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On Life

Ruminations and provocations.

Trump and evangelicals have everything in common

Stephen H. Provost

Repeat after me: The end justifies the means. If you ever find yourself scratching your head when an evangelical appears to brazenly contradict his own principles, refer back and repeat again.

It’s all you need to know.

The phrase sums up the philosophy of Niccolò Machiavelli, whose brand of ruthless politics earned him fame, or, rather, infamy, in the Middle Ages. The upshot is that actions aren’t morally right or wrong in and of themselves; their morality is determined by their results — which leads to the conclusion that might makes right.

If you’ve ever wondered why evangelical faiths, which preach things like turning the other cheek and practicing unconditional love, resorted to crusades and violent jihads in the service of that “love” ... refer back and repeat again. This was their mindset. It had nothing to do with love, and it was anything but unconditional. Believe or die. It was as simple as that.

Why do people who profess to believe in honesty, compassion, respect and fidelity support a pathological liar who brands refugees as rapists and brags about grabbing women’s genitals without permission? Refer back and repeat: The end justifies the means.

Whenever your first moral imperative is evangelism — to convert others to your way of thinking — all other principles are open to compromise. Even such high principles as unconditional love. Instead of offering such love freely, evangelicals too often resort to placing conditions on receiving it (at which point it’s no longer unconditional at all).

Crusades and witch trials

In the Middle Ages, the only thing unconditional is your surrender. The terms were dictated at the point of a sword, as in the crusades, or upon the threat of being burned at the stake, as in the Salem witch trials – where the “choice” was really no choice at all. The sinner accused of witchcraft could either refuse to recant and be burned alive, or confess to something they didn’t do ... and be burned alive anyway. Their only reward for lying — breaking one of the Ten Commandments — under duress was the promise of heaven from someone about to kill them. Such cruelty by a servant of “heaven” could hardly have reassured them about what lay in store there.

(One caveat: Not all people accused of witchcraft in such situations were burned. Some were drowned. Or crushed to death.)

These days, the methods are seldom physical torture, and the conditions aren’t always dictated “on pain of death.” But the same principle continues to apply: A quid pro quo is still offered in place of unconditional love, because the ultimate goal of evangelism isn’t love, it’s conversion. “Love,” like torture, is just a means to an end.

The fundamental quid pro quo, for any unbeliever (not just one accused of witchcraft), is the promise of heaven in exchange for a confession of belief. You can make a “deal with the devil,” but you also must make a deal with God. Deals — especially when signed under duress — are not unconditional love. But because this particular deal is at the heart of evangelism, it’s become a model for evangelicals, who often place conditions on other actions of “love” toward the sinner. They won’t scratch your back unless you scratch theirs.

Not all evangelicals behave this way. Some view love, not conversion, as their prime directive and really do show that love without any ulterior motive. But the fact that conversion is the ultimate goal for so many means that “the art of the deal” will always be a temptation for evangelicals – and one they have a hard time resisting.

Disposable morality

Because morality is of secondary importance to salvation, it becomes disposable. And, as a result, evangelicals wind up engaging in something they regularly criticize when others do it: “situational ethics.” For people who profess to believe in absolute principles, this kind of thinking is anathema. Evangelical voices often rail against it. Yet even situational ethics can be excused in the service of evangelism, and the resulting hypocrisy is also permitted if the outcome is a “saved soul.”

“When you do it, it’s evil; when we do the same thing, it’s noble.” Because the results are different.

The end justifies the means.

An evangelical’s quid pro quo can be as radical as a conversion at gunpoint, or it can be as simple as offering someone a helping hand and “inviting” them to attend church. An invitation like this leaves room for the would-be guest to decline, but it’s clear that he’s expected to attend. There’s significant social pressure to do so under the rule of reciprocity. When someone does you a favor, you feel obligated to reciprocate. The reason is simple: You don’t want to remain in that person’s debt. The rule of reciprocity gives him leverage in dictating how you discharge that debt, and a suggestion that you attend church can be a way of using that leverage.

