Donald Trump not only is dividing Republicans from Republicans; he is dividing Christians from Christians.
Christianity Today published an anti-Trump editorial, and several prominent evangelical clergypersons also have spoken out against him. However, a lot of the big shots of the Christian-Political Right still stand with Trump — Jerry Falwell, Jr., Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, James Dobson, and the animated fossil of Pat Robertson, for example.
I can think of two explanations. One, they think somehow they will maintain more influence in a Trump administration than in a Clinton administration. And maybe they would. Trump obviously doesnâ€™t give a hoo-haw about religion, except when it can be made to reflect well on him somehow. He might very well support their anti-LGBT and anti-women agenda if they flatter him enough, because itâ€™s obvious he doesnâ€™t give a shit either way.
The other explanation is that these people have become so twisted that oppressing women and LGBT people is the only â€œmoralityâ€ they care about any more, and all the stuff about lying, stealing, coveting, adultery , etc., are just details that can be sacrificed for their â€œgreater good.â€
The truth probably is a combination of both. Remember, these are guys who were elevated to prominence, directly or indirectly, by political operatives like Paul Weyrich who saw the usefulness of framing the right-wing political agenda as a moral crusade. These guys gave their blessings to the political Right in exchange for fame, wealth and the promise that they could become America’s moral arbiters.
Which brings me to Original Sin. Yes, Christian theology is a bit outside my usual area, but it does interest me. And I have no beef with Christianity; it’s just a shame more Christians don’t follow it.
I never appreciated the Original Sin doctrine until I read Reinhold Niebuhr‘s explanation of it, which differs considerably from what most of us were taught. But Niebuhr (1892-1971) was a highly regarded theologian, and I argue his opinion is as authoritative as anyone’s. And please note that both Niebuhr and I read the Genesis story as myth, not as natural history.
Niebuhr noted that the Serpent had said of the forbidden fruit, â€œFor God knows that when you eat from it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.â€ In other words, the great temptation was to be like God. This is a point that seems to get lost a lot.
So Adam and Eve ate the fruit and gained the knowledge, and from there came all human hangups, not to mention psychiatrists and lawyers. But we can put that aside for now. Water under the bridge.
Anyway, for Niebuhr, this is not something that happened only in a mythical past. Every human generation has succumbed to the same temptation by seeking power and self-glorification, he said.
â€œManâ€™s situation tempts to evil, provided man is unwilling to accept the peculiar weakness of his creaturely life, and is unable to find the ultimate source and end of his existence beyond himself,â€ Niebuhr wrote in Discerning the Signs of the Times (1946). “Being an insignificant creature with suggestions of great significance in the stature of his freedom, man uses his strength to hide his weakness and thus falls into the evil of the lust for power and self-idolatry.”
Just about the worst sin, to Niebuhr, was presuming perfect knowledge of God. He died before the modern Christian Right got off the ground, but his opinion of such creatures as Falwell (father and son), Reed, Perkins and Robertson comes through clearly in his writing. These are the guys who fell into the temptation; they ate the forbidden fruit; they assumed to know God’s mind and to hand out judgments on the rest of us.
Original sin, by tainting all human perceptions, is the enemy of absolutes. Mortal man’s apprehension of truth is fitful, shadowy and imperfect; he sees through the glass darkly. Against absolutism Niebuhr insisted on the “relativity of all human perspectives,” as well as on the sinfulness of those who claimed divine sanction for their opinions. He declared himself “in broad agreement with the relativist position in the matter of freedom, as upon every other social and political right or principle.” In pointing to the dangers of what Justice Robert H. Jackson called “compulsory godliness,” Niebuhr argued that “religion is so frequently a source of confusion in political life, and so frequently dangerous to democracy, precisely because it introduces absolutes into the realm of relative values.” Religion, he warned, could be a source of error as well as wisdom and light. Its role should be to inculcate, not a sense of infallibility, but a sense of humility. Indeed, “the worst corruption is a corrupt religion.”
If there was ever a better morality play than what’s going on now in the presidential election, I can’t think of it. Those who were raised up through hubris and self-glorification are now being exposed as fallible and corrupt. Truly, their own sinful ways are revealed.
In the past, as Pulliam Bailey has chronicled, religious-right leaders claimed to care about personal morality. â€œWe will not rest until we have leaders of good moral character,â€ Reed said back in the Monica Lewinsky days. Evangelical leader James Dobson advocated Bill Clintonâ€™s impeachment in 1998 because he set a bad example about â€œrespecting women.â€
But Dobson supports Trump, excusing his behavior because the candidate is a â€œbaby Christian.â€ Franklin Graham, though formally neutral, draws equivalence between Trumpâ€™s â€œcrude commentsâ€ and Democratsâ€™ â€œgodlessâ€ agenda. …
… But where are the high-profile figures in the movement, such as Reed, Robertson and Falwell? In January, Falwell said Trump â€œlives a life of loving and helping others, as Jesus taught.â€ He likened Trump to his father.
And now, no regrets. Falwell said that years from now, â€œI donâ€™t think anybody is going to be sitting around thinking about whether Donald Trump said this or that on the videotape in 2005. I think theyâ€™re going to be sitting around saying, â€˜Gosh, I wish we had different Supreme Court justices.â€™â€‰â€
Or maybe theyâ€™ll be wondering how differently things might have turned out if Falwell, with his ends-justify-the-means logic, hadnâ€™t made a deal with the devil and destroyed the moral credibility of the movement his father built.
Some Liberty University students are rebelling, and they criticized Falwell for using their university as a vehicle for electing Donald Trump. Do read the letter they wrote; they understand that Trump is a moral cesspool and even quote the Gospels — Matthew chapter 7 — to express their opposition. The fallout from this election is going to be massive, and it won’t just affect the Republican Party.