One nation, divided under God

by
10 November 2017

One year after his election as president, Madeleine Davies talks to US Christians about Donald Trump

Olivier Douliery/UPI

MAGA music: President Trump participates in the Celebrate Freedom Rally at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, in July, organised by the First Baptist Church of Dallas to honour veterans

MAGA music: President Trump participates in the Celebrate Freedom Rally at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC, in Ju...

SIX days after it was confirmed that the United States had elected Donald John Trump as its 45th President (News, 11 November 2016), the President of the US Episcopal Church’s House of Deputies, the Revd Gay Clark Jennings, warned the Church of the baptismal promise to “resist evil”.

“The desire to foster ‘reconciliation’ is deep in Christians’ bones,” she wrote. “But too often the Church preaches reconciliation when what we really want is to avoid unpleasantness, or get approval from worldly powers and principalities. . . Reconciliation is holy work. Resistance is, too. We need to watch and wait to see what God is calling us to do.”

In the 12 months that ensued, Episcopalians and their leaders proved ready to take the latter course of action. Among the presidential actions opposed by bishops were the withdrawal from the Paris agreement on tackling climate change (News, 2 June); the proposed ban on transgender people in the military (News, 4 August); and the halving of refugee resettlement numbers (News, 3 February).

In September, 125 Episcopalian bishops signed a full-page ad in The New York Times, asking the President not to end Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), which protected from deportation undocumented immigrants who first came to the United States when they were children — the “Dreamers”. They also filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court case challenging the travel ban on people from seven Muslim-majority countries (News, 22 September).

Christians have been on the frontline of much of the past year’s public opposition to edicts issued from the White House. Yet they are also among the President’s most loyal supporters. Eighty-one per cent of white Evangelicals voted for him, as did 60 per cent of white Roman Catholics, and 56 per cent of all weekly churchgoers. Today, his approval rating stands at 65 per cent among white Evangelicals: far higher than among the general public (37 per cent). President Trump’s support from this group is strongest among those who attend church regularly.

The Revd Paul Messner, a pastor in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, who serves at the Otsego County Lutheran parish, in rural Upstate New York, voted for Mr Trump as “the lesser of two evils”. He says that opposition to the administration by his own denomination and other mainline Protestant ones is “frankly irrelevant: they are ‘bleeding’ members. Many in the Church on the Left relish their self-indulgent ‘prophetic’ role,” he argues, “and forget their pastoral role toward all in their congregations and communities.”

 

THE President himself has assiduously courted the religious Right. In June 2016, he formed an Evangelical executive advisory board, described as a “Who’s Who of conservative Christian leaders”. It includes the President of Liberty University, Jerry Falwell, Jr, and the founder of Focus on the Family, James Dobson.

Standing beside President Trump on inauguration day — he was prayed for by no fewer than six religious leaders at the ceremony — was the Vice-President, Mike Pence, who describes himself as “born-again, Evangelical Catholic”. On 4 July, at a “Celebrate Freedom Rally” organised by the First Baptist Church of Dallas, the choir gave the première of “Make American Great Again”: the Trump campaign slogan set to music.

A former president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s ethics and religious-liberty commission, Dr Richard Land, has spoken to the Religion News Service of unprecedented access” to the White House. He was among those who laid hands on the President during a prayer session in July, an event photographed and posted widely on social media. In September, footage was shown of a circle of pastors surrounding President Trump, thanking him, one by one, for declaring a national day of prayer in the wake of Hurricane Harvey.

Cam SandersSacred resistance: Episcopalian clergy join about 200 interfaith immigration activists calling on the Los Angeles Sheriff to stop collaborating with Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in detaining and deporting undocumented persons, in August

George Michael, a pastor of adult ministries at the Independent Bible Church in Hedgesville, West Virginia, says that Evangelicals’ support for Mr Trump goes back to “core principles: the right to life, traditional marriage, and religious liberty”.

