Evangelicals, Trump, and “False Dilemmas”

churchI just read “Election 2016: Evangelicals Should Reject the Left’s False Dilemmas,” by Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council. His intent was to rebut what he saw as a false choice between either political or spiritual action offered by “the left.” It seems that Alan Wolfe is the sole spokesperson for “the left” in Tony’s mind, since tony was actually responding to a piece written by Wolfe titled “How Donald Trump is tearing evangelicals asunder.” Wolfe, a professor of political science at Boston College and director of the Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life, identified Tony by name in his piece, which is what I presume motivated Tony to respond. I found both reads interesting, and one of them thoughtful.

Tony portrayed Mr. Wolfe’s commentary as creating a false choice (hence the title), and claimed it amounted to voter suppression. He seemed to take away that Wolfe meant to encourage Evangelicals to either abstain from voting or vote for a third party, which Tony sees as a type of voter suppression that would lead to the “evil” Hillary Clinton winning the White House. I assume Tony is focused more on Supreme Court nominations than anything else, as Trump is otherwise not well aligned with Evangelicals – especially younger Evangelicals, as Wolfe had pointed out in his writing. After reading both articles, I conclude that Tony grossly (and deliberately) misrepresented the context and position of Wolfe’s article. Mr. Wolfe did not advocate that Evangelicals “retreat from the public square,” but instead commented on the historical shifts in emphasis on politics versus spirituality over time in American history. He pointed out how younger generations of Evangelicals are finding Donald Trump lacking with regard to the qualities they think make a person “good” in general, and subsequently a good political candidate. If anything, Mr. Wolfe positively advocated for electing Mrs. Clinton, not staying home or voting for a third party.

Tony also sought to challenge Mr. Wolfe’s observation that Evangelicals are not unified in support for trump, but doing so is simply factually incorrect; Evangelicals are not all in agreement on Trump. And while Tony would like to frame “the left” as somehow encouraging Evangelical Christians to sit this election out such a position is neither stated in Wolfe’s article nor is it a position uniquely “left,” as decidedly “right” leaning religious groups discourage concern over elections as well. What Tony is deliberately avoiding is Wolfe’s observations of the non-Christian traits Trump displays. And, given Donald Trump’s shameless (and awkward) pandering to religious groups juxtaposed against his complete ignorance of Christian tenets and waffling on positions critical to more conservative Christian theology, there is no rational reason to assume that Donald Trump will actually do anything meaningful to forward a conservative Christian agenda.

Tony claims in his writing to be concerned “about electing individuals who will respect the rights of Christians and others to live by their faith and fully engage as citizens of this country so that through their faith they can reform society.” First, Tony isn’t calling here for Christians to be allowed to simply participate in society, but for certain Christians to be able to force others to live by their particular interpretations of faith through legislation. This is in direct violation of both the spirit and the letter of the first amendment. More directly to Tony’s alleged interest, “The Donald” has certainly indicated that he holds no particular fondness for any portion of the first amendment (press, speech, religion, or assembly), but that doesn’t guarantee that he will push for Tony’s specific socially regressive and oppressive views to be made law. Trump has been thoroughly unclear on his positions (and general understanding) related to abortion, so there’s no sure winner for Tony there either. The only things Trump has been consistent on are ethnic and religious scapegoating, nativism, xenophobia, misogyny, support for Russia, violating civil and international law, and tax breaks for the wealthy. I find it hard to identify the parts of this platform that align well to an Evangelical Christian perspective, but I do realize that there are many, many interpretations from which to choose. Obviously this aligns well with Tony’s worldview.

I personally hold Tony’s religious interpretations and social political positions in very low regard. As noted, he believes that it is appropriate that the government legislate on the basis of religious interpretation (specifically his) despite a direct constitutional prohibition of such legislation. Ironically, he attempts to couch his advocacy of constitutional violations as seeking constitutional protection from religious suppression. Apparently, in his and others’ minds, not being allowed to force people to live by your religious tenets is religious oppression. On the whole, attempts at passing such legislation have failed, either in legislative session or in court challenges. Tony claims to support Trump on the presumption that Trump might be able to change the course of such legislative attempts and judicial interpretations, despite the lack of evidence that this is a key concern for Trump. Instead, I believe Tony actually supports Trump for his overt bigotry, as it is the same bigotry that underpins Tony’s theology. Tony fears that which is different, and wishes to suppress it. Just like Jesus did…