Between the Devil and Donald Trump

What's with Christianity Today today?

 So today Donald Trump lashed out at Christianity Today, for having published an article that calls for his conviction and removal from office.

The "ET" slip in the second tweet is pretty easy to make sense of: he had just been talking about the associations between the magazine and Evangelism, which is one of his more solid bases of support. In doing so he gives away the game: despite his claims to the contrary, Christianity Today is a magazine by, for, and of Christian evangelicals.

I've been kind of quiet on the impeachment front, with my Twitter moratorium freeing me from the impulse to comment immediately on everything. What has happened so far has been important but not surprising. There have been moments that are worth talking about, but nothing I saw that filled me with a burning need to be the one who spoke on it.

This, however, has what the Sherlock Holmes of whatever it is I do (which might, in fact, be me) would term "interesting features”.

The first connection my mind made, before even reading any of the context, was between Donald's panning of Christianity Today and his exhortation towards Speaker Pelosi in his letter where he accused her of lying about praying for him, as though the concept of praying for the well-being of someone you do not wish would succeed in their current endeavors is foreign to him (and it is). Evangelicals have not in elevating Trump anointed a defender of the faith but a church inquisitor, one who sees it as his right and duty to determine the sincerity and truth of another person's faith.

This alone is not bound to lose him many votes because his Christian base doesn't see this as anathema; they think it's right and proper. It's obvious to them that there are fake Christians and real Christians and while they might have proofs and signs and purity tests and so on, ultimately it comes down to a simple calculus: "are you on my side?"

His base's one big defense against the article is to pull up a previous piece they say is by the same author (it isn't), which bore the provocative headline "Barack Obama: Evangelical-in-Chief?

Now, writers rarely pick their own headlines and when they do they are still subject to the whims of editorial and thus apt to tend towards clickbait. The actual article — to judge by the portion that's not paywalled — appears to be about teasing out the contradictions inherent in Evangelical voters snubbing a born-again protestant Christian like President Obama for Mormon Mitt Romney, while also claiming it is important that a president share their faith. A key piece of context that may not be apparent here is that most conservative Christians do not regard the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints as a Christian church, nor do they believe its adherents are Christians. So the piece delved into what would drive Evangelicals, against their own stated preferences, to cling to a candidate of a different religion while rejecting one who shares their faith.

In short, if this piece shows a history of anything at Christianity Today, it's a willingness to occasionally discuss the differences between how the Evangelical political project is conducted versus how Evangelicals talk about it. "Do we walk the walk, or just talk the talk?" kind of thing.

This kind of introspection is clearly a threat to Evangelical Christianity in the age of Trump, but it's hardly a leftist position. If it comes across as a pro-President Obama or anti-Donald Trump position, it's only because one of those men walks the walk and the other doesn't.

I can't say this in and of itself is likely to cost Trump his base, or even fracture it badly. Trump's response of labeling anything against him as being part of the radical left is so well-worn a path on the right that it's more like the comfortable groove worn by one's backside in a favorite couch. No one's getting up from that spot for anything short of an existential bathroom emergency. After all, they managed to make President Obama — a born-again Christian moderate centrist — sound like a communist infiltrator who was here to destroy the country when he spent eight years genuflecting across the aisle to them and embraced their ideas in his attempts to bring about popular and widely-demanded national priorities like healthcare reform.

But it could be the start of an uncomfortable schism, if more voices follow.. While the column is written as an editorial signed by the editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, it's Donald's tweets that stake this out as the position of Christianity Today, and he is turning what could be seen as a matter of opinion among adherents into a loyalty test and daring his allies to step across the line. 

Historically this sort of gambit has worked out well for him, as it ensures that over time his base becomes more and more loyal, as each time they hold their nose and side with him, the sunk cost to their soul or sense of self-worth grows until their faith in him becomes too big to fail.

However, there is a danger to him here, if enough evangelical and conservative Christian thinkers and leaders have enough of a sense of history to understand how much their traditional power dynamic with Republican presidents has been upended here. They've gone from being the kingmakers of the right to being made men for a mafia Don. He now bestows his favor upon them, not the other way around. He can now revoke it.

Forget about arguing the hypocrisy between “love thy neighbor” and the policies they pursue. If you think about Evangelical Christianity as a political operation, you will see the conflicts here they should be worried about.

In George R.R. Martin's ponderous fantasy tomes, Cersei Lannister sought to consolidate her power against a threat from religious fanatics by allowing them to form their own militant and inquisitorial religious police, which it then turned against her. In making a series of what should be even from their point of view obvious Devil's Bargains to ensure a steady stream of political wins, the Evangelical political project has created this situation in reverse. The pretender on the throne is now the Church Militant, and the future of faith in this country under him will increasingly be under his control as he continues to consolidate power and increase the loyalty of his followers.

In Trump's ideal world, freedom of the press means the freedom to print “The Truth”, which means good things about him and in particular whatever he says is true. Anything else is verboten. Anything else is trafficking in fake news, which will no be protected if he has his way.

And freedom of religion under Donald means the freedom to praise Trump and give glory to him. 

Anything else and you're sitting in fake pews.

Thank you for reading.

Your support means I get to keep doing this, but more than than that, it makes it meaningful.

Give a gift subscription