For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul? — Matthew 16:26.
I know I’m on thin ice here, because we’ve all been warned that conversations about religion or politics never seem to end pleasantly. When you combine the two, it could be argued that you are doubling the potential of unpleasantness. This isn’t exactly a conversation, because you don’t get to respond in real time, and if you stop reading, the conversation is over. It’s more like a forum which, whether you continue reading or not, is all about religion AND politics.
Remember the popular quotation which rose to excessiveness in the 1990’s, often on bumper stickers and T-shirts, and is still topical today? It poses the question, “What Would Jesus Do?” and has become so prevalent that conscientious Christians only need to say or write “WWJD” to make a point or steer a discussion in a more spiritual direction.
So my WWJD this week would be: What would Jesus do if he returned here —assuming he wasn’t detained at the border—and was somehow granted American citizenship and allowed to vote? My guess is he would opt for a write-in, but your guess is as good as mine as to who could possibly live up to his expectations. It is unlikely he would follow the logic of the evangelical Christian leaders who assure us that they are so much closer to him than the rest of us. Evangelical Christians— an estimated 135 denominations, many of whom, but not all, are fundamentalists—accounted for 26 percent of the electorate in the 2016 Presidential Election, with 80 percent of that bloc voting for Donald Trump. Eight out of ten white evangelical Protestants, say they would still vote for him, according to a Pew Research Center survey last month.
Get this. They, following the counsel of prominent pastors and other evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell, Jr., Pat Robertson and James Dobson, voted for him, though spiritually flawed and lacking in devoutness himself, because they believed he was sent as an instrument of God.
I pondered this anomaly in a previous blog as part of my quest to understand why this man’s amoral and immoral behavior, fueled by a divisive message— the polar opposite of the good news and promise of redemption in the Gospels— has struck a chord with this nation’s most conservative Christians so literally attuned to the Bible.
Amoral, immoral and even criminal behavior are now accepted on the premise that even people of the most depraved character can be instruments of God and thus lead the nation back to its Christian precepts to the exclusion of all other causes and beliefs.
“God can use anybody” is the key to what is known as the vessel theology. It excuses sinful behavior— even for someone who has admittedly never asked for forgiveness. Donald Trump, when asked if he ever sought forgiveness, a spiritual cleansing, does not see himself as one who requires absolution. That flies in the face of the most elemental Christian message, whether you are a Southern Baptist or mainstream Methodist. Christians essentially believe we’re all sinners and we all must partake of the blood and body, the sacrament of the Eucharist through Christian communion.
When pressed recently the president couldn’t recall ever asking for forgiveness from anyone, human or immortal. His YUUGE sense of entitlement apparently precludes him from putting any being above himself: “ When we go in church and when I drink my little wine . . . and have my little cracker, I guess that’s a form of asking for forgiveness, and I do that as often as possible because I feel cleansed.”
That’s as far as he can go in acknowledging humility and penitence. His sense of entitlement, nurtured by aforementioned conservative Christian leaders, has made him something of a godly figure to some supporters.
A Republican stalwart named Mark Lee, taking part in a CNN focus group, seemed to place Trump over and above Jesus himself in this unique hierarchy: “If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia, I would tell him, hold on a second. I need to check with the president if it is true. That is how confident I feel in the president.”
Let’s see. Trump tops Jesus in the credibility department? Crazy stuff.
Junior Falwell Falls Victim to Power Surge
“God can use anybody” best reflects what many conservative Christian leaders were saying on behalf of their candidate in the prelude to the last election. Take Falwell, Jr., heretofore known as Junior, who, in many ways, spearheaded the white evangelical support of Trump when he spoke on his behalf at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. The son of Jerry Falwell, Sr., founder of the Moral Majority and following in his footsteps as President of Christ-centered Liberty University, was among the first to declare Trump an instrument of God like Cyrus The Great, flaws and all, who will “lead America to Christian deliverance.”
Four years later, Junior proves to be just another blowhard and womanizer among a growing list of corruptible clerics like Jim Bakker, Jimmy Swaggart and Robert Tilton. In the case of Junior Falwell, it has been a heady trip before his recent fall, and it is all due to that great leveler, a hunger for power and prestige.
Junior’s followers should have been forewarned by an episode after a 2015 mass shooting in California when he encouraged Liberty University students to arm themselves with concealed weapons after patting what he indicated was a firearm in his back pocket.
“I’ve always thought that if more good people had concealed-carry permits,” he proclaimed, “then we could end those Muslims before they walked in.”
Probably not a WWJD moment. From there Junior became the guiding spirit of Christian evangelism just a year later as a powerful figure behind the podium at the Republican National Convention that dubbed the modern Cyrus as its choice for President of the United States. Thusly blessed and consecrated as the favored one of the Christian right, Trump reciprocated in kind by promising the power they craved.
“Christianity will have power, because if I’m there, you’re going to have plenty of power,” the soon-to-be-triumphant candidate pledged. “You don’t need anybody else. You’re going to have somebody representing you very, very well. Remember that.”
Other rationalizations white evangelicals have taken to explain their allegiance to Trump, according to author, evangelical Christian and disillusioned pastor’s son, Ben Howe, in his book “The Immoral Majority,” include “the lesser of two evils” rationalization:
Some of them look past immoralities when the scale of those immoralities pales in comparison to the concerns of abortion, religious freedom, and the safety of American citizens. They believe that one should be more concerned with the lives and happiness of their children than whether or not a president is a lying, philandering, unethical charlatan. So it comes down to the lesser of two evils for many conservative Christians now.
Character and morality, which were so important to the Christian right when President Bill Clinton strayed from the straight and narrow and then lied about it, are excused by them when their president’s behavior and documented sinful ways are questioned. Trump is a flawed man who can be forgiven for anything because he is an instrument of God. Clinton, meanwhile, will never be forgiven, because, as Howe states it, his “entire persona is defined by his immorality.”
It is complicated, and not easily resolved in a few hundred words here, let alone an entire book, but I ask that you forgive this flawed attempt at understanding this selective vindication.