Remember when a “personal redemption” narrative was central to the Christian right’s stated motivations about what candidates it would back with enthusiasm? Sure you do. It was crucial, allegedly, to the religious right’s embrace of George W. Bush.
As a young man, he had wandered. Lost his way. Hit the hooch too much.
Then, shortly before Bush’s 40th birthday, Billy Graham paid a call on the Bush family compound at Kennebunkport one weekend and spent time counseling the younger George in the spiritual arts. “Over the course of that weekend, Reverend Graham planted a mustard seed in my soul, a seed that grew over the next year,” he wrote in his 2000 campaign book. “He led me to the path, and I began walking.”
And that’s been the usual story, not just with politicians, but with all kinds of people it decides to embrace, from pundits who ditch liberalism to come over to their team to gay-conversion subjects who’ve cast off the “sin” of homosexuality. You could have committed almost any transgression. But if you saw the error of your ways and started walking the path, that was enough.
Well, that one’s out the window now, isn’t it? The only path Donald Trump walks is one of raging ego and self-promotion. He stiffed contractors, cheated business associates, lied casually and constantly, grabbed women. And ran for president not as a man who’d found a better path, but as that very man, one who’s never changed and never will change.
Yet here was Kellyanne Conway, who is not just a conservative activist but a hard-line Christian right activist, tweeting last Friday, the day of Trump’s speech at the Values Voters Summit, that Trump is “the most faith-centric, pro-life president of our lifetime.” The “pro-life” part is just a bad joke. Trump used to be pro-choice and obviously has no strong convictions on the issue, or at least has never said anything that would indicate he does. But “faith-centric”? That’s not even a joke. It’s Dear Leader newspeak of the most pathetic sort.
But even it is not quite as pathetic as the rapturous ovation Trump received when he spoke at the summit. Fine, he’s the first sitting president to go speak there. So show your appreciation. But honestly. Can’t people see how cheap and debauched and hypocritical they look to the rest of us when they say things like God chose Donald Trump. God? Trump?
Or Jerry Falwell Jr. saying, “I’m convinced he is a Christian.” Is Falwell really that stupid, or is he that cynical? It seems almost certain it’s the latter, but it would actually speak far better of him if he really honestly were that ignorant.
I know there’s a culture war on. I have old friends who are pro-life, dear old friends whom I love profoundly, and I totally get why someone who thinks abortion is murder voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton, and why it wasn’t even a remotely close call. And I get those people being enthusiastic that he put Neil Gorsuch on the bench.
But please—just tell us that. Just be honest with us and tell us it’s transactional. It would be a lot easier to respect: “Hey, we know he’s not a good Christian in his personal life. But frankly, we care less about that than we do about beating back manifestations of cultural liberalism, so for lack of anything better, he’s the warrior we happen to have.”
I’ve been pondering whether the left would behave similarly. That is, say the Democrats nominated, and America somehow elected, a man who publicly supported abortion rights and LGBT rights and women’s rights and civil rights but had lived his private life in aggressive and diametrical opposition to those values, and—the crucial part—it was widely known during the nomination process that he had done so. Let’s say that despite his solid rhetoric, he’d treated black or female or gay colleagues or employees wretchedly. Would secular left leaders be making excuses for such a man?
I suppose some would, but in the main, I think not. In fact it’s obvious that this man would never have gotten within a million miles of the Democratic nomination. And nobody would be saying, “I’m convinced he is a multiculturalist.”
But the left sees things in empirical terms, and the Christian right sees things in allegorical and scriptural terms. You can always find something in Scripture to justify anything. So, turn a plainly reprehensible man into a Christian? Easy. Invite Steve Bannon also to your Values Voters Summit, so you have the hedonistic “populist” billionaire and the Beverly Hills, white-supremacist-friendly counter-revolutionary on your Christian stage? Hey, if you can make Trump a Christian, you can do it with Bannon, too.
It’s such naked hypocrisy. The only thing that makes Trump and Bannon Christian, at bottom, in the eyes of these Christian right leaders, is that they hate liberals and liberalism. There should be no pretense that anything else is involved.
With Bush, people like me had to acknowledge that it did at least seem as though he was pretty sincere about being a religious person (although, interestingly, Billy Graham was once asked about that famous weekend conversion experience and would not corroborate Bush’s account). So when religious right leaders praised him as such, they weren’t obviously lying in the service of naked political ends.
But this? They can invent all the beautiful scriptural justifications they want. But the rest of the world is on to their con, and, to put it in language they’d understand, they’ve bitten from an apple they can’t now spit out.