He voted for a third candidate — a Utah senator — because, while supporting many of Mr Trump’s statements, he was “put off by the way he said it”. But his wife voted for Mr Trump.

He recalls taking a road trip from Maryland to Wyoming, six weeks before the election. “Once we left Maryland, Trump signs were everywhere. No Hillary signs were visible in the countryside and small towns. . . I stayed up election night, and found myself rooting for him in the end as the critical states were counted.”

One year on, he reports that “not much has surprised or disappointed us.” He is particularly pleased by the appointment to the Supreme Court of Neil Gorsuch (a Roman Catholic who worships in an Episcopal church, and is regarded as a reliable defender of religious freedom): “a critical appointment for conservative Christians”.

The president of the Susan B. Anthony List, a grass-roots anti-abortion lobby, Marjorie Dannenfelser, has described President Trump’s record as “simply an A-plus”. He has impressed her by expanding a law banning the use of US foreign aid for abortion-related activities, and signing a Bill that allows states to withhold federal money from organisations that provide abortion services. He has also signed an executive order “promoting free speech and religious liberty”.

“I pledged that, in a Trump administration, our nation’s religious heritage would be cherished, protected, and defended like you have never seen before,” he told the Values Voter Summit, in October. “Above all else in America, we don’t worship government. We worship God.”

 

IN THE past year, only one member of the Evangelical advisory board has left: the Revd A. R. Bernard, senior pastor of the Christian Cultural Center in Brooklyn, a majority African-American church, who cited “a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration” in the wake of events in Charlottesville, Virginia, where marching neo-Nazis were opposed by protesters, and the President spoke of fault “on both sides”.

The executive vice-president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, Tony Suarez, told the magazine Atlantic that he had received more than 1000 messages urging him to quit the board, calling him everything from “a hypocrite to a protector of neo-Nazism to supporting white supremacy”.

But he echoed other members in arguing that it was his duty to serve, and, in September, he said that the influence of the board lay behind the President’s decision to defer the rescinding of DACA by six months. “Access leads to conversations, which leads to conviction, which leads to compassion; with God’s Spirit, hearts and minds can be changed,’” he told Think Progress.

Nevertheless, the President’s actions on immigration have put him at loggerheads with the Conference of Catholic Bishops in the US, who described scrapping DACA as “reprehensible”. In a rare intervention, Pope Francis remarked: “If he is a good pro-lifer, he understands that family is the cradle of life, and its unity must be protected.”

Neither is white Evangelical support for the President unanimous. A study by the Evangelical Christian polling firm Barna Group found that only 15 per cent of white Evangelicals saw him as “authentically Christian”. Dr Russell Moore, Dr Ward’s successor at the ethics and religious-liberty commission, has been a vocal critic of President Trump since the primaries, during which, in a war of words on Twitter, he quoted 1 Kings 18.17-19, in which Elijah chastises King Ahab.

Church Divinity School of the Pacific.“United against hate”: the Very Revd Dr Mark Richardson (left), President and Dean of the Church Divinity School of the Pacific, Berkeley, California, and a group of students join a demonstration against a white-supremacist rally planned for Berkeley on 27 August

In August, Peter Wehner, senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center, a conservative think tank, wrote an essay on the association of Evangelical leaders with the presidency, in which he warned: “If this is allowed to define Evangelical attitudes toward political power, the public witness of Christianity will be undermined in durable ways.”

The President “lies pathologically, exhibits crude and cruel behavior, relishes humiliating those over whom he has power, and dehumanizes his political opponents, women, and the weak”, Mr Wehner wrote. “He is indifferent to objective truth, trades in conspiracy theories, and exploits the darker impulses of the public. His style of politics is characterized by stoking anger and grievances rather than demonstrating empathy and justice.”

Evangelicals, he concluded, were “subordinating the Christian faith to partisan loyalties and political power”.