Winning

Evangelism is, at its core, convincing (or coercing) someone to believe what you believe. In short: winning. “God” must win, and “Satan” must lose. But the minute you sacrifice principles on the altar of success, you also render labels like “God” and “Satan” meaningless. Undefined by any moral compass, they mean whatever you want them to mean in the moment.

Evangelicals, politically speaking, are often motivated to by the stands they’ve taken on issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage, gun rights, and so forth. But even these principles can be compromised or sacrificed altogether in exchange for the overarching goal of simply winning. The idea is that, once they’ve won, they’ll have unchecked power to enforce their views on these issues. Power supplants principle as the immediate goal, and the drive to achieve it by winning becomes not only everything, but the only thing.

This is why so many evangelicals who appear to be at odds with the current president issues of substance and character, support him enthusiastically. They view him as their King David: their champion, destined to win. And if winning is everything, they have everything in common. It’s not about love. It’s all about the art of the deal: getting the other party to sign a contract that’s favorable to your side, even if it means concealing the fine print or forcing a signature under duress. The methods don’t matter.

Refer back and repeat after me …

Donald and Bathsheba: Why so many evangelicals defend Trump

Stephen H. Provost

Why are so many evangelicals standing by Donald Trump in the face of actions that would seem to be directly at odds with the teachings of the Bible?

When it comes right down to it, as much as they talk about sin, specific sins are of much less concern to many evangelicals than the “work of the devil.” Sins themselves are viewed as inevitable, because each of us is – according to a doctrine set forth by Paul of Tarsus – born into a fallen state because of Adam’s original sin.

“We’re all sinners,” Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the Moral Majority founder, said in announcing he was still supporting Trump.

Sinful acts can be forgiven, and Christians will still sin (though, it is hoped, somewhat less frequently). So the endgame isn’t to stop people from sinning, it’s to redeem their fallen nature and make sure the devil doesn’t tempt them back to what Darth Vader might call “the dark side.”

Take the story of the woman at the well in the Gospel of John, who had already been married five times and was living with a man outside of wedlock. Jesus made note of this, but he didn’t condemn her for it. Instead, he used it as an opportunity to identify himself as the messiah – the rightful ruler of Israel and the kingdom of God.

This was the point of the scene, and it’s the point evangelicals are focused on, as well. They’re far less concerned about sinful acts (individual transgressions against God or his people) than they are about humanity’s sinful nature and the salvation from it they believe Jesus can provide.

As a result, evangelicals are caught up in a black-and-white struggle between the forces of good and evil. Salvation and damnation. God and Satan.

“Whoever is not for me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters.” - Matt. 12:30

“Anyone who loves their son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” - Matt. 10:37

These are the sayings of Jesus that resonate with many evangelicals. Loyalty is paramount; any sins that might be committed along the way are secondary – and may be excused (forgiven) as long as that loyalty is unwavering.

The politics of dualism

American politics represents a convenient parallel to the good-vs.-evil struggle of the evangelical mindset because, like the dualist battle between YHWH and Satan, the electoral system as it works in the United States typically presents voters with two choices. It’s easy for evangelicals to align those choices with the God’s heavenly hosts and Satan’s demonic hordes – the armies of light and darkness engaged in “spiritual warfare” on the eternal plane.

When the Republican Party co-opted the evangelical movement (or was it the other way around?) during the era of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority in the 1980s, the two became joined at the hip. Many evangelicals started to see Republicans as an earthly “army of light” corresponding to the heavenly host, while demonizing Democrats as tools of “the enemy.”

This is likely why, in the minds of many evangelicals, Donald Trump can be forgiven for his undeniably sinful attitudes and actions toward women, while Bill Clinton – and his wife, Hillary, whom they view as his enabler – cannot. No matter how many times Trump has engaged in fornication or boasted about abusive behavior, and no matter how many times he’s switched parties or positions, he has been redeemed in the eyes of many evangelicals by his association with the Republican Party. Clinton, on the other hand, is “outside the fold.” Calling himself a Christian and asking forgiveness aren’t good enough for evangelicals who have accepted the premise that the Republican Party is God’s chosen instrument in U.S. politics. He might as well be a Protestant asking forgiveness of the IRA.

