As I watched Donald Trump’s August 25th campaign speech, something occurred to me. I had a question.
Beyond his widely remarked upon habit of offering a seemingly endless concatenation of political-social-economic non sequiturs, stumbling from one subject to another like John Belushi with a ladder outside a sorority house, I was struck once again by his pointed attempt to mention the Bible as his “favorite book.” Admittedly, his mention of the Bible appeared to serve merely as a backdrop against which to highlight his second favorite book (written by him), The Art of the Deal. But he mentioned it. Kudos to Mr. Trump for taking a public stand on his faith!
But the next day, in following up on his professed love of the Bible, Trump was asked to name one or two of his favorite Bible verses, to which he responded, “Well, I wouldn’t want to get into it, because to me that’s very personal.”
Just one verse? Something that shows the rest of us you’ve actually cracked a Bible, and aren’t just trying cynically to pander to a particular religious constituency?
“The Bible means a lot to me,” Trump said, “but I don’t want to get into specifics.”
Of course, because why would you? Vague assertions about the Bible’s greatness should be sufficient, right? Because, I mean, otherwise that would be like assuming someone who claims to be a vegetarian doesn’t actually eat meat. What an affront to the man’s attempt to publicly convince people of his spiritual commitments, without actually having to demonstrate them? Sheesh!
The Bible. Donald Trump. Neither of which has ever really popped into my head as a correlative for the other. But, apparently many evangelicals have no problem seeing the relationship between the two--at least according to polling in South Carolina, where Donald Trump leads all Republican presidential nominees … among evangelicals.
Wait, what? Come again? Evangelicals love “The Donald?” The guy who’s shown such public disdain for women--what with all that blood talk, and name calling, and rude comments--even though he’s been married to three of them?
Or the silver-tongued racist who said that Mexico is sending us their problems, you know, the druggies, the criminals, and the rapists? Or the racist who’s convinced that “laziness is a trait in blacks?” Or the racist who makes fun of Asians.
Or the billionaire braggart who who doesn’t make mistakes, and therefore doesn’t need to ask forgiveness … of God or, presumably, anyone else? The guy who’s arguably most famous for firing people?
Or the guy whose own newly minted campaign national co-chair and policy advisor, Sam Clovis, said just over a month before hiring on that Trump “left me with questions about his moral center and his foundational beliefs … His comments reveal no foundation in Christ, which is a big deal?”
That Donald Trump? He’s the political darling of evangelicals?
It’s baffling. The incongruity of Trump’s appeal to evangelicals prompted New York Times columnist, Frank Bruni, to wonder in astonishment, “I must not be watching the same campaign that his evangelical fans are, because I don't see someone interested in serving God. I see someone interested in being God.”
So, here’s the question I have: Do evangelicals (at least in South Carolina) prefer Donald Trump because he’s convinced them he’s a Christian, or are they attracted to him because he’s a Republican? Or do they just like the guy who’s unafraid to say the kinds of things your crazy uncle says in those email forwards?
The answer to those questions bears scrutiny.
First, let’s all just admit up front that the thing that attracts evangelicals to Donald Trump is not first his sterling Christian example. (See above.)
Second, Donald Trump can’t be attractive to evangelicals just because he’s Republican--given the fact that there are sixteen other candidates that also fit that bill. And, interestingly enough, a number of those Republican candidates have the kind of evangelical bona fides that should have greater appeal to that particular interest group, if being an evangelical Christian is the first box on the voter guide that needs to be checked off.
So, if “evangelical Christian” and “Republican” aren’t the primary criteria luring evangelicals to Mr. Trump, it must be his outrageousness that appeals to them. Apparently, his Christian and Republican credentials act merely as available options, like the Sports Package with the 17-inch wheels, floor mats, and cargo netting--nice if they’re in stock, but certainly not deal breakers.
I understand why Donald Trump’s sideshow antics are appealing. Who doesn’t love locker room humor in a presidential election? What I don’t understand is why all this mean-spirited craziness is appealing to evangelicals.
“Ah,” evangelicals might respond, “we don’t think it’s mean-spirited as much as it is iconoclastic. And with the rise in political correctness, the country needs somebody who’s not afraid to speak the truth … er, well, maybe truth is pushing it with Trump, but someone who’s not afraid to say uncomfortable things.”
He’s certainly not afraid of saying uncomfortable things. (See above.) But, more than that, I do think there’s something to the whole “political correctness” thing.
Here’s my take. Evangelicals have felt themselves losing cultural influence for some time now. Once, an influential socio-political force, evangelicals have fallen on hard times of late. Same sex marriage is legal. Planned Parenthood hasn’t been destroyed. The general population is more concerned with income inequality, systemic racism, regressive taxation, and the plight of 11 million undocumented workers than with the fact that people are saying “Happy holidays!” on the lawns of city halls unadorned by Ten Commandments exhibits. (Oh, don’t look at me like that; I’ve seen your Facebook pages.)
And the understandable reaction when you’ve been the cultural homecoming king and queen forever--but then start finding yourself repeatedly stuck at the “wrong” lunch table--is to feel like dark forces are conspiring against you. These dark forces get filed under the heading, “political correctness,” which is really just that state of affairs in which it’s no longer safe to disparage people you feel are undeserving of your respect.
And that’s a tough pill to swallow. So, when somebody comes along, and seems genetically engineered to say the kinds of things you might like to say about the changing shape of the cultural landscape, your ears perk up. But even more than the things you agree with, how can you not love a guy with the stones to say things that aren’t safe anymore, to say things that give you hope that your time at the cool kids’ table doesn’t have to be over?
That’s what I think it is. That’s what attracts evangelical Christians to Donald Trump. The dream of relevance.
Everybody’s talking about the Donald, and he says some things we like. He’s like the new homecoming king. Nobody’s really talking about the other sixteen guys--who are nice enough, if you don’t have a date for the dance; but they’re not anybody’s idea of a real catch.
But Donald. He’s everything we used to be: bold, important, unafraid, driving the agenda, hanging out with the beautiful people, and willing to say things that tweak the noses of those in the establishment in a way that makes the media pay attention. In a word, he’s relevant the way we want to be again. That his Christianity and Republican-ness aren’t his core identity is beside the point. He’s cool. And we’d like to be cool again too.
But here’s the problem: Christianity has very little investment in relevance, in being cool--only in faithfulness, since relevance is subject to the whims of those in power. And Christianity has always been more at home challenging those things than in aspiring to them.
Just ask Jesus. He died without a single hotel or reality show to his name.
[This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]