 

THE Revd Dr Esau McCaulley, Assistant Professor of New Testament and Early Christianity at Northeastern Seminary, an interdenominational graduate seminary in New York State, says that it is important to clarify that it was white Evangelicals who voted for Trump. “Many non-Christians believe that there is some kind of inherent connection between orthodox Christianity and voting for Donald Trump as President,” he explains. “That is not the case, as the voting decisions of many Black and Latino Christians make plain.”

The Cooperative Congressional Election Study reports that 88 per cent of Black Protestants voted for Hillary Clinton, as did 67 per cent of Hispanic Catholics.

“That being said, many people in the US equate the ‘Church’ with certain forms of white Evangelicalism,” Dr McCaulley says. “This has led many to believe that Christians care little about social justice. This assumption might make the work of evangelisation and discipleship more difficult in the coming years.”

Concerns about Mr Trump’s treatment of minorities were voiced early on in the 2016 campaign, and, in January, the National Council of Churches was among the signatories to a statement expressing “grave concerns” about nominees to White House positions who “epitomise extremist, racist, and fringe world-views”. In the days after the election Dr McCaulley wrote: “The health and well-being of people of color did not seem factored into the calculus of the scores of Evangelicals who swept Trump into the White House.”

Yousef Chouhoud, a Ph.D. candidate in political science and international relations at the University of Southern California, says that President Trump has been “shifting the boundaries of acceptable speech and behaviour, effectively sanctioning discrimination against marginalised groups generally, and Muslims in particular”. He is “not surprised at any of his moral failings”. The support afforded the President by Evangelicals as “pretty shocking”, he says, but he is uncertain how much impact it has had on inter-faith relations, given that they tend to involve “mainline Protestants or otherwise groups closer to the liberal end of the ideological/theological spectrum”.

“It sounds boring, but the only way we can respond and inject some sanity back in the system is through the ballot box,” he adds.

“I feared that this election would expose and exacerbate the deep racial divisions in this country, and that fear has been realised,” Dr McCaulley says.

In the wake of events in Charlottesville, the President argued that hatred, bigotry. and violence had been “going on for a long time in our country”. He was “partially correct,” Dr McCaulley says. “Racism, injustice, and division did not start with him. But, like any leader, they have to power to move the country forward or backwards. Presidents have agency. . .

“It seems clear to many of us that, rather than inviting America to live up to its ideals, he has acted and spoken in a way that is often deeply offensive to minorities, and has consistently encouraged mutual resentment and distrust.”

He warns that Evangelicals are going to have to work “very hard to win the trust of ethnic minorities in the coming years”.

“Many African Americans have concluded that white Evangelicals have yet again placed other issues — economic prosperity, strong protection of the borders, etc. — above the historic and ongoing concerns of black folks. I fear that the Church might become more racially segregated than it already is, unless there are some courageous white Evangelical leaders who address with seriousness and vigour issues surrounding race and justice.

“We will also need ethnic minorities who are willing to continue in the sometimes thankless task of advocating justice and reconciliation in places that might not be initially amenable to such conversation.”

 

IN THE wake of the election, a period of soul-searching took place among politicians, journalists, and analysts who had largely failed to expect a Trump victory. A dominant theory was that vast swaths of the country had been ignored, and that the result was a cry of pain from places economically devastated by de-industrialisation and globalisation.

White working-class people voted decisively for Mr Trump, who spent much of his time on the campaign trail promising to bring jobs, plants, and factories back to the country. Others argue that it was cultural, not economic, anxiety that motivated voters, or a toxic combination of the two.

“The Trump revolution has been a long time coming,” Mr Messner observes. “The ‘liberal’ elites on the coasts have consistently failed to understand the deep resentments felt in ‘flyover country’. Both the Democratic and establishment Republican parties have bought into the understanding of our federal government as a kind of monopoly, imposing an ‘ethic’ that does not square with much of traditional American values. . .

“The irony of this multi-millionaire President speaking out for blue-collar, working- and middle-class values is not lost on the millions who voted for him and still support him.”

