By Rudy Barnes, Jr.
It is incredulous that Donald Trump is the choice of evangelical Christians in the 2016 Presidential campaign. It would be difficult to find a man more lacking in the virtues taught by Jesus, but evangelical Christians are apparently not looking for those virtues in their politicians. This represents a complete reversal of the political preferences of evangelical Christians since 1976, when they formed an unlikely coalition with black voters to elect Jimmy Carter. He was a southern Democrat and born-again Christian who actually practiced the virtues taught by Jesus. As governor of Georgia Carter fought racial bigotry and promoted social justice, and as President of the U.S. he did the same, and also promoted human rights abroad.
What happened in the last 40 years to produce the popularity of Trump with evangelical Christians and threaten to unravel the fabric of democracy in America? In the 1980 Presidential campaign, GOP strategists mobilized evangelical Christians to elect Ronald Reagan; but it was not until 2000 that an evangelical Christian (George W. Bush) was nominated and elected President. In between father and son Republican presidents, Democrats Bill Clinton (1992-2000) and Barack Obama (2008-2016) did not get the evangelical vote; but they did get the black vote and were elected, and the same is likely for Hillary Clinton in 2016. Carter is likely to be the last President to get both the evangelical Christian vote and the black vote.
The polarization of black and white Christian voters along partisan lines has contributed to the deterioration of democracy in America. Most black voters are Christians who consistently support Democratic candidates, while most white Christians consistently support GOP candidates. Trump has openly exploited racial bigotry to mobilize his supporters, while Hillary Clinton has been more subtle in pandering to her black constituency. But the effect has been the same. Both parties exacerbate contentious racial and political differences rather than seeking to reconcile those differences.
Michael Gerson has described Trump as the demagogue who our Founding Fathers feared. Referring to his opponents who show up at his rallies, Trump has told his supporters that he “would like to punch them in the mouth” and “carry them out on a stretcher.” This past week a 78 year-old Trump supporter in North Carolina took his advice and sucker-punched a black male. Trump cannot disavow his responsibility for encouraging such reprehensible behavior.
Trump has not only attracted racists to his cause but also xenophobic nativists with his condemnation of Muslims, most recently asserting that “Islam hates us” to support his condemnation of Islam and his proposal to ban Muslim immigrants from the U.S. Many Republicans wrongly believe that President Obama is a closet Muslim and hate him both for his race and his supposed religion.
Trump exploits bigotry and hatred that can destroy America’s democracy, and he is doing it with the backing of many if not most white evangelical Christians. His tactics are not unlike those of Adolph Hitler in Germany in the 1930s, when he appealed to the fear, anger and false pride of Germans with his Nazi version of nativism and triumphalism. Germany had been the center of Christian theology in the 19th century, so that it was unthinkable that Germans would sacrifice Christianity for Nazism; but they did just that, and did it with alacrity. Hitler’s advocacy of Aryan (white) racial supremacy justified the hatred of Jews and blacks, and he used distorted Christian religious doctrines to further demonize Jews.
The Christian religion began its unholy alliance with politics in the 4th century with Emperor Constantine, and it continued with atrocities during the Crusades and the Inquisitions, up to the Puritan witch trials in New England. Later the Christian religion was inextricably woven into the racism of the Jim Crow South and its “separate but equal” culture, evidenced in the flaming cross of the KKK; and demagogues like “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman in South Carolina orchestrated a venomous mix of religion and racial hatred to promote their political power.
Trump is not alone in using religion to gain and hold political power. Islamist leaders like President El-Sissi of Egypt, President Erdogan of Turkey and the Saudi royal family use Islamic law (shari’a), including apostasy and blasphemy laws, to sanctify their regimes and punish their opponents. Both Christianity and Islam have been corrupted by their wedding with political power, and only believers can restore legitimacy and integrity to those religions.
If democracy in America is to have any moral highground in the future, especially among Muslims, voters must reject Trump and others, like Senator Ted Cruz, who would subvert both democracy and Christianity to sanctimonious illusions of a Christian political order. Remember that God’s will is to reconcile and redeem humanity, while Satan’s will is to divide and conquer; and Satan does a convincing imitation of God among the devout. History has taught that few politicians seek to reconcile their constituents with their opponents, and those who do are not destined to stay in power very long, as evidenced by President Carter’s one-term presidency.
There will always be political demagogues to exploit racial and religious differences to divide and conquer, even in democracies. It is up to Jews, Christians and Muslims to apply the moral imperatives of their faith to their politics and elect politicians who seek to reconcile rather than divide. That is the only way to prevent the further deterioration of American democracy, and it requires balancing individual rights with providing for the common good. That is how we apply the greatest commandment to love God and our neighbors as ourselves to our politics. It requires loving our unbelieving neighbors, and even our political adversaries.
Notes and References to Resources:
Previous blogs on related topics are: Religion and Reason, December 8, 2015; Faith and Freedom, December 15, 2014; The Greatest Commandment, January 11, 2015; Love Over Law: A Principle at the Heart of Legitimacy, January 18, 2015; Is Religion Good or Evil?, February 15, 2015; Religion and Human Rights, February 22, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, The Kingdom of God, Politics and the Church, March 15, 2015; May 10, 2015; God and Country: Resolving Conflicting Concepts of Sovereignty, March 29, 2015; Faith as a Source of Morality and Law: The Heart of Legitimacy, April 12, 2015; Religion, Human Rights and National Security, May 10, 2015; De Oppresso Liber: Where Religion and Politics Intersect, May 24, 2015; Liberation from Economic Oppression, May 31, 2015; Reconciliation in Race and Religion: The Need for Compatibility, not Conformity, July 12, 2015; Fear and Fundamentalism, July 26, 2015; Freedom and Fundamentalism, August 2, 2015; Balancing Individual Rights with Collective Responsibilities, August 9, 2015; How Religious Fundamentalism and Secularism Shape Politics and Human Rights, August 16, 2015; The Power of Freedom over Fear, September 12, 2015; Politics and Religious Polarization, September 20, 2015; Who Is My Neighbor?, January 23, 2016; The Politics of Loving Our Neighbors as Ourselves, January 30, 2016; The Evolution of Faith, Religion and Spirituality, February 20, 2016; The American Religion and Politics in 2016, March 5, 2016.
Fareed Zakaria has blamed the rise of Donald Trump on the failure of Republican moderates to stem the trend of conservative extremism in the GOP since the 1990s, and likened the failure of Muslim moderates to stem the trend of radical Islamism to that of the GOP. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/where-were-republican-moderates-20-years-ago/2016/03/03/4c1c49c2-e18b-11e5-846c-10191d1fc4ec_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
Charles Krauthammer has blamed the rise of Donald Trump on misguided Christian evangelicals. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/donald-trump-defender-of-the-faith/2016/03/03/33fae7a4-e172-11e5-8d98-4b3d9215ade1_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
Michael Gerson has blamed the rise of Donald Trump and the realization of the worst fears of our Founding Fathers on the evolution of popular democracy and the lack of self-respect among Republican voters. See https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/trump-is-the-demagogue-that-our-founding-fathers-feared/2016/03/10/58584278-e6df-11e5-b0fd-073d5930a7b7_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_opinions.
For an account of the recent ugly incident at a Trump rally in North Carolina, where an older white man sucker-punched a black man, see https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/get-him-out-racial-tensions-explode-at-donald-trumps-rallies/2016/03/11/b9764884-e6ee-11e5-bc08-3e03a5b41910_story.html?wpmm=1&wpisrc=nl_evening.