The Public Character of Conservative Evangelicalism

Republican Senator Ben Sasse is coming under increasing criticism for his ongoing, vocal opposition to Donald Trump. Some critics are suggesting that it’s more about Sasse than it is about Trump. And more and more evangelicals and conservatives are jumping on the Trump bandwagon.

But Sasse, an elder in a Reformed church and former board member of Westminster Seminary California (who recently spoke at WSC’s commencement), is no career politician and he’s not in this for a power trip. Sasse is one of those few remaining high-profile Republicans who grasps that conservatives can do far more damage to their cause – and to their country – by attaching it to a horrible candidate than another Democratic president ever could.

The same must be said about evangelicals.

The primary problem with Trump is not that he’s not conservative or that he’s not evangelical. It’s that he consistently demonstrates contempt for his fellow citizens and for the rule of law itself. He poses demagogically as a strong man, pandering to fear and fostering visions of greatness, while offering nothing in the way of serious political leadership. Conservatives like Sasse who refuse to tow the line on Trump are not doing so because they are purists who lack a healthy dose of pragmatism. On the contrary, they are attune to the lessons of history.

Michael Gerson eloquently captured what is at stake for evangelicals in particular:

Evangelical Christians are not merely choosing a certain political outcome. They are determining their public character — the way they are viewed by others and, ultimately, the way they view themselves. They are identifying with a man who has fed ethnic tension for political gain; who has proposed systemic religious discrimination; who has dramatically undermined the democratic values of civility and tolerance; who has advocated war crimes, including killing the families of terrorists; who holds a highly sexualized view of power as dominance, rather than seeing power as an instrument to advance moral ends.

In legitimizing the presumptive Republican nominee, evangelicals are not merely accepting who he is; they are changing who they are. Trumpism, at its root, involves contempt for, and fear of, outsiders — refugees, undesirable migrants, Muslims, etc. By associating with this movement, evangelicals will bear, if not the mark of Cain, at least the mark of Trump.

Gerson grasps the fact that evangelicals’ witness to the gospel is ultimately inseparable from their public political witness. Their attempt to proclaim Christ in word and deed is contaminated by their willingness to support someone like Donald Trump, even if that support only stems from fear of Hillary Clinton. It takes an awful long time to live down the political causes you support and the political movements you publicly attach yourself – just think of the way in which the politicized legacy of the Christian Right continues to define the way in which most Americans think of evangelicalism.

Make no mistake. Evangelicals will regret supporting Donald Trump.

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About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on June 7, 2016, in Evangelicals, Republican Party and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on The Public Character of Conservative Evangelicalism.

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