The New Evangelical Litmus Test

The New Evangelical Litmus Test August 30, 2018

On Monday, Politico published an article outlining evangelical leaders’ growing dissatisfaction with Jeff Sessions. What’s bizarre about this development is that Sessions hasn’t done anything one would traditionally imagine might anger evangelicals—he’s not soft on abortion, he’s not a supporter of LGBTQ rights, and in fact, he’s doing everything in his power to move the justice department in exactly the direction evangelicals want to see it go.

There was a lot of talk, three years ago, about whether one could be an evangelical and a supporter of Donald Trump. Early on, pundits suggested that evangelicals supported Trump only haltingly, preferring Ted Cruz or other tried-and-true religious conservatives over the businessmen-turned-reality-TV-star-turned-political-candidate. All of that is distant past, today, and evangelical leaders’ dissatisfaction with Sessions suggests a new evangelical litmus test: Support for Donald Trump.

During the election, many evangelicals claimed to support Trump only because of the policies that he promoted. They were not, they claimed, blasé about his womanizing and his so-called “locker room talk.” It was all about Supreme Court justices, they said. It was all about the specific policies that (along with white nationalism) graced Trump’s campaign platform. Whether or not that was ever true, however, it does not appear to be true today.

Jerry Falwell Jr., a top conservative religious leader, said Monday he urged President Donald Trump to fire Jeff Sessions over his handling of investigations into Russian election meddling, saying the attorney general has lost evangelicals’ support.

“He really is not on the president’s team, never was,” Falwell, the president of Liberty University, said of Sessions. “He’s wanted to be attorney general for many, many years. I have a feeling he took a gamble and supported the president because he knew he would reward loyalty.”

Falwell said he has urged the president to fire Sessions and told POLITICO he planned to bring up the subject again Monday evening at a small gathering with Trump and the first lady. Later, Falwell and dozens of other faith leaders were to attend a formal White House dinner celebrating the evangelical community.

Sessions has lost evangelical support—because he has refused to quash the Russia investigation? That this could happen is absolutely ludicrous. Evangelicals would seem to have everything to gain (and nothing to lose) from Trump’s removal from office, because it would place one of their own—Vice President Mike Pence—in the White House.

The Russia investigation threatens no conservative policies, whether now or in the future. It threatens only Donald Trump. Pence has done nothing at all against the evangelical political agenda—except, of course, refusing to quash the Russia investigation. And yet—despite Pence’s lock-step support for evangelical policies—here we are. Sessions is a problem because he is a threat—not to evangelical policies or the evangelical agenda, but to Trump himself.

What is this, exactly? A golden (or dare I say orange) calf?

The Politico article goes on:

On Monday afternoon, faith leaders met with White House officials in a series of meetings on immigration, prison reform and abortion.

Falwell said Sessions lost the group’s loyalty “a long time ago” and has not stopped the Justice Department from going after Trump’s allies. Last week, the president’s former campaign manager Paul Manafort was convicted of fraud and his onetime lawyer, Michael Cohen, pleaded guilty to tax evasion and campaign finance violations.

“A lot of Republicans pretend to be friends to conservatives and the faith community for decades when they really were not,” Falwell said. “I don’t know if he’s in that category. If he was really a fair person, he’d be going after both sides.”

This is not about values and it’s not about political pragmatism. This is about loyalty to a politician—a politician who never shared evangelicals’ faith or morals in any but the most shallow, opportunistic sense.

It’s a good thing I didn’t have any faith in evangelical leaders’ moral backbone, because if I did, this might be surprising. As it is, I am so beyond jaded. This isn’t about Supreme Court nominees—not anymore. It has become something different.

What does Donald Trump have that Mike Pence doesn’t? What reason might evangelical leaders have for wanting to keep Trump in his position, even if his removal would the elevation of Pence—a far more predictable figure with bona fides evangelical credentials—to the presidency?

I can see two possible differences. First, Trump’s celebrity status—he electrifies people in a way Pence does not. He is arguably more re-electable. Second, Trump’s white supremacy and race-baiting. Are evangelicals more attached to his xenophobia than they are put off by his vulgarity?

There is no positive way to spin this. It stinks all the way up.

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