Praising Trump With Faint Damnation

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Franklin Graham, one of America’s most well-known evangelicals, recently did what he has never done before: He offered a critical assessment of Donald Trump. Speaking to The Wall Street Journal not long ago, Graham conceded that Trump—twice impeached, thrice married, and four times indicted—at times uses “locker room” talk.

That’s right; that was it. And even Graham’s mildest of all possible criticisms of the former president was accompanied by a compliment: Trump may sound a bit bawdy at times, according to Graham, but at least he doesn’t hide it! Come now in praise of Donald Trump’s authenticity.

All of us, even Graham, know deep down that corruption pervades every aspect of Trump’s life—personal, political, and financial. Only a few months after having been found liable for sexually assaulting and defaming a woman, Trump is on trial in New York City, having been charged with falsifying 34 business records related to the reimbursement of a $130,000 hush-money payment to a porn star, Stormy Daniels, who says she had a sexual encounter with him. Yet Graham, a right-wing culture warrior who throughout his life has obsessed over sexual sin, has given Trump a mulligan, time and time and time again. Despite all of Trump’s transgressions, Graham has campaigned for him, and insists he will go down “as one of the great presidents of our nation.”

The narrative that’s being pushed by Graham is that Trump’s “locker room” talk and “mean tweets” are his worst transgressions.

This assertion is a lie, ignoble but in some respects understandable. After all, Trump supporters can’t defend who Trump really is, the awful things he does and says. They can’t defend his lawlessness and cruelty and crudity, the attempted coups and encouragement to his supporters to violently storm the Capitol and hang his vice president. They can’t defend his fraud and promiscuity, his love of conspiracy theories and affinity for dictators, his pathological lying and deranged rants, his misogyny and racism, his mocking of prisoners of war and those with disabilities. So they take his least problematic actions and pretend they’re his most problematic offenses. It’s the opposite of damning someone with faint praise; in this case, it’s praising Trump with faint damnation.

This is a common approach within MAGA world, but especially among white evangelical Christians. They are Trump’s most reliable supporters. He owes his political career to them.

The question I’ve been asked as much as any other during the Trump era is how people who claim to be followers of Jesus can offer such dependable, even enthusiastic, support to a man of undisguised moral degeneracy. Why do they rally around Trump in overwhelming numbers even when there are very solid conservative alternatives to him, such as former South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley, in 2024? How can Speaker of the House Mike Johnson, who recently told Sean Hannity that if you read the Bible you’ll understand his entire worldview, appear at Trump’s hush-money trial in Manhattan to show his moral support for such a morally compromised man? (Ironically, Johnson claims he has installed “accountability software,” Covenant Eyes, on his and his family’s electronic devices to ensure that they don’t watch porn.)

How did we end up in a situation that led the late Timothy J. Keller, who was one of the most trusted Christian ministers in the world, to say that the word evangelical used to denote people who staked out the moral high ground—but now, in popular usage, is nearly synonymous with hypocrite?

The answer is complicated. Part of the explanation is that many white evangelicals have convinced themselves that if Democrats win public office, especially the presidency, abortion and crime rates will skyrocket, there will be a “war on Christianity,” and America will become a hellscape.

The fact that the empirical evidence doesn’t support this claim doesn’t matter to them; they feel it’s true, they tell one another it’s true, and so they operate on the assumption that it must be true. It’s not enough to say that Democrats are wrong on some important matters and radicalized in some troubling ways; things need to be framed as an existential battle, as good versus evil, as God versus Satan.

They believe, too, that to criticize their own side in this life-and-death struggle would be traitorous. With the stakes so high, with the consequences of defeat so catastrophic, they are willing to embrace un-Christian means to achieve what they believe to be the greater moral good.

“For some on the religious right,” Malcolm Gladwell wrote in an American Spectator essay in 1986, “advancing a political agenda has come to take precedence over even the most basic ethical considerations.” This has been a decades-long through line.

Another reason things are playing out the way they are in the white evangelical world is that its leaders are giving in to the ancient temptation of proximity to political power, choosing to be court pastors in order to win the favor of the king. They are thrilled to be taken seriously, thrilled to be offered invitations to the halls of power, thrilled to be seen having influence in this world. In my years in politics, I’ve never found a group as easily seduced by political power as evangelicals.

An analogy might be helpful here. Imagine a middle-school student, awkward and lacking social skills, not particularly popular, longing to be asked to sit at the cool kids’ table. It would mean everything to that student to be invited in—and once in, they would do anything to stay. To lose their newfound social status would feel like death.

