When were evangelical Christians first tied to Donald Trump? It seems to have started when Dr. James Dobson of FamilyTalk said on tape that Donald Trump is a Christian. He is not the only person making that claim. Paula White, Michelle Bachmann, Kenneth Copeland, and many others sing the same song.
But it doesn't look like we're buying their rhetoric. American Christians don't really believe that Trump is one of us. So what do Christian leaders stand to gain by pretending he is? They want to repeal the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits pastors and churches from making specific kinds of political speech. Americans love free speech... when it works to their advantage. The trouble is, Republican lawmakers want to repeal the amendment for more nefarious reasons.
Truce is a listener-supported podcast. Leave us a comment on iTunes and be sure to visit us at www.trucepodcast.com. You can follow us on Facebook and Twitter. Our host is Chris Staron, author of Cradle Robber and writer/ director of the films Bringing up Bobby and Between the Walls.
CS: Chris Staron (podcast host)
CS: Turn on the news and you'll probably hear a story like this one from NPR...
STEVE INSKEEP – ALL THINGS CONSIDERED: The white evangelical vote is a big part of the Alabama electorate and we've called Penny Young Nance, President of Concerned Women for America, which is a national evangelical group based in Washington. Good morning...
PENNY YOUNG NANCE: Good morning...
CS: Where Christians are linked with politicians. Guys like Donald Trump and Roy Moore.
Roy Moore, of course, lost his bid for an Alabama Senate seat after being accused of sexual misconduct. He lost despite an endorsement from the president and being the Republican nominee in a red state. But why did NPR decide to interview an evangelical on a political race? Because, as you may know, Roy Moore is a professing Christian. Many of his supporters were too. And when it came time to deal with his history of sexual harassment, his actions clashed with his faith. To the surprise of many, though, his Christian base stayed by his side. Despite serious allegations.
NPR called up this woman to see how his actions could possibly coexist with a Christian faith. This is not a unique conversation. A lot of people are asking these questions. As they should. In the last few years, Christians have moved from our place as followers of the gospel to a voting block. A prize to be won by any candidate. So we get associated with guys like Roy Moore. For better or for worse.
I'm Chris Staron. This is Truce.
Roy Moore lost. But Donald Trump did not. He's now president of the United States. Regardless of your politics, it's worth examining how we got here. How have evangelicals become tied to Donald Trump?
It really kicked into gear with Dr. James Dobson (https://twitter.com/DrJamesCDobson). You probably know this guy. Dobson founded media companies like Focus on the Family, and Family Talk. He's a big deal. Has been for a long time. Many of us heard about the Trump/evangelical connection when Dobson was caught on tape.
Maybe you remember this. It was June 21, 2016. An invite-only gathering at the Marriott Marquis hotel in New York City. The purpose of the gathering was to court evangelical leaders to the Trump campaign. It was a crowded ballroom, with media swarming the place. Author, celebrity pastor, and podcaster Michael Anthony (https://twitter.com/CourageMatters) pressed in through the crowd for an interview with James Dobson.
DR. JAMES DOBSON: I mean, he did accept a relationship with Christ. I know the person who led him to Christ. And that's fairly recent.
Michael Anthony's interview went viral. This quote was published in major newspapers like the New York Times. Dobson is a voice that media outlets go to when they need a quote. And here he is saying, unequivocally, that candidate Donald Trump is a Christian.
In July of that year, he walked that back on CBN (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=73-_a_-9SrQ).
DR. JAMES DOBSON: I did not say that Donald Trump is a believer. It was reported in new... probably a thousand newspapers around the country. I didn't say that.
Okay, he didn't so much as walk back his statement. Instead, he denied ever having said that Trump was a Christian. Which means... he lied. Still, the retraction didn't have the legs that the endorsement did. And Dobson has continued to support Donald Trump as president, even serving on his Faith Advisory Council. The council is this collection of faith leaders who have come together to give Donald Trump advice. Of course, James Dobson isn't the only one actively tying Christianity to the president. Far from it.
Take Michelle Bachman. She's also on the advisory council. Bachmann is a former House Representative and presidential candidate who regularly makes the rounds of the Christian media circuit. Here she is in July of 2017 on the show “Understanding the Times” from an episode titled, confusingly, “When Nations Have Distress With Perplexity” (https://www.oneplace.com/ministries/understanding-the-times/listen/when-nations-have-distress-with-perplexity-part-1-608680.html).
