Peter Wehner’s opinion piece about a “beginning of America” oversimplifies the current crisis in the Republican party, the United States, and Christ’s body. Wehner cites the relief of Evangelical pastors as Biden is inaugurated; their Trumpian nightmare is now over. In seeking a reason for Trump’s success, he analyzes and blames the Republican party’s “radicalized base” and move away from “traditional conservatism.” He fails to see that the roots go deeper. The creation of a “Christian right” that has accepted an ends-justify-the-means mentality going back at least to the 80’s and the biblical hermeneutics that allowed such a travesty must also be held to account.
I was a high schooler in the early 80’s, and my mother worked for the school system. She was the president of the local chapter of the California School Employees Association (CSEA) union and well aware of issues affecting schools in our area. My family was also very active in our Evangelical Free Church, a community that was mostly filled with working to middle class families.
As a local school board election approached, several church members sought the opinion of a prominent church member who was also an attorney working in the county DA’s office about the local (part of our city) school board elections. In conversations during the church coffee hour, the attorney was recommending a particular candidate, and my mother questioned the basis of his recommendation since that candidate had no history of involvement with the school system, the school employees’ union, or the teachers’ union. In fact, the candidate’s stated platform contradicted what the teacher’s union and the CSEA both advocated. “Candidate X is pro-life,” the attorney explained, “if we are going to get pro-life people elected to higher offices they need to start somewhere. The school board is a political stepping stone.”
The attorney had no opinion about the platform of the candidate relative to the school system. He argued solely based on an anti-abortion stance, and bear in mind that at that point in history, magnet schools (as a desegregation tool), school funding, and teacher pay, were the hot political issues relative to schools. Abortion and other progressive issues related to the sex ed curriculum would come many years later. Clearly a campaign had been launched to use the issue of abortion in a long-term strategy to get conservative candidates on the first rungs of the political ladder at any cost. Their goal, as described by the attorney, was state and national office so they could gain control of the Supreme Court and overturn Roe v. Wade. In the face of this lofty goal, issues related to public schools were made irrelevant.
When a movement has nearly 40 years of turning a blind eye to the needs of children and the people who teach, feed, and keep them safe on a daily basis, in favor of a political goal related to the unborn, it is myopic to blame a “radicalized base” or “rage at politicians” or even right-wing media for the rise of a person like President Trump. Although those fringe elements were important in a close election, Trump’s success is a symptom of a larger problem: Christian voters were willing to drink poison on the promise of rooting out what they saw as cancers: Roe v. Wade and gay marriage.
In the days leading up to the 2016 election, I clicked on Facebook posts posted by my evangelical cousins and saw something more disturbing than insinuations about Hilary Clinton’s health or questionable events during Bill Clinton’s years in the White House. A video widely circulated among evangelical Christians featured a pastor addressing a large congregation. “Remember,” he said, “when you vote on election day you are not voting for the man; you are voting for the coalition that is going to bring God’s morality back to our country.” The rest of his speech made clear that by “God’s morality” he meant an end to abortion and gay marriage. And lest you be concerned about Trump’s clear moral failings, remember that King David also failed when led by his sexual appetites but was nevertheless God’s anointed.
The comparison with David, however, brushes past the fact that David’s failings came after he was king. His anointing came when he was spending his time taking care of sheep. He was anointed for the purpose of defeating a bully, not becoming one. When the prophet Nathan confronts David about his sin with Bathsheba and plot to ensure her husband’s death in battle, Nathan uses a story about a little lamb, bringing to mind David’s former self as much as revealing to him how far he had strayed. In the wake of Bathsheba’s pregnancy and Uriah’s death, David is cursed rather than anointed. Biblical literacy should have led Christians away from a person like Trump, but instead their leaders were using their platforms to help a large section of our society stomach him. In a sub-culture where a single verse can be used to proof-text any idea, perhaps this is not surprising.
It is time for Evangelical pastors to move beyond a reckoning with their attraction to bad-boy Trump and look more deeply at all of their political alliances and foes, not merely populism, radical elements of the country, or even the Republican party. If they are willing to look closely, Evangelical pastors will also need to explore the effects of modern hermeneutics: an obsession with the “end times,” a focus on temporal political power, and the way that a habit of trying to break the biblical prophetic “code” primes people for conspiracy theories.
While Joe Biden’s presidency does indeed bring relief to myself and many others who have found it hard to breathe for the last four years, the country will never be healed as long as 25% (or more) of Christians continue to buy-in to a framework of biblical interpretation that discounts the bulk of the biblical witness, promotes taking verses out of context, and sacrifices those we should lift up in an attempt to legislate a particular brand of morality.