Further reinforcing evangelical support for Trump is acceptance of the monarchial model that dominated politics in the ancient Near East. This is the model represented in the Bible, with God ruling from a throne in heaven as and anointing kings to act in his behalf on earth (hence the title “king of kings” as opposed to “president of presidents”).

The test of a king’s legitimacy wasn’t his righteousness, but his faithfulness to YHWH. Fornication? No big deal. Solomon did it. David did it. But David continually recommitted himself to YHWH, while Solomon earned the wrath of the prophets by allowing an Asherah pole – dedicated to a fertility goddess – to be placed in the temple of YHWH.

In fact, if one wants to understand many evangelicals’ continued embrace of Trump, one need look no further than David. Described in the Bible as a “man after God’s own heart,” he nonetheless slept with the wife of a loyal soldier named Uriah, then arranged for that soldier to be put in harm’s way so that he might be slain in battle – clearing the way for David to have the woman himself.

Such actions were probably not unusual in the days when absolute monarchs could sleep with any woman they wanted. But they’re less acceptable in the United States, which follows a model of government that owes its inspiration to Greek democracy, not the ancient Near Eastern model of the tyrant king.

Autocracy or democracy

The tension between these two systems remains palpable for some evangelicals, who see their relationship to God as one of a subject to an absolute ruler and may view those whom they identify as God’s chosen leaders in the same light. So if Trump brags of being able to do anything he wants to a woman because he’s “a star,” he’s boasting about something the Bible’s most famous king – David – actually did.

Of course, not all evangelicals – and certainly not all Christians – think this way. There are plenty of people of faith who put morality ahead of what amounts to loyalty (remember Jesus’ parable of one blind man leading another into a pit?). When Falwell Jr., who is now president of Liberty University, announced he was still with Trump, a group of students at the university claiming to represent a majority of students and teachers on campus issued a statement denouncing Trump.

But that doesn’t mean the behavior of evangelicals who have stuck by Trump is somehow inexplicable. In some ways, it makes perfect sense, and they really aren’t as hypocritical as they might at first appear. They’re just putting loyalty above morality and adhering to a model of government at odds with the representative democracy practiced in the U.S.

Is it surprising that they would gravitate toward a leader like Trump, who’s more autocrat than democrat? Not at all. In fact, it’s exactly what one would expect.

Note: The author spent more than a decade in the evangelical movement, attending evangelical churches, during the decade when the Moral Majority rose to prominence in American politics. He has written on philosophy, spirituality, ethics and the origins/development of Western religion.  

The Covington debacle: No adults in the room

Stephen H. Provost

We see what we want to see, and we believe what we want to believe ... even when someone else offers a different perspective. It’s truer now than ever, and nothing illustrates it better than the reaction to dueling videos of a confrontation involving students from Covington Catholic High School, black activists and a Native American drummer at the Lincoln Memorial.

Images in the initial video show a student wearing a MAGA hat smiling what looked like a smug, self-satisfied smile at a Native American veteran drumming less than an arm’s length in front of him. Other students are seen jumping up and down, chanting in the background. A second video, however, shows another group (unseen in the first video): four black activists angrily shouting nasty, degrading slurs at the students.

Those who had expressed outrage at the students after seeing the first video tended to react in one of two ways upon seeing the second. They either held fast to their initial criticism of the students, or they issued mea culpas for jumping to what they now said had been the wrong conclusion.

It’s these two divergent reactions that illustrate, even more than the incident itself, how polarized we are as a society. And how entrenched we’ve become in our reliance upon dogmatic, black-and-white thinking. The facts be damned: Our side is always right. That’s why the current president’s poll numbers barely move. They’re not based on his actions or any reasoned judgment about those actions. They’re based on tribal identity and an us-versus-them bunker mentality.

Hats vs. slurs

Regarding the incident at the Lincoln Memorial, there’s plenty of blame to go around.

