I was traveling through the Mississippi Delta when I heard the tape of Donald Trump’s “locker room talk.”
“How can he recover from this,” I initially reacted, before reminding myself how many times we’ve wondered that before.
But as the weekend progressed, the backlash was stronger than any Trump controversy to date, as more establishment Republicans disavowed their own candidate.
Trump couldn’t have been luckier from a news cycle perspective. The tape leaked on Friday afternoon and the exodus followed while most of us were watching football. By the time we started paying attention again, the second debate had fragmented political media attention in a million different directions. And while Trump may have not won over many undecideds with his performance, he delivered enough red meat to his base to give fleeing Republicans pause.
Leaks targeted both candidates that Friday. Before the Trump tape, Wikileaks released emails containing text excerpts of Hillary Clinton’s paid speeches to Wall Street executives. Both leaks were revelations only insomuch as they confirmed things we already knew about each person’s character.
But the Trump audio was the far bigger story. For one thing, it was more visceral. We could hear the crude words from Trump’s own lips, as opposed to reading the pandering words attributed to Clinton.
More importantly, while the Clinton excerpts outraged people who were never going to vote for her, the Trump tape caused division among his supporters… a division that’s more significant than one election.
It was the countless churches lining that Mississippi highway, and highways like it all across securely red states. Trump divided Evangelicals.
Evangelicals have been a reliable voting bloc for Republicans since the 1980s, when the Religious Right movement merged political and religious identities. The party defended unborn life and the traditional family, taking ownership of faith-influenced politics that were once shared by both parties.
The result, over decades, has been a narrow definition of what it means to be a faith-based voter tied directly to party affiliation. The Trump candidacy has put that relationship to its greatest test.
When it comes to personal character, or even policy, there is little to nothing about Trump that looks like a candidate of the Religious Right… or of any faith-based criteria. In fact, according to the Southern Baptist Convention’s resolution regarding public officials, Trump is utterly unqualified.
That resolution concludes with a plea:
We urge all Americans to embrace and act on the conviction that character does count in public office, and to elect those officials and candidates who, although imperfect, demonstrate consistent honesty, moral purity and the highest character.
And yet, Evangelicals have lined up behind the Republican nominee. A Pew survey in July found 78% of White Evangelicals supported Trump – that’s more than supported Mitt Romney in 2012. Evangelical leaders like Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson, Ralph Reed, and Robert Jeffress continue to vouch for Trump’s faith and morality. Some have said the taped remarks weren’t important. Robertson said Trump was just “trying to look like he’s macho.”
Wednesday, after eleven different women claimed Trump sexually assaulted them, linking his language to alleged behavior, Falwell Jr. told CNN that he’d continue to support Trump even if the claims are true.
But beyond the firebrands of the Religious Right, this might’ve been the final straw. A Reuters/IPSOS poll taken after the tape leak and subsequent presidential debate gave Trump just a one-point advantage over Clinton among Evangelicals of all races, an 11-point drop from where both Reuters and the Washington Post had observed support throughout the campaign.
The freefall coincided with the raised voices of prominent Christian women (some Evangelical, some not), to whom Trump’s remarks glorified sexual assault and perpetuated rape culture.
Speaker and author Beth Moore:
Christian recording artist Nichole Nordeman:
Author and blogger Jen Hatmaker:
Progressive author and blogger Rachel Held Evans:
Christian recording artist Audrey Assad:
And a previously little-known conservative Christian blogger named Marybeth Glenn, whose tweetstorm about leaving the Republican party went viral:
It’s no secret women don’t like Trump – polls show he consistently garners less than a third of the female vote. But this time, the message spread.
Albert Mohler, President of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, warned of faith-based support for Trump becoming “the Great Evangelical Embarrassment.”
Christianity Today joined the ranks of many news publications breaking from tradition and editorializing on the race. Andy Crouch, the executive editor of the magazine, called out Christian Trump supporters for the compromises made in strategic voting:
But there is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Russell Moore thinks the Trump divide could spell the end of the Religious Right. Moore is the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission – the public policy arm of the SBC. I could block quote his entire piece in the Washington Post (please read it), but I’ll try to select a few excerpts:
We know nothing new about Donald Trump. He has told us about his view of women, his view of sexuality, his views of marriage and family for more than 30 years. He has gloried in reality television decadence before reality television was even invented, in his boasts to tabloid reporters. He reaffirmed who he is over and over again, even during this campaign — from misogynistic statements to racist invective to crazed conspiracy theorizing.
And yet here stands the old-guard Religious Right establishment. Some are defending or waving this away, with the same old tropes they’ve used throughout this campaign. Trump’s not a Sunday school teacher, they tell us. Trump’s a new King David or pagan deliverer Cyrus. Trump is either a “baby Christian” or the kind of tough strongman conservative Christians need since the Sermon on the Mount isn’t realistic enough for the 21st century.
And, of course, they tell us, he will appoint judges and justices who stand up for unborn human life and religious liberty. After all, he promised us he would. Why Trump would be more faithful to vows to religious political activists than he has been to people named “Mrs. Trump,” they do not tell us.
And the kicker…
These evangelical leaders have said that, for the sake of the “lesser of two evils,” one should stand with someone who not only characterizes sexual decadence and misogyny, brokers in cruelty and nativism, and displays a crazed public and private temperament — but who glories in these things. Some of the very people who warned us about moral relativism and situational ethics now ask us to become moral relativists for the sake of an election. And when some dissent, they are labeled as liberals or accused of moral preening or sitting comfortably on the sidelines. The cynicism and nihilism is horrifying to behold. It is not new, but it is clearer to see than ever.
We all live in our own social bubbles, but growing up a Christian in Mississippi, I can tell you mine is pretty Evangelical. And I’ll tell you something else, they’re not long for the fused Church of Trump’s Republican Party.
Not this party, that has allowed itself to be hijacked by inflammatory rhetoric and xenophobia lacking policy, fact, and compassion. Not this church, that contorts itself extolling the virtues of a blatantly immoral man we wouldn’t trust near our families, but we’ll make the President of the United States because he has an “R” next to his name on the ballot.
[Because it will inevitably be read this way, this doesn’t mean young Evangelicals are endorsing Clinton, though indeed not voting for Trump improves the likelihood of her winning the election. (Then again, for the majority of readers, your state is already solidly red or blue no matter what you do… another post for another day.) Clinton is also ethically dubious, has policies that run counter to many people’s faith, and has surrounded herself with people who don’t think very highly of the religious. The difference is that nobody is pretending otherwise while wrapping her in the Christian flag.]
This is a generation gap as wide as I’ve ever seen. Millennial Christians aren’t on board with the political bargain their spiritual mentors are making. The nomination of Donald Trump is going to have long-term consequences for the Republican Party and its attempts to court the next generation of voters. But making Trump the candidate of the faithful is going to do just as much damage to the church.
Young Christians know it. Women of faith are speaking it. And smart Evangelical leaders are doing their best to amplify the message.
Russell Moore gets it. He concluded his op-ed with four words:
“The gospel matters more.”
If that’s true – if the Gospel of Christ matters more – it can have nothing to do with the Gospel of Trump.
Feature photo credit: Charlie Neibergall, AP