Why evangelicals made a deal with devilish Donald
As president, Donald Trump has been the answer to conservative evangelical leaders' prayers. But the partnership comes with a price.
Prominent evangelicals have been called hypocrites for sticking with Trump, despite credible new allegations that he had an extramarital affair with a porn star in 2006 -- only four months after his wife, Melania, gave birth their son Barron -- and then paid her to stay silent in the final weeks of his 2016 presidential campaign.
Can you imagine how many conservative heads would have exploded with outrage if President Barack Obama had been accused of anything like this bombshell?
Hold that thought while considering how evangelical activist Tony Perkins, president of the politically potent Family Research Council, used a popular term from golf to describe his response to the Trump allegations:
"We kind of gave him -- 'All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here,' " Perkins said in an interview last Tuesday for Politico's "Off Message" podcast.
In golf, a mulligan is a second free chance to take a good shot after making an uncommonly bad first attempt. Perkins tried to separate Trump the policy maker, which conservative evangelicals wholeheartedly embrace, from Trump the man. He may be a work in progress at best, say the faith leaders, but he's "our" work in progress.
"Our country's got a sin problem," the Rev. Franklin Graham, son of the Rev. Billy Graham and current president of his Evangelistic Association, told MSNBC host Alex Witt in an interview last weekend. "We certainly don't hold him up as the pastor of this country, and he's not. But I appreciate the fact that the president does have a concern for Christian values, he does have a concern to protect Christians -- whether it's here at home or around the world -- and I appreciate the fact that he protects religious liberty and freedom."
Indeed, Trump and evangelicals looked like an odd match when Trump campaigned at Liberty University, the Values Voters Summit in Washington and other religious venues. Without awarding either a free pass or a scarlet letter to Trump's controversial behavior, Perkins, Graham and numerous other evangelicals put up with Trump's shortcomings to receive the benefits of his appreciation.
Who's right? Evangelicals overwhelmingly supported Trump over Democrat Hillary Clinton. There has been some erosion since then, but most have remained loyal to him as he has delivered on some major promises.
It's not hypocrisy, conservative faith leaders say, but a question of different priorities. For example, they applaud Team Trump's efforts to roll back abortion rights, the appointment of conservative Supreme Court Justice Neil Gorsuch and Trump's "religious freedom" executive orders -- which critics denounce as a "freedom to discriminate against LGBTQ rights" order.
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Interestingly, Perkins described the motivations of his fellow "values voters" in the stark terms of modern identity politics: He spoke of a righteous "us" vs. the ruthless, corrupt and vindictive "them," who in his mind tend to be liberal Democrats.
Evangelical Christians, says Perkins, "were tired of being kicked around by Barack Obama and his leftists. And I think they are finally glad that there's somebody on the playground that is willing to punch the bully."
Hey, what happened to turning the other cheek? asked Politico reporter Edward-Isaac Dovere.
"You know, you only have two cheeks," Perkins said. "Look, Christianity is not all about being a welcome mat which people can just stomp their feet on."
And the culture war fights on. If you, like I, do not think of Obama as a "bully," you understand how conservative faith leaders are casting themselves and their flock as an identity group in starkly political terms: victims besieged by a sense of victimization in a hostile world.
President Trump knows how to play that card. He won the presidency partly because of it. However, as much as evangelicals appreciate their alliance with Trump, they also point out that the "mulligan" is only good once. In theological terms, Trump must go forth and sin no more. That's a lot to ask of any politician. For Trump, it might take a miracle.
(E-mail Clarence Page at firstname.lastname@example.org.)(c) 2018 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.