Franklin Graham’s father, Billy Graham, was known as the “pastor to the presidents.” He admitted near the end of his life that he wished he had steered clear of politics, that “looking back, I know I sometimes crossed the line, and I wouldn’t do that now.” That lesson has been lost on his son and on the entirety of the religious right. They have crossed the line repeatedly, and they would eagerly do so again. The allure is too great, their capacity to resist it too weak.

There is also this unsettling fact: Too many people who claim to be Christians treat Jesus as a “hood ornament,” to quote my friend Russell Moore. Christianity is for them an add-on, something they use to validate their preexisting ideological and partisan political beliefs. The Bible is useful to the extent that it acts as proof text for what they already believe.

If you examine Christian fundamentalism and the evangelical subculture—not all of it, by any means, but significant parts of it—you’ll discover that antipathy rather than love is treated as vivifying, energizing, even life-giving. Enmity—in particular, enmity for Democrats, for progressives, and for Never Trumpers—is the entry emotion into a broader community; it provides a tribal home, one that thrives on conflict and hostility. The example of Jesus is not just inconvenient for these adherents; it is a thousand light-years away.

It’s certainly true that not all of the evangelical world is fully aligned with the MAGA movement. There are many evangelicals, including many pastors and people in positions of leadership, who are queasy about Trump and about how many American Christians support him. But a lot of them are unwilling to speak out, so they can avoid conflict. They don’t want to politicize the Church, which is an understandable impulse.

The problem, however, is that Christian institutions are collapsing in the face of aggressive assaults by the Christian right. We saw that recently with the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), a conservative denomination, which first invited the writer David French to speak on a panel about political polarization and then, in the face of a right-wing online backlash, disinvited him.

French had agreed to appear on the panel after only having been approached by an individual within the PCA; he did it as a favor. Moreover, he reminded the PCA that he was no longer a member, and the PCA was warned that French was controversial on the far right. Was it ready to take the heat? He was assured the PCA was—until the PCA and its stated clerk, Bryan Chapell, folded. The failure of courage by Chapell and his colleagues in the PCA has been replicated in one Christian institution after another during the Trump era.

Most evangelicals would say that converting people to the Christian faith is among the highest callings of their lives. For them, “winning souls”—bringing the message of salvation to those who do not believe—is essential. Whatever non-Christians might feel about that mission, and how much grace and sensitivity Christians have demonstrated in fulfilling it, for many Christians it’s consistent with Jesus’s injunction to “make disciples of all nations.” Which makes the evangelical embrace of the MAGA ethic particularly problematic.

It was clear at the outset of the Trump era that the decision of many fundamentalists and evangelicals to embrace him, despite his brutishness and degeneracy, would come at very high cost to the Christian witness. The hypocrisy and self-righteousness has been staggering and almost unimaginable. It’s hard to think of a more effective way that the enemies of Christianity could have discredited the faith than what we’ve seen unfold since 2016.

In Walker Percy’s The Second Coming, Will Barrett, the novel’s main character, says of Christians, “I cannot be sure they don’t have the truth. But if they have the truth, why is it the case that they are repellent precisely to the degree that they embrace and advertise that truth? One might even become a Christian if there were few if any Christians around. Have you ever lived in the midst of fifteen million Southern Baptists?” Barrett then puts forward a mystery: “If the good news is true, why is not one pleased to hear it? And if the good news is true; why are its public proclaimers such assholes and the proclamation itself such a weary used-up thing?”

It need not be this way. There have been many moments of glory and beauty, of extraordinary benevolence and selflessness, in Christianity’s witness to the world. The main reason for the spread of Christianity in its first three centuries was that its adherents demonstrated compassion and sacrificial love, particularly toward the powerless and the marginalized, toward widows and orphans, the imprisoned and the sick, the social outcasts. Christianity spread the concept that all are made in the image of God and therefore have inherent human dignity. It was “an unprecedented idea at the time, and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance,” according to the French philosopher and secular humanist Luc Ferry.

My own life has been indelibly shaped by people of the Christian faith who have loved me; they have walked with me through periods of grief and pain, listened to my questions and doubts, and created cherished moments and memories. They have enriched my life, and I know that their lives are more merciful and joyful and generous because of their faith. I have seen a handful of people I’ve loved walk through the valley of the shadow of death with dignity, courage, and faithfulness.

One of them was Steve Hayner, who served as the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship and Columbia Theological Seminary. The last time I saw Steve, who died in 2015, he uttered words that I have continued to hold close to my heart. The central character of God, Steve said, is love and grace, and the central mission of Christians is to extend God’s hand of grace to others.

That is the answer to Will Barrett’s mystery.

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