Contextualizing Evangelism in Modern American Politics

A conceptual analysis.

President Donald J. Trump walks from the White House Monday evening, June 1, 2020, to St. John’s Episcopal Church, that was damaged by fire during demonstrations in nearby LaFayette Square Sunday evening. Part of the Public Domain.

Despite the overwhelming support that the current Republican administration gets from Evangelicals, few of its stewards can be described as remotely religious. After eight years of principled secularism from Barack Obama, evangelical fervor was at an all-time high, and in seeking to rectify America’s newly-acquired distance from religiosity, Donald Trump — an avowed sinner — was deemed a worthy successor.

This is the story of America under its newly-imposed regime–the religious zealots on the Christian right get to define the parameters of the country’s political economy, and in their unwavering support for all that advances their cause, they’ve become a fearsome force in American politics. There’s an interesting paradox in purporting to venerate God while voting for sin personified, but it makes sense in the context of an ever-diluting set of principles and values from the religious right — what was once an impenetrable fort of unshakable commitment to godly figures in service of godly ends, has only now realized endeavors most-devilish would bring them closer to their goals.

This disparity between aesthetics and praxis was remarked upon by several Christian commentators from across the political spectrum. “It was strange to think of Trump as a bulwark against precipitous moral decline,” wrote Elizabeth Bruenig for the Washington Post. “After all, he appears to have presided over a more rapid coarsening of news and discourse than the average candidate. Even if you count modern history as a story of dissolution and degeneracy, few, if any, other world leaders have launched as many headlines containing censored versions of the word “pussy.”.” Former staff writer at the National Review David French came away with a very similar assessment. “When we’re the living representatives of Christ’s church, we don’t get to proudly support politicians who lie and commit dishonorable acts for the sake of a few policies wins,” he told the New York Times’ Ross Douthat. “I know it’s fashionable to scorn “mainstream” or “respectable” politicians or ministers, but these individuals at least had the virtue — as imperfect as they were — of a degree of personal honor and integrity. The church always must be mindful of its witness, and it can’t sacrifice its moral credibility to culture by declaring, “I did it for the judges.”.”

But as things currently stand, Trump’s broken moral compass is considered a necessary evil in pursuit of the ultimate good — sometimes to eschatological ends. Becoming disillusioned with American society in sharp moral decline, religious extremists on the Christian Right vow to turn the streets bloody until God’s glory is restored — it isn’t the brown skin and long black beards with loose clothing that America should fear most; it should turn its attention towards the threat of pale-skinned, gun-toting, MAGA-hat wearing cross-bearers hiding in plain sight.

Evangelicals see that it is their duty to bring back the splendor of yesteryears, where compulsive harmony preceded unconditional plurality — what transpires in most cases though, is only searing bigotry and hatred. For as long as there has been a binding agent to human tribes, the worry of it slipping away has been ever-present — it is understandable to want the thing that allows you to call fellow folk ‘brethren’ to persist, but when it is performed through flawed trials of moral integrity, it can become the very antithesis to the social cohesion it seeks.

What evangelicals are responding to — perhaps fiercely so — is at its most basic what they deem to be Christ’s soul lost, symptomatic of abandonment of piety and trust in the divine. But that’s an ahistorical interpretation of the last millennia–it is the erosion of the core values of what makes a Christian that has allowed the followers of Jesus to still bear great suffering in his name, not the opening up of the faith to those who’ve been historically excluded from it.

Human existence is defined by strife for survival, and ideologies — religions comprised — are no exception. In order for Christianity to stop shedding whatever goodwill it still has from the American people, those custoding its public display have to demonstrate that they can live up — even aspirationally so — to their purported ideals. It’s to take less of what made the belief system conducive to motivating political violence across centuries past, and build upon the rest in an effort to enfranchise and include those who’ve been met with hostility by Christianity’s most-ardent advocates–or so they claim at least.

Being Muslim, the pains of having one’s faith delegitimized in the face of great criticism for reasons more-or-less dubious aren’t exactly lost on me–what has however renewed my vigor, is seeing the name of God carried in the pursuit of the collective good. Whether Muslim, Jewish, Christian, or otherwise, when efforts are liberally expended on the betterment of all, it inspires great hope in me that even if the memory of God was forever lost, its spirit will still live on in everything we do. It’s not about symbols or what a particular branch of a faith tradition deems most-holy– it’s about ensuring that even those we’re reluctant to call our brethren aren’t shafted away to the margins of society with no path to proper redress.

Since the dawn of the French Revolution, secularism posited itself as a savior from the shackles of subservience to corrupt religious institutions, but in many cases, those have been swiftly replaced by vectors of capitalistic influence in modern society. Who will save American Christians — and their dying moral core — will not be an average-cut neoliberal with little attention paid to the present dynamics at play–it’ll be someone with a radically-different perspective of what does it mean to be Christ-like in an age where Christians most-visible often evoke the opposite. There are hints of reform on the horizon, but only time will tell if they’ll ever amount to anything worth celebrating.