UCCUS Episcopalians join the People’s Climate March on 29 April, the 100th day of the Trump presidency, protesting against his administration’s environmental policies

“People who are critical of President Trump need to realise that most of his supporters are not illiterate, racist, haters, or ‘deplorables’,” Fr Steve McCarty, the Anglo-Catholic Priest-in-Charge of St Andrew’s Episcopal Church, Clear Spring, Maryland, says. “I believe most Evangelicals see President Trump as a traditionalist who has a strong belief in God, and stronger respect for our military, police, and first responders.”

His concern for security is echoed by Mr Michael, who believes that “Europe is paying a fearful price for its open immigration policy.” America’s fear of a terrorist attack has never dropped back to pre-9/11 levels: in polls, about 45 per cent say that they are worried that they or their family will be victims. When asked by Pew which issues were very important to them, Evangelicals were most likely to select terrorism (89 per cent) and the economy (87 per cent); these were ranked higher than Supreme Court appointments (70 per cent) and abortion (52 per cent).

Before ordination, Fr McCarty worked for more than 30 years as a police officer, and spent 20 years in the military reserves. He voted for Mr Trump as someone who did not owe “political-party favours”. He admits that he is displeased by the President’s communications, “especially his use of Twitter”, but likes the idea “that he has the courage to call it like it is”.

“He endears himself to many,” Mr Messner says, “even when he misspeaks or says ‘outrageous’ things, because he speaks from the gut. What you see is what you get. He doesn’t seem — to many average Americans — to dissemble, or to talk in ‘political speak’.” As a fellow New Yorker, he believes that “some of his most criticised comments are, quite honestly, jokes.”

Nevertheless, he does not like the President’s epithet (“son of a bitch”) for the football players who, in a protest against police brutality towards African Americans, “took a knee” instead of standing for the national anthem.

A Gallup poll conducted weeks before the election found that the American public’s trust in their political leaders was in decline: 42 per cent said that they had a “great deal” or “fair amount”. Democrats and Republicans were divided: 61 per cent and 37 per cent respectively. Trust in the media “to report the news fully, accurately, and fairly” had dropped to its lowest level in Gallup polling history, to 32 per cent (and just 16 per cent for Republicans).

“The media in America, especially the cable networks, . . . do not just disagree with Trump: they hate him,” Mr Michael reports. “They are doing daily what they can to discredit and belittle him.” A Harvard study of press reporting during the President’s first 100 days found unprecedented levels of unfavourable coverage (80 per cent was negative).

The authors noted “more missteps and miss-hits, often self-inflicted, than any presidency in memory, perhaps ever”, but suggested that “the news media need to give Trump credit when his actions warrant it,” and “spend less time in Washington and more time in places where policy intersects with people’s lives”.

Asked about calls for the Church to “resist” during the Trump administration, Mr Michael, Mr Messner, and Fr McCarty all express concern about the Church’s involvement in politics. Mr Messner agrees that the Church has “a moral and ethical obligation to speak out” on issues of the day, but argues that it must not speak “as if it is the fount of all wisdom and can pontificate ‘infallibly’ on the many grey areas in the public sphere”.

In this, he echoes the Bishop of Springfield, the Rt Revd Daniel Martin, who earlier this year wrote a piece implicitly questioning the wisdom of his fellow bishops: “Where there is room for Christians of good will and an informed conscience to disagree, I back off, lest the integrity of Bishop Daniel’s teaching office be compromised by the mere political opinions, however well-considered, of Dan Martin.”

“I feel that the Church is called to preach the gospel, not take up social causes. Christians are admonished to obey civil authorities,” Mr Michael says, and quotes Romans 13 and Titus 1.

 

DR McCAULLEY agrees that Christians must pray for their President, but he points to “an equally strong tradition in the New Testament of vocal and sustained critique of those in power”.

