Sunday, 6 November 2016

How the Christian Right went wrong

Jerry Falwell Jr (left) is one of many evangelical leaders to endorse Donald Trump
For decades, evangelical Christians in the United States have consistently voted for Republican candidates, a trend that dates back to the anti-Catholic opposition faced by Democrats Al Smith and John F Kennedy and which has more recently manifested itself in the overt use of religious imagery by GOP nominees including Ronald Reagan and George W Bush. Benefiting from their socially conservative stance on divisive 'culture wars' issues such as abortion, same-sex marriage and the role of religion in schools, the Republicans have been able to woo evangelicals and crystallise their support from this vital group.

In recent years, this once unbreakable relationship has come under some strain. After eight years of George W Bush in the White House, a man who wore his born-again Christianity on his sleeve more than any other President in US history, the Republican Party nominated two candidates who left the Christian Right feeling uneasy - the somewhat secular John McCain, and the devout Mormon Mitt Romney. However, it is the current Republican nominee who should, in theory, present the greatest headache for conservative evangelicals; how can the self-styled 'Moral Majority' stand with a thrice-married serial adulterer and billionaire playboy who publicly brags about his promiscuous sex life?

It is difficult to find a major party nominee in American history who has been as amoral as Donald Trump. His personal life, his business dealings and his political rhetoric all paint the picture of a selfish, greedy narcissist who judges his own success on the basis of his net worth and sexual exploits. His language is coarse and disrespectful, his relationship with the truth is uneasy, and his campaign has been based on dehumanising and delegitimising vast swathes of the American public. Anyone who cares about morality and ethics in public life can see that Trump is not worthy of the world's highest office, so why have evangelicals been taken in by this conman?

The most prominent evangelical backer of the Republican nominee has been Jerry Falwell Jr, the President of Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia. Falwell's father, the late Jerry Falwell Sr, was one of America's most famous pastors and televangelists, attracting controversy due to his hardline views on homosexuality and his claim that God caused 9/11 to happen as divine punishment for America's accommodation of abortion and LGBT rights. Falwell Jr shares his father's fundamentalist theology, but by becoming one of Trump's leading cheerleaders he has sacrificed the integrity of the movement his father helped to build. No matter what one may think about the Christian Right (and I for one staunchly oppose the theology it promotes), it cannot be denied that Jerry Falwell Sr represented a certain integrity and sincerity of belief which has not been passed on.

It is highly unlikely that Falwell Sr would have endorsed Donald Trump for President; for all his faults, the late reverend held a coherent and uncompromising view of the world that would have prevented him from backing a twice-divorced adulterer. The same cannot be said of his son, or indeed of the wider evangelical community, with polls suggesting that two-thirds of white evangelicals intend to vote for Trump. No other religious group is backing Trump by such a large margin, a fact which exposes the hypocrisy of a movement which claims to prize values and morality over temporal concerns such as party politics.

The truth is that, for many within the Christian Right, this has never been about picking the candidate who is the best role model or who sets a standard of good moral living. As can be observed within the Church, evangelicals frequently see orthodoxy - right belief - as more important than orthopraxy - right action - despite the fact that this seems to fly in the face of the teachings of the Gospels. All the evidence we have suggests that Jesus spent his public ministry lambasting the legalism of the Pharisees and other religious authorities, and it is intriguing to consider how he would react to those Christian leaders in contemporary America who are so willing to support a candidate as hateful as Donald Trump.

In contrast, there is one religious group which has been notable in its opposition to Trump's candidacy, and it may just be enough to deny him the presidency. Utah is one of the most solidly Republican states in the country, having backed the GOP nominee in every presidential election since 1968, but this year is seeing this heavily Mormon state revolt against Mr Trump. Over 60% of Utah's population belong to the LDS Church, and unlike their evangelical friends they have refused to let traditional party allegiances override deep-seated morality. The religious and political establishment in Utah has launched an 'all-out revolt' against the excesses of the Trump campaign, and on the eve of Election Day there is a very strong possibility that this ultimate red state could be won by Evan McMullin, a Utah-born independent conservative and practicing Mormon. In an election where every electoral vote matters, defeat in the Beehive State could doom Trump's chances of reaching the White House.

Evangelicals may reject and even ridicule the eccentric theology and strict customs of the LDS Church, but they have a lot to learn from a Mormon population that has taken a stand rather than accommodating an unsuitable and unqualified candidate. In contrast, evangelical support for Trump has undermined their claim to represent the moral voice of the nation, instead highlighting their blind obsession with homosexuality and the so-called 'liberal agenda' of the Democratic Party. In doing so they have played into the hands of secularists such as Bill Maher, who claims that this election cycle has exposed evangelicals as 'the shameless hypocrites they've always been.' Maher is right to point out the negative impact that the Christian Right has had on American political and public life, but he is wrong to conclude that the failings of evangelicalism leave no room for Christian values in the political arena. The Moral Majority may have become a wizened and irrelevant 'Immoral Minority,' but it can be replaced by a better and more authentic expression of Christian values, one that focuses on bringing people together rather than tearing them apart.