowed by a briefing over the summer, when Sanders was asked whether Trump brought low the office of the president by tweeting a crack about television host Mika Brzezinski, whom he called “low IQ, crazy” and whom he said he saw “bleeding badly from a face lift.”
“Are you going to tell your kids this behavior is okay?” a reporter asked.
“As a person of faith, I think we all have one perfect role model. And when I’m asked that question, I point to God. I point to my faith. And that’s where I always tell my kids to look.”
Brody raved.
“I don’t remember that coming from Republicans, Democrats — that’s pretty bold in the context of a White House briefing,” he said.

Brody raved. He raved about someone who works for a president who is an abject liar, a president especially hostile to women. He raved about how clever Sanders was in evading a legitimate question about the president’s fitness to lead and in managing to sound pious in defense of a powerful public figure with a long list of female accusers.

Follow Jennifer Rubin's opinionsFollow

We’ve tracked the evolution of Christian conservative leaders from public moralists to leaders of tribal identity. Their most visible leaders increasingly consider themselves the vanguard of white rural America (where so many of their flock reside), a group resentful of its demographic and cultural decline. Trump’s coterie of evangelical pastors is among the inaptly named “values voters” leadership that, having lost on gay marriage, on legalized abortion and on cultural decay, now takes refuge in nativism, xenophobia and white grievance. For these evangelical figureheads, “us vs. them” has replaced a message of brotherly love and Christian charity.

Robert P. Jones, author of “The End of White Christian America,” observes, “One of the most astounding shifts in modern politics has been the utter transformation of white evangelical Protestants from being confident self-described ‘values voters,’ who measured candidates for office against a high bar of moral character, to anxious and unwavering Trump supporters who have largely dropped these standards for a candidate they believe will deliver policies that benefit them.” He explains that “white evangelicals have exchanged an ethic of principle that might hold a political leader accountable to consistent standards for a consequentialist ends-justify-the-means posture that simply stops interrogating character, the quality of leadership, or the morality of actions when it’s beneficial.”

This phenomenon is deeply troubling for both religion and politics. If religion becomes a tool of the state, its influence as a force for morality, public virtue and social cohesion crumbles. It is a blow to civil society, the vital portion of our segment defined by voluntary association and civic institutions. And if politics is now a matter of religious faith, not unlike Europe in the age of religious wars, we surely will lose the distinctive character of America, its devotion to tolerance, its ability to resolve conflicts peacefully and its commitment to equal treatment under the law.

Under a president who now actively courts theocratic leaders and seeks to widen racial and religious division, the United States is being seriously tested. It will take people of faith and of no faith committed to democratic norms and American diversity to repel this assault on the country’s animating principles.

President Trump spoke about religious freedom at the Celebrate Freedom Concert in Washington D.C. on July 1. (Video: The Washington Post)