Unholy war: The few evangelicals who stood up to Trump

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The Trump enablers, those who — for political or personal reasons — were acquiescent in the former president’s abuses of power, face a permanent stain. Let’s also recognize those who resisted.

Foremost were a small group of Christian conservatives. The white evangelical community overwhelmingly supported the former president, whose actions, rhetoric and character were antithetical to the faith and values that community usually proclaims. They justified it by pointing to his appointment of federal judges and his anti-abortion stances. Trump won more than three-quarters of white evangelicals last November.

Those few Christian conservatives who stood up included two former speechwriters for Republican presidents: columnist Michael Gerson and Pete Wehner, an ethicist. Also standing up were: Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist convention; Mark Galli, the former editor of Christianity Today which editorialized against Trump’s reelection; and David French, senior editor of the conservative website, the Dispatch, and a religious rights expert. There were others.

“I wish there were a bigger list,” laments Gerson.

This is in contrast to the many evangelical leaders and pastors who were Trump cheerleaders. Among the most active were Ralph Reed, the always eager-for-access operative who once said he was “humping” for corporate accounts; Jerry Falwell, the President of Liberty University until he resigned last year because of a sex scandal; and evangelist and missionary Franklin Graham, an anti-Muslim zealot who likened Republicans who voted to impeach Trump to Judas. (He’s the son of famed preacher, the late Billy Graham, who later in life expressed regret at his close connections to politicians and warned against being beholden to one party. The elder Graham’s granddaughter Jerushah was a vocal critic of Trump.)

“They became corrupted by power,” Wehner told me. “They would not call Mr. Trump out for his lawlessness, the savagery of his politics, his cruelty, his pathological lies and his conspiracy theories. They would not speak truth to power.” 

Judging by much of the religious right’s agenda — anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage, a conservative judiciary —Trump delivered. They would have gotten almost the same from any Republican president without the moral hazard and hypocrisy.

Trump’s record on human rights and religious freedom around the globe — a stated priority for many evangelicals — was abysmal. He brushed aside North Korea’s atrocious record on religious freedom to court — futilely — the dictator Kim Jong Un; Trump was similarly uninterested in China’s record of atrocity.

“Trump treated evangelicals as another interest group like labor unions or business,” Gerson told me. “Christians in politics aren’t supposed to be just another interest group.”

The most courageous of those to object may have been Moore, head of the Religious and Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention: He spoke out against Trump back in 2015, comparing the candidate’s views on women to a “Bronze Age warlord.” This year, after a Trump-inspired mob sacked the U.S. Capitol, Moore urged him to drop his fraudulent claim the election was stolen and resign.

Moore is in a distinct minority among Baptist and Evangelical leaders; the knives have long been out for him. A convention-authorized report last year charged he was costing the convention money, as some churches were withholding funds because of his anti-Trump views.

“He remains a real target of the ultra, ultra conservative crowd,” Bill Leonard, the former Dean of the Wake Forest University Divinity School and an ordained Baptist minister, told me recently.

The Southern Baptists have lost membership for 13 years straight, and most leaders — except for Moore and few others — have inextricably linked themselves to the Trump wing of the Republican Party. “The Southern Baptist convention is the GOP at prayer,” noted Leonard. “The denomination is a religion losing members, and the leaders panicked and tied themselves to Trump.”

This is true of the larger evangelical movement. According to the Public Religious Research Institute, white evangelicals — as a percentage of the population — declined to 17 percent in 2016 from 23 percent a decade earlier.

This drop continued during the Trump years to 15 percent.

The association spells more trouble. “The identification between white evangelicals and the GOP is almost perfect,” David French said in a recent interview with Vox. “It means your faith is now tied to an entire array of both personalities and political positions that do not naturally flow from biblical ethics.”

Most of these Christian conservatives who stood up to Trump are anti-abortion and want conservative judges. Whatever their views on gay marriage, they abhor the vile bigotry of many Trump evangelicals. The lack of any interest among many right-wing evangelical leaders on issues like climate change and racial equality is a turn-off for many young people. “I have had recent conversations with leaders of organizations who deal with young people,” said Wehner, “who spoke in painful terms about the enormous long-term harm that the white evangelical movement’s alliance with Trump has caused.”

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags Anti-abortion movement conservative justices Donald Trump evangelical Christians evangelical leaders Evangelical voters Evangelicalism Far-right politics in the United States Franklin Graham Gay marriage ban Hypocrisy Jerry Falwell Jr. Kim Jong Un Michael Gerson Pete Wehner Ralph Reed religious right Russell Moore Southern Baptists trumpism white evangelicals

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