Russell Moore is the president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The views in this opinion piece are those of the author in his personal capacity.
Donald Trump once bragged to radio shock-jock Howard Stern about walking through the dressing rooms of his beauty pageants while contestants were getting dressed. He could do it, he suggested, because he owned the place.
This year, religious conservatism stands naked and exposed before the world, while Trump smugly surveys what he has come to own.
Journalist Mark Halperin noted this weekend that virtually all of the “reaffirmation of support” for Trump, following the disclosure of his sexually predatory recorded comments, were from religious conservative leaders. This is a scandal and a disgrace, but it should not be a surprise.
We know nothing new about Donald Trump. He has told us about his view of women, his view of sexuality, his views of marriage and family for more than 30 years. He has gloried in reality television decadence before reality television was even invented, in his boasts to tabloid reporters. He reaffirmed who he is over and over again, even during this campaign — from misogynistic statements to racist invective to crazed conspiracy theorizing.
And yet here stands the old-guard Religious Right establishment. Some are defending or waving this away, with the same old tropes they’ve used throughout this campaign. Trump’s not a Sunday school teacher, they tell us. Trump’s a new King David or pagan deliverer Cyrus. Trump is either a “baby Christian” or the kind of tough strongman conservative Christians need since the Sermon on the Mount isn’t realistic enough for the 21st century.
And, of course, they tell us, he will appoint judges and justices who stand up for unborn human life and religious liberty. After all, he promised us he would. Why Trump would be more faithful to vows to religious political activists than he has been to people named “Mrs. Trump,” they do not tell us.
What’s at stake here is far more than an election. In the 1980s, many evangelicals quietly cringed when they saw the endless stream of hucksters called “television evangelists” on the airwaves around them. These figures cried on cue, sold their protein shakes and end-times emergency food packets, and peddled “anointed” prayer cloths in exchange for donations, all while explaining to us what political point God was making with natural disasters. When one after another fell into open scandal, it wasn’t just their prosperity gospel voodoo that was disgraced before the world, but the reputation of the entire church. And yet the damage done to gospel witness this year will take longer to recover from than those 1980s televangelist scandals.
These evangelical leaders have said that, for the sake of the “lesser of two evils,” one should stand with someone who not only characterizes sexual decadence and misogyny, brokers in cruelty and nativism, and displays a crazed public and private temperament — but who glories in these things. Some of the very people who warned us about moral relativism and situational ethics now ask us to become moral relativists for the sake of an election. And when some dissent, they are labeled as liberals or accused of moral preening or sitting comfortably on the sidelines. The cynicism and nihilism is horrifying to behold. It is not new, but it is clearer to see than ever.
There is good news, though, behind all of this, regardless of how this election turns out. The old-school political Religious Right establishment wonders why the evangelical next generation rejects their way. The past year is illustration enough. The evangelical movement is filled with younger, multiethnic, gospel-centered Christians. They are defined by a clear theology and a clear mission — not by the doctrinally vacuous resentment over a lost regime of nominal, cultural “Christian America.”
The people who have used the gospel to sell us politically cynical voting guides have done damage. But they are not replicating themselves in the next generation.
The old-guard is easier to engage in politics, because they find identity in a “silent majority” of Americans. The next generation knows that our witness is counter to the culture, not just on the sanctity of life and the stability of the family but, most importantly, on the core of the gospel itself: Christ and him crucified.
The 30-year-old evangelical pastor down the street from you would rather die than hand over his church directory to a politician or turn his church service into a political rally. Finding new ways of engaging our fellow citizens and forming collaborative majorities for public action are now the urgent priority of evangelicals who wish not to concede the public space, in our name, to heretics and hucksters and influence-peddlers. The gospel matters more.