This is going to pain my conservative Christian friends and family, but it must be said: the religious right was never about the advancement of biblical values. It is a political movement that was originally centered on racial segregation that fused with grass-roots, hard-right ideological conservatism in the early 70s. And in the last several decades the religious right has embraced a host of secular positions that run absolutely counter to biblical tradition, culminating in the humiliating and grotesque support they show for Donald J. Trump. If you listen to religious right leaders and vote the way they recommend you are doing the opposite of voting based on Biblical positions.
A Brief and General History
Evangelicals were not always the standard bearers for hate and repression. In the 19th-century evangelicals were at the forefront of progressive social movements. They led social-reform movements aimed at improving the lives of those on the margins of society– especially the urban poor, immigrants, and Native Americans. They were tireless crusaders for the abolition of slavery and for equal rights for women, in particular for their voting rights. They supported public education as a way of advancing the prospects of those less fortunate and to create a mindful, peaceful, and prosperous Christian nation for all in the United States (there was a lot of civilizing mission stuff going on too). By the end of the century, evangelicals led the condemnation the robber barons and supported the rights of workers to organize against the excesses and abuses of capital.
The worm began to turn in the early 20th-century. Coinciding with the great outmigration of southerners across the United States, evangelical Christianity began to take on a distinctively southern, conservative flavor. The Scopes Trial of 1925 is as good marker for the evangelical turn away from using the secular world to improve the plight of those on earth and inward towards using the secular world to enforce increasingly unpopular theologic stances. While most became staunchly non-political, a large but vocal few fell in with demagogic preachers like Robert “Fighting Bob” Shuler. They refused to let godless public institutions (that were largely created by fellow Protestants seeking to evangelize the faith) infect their communities with information that ran counter to their religious (and political) views. The majority of white evangelicals abandoned the apolitical shift and openly embraced the right in the 1950s and 1960s. From Cold War fears of godless communism to defending their “religious” right to not associate with, sell to, or employ blacks, the religious right made political goals and religious beliefs nearly impossible to separate.
Most contemporary leaders (and followers) of the religious right will tell you that the movement began in opposition to the Roe v. Wade. That claim is a lie. But don’t take my word as a historian for it– ask conservative activist Ed Dobson, one of Jerry Falwell’s close associates in the Moral Majority. According to Dobson, he “sat in the non-smoke-filled back room with the Moral Majority and I frankly do not remember abortion being mentioned as a reason why we ought to do something.” Indeed, the Moral Majority would take little action on abortion over the next twenty years, preferring to use it (when it was mentioned at all) as a rallying cry or fundraising tool rather than a real political goal.
The motivation for the formation of the religious right was clear– it was a fight against IRS attempts to rescind the tax exemption for racially segregated religious education institutions, like Bob Jones University and Jerry Falwell’s Liberty Christian Academy. They rejected the idea that the federal government could challenge their tax status for excluding blacks (they claimed a religious exemption from racial discrimination laws). Or ask Paul Weyrich, who claimed that “What caused the movement to surface was the federal government’s moves against Christian schools.” The king of the anti-tax movement, Grover Norquist concurred, saying
“The religious right did not get started in 1962 with prayer in school. And it didn’t get started in ’73 with Roe v. Wade. It started in ’77 or ’78 with the Carter administration’s attack on Christian schools and Christian radio stations [pressing for segregated Christian organizations to lose their tax-exempt status]. That’s where all of the organization flowed out of. It was complete self-defense. [editors note: self-defense of their racism] It was then that the Protestants looked around and said, “Now what’s this abortion issue that Catholics have been yapping about?” And the Protestants go, “You’re right—we should not be killing babies.” And they linked arms with the existing Right to Life movement, which was not getting traction. ”
Conservative pundit Richard Viguerie said that the IRS actions “kicked a sleeping dog” and “ignited the religious right’s involvement in real politics.” There you have it. The conservative evangelical political movement was born as a response to racist white “Christians” using their faith to protect their right to discriminate against blacks. I’m sure Jesus was proud.
Of course, there were other evangelical Christians out there. For example, progressive evangelicals in the late 1960s fought bitterly against the Vietnam War and in favor of racial reconciliation and women’s equality. Their signature document, the Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern, was drafted in November 1973. This movement culminated in the election of the progressive evangelical Jimmy Carter in 1976. Their moment passed almost as soon as it happened. The Moral Majority practically wiped out the progressive evangelical tradition in the post-Carter world.
In the run-up to the 1980 presidential election, conservative evangelicals like Falwell argued that the morally just and biblically sound choice was not Jimmy Carter, the soft-spoken, meek, Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher and evangelical who had lived a relatively modest and devoted life, but a divorced and remarried Hollywood actor with little clear devotion to religion, who while governor of California, had signed into law the most liberal abortion bill in the country. Jerry Falwell nevertheless declared that Ronald Reagan “seemed to represent all the political positions we held dear.” Those positions had more to do with partisan politics than religious faith.
Reagan, still a formidable actor, was able to persuade conservative evangelicals that he was one of their own. They bought into his preoccupation with lowering the tax burden on the wealthy, destroying labor unions, limiting spending on social welfare (especially for “others”), and vigorously fighting the Cold War. Oh, and also making it easier for them to discriminate against blacks. Don’t think for one second that they ever stopped wanting to do this– they simply learned from Reagan how to better couch their argument. But in aligning themselves with the increasingly far-right Republican Party, evangelicals abandoned many fundamental teachings of Jesus. They no longer welcomed the stranger, instead viewing him as a threat to be contained. No longer were the peacemakers to be blessed– their weakness was a threat. Gone was the call to care for “the least of these.” The least were moochers deserving of their fate. Nearly a century of noble evangelical activism aimed at those on the margins of society was undone by this shift. Since the evangelicals turned away from one of their own in Jimmy Carter in favor of the secular politics of Ronald Reagan and the far-right, evangelicals became the most reliable constituency of the Republican Party.
