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.