Randall Balmer: Gnats, camels and the Religious Right

For the Monitor
Published: 10/6/2019 7:00:09 AM

For those of us who thought that leaders of the Religious Right had lost their way in their unblinking embrace of Donald Trump, it appears we were mistaken.

It was an odd alliance from the beginning. A movement that for decades has touted its devotion to “family values” nevertheless chose to back a self-confessed sexual predator on his third marriage. The folks who brandish their piety with all the subtlety of flashing lights on a squad car threw their support to a man who cannot even fake religious literacy.

The same people who want to post the Ten Commandments everywhere from the courthouse square to bathroom stalls in public schools endorsed a politician who whiffs on (let’s be conservative here) a plurality of those ten, especially the ones about adultery and false witness.

But the leaders of the Religious Right were undeterred. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, anointed Trump a “baby Christian” during the course of the 2016 campaign, and Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, called evangelicals who refused to support Trump “morons.”

On Election Day 2016, evangelicals fell in line: 81% of white evangelicals pulled the lever for Trump.

The adulation continued after Trump’s inauguration. Jerry Falwell Jr. heralded Trump as a “dream president.” Franklin Graham called for “a special day of prayer” to shield the president from his political enemies. And Jeffress declared that God was not opposed to building walls and that Trump’s extramarital dalliance with Stormy Daniels was “totally irrelevant to our support of him.”

Now, however, Jeffress at least is having second thoughts.

What prompted this turnaround? Was it the continuing revelations about Trump’s infidelities? Was it the disclosure that he had likely committed impeachable offenses? Was it the president’s racist comments about immigrants or his refusal to honor the biblical admonition to welcome the stranger? Was it Trump’s affirmation about “good people” in the ranks of white supremacists? Was it the stream of false or misleading statements, which has now reached somewhere north of 12,000, according to independent sources? Was it the Trump policy of forced separation of immigrant and refugee children from their parents? That would seem to be a violation of “family values.”

Well, no, no, no, no and no.

Jeffress, part of the inner circle of Trump’s sycophants, is upset because the president said a naughty word. Really. In the course of Trump’s lollapalooza of a speech before House Republicans gathered in Baltimore last month, Trump criticized wind power as unreliable. He concocted a conversation between a husband and wife wondering why their television was not working. “Darling, the wind isn’t blowing,” Trump’s fictional husband said. “The goddamn windmill stopped.”

Apparently, Jeffress was unconcerned that Trump had added to his tally of false or misleading statements; the operation of household appliances does not depend on the constant rotation of wind turbines. Jeffress objected instead to the president’s use of goddamn.

“I think it’s very offensive to use the Lord’s name in vain,” the megachurch pastor said. “I can take just about everything else, except that.”

Jeffress and the other false prophets of the Religious Right – Franklin Graham, Paula White, Ralph Reed, Jerry Falwell Jr. and others – presided over the death of evangelicalism in 2016, following a long illness, first contracted in 1980 when evangelicals abandoned one of their own, a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher, in favor of a divorced and remarried Hollywood actor. That misalliance pushed evangelicals into the far-right precincts of the Republican Party, thereby forming a potent electoral coalition that has congealed over the decades.

The tragedy here is that, in so doing, the Religious Right turned its back on evangelicalism’s noble tradition of caring for those on the margins of society. Evangelicals in the 19th and early 20th centuries were by no means perfect; Southern theologians defended slavery, for instance, and some evangelicals in the North dabbled in nativism.

But evangelicals also marched in the vanguard of social reform movements directed toward those Jesus called “the least of these”: people of color, workers, prisoners, the poor and women, who had yet to attain rights as citizens.

Given that history, evangelicals would have ample reason to break with Trump – or never support him in the first place. How, for example, is his treatment of women consistent with evangelicalism’s support for women’s equality? How can evangelicals abide Trump’s border policies in light of the biblical injunctions to treat the foreigner as one of your own? How can they tolerate the endless stream of prevarications? As believers that God created the natural world, how can they stand by in silence while Trump’s Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Interior seek systematically to allow polluters free rein or to enlarge the Shasta dam in California, causing untold damage to the environment?

Jeffress, however, is upset not by Trump’s betrayal of religious principles, but by his use of a bad word. “I can take just about everything else, except that,” he declared.

Jeffress’s comment calls to mind the old saw about straining a gnat only to swallow a camel. It’s also reminiscent of the late evangelist Billy Graham, who spent much of his career extolling the virtues of Richard Nixon. When Graham finally read transcripts of the Watergate tapes, he pronounced himself physically sickened – not, it turns out, over Nixon’s various attempts to frustrate justice and to undermine the Constitution. Graham was upset by his friend’s use of foul language.

Unlike Jeffress and his confrères in the Religious Right, I don’t pretend to know the mind of God, but I suspect that the use of a profanity is pretty far down the Almighty’s list of Trump’s transgressions.

(Randall Balmer teaches at Dartmouth College. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Evangelicalism in America.”)


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