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Wednesday, May 9, 2018
Current Affairs ... Politics ... Religion ...

I finally got around to reading the fascinating article in the April 2018 Atlantic Monthly on the strange and seemingly paradoxical alliance that has evolved between Donald Trump (in his role over the past few years as national politician and President), and the evangelical Christian community. The article is by Michael Gerson, a Christian evangelist who worked for President George W. Bush. Gerson knows something about Republican politics, and also about evangelism — he was raised in an evangelical family in St. Louis, and graduated from Wheaton College, a place with a strong evangelical Protestant heritage.

Gerson is not the first person to point out the paradoxes involved with the strong support that evangelical Christians have given to Donald Trump over his recent political career. To put it mildly, Trump has not shown much concern throughout his life for the Bible. And yet, despite divorces and salacious words and alleged misconduct, despite the many who have had unsatisfactory business dealings with him, despite all those who claimed to be the victim of ruthless exploitation on Trump’s part, despite the fact that Donald Trump has lived his life by the mandate of eye-for-an-eye and has seldom turned the other cheek or granted Christ-like forgiveness — despite all of that, evangelicals see Mr. Trump as a champion of what they stand for.

How did modern American evangelism arrive at this? Gerson goes back to the early 1800s and traces how evangelism has responded to the challenges of slavery, the Civil War, Darwin and Evolution, industrialization and growing secularism over the past two centuries. Evangelicals have a strong tradition of political involvement, and in that respect, their latching on to a strong political figure like Trump is not all that surprising. And yet — one wonders with Gerson how current Christian evangelists can support a man who seems so immune to the ultimate message that they are trying to spread. Sure, when Trump entered his new career as GOP candidate back in 2016, he had to spend a lot of time in the heartland, and thus had to quickly learn Holy-speak and Christian reverence (recall his 2016 flub over “two Corinthians”). So we now have a Christian-ish Donald Trump, sort of like a bitter pill with a sugar coating. But if you judge a man more by his actions than by his words, as the Bible recommends, the sugar coating melts away fast – as Gerson points out in detail.

To be honest, however, this is not what fascinated me the most about Gerson’s article. Like many Americans, I have become very cynical of modern politics; it seems that most anything is possible these days with enough money behind it. Money talks, even when such talk involves God and religion.

What fascinated me, though, was what the Protestant evangelism movement went through in the first half of the 1800’s, prior to the US Civil War. Evangelism has traditionally had a social action instinct, and thus the evangelists were strongly allied with the abolitionist movement that grew in strength prior to the Civil War. Evangelists in general strongly opposed the institution of slavery.

Interestingly, their interest in social justice was an integral part of their belief in a soon-to-come Second Coming of Christ. The believed that America would be the new Israel, the new Jerusalem, where Jesus would come to finally institute the Kingdom of God here on earth. To quote Gerson:

In politics, evangelicals tended to identify New England, and then the whole country, with biblical Israel. Many a sermon described America as a place set apart for divine purposes. “Some nation,” the evangelical minister Lyman Beecher said, “itself free, was needed, to blow the trumpet and hold up the light.” . . . .The burden of this calling was a collective responsibility to remain virtuous, in matters from ending slavery to ending Sabbath-breaking . . . few evangelicals would have denied that God’s covenantal relationship with America required a higher standard of private and public morality, lest that divine blessing be forfeited.

Did the evangelists really believe what Jesus asserted two millennium ago, that God was finally ready to bring about a righteous kingdom here on earth with Jesus having come back to act as God’s point-man and proconsul? And that the new American nation would replace Israel as ground-zero for the apocalypse? Apparently so —

Perhaps most important, prior to the Civil War, evangelicals were by and large postmillennialists—that is, they believed that the final millennium of human history would be a time of peace for the world and of expansion for the Christian Church, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. As such, they were an optimistic lot who thought that human effort could help hasten the arrival of this promised era—a belief that encouraged both social activism and global missionary activity. “Evangelicals generally regarded almost any sort of progress as evidence of the advance of the kingdom,” the historian George Marsden observes in Fundamentalism and American Culture.

So, the evangelicals of the early 19th Century bought-in to the same dream that Jesus did — they convinced themselves that God was ready to establish His Kingdom right in their backyards, so long as they were successful in promoting enough righteous living amidst the people who would inherit the New Earth. And they saw slavery as one of the major impediments to this grand event. But with enough time and effort, they could make it happen. Just as Jesus, on a Passover long ago, believed that God was finally ready to start the process. Unfortunately, the coming of the American Civil War put an end to that dream, just as Pontius Pilate (and a few decades later, the Roman-Jewish War which destroyed the Temple) put the kibosh on what Jesus had envisioned as he rode into Jerusalem on that donkey. In both cases, the “real world” triumphed over religious idealism, although in both cases the dream went on amidst the faithful, as something for the sweet bye-and-bye.

This is another example of how “the end just keeps on coming”, as New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman once said; apocalyptic predictions and group beliefs have been relatively common since the time of Jesus. Religiously inspired group delusion is a powerful force that just won’t go away, despite its long string of failings. And yet, sometimes something good comes of a flawed and failed movement. (You might say that Christianity itself is an example, depending upon your opinion of Christianity). And in the case of the evangelicals, the impetus that they provided to the abolitionist movement would eventually bear fruit, although only after a terrible bloody war.

Now, if only the evangelicals could get beyond their latest delusion, that Donald Trump is their friend (their 19th century dalliance with literal apocalypticism shows how vulnerable they are to delusion). Actually, however, Gerson does leave the reader with some cause for hope in that regard. He cites an upcoming young generation of evangelicals who swinging their focus away from old-tyme Christian morals and mores (the stuff that Trump seemingly defends), and more towards social action in the world. Perhaps in a few years, they will re-find the social action heritage that once led them to be a key part of the anti-slavery movement in America in the 19th Century – without the impatience of expecting a Second Coming according to their own schedule.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 3:05 pm      
 
 


  1. Jim, I am not sure how to respond to this as I so thoroughly agree with your post that it seems there’s little for me to say; I could not agree more, thus end this comment right here. But I’ll manage a few words:

    I do not by any means mean in the next sentence that Clinton was right in what he did; but it has amazed me that Clinton was impeached for his shenanigans, but Donald Trump got elected despite his blatant admitting of similar, worse actions as it seems there certainly was no consent given in DJT’s case(s). Clinton certainly was no saint in how he used a young person, yet he did not thoroughly assault her as DJT certainly seems to have no hesitation doing to women.

    I might note that your quote from Bart Ehrman “the end just keeps on coming” seems to indicate a need in the human being for some type of strict structure that gives a kind of “support” to people and their perception of how life should be lived and what will happen to a person in the “afterlife”. Some people, from ancient times to today, seem to need a structure that gives support to giving people confidence they are living “right” and that their afterlife will be a good one; they seem to want something that makes it easy to live that preferred way even if it means accepting contradictions between words and actions.

    It seems often that few people want to spend a lot of time ruminating over a “good” this life and a happy afterlife. They seem to want something simple and easily followed, a “do this; do not do that” kind of approach to life here on earth so their “afterlife” will be a good one.

    As much as I disagree with the current politics and government, it seems to me that people long for someone who can offer—–or perhaps seem to offer—such support in one’s life. . . and thus we have DJT as our president now.

    As DJT himself has said: People will believe anything you tell them” and often it seems he’s right about that. Perhaps DJT’s election is evidence of a bigger problem, of the lack of confidence people have in their own ability to think, make decisions, and be confident in them. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — May 11, 2018 @ 2:15 pm

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