In an unwittingly self-revealing moment, Trump responded to the magazine’s indictment of his profound moral failings with an argument that is thoroughly transactional and megalomaniacal: How dare you criticize me, after all the power I’ve granted to your movement? You’re breaking our deal, and now you’re dead to me.
The magazine’s core indictment is that Trump “attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader” to “discredit” one of his “political opponents.” It adds that Trump “abused his authority for personal gain” in a “profoundly immoral” manner that damages the presidency, the country, and “the spirit and the future of our people.”
This depiction is unequivocally correct. The White House’s own summary of the July 25 call captures Trump doing just this: While withholding hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid from a vulnerable ally, Trump pressed the Ukrainian president to announce an investigation that would smear potential 2020 opponent Joe Biden with an entirely fabricated narrative.
Trump’s response again called this “perfect” conduct, reminding us that he is thoroughly unrepentant about all of it.
Christianity Today also indicts Trump’s personal immorality, his nonstop lies and his serial degradation of others, concluding that Trump is “morally lost and confused.”
This nonbeliever will not grapple with the deep spiritual currents underlying this phrasing, and will only note that Trump plainly hasn’t spent a second wrestling with the morality of these actions or their impact on others, and that his only discernible reigning ethic is that if you can get away with grabbing something, it’s rightfully yours.
Indeed, the transactional cast to Trump’s rage over this is particularly instructive, once you understand that Trump and his top advisers have consciously enlisted the nation’s evangelicals as an army of Trump defenders in the war against impeachment, which is widely depicted in the evangelical movement as a kind of epic persecution of Trump carried out by the godless and the damned.
As Sarah Posner details in a terrific piece, this effort is concerted, multifaceted and highly organized. Numerous high-profile evangelicals regularly depict impeachment as a disruption of God’s plan for America to be governed by Christians in accord with “biblical” values.
Impeachment is merely the weapon that the secular, satanic left is wielding to carry out its broader pro-abortion, anti-religious-liberty agenda, which requires the removal of Trump, the savior of Christian America, all to keep the persecution of Christians going at full throttle.
And on top of all that, as Posner notes, Trump is giving evangelicals unprecedented power and access:
With him in the White House, Christian right ideologues have virtual carte blanche to run his administration, as he has handed them control over personnel and policy at a level they could have only dreamed of, even under admired presidents like George W. Bush and Ronald Reagan. Trump has handed them conservative judicial nominees, from the Supreme Court down to federal trial courts, and also has installed longtime evangelical allies at key Cabinet posts.
For all these reasons, the Christianity Today editorial won’t diminish Trump’s evangelical support. As Ezra Klein notes, the conviction that evangelicals are on the losing end of the “post-Christian culture war” is powerfully and deeply felt.
The result of this, according to Robert Jones, a longtime tracker of evangelical attitudes, has been a broad shift of evangelical opinion from Bill Clinton’s time, when personal morality in leaders was a central preoccupation of the movement, to the present.
“In theological terms, Trump has been able to convert evangelical political ethics from an ethic of principle to a consequentialist ethic, where the ends justify the means,” Jones, the author of “The End of White Christian America,” told me.
Trump’s promise to evangelicals, Jones added, was to “restore power and dominance to the Christian churches” at a time when “the demographics of the country are changing, you’re on the losing end of that, I’m going to turn back the clock, I’m the only one who can do that.”
The unacceptable bargain with Trump
Responding to this whole controversy, Christianity Today’s editor in chief, Mark Galli, has now directly engaged with this bargain that many evangelicals have made with Trump.
As Galli noted, there is no longer any way to avoid acknowledging Trump’s moral and temperamental unfitness for the presidency. Continuing to look the other way to get more judges and so forth is no longer worth the moral and spiritual costs to Christianity itself.
“The moral scales no longer balance,” Galli told the Atlantic. “We’ve been a movement that has said the moral character of our leaders is really important,” Galli continued, adding that the association of evangelicals with Trump will do “horrific” damage to their ability to share the Gospel with others.
It’s perversely revealing that Trump’s response to all this is to rage that evangelicals are indeed getting a good deal out of their bargain with him.
But this transaction — as Trump himself defines it here — also requires pretending along with Trump that his conduct was “perfect."
This is the rub. As Galli puts it, the problem that should be staring evangelicals in the face is that what we’ve all discovered about Trump’s corruption and amorality “is actually true.”
Trump has granted evangelicals power in exchange for their unwavering support, but the bargain now includes a requirement that they pretend Trump’s wretchedly corrupt subversion of the country’s interests to his own simply isn’t happening, or that it’s absolutely fine.
For some evangelicals, at least, this bargain has crossed over into a species of scam that they can no longer accept.