On Tuesday, Donald Trump met with a few hundred evangelical leaders in New York City. I read through the transcript thinking maybe Trump might exhibit some charm, some thoughtfulness in a smaller setting that is lost on the large stage, something that would explain why people who profess to believe in Jesus would be so taken in by Trump.
Sadly, no. The transcript is shocking in its pandering: of Trump to evangelicals, yes—we expected that—but also in their pandering to Trump. Here are the most egregious takeaways. You can find the full transcript here.
1. The Evangelical Leaders Attempted to Make Trump Morally Acceptable
Franklin Graham (son of the legendary Billy Graham) used biblical heroes to make Trump’s bad choices and morally questionable lifestyle seem okay. He conveniently ignored that those heroes learned hard lessons from their mistakes and repented of them. Trump has shown no evidence of repentance or learning, but has expressly rejected repentance, saying he never asks forgiveness from God.
[Graham] Some of the individuals are our patriarchs: Abraham—great man of faith. But he lied. Moses led his people out of bondage, but he disobeyed God. David committed adultery, and then he committed murder. The apostles turned their back on the Lord Jesus Christ in his greatest hour of need, they turned their backs and they ran. Peter denied him three times. All of this to say, there is none of us is perfect. We’re all guilty of sin. Franklin Graham stands here in front of you today as a sinner. But I’ve been forgiven by God’s grace. He forgave me. I invited Christ to come into my heart and my life. He forgave me. There’s no perfect person—there’s only one, and that’s the Lord Jesus Christ. And he’s not running for president of the United States this year.
Mike Huckabee painted Trump as a good family man.
The relationship that you have with your family, the relationship and bond that you have with your adult children is one of the most admirable I’ve ever seen from any father with children. [Applause] People can fake it on stage, they can walk out and do a happy family moment. But you can’t fake that backstage, over and over again. What I saw was real. And it was one of the reasons that I have had no hesitation endorsing you, supporting you, and enthusiastically encouraging people to get behind your candidacy. We’re going to talk about a lot of issues. But I want you to begin today by expressing: what is it about the relationship you have with your children that is so special? What is that bond all about?
Family is important to people of faith, which is why this is such a potent signal. Equating endorsing a liar, cheat, and philanderer to God’s compassionate forgiveness of repentant sinners is a shocking twist of the gospel message. Trump has expressed no remorse for his multiple affairs, his two divorces, or his allegedly epic sexual conquests. Christian faith teaches there is redemption for such a lifestyle, but also teaches it hurts others and self. Repentance is necessary. Attempts at restitution are necessary.
That theology doesn’t matter to Huckabee or Graham. Huckabee moderated the question period of the event, and following up with the most pandering question ever, akin to “Tell us why you are so great.”
Jerry Falwell Jr. touted Trump’s contested business acumen as a sign of good character: “I’ve seen a man who honors his fiduciary responsibilities through his corporations. He makes tough decisions to ensure his businesses’ success. He speaks the truth publicly even if it is uncomfortable for people to hear. Yet he treats his friends, his employees, and people in need with the greatest respect, loyalty and generosity.”
Falwell (son of erstwhile and deceased political heavyweight Jerry Falwell, former head of Liberty University, and endorser of Trump) ignores the many stories of Trump cheating and failing in business, hurting those over whom he has power, and playing dirty. If there is one thing the Bible has more verses on than any other moral topic, even more than sexual morality, it is that those in power, especially the rich, need to act with justice towards those with less power. Falwell seems to have missed that lesson.
2. Trump Reduced Christianity to Mandatory Sunday School Attendance
Here are some of Trump’s remarks at the event:
And I add to some, if it’s appropriate, I say—If they go to church and if they start at a young age, that’s a tremendous asset. You don’t see that too much today, where I went to Sunday School at First Presbyterian Church in [unintelligible]. It was like, you go to Sunday School, you have to do that. It’s not like, oh gee. It’s like automatic. Today I don’t think it’s so automatic. And maybe we can get back into a position where it’s automatic. [Applause]
…You used to go to church, and you know, when I’d go there… It’s much different today. I know, as an example, the young people aren’t going as much.
But we have to bring that back. We have to bring those values back. We have to bring that spirit back. And in a way, it’s been taken way from you by the federal government and by these horrendous things that have been allowed in the past.
Nothing about caring for the sick, the poor, the weak, the desperate. Nothing about visiting prisoners in their cells. Nothing about Bible study or worshiping a living and eternal God. For Trump, Christianity apparently is a reluctant stint in Sunday School. Perhaps some people are nostalgic for the days when the majority of the country attended church every Sunday, although those days had their own deep darknesses, but it cannot be the whole of Christian life.
3. Trump Demonstrated He Has No Grasp of Today’s Religious Freedom Battles
Trump was asked three separate questions about religious freedom, with different nuances. Jim Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family and a hugely influential evangelical in the 1980s and ’90s, asked Trump about the Bill of Rights and politicians’ narrowing First Amendment protections from “freedom of religion” to “freedom of worship.” This is a key distinction in religious freedom litigation because one affects all of life while the other is constrained to church buildings.
