In an election season that has seen Donald Trump take credit for many things he certifiably hasn’t done, and deny many things he most likely has done, one outcome is becoming increasingly obvious, however unintended it may be. Trump’s candidacy is becoming the cause of the final breakup of the Religious Right as a force in American politics. For decades, the Religious Right, known among other things as the Moral Majority (the late Rev. Jerry Falwell) and the Christian Coalition (Rev. Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed) has been a force among the large number of conservative Christians looking for a voice in the hostile swamp of American politics. These groups sought to translate conservative Christian positions into viable political agendas, and to mobilise Christians to support those politicians who indicated their support for their policies.
In past elections, politicians have indicated their Christian commitment and thrown their support behind conservative Christian policies, for example, concerning abortion. Politicians passing such 'litmus tests' were deemed worthy of support. In such cases, the local manifestation of the Religious Right organization would then mobilize conservative Christian support for that candidate. Oftentimes the candidate would be duly elected and would then go on to serve in whatever local, state or national office he/she won. And then, for a variety of proffered reasons, nothing is actually done with respect to changing anything having to do with abortion laws, despite all the promises and all the efforts made to get said politician in office.
In our current election cycle, we have seen traditional religious conservatives convulsed because of the choice they are presented with - Trump or Clinton. In Clinton, conservative Christians see someone who has been duplicitous, or at least coy with the truth when political advantage is at stake. There is also her connection with the other Clinton, whom conservative Christians really did not like (even though he left office with a 66% approval rating - higher than Reagan and in spite of the Lewinsky affair!). But for most, the real problem with a Clinton presidency would be her full-throated support of abortion rights for women, equal opportunity rights for LBGTQ people and also the threatened erosion of religious liberty rights that would likely continue to occur where religious scruples would increasingly not be allowed when they conflict with gay and transgender rights.
The religious liberty issue is a legitimate concern, in that the constitution does not give a road map for how to navigate a way through when two guaranteed rights are in conflict. Ironically a majority of Americans disagree with conservative Christians on this issue. And there are likely at least a majority of judges that do so as well, judges who will be appointed to decision-making levels under a Clinton administration. We may well be seeing the end of Christian hegemony and privilege in American policy and society. For the sake of the Church in America, this may not be such a bad thing, as I have written about in other places. But it will mean difficult times ahead for those who claim to be serious about following Christ in this world.
With respect to abortion, I have become totally disgusted and cynical at how the Religious Right has used this issue to drum up support for it’s fundraising and its candidates. The reason for my cynicism is simply that the movement of conservative Christians in American politics over the past 40 years can show nothing for its efforts on this issue. Even when presidents have been elected vowing to stop abortion, and when majorities of the more conservative party have been elected to congress, nothing has been done about abortion. And when opportunities to appoint judges who might be in a position to do something have arisen, nothing more than maintain the status quo has been done. The Religious Right has taken conservative Christians (like myself) for a ride on this their marquee issue, and there is nothing to show for it. I gave up my blanket support for the Republican party eight years ago and have not have a single moment’s regret in doing so. Despite the bombast, their record is no better than the Democrats on this one.
And then came Trump. I watched all through the primary season as different candidates jockeyed for the support of different interest groups, including conservative Christians. And then I watched as conservative Christians tried to find a way to support Mr. Trump once it became obvious that he would be the Republican standard-bearer. I have watched repeated episodes of Evangelical shock at things Mr. Trump says, only to see them rally around the hoped-for judges a President Trump would appoint to the Supreme Court to turn around the abortion thing. Then comes Trump's non-stop stream of outright lies about people, events and issues. Evangelical Christians and religious conservatives feign shock and distance themselves from Trump, but continue to support him. Then comes Trump in his own words bragging about sexually assaulting women. More conservative Christian shock. More distance. Even some defections. But most continue to support Trump's candidacy. Then I hear with astonishment as so-called Evangelical leaders dismiss the idea that Trump’s behaviour or words have anything to do with the political leadership they are hoping he will provide. I’ve heard variations of this position from four different sources. Does anyone else who remembers the 'Moral Majority' find nonsensical the assertions by today's Evangelical Christian leaders that Trump's morality is irrelevant to their support of him as a candidate for president?