Let’s start with the students. The MAGA hat has become a symbol that invites confrontation. To many people, it represents everything from xenophobia to racism, sexism to fascism. Wearing a hat like that doesn’t invite discussion, it shuts it down. It’s an in-your-face declaration of allegiance that encourages one of two responses: fight or flight.

Critics of the students said they heard them chanting things like “Build that wall!” in reference to Donald Trump’s proposed wall along the southern border. The students deny that, saying instead that they were shouting a school chant.

It doesn’t matter.

A wall chant wouldn’t have been surprising, but it wasn’t necessary, either: It was already plain as day how the students felt about Trump and his policies, thanks to their hats. It wasn’t the contents of the chant that mattered, but the fact that the students started chanting in the first place. Chants are, by their very nature, confrontational and intimidating.

The students said they received permission from their adult chaperones before starting the chant. The adults should never have given that approval. In so doing, they heightened tensions further and created even more room for misunderstanding. Chants, like lectures and shouted protests, are one-sided discussions that leave those on the receiving end feeling bullied, powerless and angry. They don’t defuse tensions, they heighten them.

But the adults’ culpability in the D.C. incident goes beyond this. Not only did they put the students in a situation where confrontation was likely to occur, they allowed – or perhaps even encouraged – them to wear provocative MAGA hats, all but guaranteeing that such a confrontation would take place.

The adults may very well have wanted just such a confrontation. They had come to protest, and they were itching for a fight. But is it ever OK to use teenagers as proxies to make a political statement? I don’t care whether you’re protesting against abortion, global warming, substandard wages or immigration. Putting kids on the front lines in a physical conflict is a war crime, so it stands to reason that you shouldn’t do it in a shouting conflict, either – especially when there’s nowhere to run. (The students, by their own account, had to stay where they were because they were waiting for a bus to pick them up.)

The results in any situation like this are predictable: The kids are attacked – which is exactly what happened here. The cowardly adults, meanwhile, benefit in more ways than one. They can hide behind their kids, using them as psychological human shields, while they pretend to be the grown-ups instead of manipulative instigators. Second, they can reinforce the dogma they’re trying to teach the next generation. Because, you know what? When people are attacked, they get defensive, and they tend to harden their stances against a perceived aggressor. The chaperones didn’t have to reinforce the kids’ prejudices; they allowed the situation to do it for them.

Staredown at a weigh-in

The four black protesters played right into all this, shouting homophobic slurs and calling the students everything from “crackers” to “a bunch of incest babies.” Regardless of the actions of the kids or their chaperones, this kind of language is abhorrent. Full stop. If you’re an adult, you don’t get to attack kids like this, even if they’re wearing MAGA hats, any more than a man calls a woman the “B” or the “C” word. It’s vile and disgusting, regardless of your race, religion, gender or anything else. If they’re breaking the law, have them arrested. Otherwise, leave them the hell alone.

The Native American drummer, meanwhile, stated that he tried to insinuate himself between the two groups, yet he faced the students throughout, not the four protesters. Even more to the point, he did so while banging a drum and chanting as he stared directly into the lead student’s eyes. There’s no reason to doubt that he was, in fact, trying to defuse the situation, but his actions had the opposite effect. Intentionally or not, he escalated the tensions by using the body language of challenge and confrontation (a staredown), and upped the ante by chanting and drumming.

The other students, in response, seem to have at least partially surrounded him, and the lead student’s smirking response sent a message (again, intentionally or not) that he wasn’t about to back down. He held his ground, as if daring the drummer to start something. Regardless of how he might have tried to justify his actions later, his body language said, “Bring it on!” The two looked like a couple of boxers at a weigh-in before a title fight.

The biggest irony in all this is that it took place on a weekend honoring Martin Luther King Jr., whose philosophy was the antithesis of everything that occurred. Can you imagine King yelling the kind of things the black protesters were shouting at the students? Or trying to provoke a confrontation by engaging in a staredown? King was all about nonviolent protests and passive resistance. Not a single party involved in the D.C. incident could be described as passive, and violence was very nearly the result.

Yes, the kids behaved badly. But that’s why you need adults in the room. Unfortunately, in this case, there didn’t seem to be any.