The Trump “Problem”
Many of my evangelical family and friends seem to be either ignorant or in denial about these actions. Moreover, they remain silent about the ultimate betrayal of their biblical commitments that this political alignment has caused. The widening of the wealth gap created by Reagan recalibrating tax codes and the fanatical devotion to keeping this system that is so clearly tilted in favor of the wealthy was not just met with silence from evangelicals– most of them actively applaud it, despite the clear biblical warnings against the corruptions of wealth and injunctions to care for the indigent.
Evangelicals have not objected to our wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, they have been the biggest cheerleaders of the invasions. Some, indeed many, continue to say that we have not gone far enough in the killing. Go search for religious-right organizations willing to condemn the use of torture or the “collateral damage” caused by drone attacks. You won’t find any. Which is hardly surprising, given that over 60% of white evangelicals think torture is basically justified. Let me know where Jesus tells you that this sort of behavior is acceptable.
To say that evangelical political positions are based on biblical principles today is farcical. Supporting the twice married, serial adulterer, verbally abusive, boastful, immodest, self-aggrandizing worshipper of money Donald Trump might be the furthest thing possible from voting based on biblical beliefs. Trump has been endorsed by some of the biggest names in the game, such as Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas, and Jerry Falwell Jr., president of Liberty University. As we saw above, evangelical support for Trump is not an aberration but rather is the culmination of a long decline that began in the late 1970s. Jerry Falwell, a man I consider to be one of the great villains of modern America, publicly referred to the Civil Rights Act of 1964 as “civil wrongs.” This is racism, not Christianity. And many evangelicals still cling to such racist ideas. For them, Donald Trump is an obvious and popular choice. Hell, Trump doesn’t even limit his hate to one group– supporting Trump lets you support racially and ethnically based assaults on everyone from Latinos to Muslims. Likewise, Trump, along with basically the entire Republican party since the late 1970s, has condemned and ridiculed anyone agitating for racial justice. While Trump lacks any trace of detectable faith– the man couldn’t be bothered to fake having a favorite verse nor does he understand the one he trotted out nine months later, Trump has tapped into latent evangelical racism. And that has gained him their undying support.
Look at all the non-biblical beliefs Trump has put forward that are popular with conservative evangelicals:
Trump promises to build a huge wall along the U.S.-Mexico border and deport millions of illegal immigrants – this despite biblical injunctions to welcome the stranger and treat the foreigner as one of your own.
While the Bible condemns “those who defraud laborers of their wages,” Trump has repeatedly refused to pay workers and contractors for work they have delivered.
Trump claims to love war. He has made repeated references to using nuclear weapons, targeted killings of terrorist’s families, and a whole host of violent acts.
Trump praises dictators and autocrats for their strength, attempts to control the press, and attacks anyone who disagrees with him.
Meanwhile, Jesus said:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you. You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. (NIV, Matthew 5:38-45)
The apostle Paul and other New testament writers echoed Jesus’ sentiment and expanded on it.
Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,” says the Lord. “But if your enemy is hungry, feed him, and if he is thirsty, give him a drink; for in so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (NAS, Romans 12:17-21)
There can be no doubt: Donald Trump is the least Christian or “Biblical” candidate in the history of the nation. If the political behavior of the religious right has your head spinning from the open hypocrisy and defiance of scripture, let Pastor Jeffress ease your mind:
“you know, I was debating an evangelical professor on NPR and this professor said, ‘Pastor, don’t you want a candidate who embodies the teaching of Jesus and would govern this country according to the principles found in the Sermon on the Mount?’ I said, ‘Heck no.’ I would run from that candidate as far as possible, because the Sermon on the Mount was not given as a governing principle for this nation.
“Nowhere is government told to forgive those who wrong it, nowhere is government told to turn the other cheek. Government is to be a strongman to protect its citizens against evildoers. When I’m looking for somebody who’s going to deal with ISIS and exterminate ISIS, I don’t care about that candidate’s tone or vocabulary, I want the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what I can find, and I believe that’s biblical.”
Robert Jeffress, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Dallas
Jesus may be a fine spiritual guide, but you need to reject the words and actions of your lord and savior when choosing a political leader. You take Stalin over Jesus every time.
Evangelical support for Trump is confounding to many. It shouldn’t be. Evangelicals ceased to be concerned with living the word decades ago. They secularized more than the liberal establishment they are so afraid of, trading the word of the Bible and their own history of social activism in the name of the poor for the illusion of political influence. Rather than being warriors for the biblical cries for justice and peace and equality from their brothers and sisters, they mock such efforts as “political correctness” and fight instead for hard-right political orthodoxy that promised them they could keep their racially segregated institutions, stop abortions, and make sure that no one practices anything but the one true faith. Like most interest groups, the political establishment sold them out. Their desires were politically impossible (and still are). But pandering assholes, like Donald Trump, continue to whisper those seductive sweet nothings of racism, sexism, homophobia, and Islamaphobia in their ears. And they’ll keep losing their virtue to them, over and over again.