If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.
Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.
The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.
Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.
The court evangelicals have befriended Trump as a way to win his approval and advance their agenda of making the United States a Christian nation. If Trump believes in their agenda, he has done little to prove it. He does not attend church regularly and his references to Christianity are mostly scripted political talking points.
The court evangelicals have largely turned a blind eye to Trump’s indiscretions. When he recently made disparaging remarks about MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, they were mostly silent. Only Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world, made a public statement about the tweet. He told Fox News Channel that when Trump “hits them back on Twitter I actually appreciate that.”
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Court evangelicalism was on full display in Washington, during a Kennedy Center event honoring veterans.
Sounding like a 17th-century Puritan delivering a jeremiad calling the new Israel back to its spiritual roots, he described Trump as a messianic figure whom God had raised up to save the United States from spiritual ruin. Jeffress said, “but in the midst of that despair came November the 8th, 2016, and that day … God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States.”
Historians can trace the court evangelical phenomenon to the early 1970s, when the popular evangelist Billy Graham remained loyal to President Richard Nixon, to quote biographer Grant Wacker, “long after most Americans smelled a rat.” When Nixon resigned in shame, Graham was embarrassed. He admitted that “Nixon’s magnetism clouded his judgment.” In 1993, Graham “urged young evangelists to avoid his mistake.”
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appealed to evangelical concerns about big government, the threat of communism and legalized abortion. Christian political movements such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition educated an entire generation of evangelicals to believe that Christian political engagement was tied solely to electing Republican politicians and controlling the Supreme Court.
Very few evangelicals criticized these efforts to advance a Christian agenda through politics; those who did could not compete with the economic prosperity and Cold War victories that Reagan delivered. But some who rode this wave of evangelical political power had a hard time sleeping at night.
In 1999, two architects of the Moral Majority — Michigan pastor Ed Dobson and syndicated columnist Cal Thomas — published “Blinded by Might: Can the Religious Right Save America?” As they reflected on 20 years of their own political activism, Dobson and Thomas concluded that the movement to change the world through politics had failed. All that was left in the wake of a generation of political crusading was a cast of characters who had succumbed to the “aphrodisiac” of power and had sacrificed their spiritual authority in the process.
Around the time Dobson and Thomas published their book, the Christian Right was mobilizing against the many infidelities of Bill Clinton. James Dobson (no relation to Ed), a popular radio host known best for founding the Colorado Springs ministry Focus on the Family, chided Clinton for his adulterous affair with White House intern Monica Lewinsky and argued forcefully, in a September 1998 letter to supporters, that Clinton did not deserve evangelical support because he was a liar, immoral, lacking in character and motivated by “raw political power.”
Today Dobson, the man most responsible for promoting the long-standing GOP “family values” agenda, supports Trump. At one point in his 1998, letter Dobson wrote, “Yes, the [moral] rules have changed for the President.” Indeed they have.
The court evangelicals’ allegiance to Trump is taking them into a new and dangerous place. Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush (who famously claimed that Jesus was his favorite philosopher) had their flaws, but they were both men of character who possessed a respect for the history and integrity of the office of the president. When they were tested — Reagan in the fight against communism, and Bush during the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 — they responded with moral courage and leadership for the whole country.
Trump is different.
His campaign and presidency has shed light on a troubling wing of American evangelicalism willing to embrace nationalism, populism, fear of outsiders and anger. The leaders of this wing trade their evangelical witness for a mess of political pottage and a Supreme Court nomination.
Not all evangelicals are on board, of course. Most black evangelicals are horrified by Trump’s failure to understand their history and his willingness to serve as a hero of the alt-right movement.
The 20 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump — many of whom are conservative politically and theologically — now seem to have a lot more in common with mainline Protestants. Some in my own circles have expressed a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.
Other evangelicals are experiencing a crisis of faith as they look around in their white congregations on Sunday morning and realize that so many fellow Christians were willing to turn a blind eye to all that Trump represents.
If the court evangelicals were students of history, they have learned the wrong lesson from evangelical political engagement of the 1970s and 1980s. Trump’s presidency — with its tweets and promises of power — requires evangelical leaders to speak truth to power, not to be seduced by it.
John Fea chairs the History Department at Messiah College in Mechanicsburg, Pa. He is the author of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction” and blogs daily at www.thewayofimprovement.com.