Donald Trump and the Way Evangelicals Talk about Sin

I’ve watched evangelicals argue that while Trump is a sinner, God has forgiven him. They’ve insisted that he’s a new baby Christian, that his life has changed and his past is behind him, despite an utter lack of evidence. Growing up in an evangelical home, I learned that “ye shall know them by their fruits,” and Trump’s fruit is most obviously unchanged. Listen to how he talks. Listen to how he defends himself. That is no the sound of a changed and repentant man you hear. Still, evangelicals defend him. And in doing so, they point out that they, too, have sinned, that everyone has sinned.

I’ve become increasingly concerned with the way evangelicals talk about sin. Evangelicals would call the teenage boy who drugs and rapes a girl at a house party a sinner—but they would also call a teenage girl who has enthusiastic consensual sex with her teenage boyfriend a sinner. For evangelicals, an action is sin if it breaks God’s rules. It is not whether an action causes harm to another individual that determines whether it is sin, but rather whether or not it is in line with God’s commands (as interpreted by modern evangelicals). A man who rapes and murder three girls is a sinner, yes, but so is a polyamorous twenty-something who lives with her two boyfriends.

When actions that harm no one are chalked up as sin, the way we talk about wrongdoing is diluted. I saw this with Bill Gothard, a fundamentalist religious leader who spent decades sexually harassing and molesting teenage girls sent by their parents to be his personal assistants. When this all came out, his defenders intoned that “we are all sinners.” Except that we have not all molested teenage girls in our employ. Any objection to this line of reasoning, of course, is met by pointing to sins we have committed. Everyone looks at attractive individuals with lust at some time, and that, according to the Bible, is sin.

Evangelicals include a lot of things under the umbrella of sexual sin. If you’ve raped someone, if you’ve committed adultery, if you’ve looked at porn, if you’ve had sex before marriage—all of that is sexual sin. Yes, Trump boasted about sexually assaulting women. But you and I have sinned sexually too. Conservative blogger James Riley defended Trump, addressing Trump’s adultery by writing that “[Jesus] knew there’s a Pharisee spirit in us that takes pride in being faithful to our wives, even as our horn-dog spirit wrestles with Donald Trump’s beauty pageants.” In other words, you may not have committed adultery, but you have sexual fantasies about beauty pageants, so you still sin sexually.

It’s not just about sexual sin. Trump has often refused to pay his contractors, sometimes driving them out of business, but “we’re all sinners” obviously, and when you stole that pack of gum back in elementary school it was totally the same thing. It wasn’t.

I’m concerned about both an unwillingness to recognize that causing great harm (say, driving people out of business) is worse than causing less harm (stealing the equivalent of $0.25) and the classification of things that cause no harm as sins (for instance, consensual premarital sex). I’ve long known that there are a variety of different systems for determining whether or not an act is moral, but I hadn’t thought, really thought, about the troubling consequences of classifying actions that cause no harm together with actions that do cause harm, and labelling both immoral.

I subscribe to a harm-based system of morality. Put simply, I believe that an action is generally wrong if it causes harm to another individual. Stealing is wrong because it causes harm (though we do have to get into the weeds on questions like Robin Hood). Killing is wrong because it causes harm (here again we have to get into the weeds when discussing war or justifiable self-defense). But the evangelical Christian moral system does not prioritize harm. Instead, it prioritizes God’s commands, as stated in the Bible and interpreted by evangelical leaders. Sometimes this moral system lines up with a harm-based moral system, but it does not always.

Yes, everyone has caused harm to others at some point in their lives. But not everyone has ripped off hundreds of contractors, sexually assaulted an unknown (but large) number of women, and run a bogus university that parted people from their retirement savings. There is no “we are all sinners” equivalence here.

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