So there we have it. Trump isn’t a Christian (at least by the way any conservative Christians would measure what a Christian is). He demeans more than half of the nation’s population (his own words are on the public record). He is a serial liar. He implies that his supporters should use their guns to deal with his political opponent. Plus his campaign rallies regularly regularly play on the lesser angels of those present. I could continue for quite some time. And this is this man that the conservative Christian political movement is left with, or rather, has thrown its support behind. The charges against these Christian leaders of moral bankruptcy are entirely justified. The Religious Right has exposed itself as fundamentally no different than any other political movement in the country. Craven political calculation has evidently replaced genuine morality. ‘Christian’ has become meaningless. Watching so-called Christian leaders justify Trump’s behaviour and justify their continued support of his candidacy leaves all of us wide open to the charge of hypocrisy. This is not something we Christians want to be guilty of - Jesus showed mercy to all kinds of sinners, but hypocrites always made him really angry.
Political action will never bring about the kingdom of heaven. Instead, if we are serious about making changes in people’s lives and in their behavior, we will start right where we are, in the circle of our own relationships. And concerning abortion, if half the people who claim vexation over this tragedy were willing to get involved in the lives of the women who find themselves with an unwanted pregnancy and adopt a rescued baby (rather than just shout at them at abortion clinics), then we might begin to see the turn around that none of our politics has been able to effect thus far. Maybe instead of giving all this money to the Religious Right, we should pay mothers of unwanted babies to take them to term. And then help them get out of the situation that led to such an unwanted outcome. At least it would be a better use of our money than the current political nonsense that passes for a pro-life movement.
Simply to say, Christianity, the gospel and the church have never prospered when combined with politics - not in our country, not in any country, not at any point in Christian history. Short term political gain has always come at a cost, usually the soul of the Christians involved who get seduced by the ways of the world and then become indistinguishable from the world from which they are called. ‘Christian’ political movements start out sounding noble, but somehow they all end up in the same place. It’s because politics is about compromise. But compromise is something that followers of Jesus simply cannot do, otherwise we become something else. And compromise is precisely what we Christians are doing by tying ourselves to the words, actions and character of Mr. Trump as if we had a religious duty (on the basis of the abortion issue - but see above!) to do so. Overlooking sexual harassment and sexual assault for the sake of a Trump promise to appoint a pro-life judge is a calculus I want nothing to do with. The fact that other Christians seem to have no qualms with this 'New Math' of American politics speaks for itself.
The latest today is that Mr. Trump is threatening that a takeover by his opponent will lead to World War III. We have left the world of reality and entered the world of Marvel Comics. Words cease to mean anything. Nor does it matter how one behaves, especially if one is rich enough. This sort of behaviour has been seen throughout history on the part of all-powerful despots where the law is a flexible concept that revolves around the will of the king/emperor/tyrant. We see this sort of thing all across the continent of Africa, for example, where it doesn't matter what the leader says or does - he is always right, and he will crush you if you choose to disagree. And now we Americans are having our dangerous flirt with the same sort of leader, and with supporters whose politics seem detached from any recognizable morality (except 'he is better than she is'). No society ever remains static, and American society is undergoing seismic shifts that are leaving some people feeling isolated and threatened. Conservative Christians, for one, are bearing the brunt of many of these changes. And we have issues that need to be addressed. But surely we can do better when it comes to making our voice heard - not in the reactionary ways that we are best (and scandalously) known for. The liberals are quiet happy for the Westboro Baptist Church people to continue to do the ridiculously offensive things they do, because liberals can then tar the entire conservative Christian movement with their brush. The same with Christian support of Trump in light of the horrific things he says about women and what he has claimed to have done to women. When will we learn that we don't advance the kingdom of God when we give the rather strong impression that we turn a blind eye to this kind of behavior.
The silver lining may be that business as usual Christian politics in America is finished. I can only hope that the powerful people in the Religious Right movements will do some soul searching and change their operating algorithms to something that better approximates the reality in which we as 21st century American Christians find ourselves. But the present situation may leave the movement discredited beyond remedy. In which case we Christians may have to come up with new ways to engage our society with the Gospel, new ways to reach out to the disadvantaged, new ways to influence government policy for the sake of the poor. None of which would be such a bad thing.