One year after her “resistance” essay, Ms Clark Jennings says that she is “encouraged that Christians who are committed to justice are mobilising to resist the policies of the current administration that run counter to our gospel values and our vision of the Kingdom of God”.

She points to the advocacy work of the Episcopal Church, which has an office of government relations in Washington, DC, including “a pivotal role” in helping to defeat the “bathroom Bill” in Texas “that would have had devastating consequences for the health and well-being of transgender people”.

Nevertheless, she reports that it has been “a sobering year for Christians in the United States who are committed to justice, protecting God’s creation, and safeguarding the dignity of every human being. . . Immigration agents are arresting thousands more people with no criminal histories; hate crimes have risen sharply; Muslim people have been targeted; environmental protections are being stripped away at alarming rates; and refugee resettlement has been dramatically curtailed despite a worldwide crisis.

“We are not surprised, because what is happening is just what President Trump promised would happen; but the situation is deeply divisive and frightening to many Americans.”

This year, Episcopal Migration Ministries, one of nine approved resettlement agencies, reduced the number of resettlement sites across the country by 25 per cent, and cut its staff by 30 per cent, after the government announced that refugee admissions would be halved to 45,000, the lowest number since the programme began in 1980.

The director, Canon E. Mark Stevenson, describes the decision as “sad and hard-hearted”, but says that the agency is “even more strongly committed now than we were before to minister to refugees”.

Ms Clark Jennings points to signs that the religio-political landscape in the US may look very different in years to come. This year, the Public Religion Research Institute reported that 17 per cent of Americans were white Evangelical Protestant, compared with 23 per cent in 2006, and that 62 per cent were aged over 50. Young Evangelicals are far more racially and ethnically diverse than previous generations.

Kelly Agler describes herself as a “recovering American Evangelical church leader”. She grew up in Ohio, where a rally held by the President in July attracted 15,000 people. She believes that the Trump presidency will accelerate the numerical decline of Evangelicalism.

“The young are more liberal and open; the old are not,” she says. “The old embrace traditional religion, like the Evangelical Right and the ‘way things used to be’, while the young embrace new, different, and can’t figure out why anyone would ever want to go back. In the end, though, the old and the new need each other.”

Working with poor, working-class clients has helped her to understand the November vote. “It is easy to dismiss text on Facebook until an actual person is attached to memes and words,” she says. “Once I started to hear them tell their stories, I understood why they voted the way they did.

“When wages are stagnant [and] you still have to go on food stamps even if you work over 40 hours a week, you still need to enrol in government assistance for your child to have health care, you cannot afford health care for yourself, it takes your entire paycheck to fix a broken car or a broken furnace, and you have to decide whether to pay the rent or buy groceries — the despair is real.”

She is critical of the Democratic Party for failing to put forth “an economic agenda for all of America. They push social justice, but neglect the necessities, such as the economy. They have no idea how to fix the fact that coal is never coming back as a lucrative job choice any more, that steel work is obsolete, that trucking will soon be a thing of the past, and people are caught in the middle of a depressed job market with no hope in sight.”

She has “absolutely no time for ‘persecuted American Evangelical syndrome’”, however, contrasting it with the experience of Christian friends in Pakistan “who know what persecution looks like as they fear bombs exploding in their places of worship or celebrations”.

For Dr McCaulley, this administration, like those before it, calls for discernment.

“The Church should always be wary of the State, because there is only one King who rules with absolute compassion, justice, and integrity,” he says. “The issues change, and the level of resistance needed in any given season varies. The question becomes ‘What does God ask of us in the present moment?’

“As I discern this moment, the Church cannot be afraid to force this country to grapple seriously with what it has done and continues to do to minorities. We must also own our sins and failure to tackle issues of race and justice in the Church before we criticise others. We are not innocent.

“None the less, we have to make it obvious to the world that the Church values those who are most vulnerable among us, even when it is not politically expedient to do so. . . The Church is glorious in as much as it reflects our Saviour, and a profound disappointment in as much as it panders to any leader or ideology.”

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