Trump did not even acknowledge the issue, indicating he does not understand it. Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council asked about freedom of religion in the military, which as a government entity has unique restrictions and priorities. Kelly Shackelford of First Liberty Institute asked about a specific case where an athletic coach was punished for praying with students.
Trump’s answer to Dobson concerned primarily tax-exempt status for churches and how that restricts their political speech from the pulpit, something that was not asked: “You talk about religious liberty and religious freedom. You really don’t have religious freedom, if you really think about it, because when President Johnson had his tenure, he passed something that makes people very very nervous to even talk to preserve their tax-exempt status.”
As usual, he also whipped out the ace up his sleeve, the Supreme Court: “We talk about religious liberty and I think it is the number one question. There are numerous things that we’re going to be doing. For one thing, we’re going to appoint great Supreme Court justices. [Applause]”
These are both good topics, but they do not address the controversies over freedom of speech regarding homosexual and transgender policies, highlighted in the cake-baking cases. They do not address Obamacare regulations requiring doctors and institutions to provide abortifacient or contraceptive coverage and services against their own conscience. They certainly do not address the rights of Muslims to worship freely under the First Amendment. This is where the big battle lines are right now, and Trump apparently does not know that or does not care.
On the question of freedom of religion in the military, Trump went on 1,200-word stream-of-consciousness speech. He covered:
- The military is important.
- The military is weak.
- Vietnam was bad. We lost.
- Iraq was bad. We lost.
- Something about the federal budget.
- Syrian refugees are bad. They are likely Trojan horses. Bad.
- Members of Congress are wowed by DC architecture and forget to vote right.
- Obamacare is bad but generally and not in a specific religious freedom way.
- Giving military equipment to people in Middle East is bad.
- Generals should be the ones to make decisions.
- People should be scared when they look at our military.
Here’s what he did not cover in those 1,200 words: Religious freedom in the military.
4. Trump Throws the Word ‘Spirit’ Around For No Apparent Reason
Here’s Trump answering a question about addressing poverty (emphasis added):
There’s no spirit in these inner cities. You look at what’s going on in Chicago. Chicago’s like a tale of two cities. There’s no training, there’s no spirit, there’s no hope for these people. We’ve gotta get in and we’ve gotta straighten it out. We’ve got a spirit crisis in this country, and I’m not only talking about the inner cities—I’m talking everywhere.
[later, still on poverty, sort of] And through various incentives and lots of other things, including spirit and training, we’re gonna get things straightened out.
[later, on Christianity in general] But we have to bring that back. We have to bring those values back. We have to bring that spirit back.
Yeah, spirit. That’s the ticket! Christians love spirit. We’ve got spirit, yes we do!
5. Trump Equated Christianity With Worldly Power, and His Listeners Agreed
Perhaps the most disturbing and theologically suspect part of this whole exercise is the way Trump apparently sees Christianity as an exercise in amassing worldly power, and got a nod from those present.
[Fear over tax-exempt status has] taken a lot of power away from Christianity, and other religions. …We were at a meeting of 50 ministers, pastors, Christians, 2 rabbis. I said, ‘Why is it that the whole thing with Christianity, it’s not going in the right direction? It’s getting weaker, weaker, weaker from a societal standpoint?’ And over the course of various meetings, I realized that there are petrified ministers and churches. They speak before 25,000 people, the most incredible speakers you could ever see, better than any politician by far. And yet when it comes to talking about it openly or who they support or why they support somebody because he’s a person—a man or a woman—who is into their values, they’re petrified to do it.
…And I say to you folks because you have such power, such influence. Unfortunately the government has weeded it away from you pretty strongly. But you’re going to get it back. Remember this: If you ever add up, the men and women here are the most important, powerful lobbyists. You’re more powerful. Because you have men and women, you probably have something like 75, 80 percent of the country believing. But you don’t use your power. You don’t use your power….
We have to bring those values back. We have to bring that spirit back. And in a way, it’s been taken way from you by the federal government and by these horrendous things that have been allowed in the past. But just remember this: You are the most powerful group in this country. But you have to realize that. You have to band together. You have to band together. If you don’t band together, you’re really not powerful. You have a powerful church. I see it. I see some of these incredible pastors and ministers and people that speak so brilliantly. And I see it. But they’re great within their audience but then outside they don’t have it. You have to band together as a group. And if you do that, you will bring it back like nothing has ever been brought back. [Applause]
That applause is the shame of American Christianity right now.
If you think there was any pushback, sadly no. James Robinson endorsed this message of raw power in his closing prayer:
Father, I want to thank you for these who are standing out here, and I pray you would remove from any mind or heart any thought that we might be the smaller, more insignificant parts of your body, when I know for a fact it is highly likely the more significant kingdom impact are those who are here in this room. But even beyond them it may be like that beautiful lady we saw in the war room, praying for your power.
Didn’t Jesus say something about the perils of gaining the whole world but losing your soul?