At Bearings Online, we seek to examine relationships between religion and culture, and to that end we are publishing a series of essays written by evangelicals on their understanding of faith in the era of President Donald Trump. This week, David Wood grapples with the politics of his evangelical family members. To read more essays in this series, click here.
Like countless others, when I returned home over Thanksgiving break for a few days, I was determined not to bring up politics with my thoroughly evangelical siblings. That determination held, for the most part, until the last evening when we went out to dinner.
My brother, some three years older than I am, is a very pious Christian, and I mean that in the most positive terms. He follows a daily spiritual discipline of prayer and scripture meditation that he has maintained faithfully for decades. He is by personality a gentle, kind person, and is passionate about Christian discipleship in ways I truly admire. He is pastor of a local congregation in the heartland, and is a faithful shepherd of his flock. My sister is a wife and a proud mother of four boys, smart as a whip, also deeply dedicated to her Christian faith with the daily spiritual disciplines to show for it. She is the primary caregiver for our 86-year-old father who is able to live a relatively independent life only because she tends to him on a daily basis. He suffered a stroke several years ago, which has significantly limited his mobility. She is one of the most caring, compassionate people I know.
They are both avid supporters of Donald Trump. They are both convinced that Barack Obama was nothing more than a wolf in sheep’s clothing doing the work of the devil, and that Hillary Clinton was the personification of evil.
Having recently passed through Advent, I cannot help but resonate with Mary’s question of the Angel Gabriel, “How can these things be?”
At that post-Thanksgiving dinner, I let it be known in blunt language how utterly baffled I am by their unambiguous support for one so unambiguously corrupt, dishonest, bigoted, and morally bankrupt as Donald Trump. They, in turn, expressed their fear for my soul and that I have completely lost any sense of what it means to be a Christian in these dark and troubled times.
I ask again, how can these things be? Here’s the sense I make of the political commitments of my deeply pious, evangelical family.
We cannot overestimate how profoundly the lens of abortion focuses and shapes the evangelical imagination concerning what it means to be a faithful witness to the Gospel in this day and time. I’m not saying abortion alone shapes what evangelicals think and do in the public realm, but it is the one issue that overshadows all other factors. I remember when, in the late 1970s, Francis Schaeffer came out with his film series and book, Whatever Happened to the Human Race? (co-authored and co-narrated by C. Everett Koop, who would become Ronald Reagan’s Surgeon General). Schaeffer—self-taught philosopher, cultural critic, and biblical interpreter—was the prized and trusted intellectual of the evangelical layperson. Schaeffer darkly warned that Western Civilization hung in the balance due to abortion. If abortion was not confronted and resisted, he claimed, all was lost. Christians were the last best hope for the survival of all that was just, right, and good in the world. The line from abortion to infanticide to euthanasia to mass genocide, and a holocaust that would dwarf any previous holocausts, was direct and inevitable, for Schaeffer, unless Christians rose up and mounted the assault on the evil of abortion.
It was at about that time, with another media-made celebrity at the helm, Ronald Reagan, that the Republican Party embraced the crusade against abortion as a prime moral cause, a move that would transform it in into God’s Only Party—at least as far as evangelicals were concerned. And that perception holds true to this day. Supreme Court appointments that will overturn Roe v. Wade remain the end that justifies all political means— including the election of Donald Trump. My brother was never particularly “political” until he became caught up in the street protests outside abortion clinics in the early 1980s. He remains convinced that if the Democrats and their pro-abortion policies take charge, all is lost.
For evangelicals like my brother, all matters of social justice are subordinate to the issue of abortion. No injustice is more egregious than the murder of an innocent, and none are more innocent than the unborn. Consequently, all talk of health care for all Americans, poverty, racism, sexism, etc., pale by comparison. Abortion demands immediate attention and action. All those other social problems are chalked up to the failure of individuals to assume responsibility for their own lives—something a fetus has no possibility of doing. If we fail to defend the unborn, all else fails.
Add to that the fact that apocalyptic imagination continues to exercise inordinate influence over how evangelicals such as my brother and sister see world events. They view our present times in terms of vivid visions of the end times that may well be upon us; for many evangelicals we are quite possibly on the verge of the Second Coming of Christ. The operative theology of salvation for these believers allows them to assume that the vast majority of people who have ever lived will be consigned to hell. That is a reality beyond dispute. Consequently, conspiratorial stories of the evil of all those who are not Christian (for certain, those supporting abortion rights such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton) make perfect sense and only prove how debased and ungodly non-Christians truly are.
Given all that is at stake, discussions about Donald Trump’s supposed sexual indiscretions or his lack of political sophistication (which they view as, in some ways, a positive sign of naïve, non-establishment innocence), are all beside the point. The cause for which he has been chosen is so much larger and more important than he is as a person—as a person of a particular character. As we know well from the biblical story, God uses sinful, fallible human beings: Abraham, King David, Samson, Cyrus, Herod, the Apostle Paul, the list goes on. Those of us who point to the current president’s flawed character simply do not understand how God works. And besides, the pure and upright Mike Pence is in the (West) wings. God’s ways are not our ways.
In this information age, never has it been more possible to live in a bubble of one’s own making. My siblings have never read the New York Times or the Washington Post, or the Wall Street Journal, for that matter. They have their sources for news and information, which are all internet-based, and are to be trusted precisely because they are uncontaminated by the forces of the “liberal media empire.”
Apocalyptic, anti-abortion, evangelical Christianity draws knowing, heavy lines between those who are in and out of the faith, not to mention between those who are on God’s side, and those who are of the devil. It carries an insular certainty and self-righteousness that encourages it to cast not only the first stone, but any other stones that might be ready to hand. It follows a logic of its own that accounts for a host of other issues, primarily of a sexual nature.
For these evangelicals, it’s impossible to separate abortion from a string of judgments about sexual mores: the reason women seek abortion is sexual promiscuity; accessibility to abortion only encourages such promiscuity, as does availability of contraception; homosexuality is nothing other than sexual promiscuity run amuck, and same-sex marriage is to be rejected outright because it attributes moral legitimacy to promiscuity in general, and to a particular form of promiscuity that is, without question, perverse and utterly unacceptable. Any politician of any character who aids and abets this religious view of the world, however cynically, is counted as a friend, or at the very least, an instrument in God’s hand.
That’s how these things can be. Lord, have mercy.