Why we should thank Donald Trump Jr. for showing us the truth about white evangelical Christianity
I speak of none other than Donald Trump Jr., eldest child of the former occupant of the White House. Out of all of those who could have stepped where others have refused to tread, it took this young(ish) man, now shorn, perhaps permanently, of life in the limelight—after finding himself so often blocked by his father’s shadow—to articulate a simple, basic truth about what’s shaped tens of millions of Republican voters who cast their vote in 2016, again in 2020, and who will do so in the future: that mass of ignorance and intolerance known as white evangelical Christianity.
It fell to the younger Donald to spell out what everyone should have realized about 80% of these people from the get-go, ever since they sold their souls so willingly to his father. The white evangelicals—who once claimed such special status among God’s elect that they described themselves as “born again”—have now wholly divorced themselves from any pretense of devotion to Jesus Christ’s teachings. They now simply exist to wield, like true fanatics, a new, updated gospel: a gospel of seething anger, violence, and revenge, now fully revealed to them by their savior, Donald Trump.
The revelation Junior delivered to his father’s flock came at the Turning Point USA conference on Dec. 19. As described by a horrified Peter Wehner, an evangelical Christian who writes for The Atlantic, the young Trump effectively drew a line in the sand, setting forth an edict proclaiming a new and improved Christian dogma for his father’s supporters. Speaking to a rapturous crowd, Trump elaborated on his new “Good News.”
“If we get together, they cannot cancel us all. Okay? They won’t. And this will be contrary to a lot of our beliefs because—I’d love not to have to participate in cancel culture. I’d love that it didn’t exist. But as long as it does, folks, we better be playing the same game. Okay? We’ve been playing T-ball for half a century while they’re playing hardball and cheating. Right? We’ve turned the other cheek, and I understand, sort of, the biblical reference—I understand the mentality—but it’s gotten us nothing. Okay? It’s gotten us nothing while we’ve ceded ground in every major institution in our country.”
As Wehner explains, the speech was designed to push all of the buttons that have been cultivated by the religious right as they justify their grievances against an American culture they feel has turned its back on them.
Throughout his speech, Don Jr. painted a scenario in which Trump supporters—Americans living in red America—are under relentless attack from a wicked and brutal enemy. He portrayed it as an existential battle between good and evil. One side must prevail; the other must be crushed. This in turn justifies any necessary means to win. And the former president’s son has a message for the tens of millions of evangelicals who form the energized base of the GOP: the scriptures are essentially a manual for suckers. The teachings of Jesus have “gotten us nothing.” It’s worse than that, really; the ethic of Jesus has gotten in the way of successfully prosecuting the culture wars against the left. If the ethic of Jesus encourages sensibilities that might cause people in politics to act a little less brutally, a bit more civilly, with a touch more grace? Then it needs to go.
As his father’s heir apparent, only the former first son could unveil this scripture that none before him dared to disclose: The only true Christians are ones who come prepared to project their intolerance, looking past bigotry and violence if necessary to get what they want. Further, to the extent Jesus Christ himself may have said or implied something in the distant past that might conceivably contradict this, he should be ignored (or better yet, reviled as “fake news”).
As Tyler Huckabee writing for Relevant explains, beyond the familiar Christian teaching of “turning the other cheek,” the dominant tone of Christ’s teachings is rooted in personal humility and self-restraint.
Nearly every page of the Gospels has stories of Jesus refusing earthly power and exhorting his followers to do the same. In fact, there are few things Jesus talked as much about as the upside down Kingdom of God where “the last shall be first” and “blessed are the meek.” Moreover, he cautioned against seeking earthly influence, going so far as to proclaim “woe to you who are rich.” The most cursory reading of Scripture would leave anyone with the sense that this is not a manual for getting stuff.
The abandonment by the majority of the white evangelical community of such “traditional” Christian principles, such as humbly accepting the differences of others and extolling the virtues of compassion and generosity, should come as no surprise to anyone who has paid the slightest bit of attention over the past three decades. Even still, the Trump administration has effected by far the most dramatic, public transformation of the white evangelical movement.
As The Washington Post’s conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin writes, the embrace of intolerance and exclusion by many of these purported “Christians”—as part and parcel of their political identity—is now a necessary and integral requirement to joining their ranks.
The demographic — which remains in the throes of White grievance and an apocalyptic vision that postulates America (indeed “Western civilization”) is under attack from socialists, foreigners and secularists — forms the core of the MAGA movement. Many have rejected the sanctity of elections, the principle of inclusion and even objective reality.
Understanding this phenomenon goes a long way toward explaining the MAGA crowd’s very unreligious cruelty toward immigrants, its selfish refusal to vaccinate to protect the most vulnerable and its veneration of a vulgar, misogynistic cult leader. If you wonder how so many “people of faith” can behave in such ways, understand that their “faith” has become hostile to traditional religious values such as kindness, empathy, self-restraint, grace, honesty and humility.
In order for this “faith” to endure, however, it’s become necessary to refashion Jesus Christ from his previously understood role as a humble teacher into a vicious fanatic exhorting his followers to hatred, revenge for imagined slights, and even murder of others as exemplifying the “essence” of Christianity. Racism, bigotry, and intolerance have to become “Christian” virtues in order for this warped version of “faith” to sustain itself.
Rubin quotes Robert P. Jones, head of the Public Religion Research Institute. Jones describes this “new” Christian ethic among most white evangelicals in which “the willingness to act in self-sacrificial ways for the sake of vulnerable others—even amid a global pandemic—has become rare, even antithetical, to an aggressive, rights-asserting white Christian culture.”
As self-identified evangelicals reject small inconveniences and show disdain for others’ lives, Jones observes, “there is no hint of awareness that their actions are a mockery of the central biblical injunction to care for the orphan, the widow, the stranger, and the vulnerable among us.”
None of this should come as a surprise. After all, even the violent, Trump-supporting thugs who attacked the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 demonstrated a revealing moment of this “muscular Christianity” when they briefly paused their looting, smashing, and defecating in order to say a mutual prayer professing their divine sensibilities. As this video taken in the Senate chamber shows, it was a tender moment of piety for all of them.
Yet before Trump Jr.’s speech, no single voice—not even that of the elder Trump—dared to so boldly and directly repudiate the teachings of Christ himself. None but Don Jr. has so directly dared to rend the tattered fabric of morality that white evangelicals long wore, however much it annoyed or inconvenienced them. Never before had anyone so directly crumpled up the pages of the New Testament, wadded them into a ball, and proudly wiped his ass with it.
But Donald Trump Jr. was willing to show us all exactly what type of people the majority of these white evangelical Christians are, what they aspire to be, and what they are willing to do to create the world they believe we all they deserve.
We don’t often see the curtain ripped down in quite that way. It couldn’t have been easy for him. And for that, Americans should be forever thankful.
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