MICHELLE BACHMANN: He is a man who, I do believe, understands who the God of the Bible is, and he wants to lift up the God of the Bible here in the United States.
CS: On these shows, Bachmann is a staunch advocate for Donald Trump as a Christian. She's been featured in the Huffington Post, CNN, and, of course, Breitbart – linking Donald Trump to Christianity.
Now, maybe the most influential spokesperson for Donald Trump is Paula White. TV host. Celebrity pastor for the prosperity gospel. A woman who, along with her first husband, was once investigated by the US Senate for using tax-exempt donations for extravagant personal use.
CSPAN HOST: The other televangelists under investigation include Randy and Paula White of Without Walls International Church based in Tampa...
CS: She has been instrumental. It was Paula White who assembled Trump's faith advisory council and she too does the media circuit. She even offered a prayer at the inauguration.
PAULA WHITE ON CSPAN: We ask that you would bestow upon our president the wisdom necessary to lead this great nation...
CS: See, White is an important link. Some Charismatic and Pentecostal Christians see Trump as fulfilling God's work in the world. After all, if God delights in giving monetary blessings to his people, why wouldn't you vote for Trump? He's all about cutting taxes and boosting industry.
Dobson, White, and Bachmann aren't the only people praising Trump. There's also Jerry Fallwell Jr, President of Liberty University. TV evangelists like Kenneth and Gloria Copeland. A previous president of the Southern Baptist Convention. Megachurch pastors. Radio preachers. Many leaders use their platforms to tie Donald Trump to their faith.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump continues to demonstrate that he doesn't really know the basic tenants of Christianity. Here is what Donald Trump had to say on CSPAN when asked if he's ever asked God for forgiveness.
CSPAN HOST: Have you ever asked God for forgiveness?
DONALD TRUMP: I'm not sure I have. I just go and try and do a better job from there. I don't think so. I think... if I do something wrong I think I just try and make it right. I don't bring God into that picture. I don't...
CS: Not a great answer. Faith in Christ starts with repentance. How can you see Christ as atoning for your sins, if you don't think you need forgiveness? Trump is not an easy sell. So why do it?
We know what the president gets from cheerleaders like Paula White and James Dobson. But what do evangelicals get in return? The answer is that these people want to repeal of the Johnson Amendment
The Johnson Amendment was introduced in 1954. It was named for then-Senator Lyndon Johnson, who would later become president. Here is what the Johnson Amendment does. It stops tax-exempt organizations like houses of worship and nonprofits from explicitly endorsing or denouncing a political candidate. So, if your pastor gets on stage and says:
ACTOR: Every Christian in this congregation must vote for Donald Trump.
ACTOR: A vote for Donald Trump is a vote for Satan himself.
CS: Your church could lose its tax-exempt status. Just for that. And many churches rely on their tax exempt status, not just because it cuts down on expenses, but also because congregants can write off their tithes. No exempt status and people are likely to give less money to places of worship.
Fear of losing the write-offs is enough to keep most churches away from endorsing candidates. On the other side, there are those who are against the amendment, saying that it encroaches on free speech. A fair point. An American citizen, if they're speaking from the pulpit, can't endorse one candidate over another.
And yet the Johnson Amendment protects elections from certain financial abuses. Here is Matthew Bulger of the American Humanist Association on CSPAN. Now okay, I understand, his title is, you know, probably offensive but just listen to what he has to say.
MATTHEW BULGER ON CSPAN: If the amendment is repealed houses of worship would be able to solicit donations for political candidates from their parishioners and parishioners who do give to churches for eventual political donations to candidates would be able to do so on a tax-deductible basis.
CS: That's right. If the Johnson Amendment were repealed, wealthy people and maybe even corporations might be able to funnel campaign contributions through churches. And get a tax break in the process. It would also eliminate what little transparency we have with political donations.
And of course, churches want free speech. But Republican lawmakers want tax free, untraceable campaign financing. This is a deal that people like James Dobson, Michelle Bachmann, Paula White and others are willing to strike. All they have to do is convince us that Donald Trump is a Christian.
Yet, despite their efforts, a George Barna study shows that only 15% of evangelicals believe that Donald Trump is “authentically Christian”. 15%. Maybe we see something that these quote-unquote leaders don't. We're not buying what they're selling. Whereas they're willing to gamble with Trump in exchange for the Johnson Amendment, voters hitched their wagon to him for much different reasons.
You've probably heard this number before. In 2016 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Which a is a big number. But is it really that out of the ordinary? Despite the shock value often associated with 81% it ought not to come as a surprise. Because Trump wasn't just a candidate. He was the Republican nominee. Myriam Renaud analyzed Pew Research Center center data for the University of Chicago. What she found was that 78% of white evangelicals voted for George W. Bush in 2004, 74% for John McCain in 2008. When it came time to vote for a Mormon presidential candidate in Mitt Romney it was 78%, or only 3% less than voted for Donald Trump. Three percent. For a candidate who was public about being LDS, a completely different faith. Maybe Trump's allure has nothing to do with his actual beliefs. It is just a continuation of a trend. White evangelicals generally cast their lot with Republicans.
Before I read the data I thought it was because evangelicals generally vote pro-life. And I was wrong again. When the Pew Research Center asked evangelicals which issues mattered the most, and they could pick more than one, 89% said terrorism and 87% said the economy. Immigration, Supreme Court appointees, and education were all higher on the list than abortion, which came in at only 52%. When it comes to voting, we're more concerned about the shrinking middle class than unborn babies.
White evangelicals hitched their wagon to Trump because they thought he could help the economy and protect the country against terrorism. Not because of his supposed faith, but in spite of it. Because white evangelicals are worried about their money and their safety. Not illegitimate concerns. A safe and prosperous country is a positive goal. But it all comes at a cost.
Instead of Christianity being known for helping the poor, orphans, and spreading the gospel, we're tied to our politics. Our blind eye to Trump's faults reflects heavily back on us. Take this clip from Saturday Night Live in January of 2018.
JESSICA CHASTAIN ON SNL: The president has an extra-marital affair with a porn star right after his wife gives birth to a son. Then he pays the porn star to shut up. Does it even matter to save his evangelical base?
KEENAN THOMPSON: Uh, to evangelicals of course it matters. It's against everything that they stand for.
JESSICA CHASTAIN: You'd think so, but no. They say he is just repented and they forgive him and Mike Pence is like, “that's my dude.”
CS: Despite what you think of pop culture, it's calling Christians out as hypocrites. Are we okay with that? If nothing else, I want to leave you with that question. Are we okay with the deal that is being made in the name of Christ? In our name?
Donald Trump is building a wall. And it's not between the US and Mexico, it's between Christianity and the rest of the world. For now, we want to believe this wall is for our protection. But that wall is keeping us from reaching out. From doing the work of Jesus. And when that wall comes down, there is no telling how violent will be the fall.
Truce is listener supported. Find out more about the show at trucepodcast.com, and you can read all about my novel "Cradle Robber" and my film "Bringing up Bobby". And you can find us on Facebook and Twitter at @trucepodcast. I'd love to hear your thoughts about the show. Subscribe on iTunes, and help us out by leaving a comment in the reviews section. It really makes a difference.
Any unattributed clips on the show today were from CSPAN, including the one that is coming up in just a moment. Right now I'm busy working on season 2. And I can't do that without your help. I have no advertising budget, no marketing staff. Just you, dear listener. Please tell your friends and family. Join us in the next episode where you'll hear my conversation with Stephen Mansfield about Donald Trump's history with Christianity, and his book Choosing Donald Trump.
I'm Chris Staron. This is Truce.
DR. JAMES DOBSON ON CSPAN: Hello everyone, I'm Dr. James Dobson, the President of FamilyTalk. And we had an incredible meeting as you've already heard with the president. There is a great deal of love between these evangelical leaders and the congregations they represent and, I think, the president in return. Some of you will remember the meeting that took place in New York City at the Marriott hotel in June the year before the election. And I just had a chance to say a word or two to the president and I told him I think that's when he won the hearts and minds of evangelicals, and for good reason. He's kept all the promises that he made to us including the.... (stumbles)
DR. JAMES DOBSON ON CSPAN: Yeah, the Johnson Administration, I mean, the Johnson Amendment which is about to be overridden. And so it's a pleasure to be here today to honor a man we deeply love. Thank you.
About the Show
Truce is a listener-supported podcast that examines issues within Christianity that impact our culture and our witness. Hosted by Chris Staron, author of Cradle Robber, writer/ director of Bringing up Bobby.