Law and order. A three word phrase Donald Trump used dozens of times in his presidential nomination speech. This phrase has been the backbone of conservative politics for many years. But not since the days of segregation has it been so explicitly racialized. Many conservative evangelical leaders are horrified by Donald Trump, but the same vision of law and order that he so clumsily espouses is the cornerstone of white evangelical theology. In Donald Trump’s nomination process, he had more support from white evangelicals than any other candidate despite the fact that nothing he says is biblical. This doesn’t make any sense unless we consider how too many white evangelicals preach a gospel of law and order rather than justice.
What is the difference between law and order and justice? Law and order is about punishing. Justice is about making things right. Law and order asks who needs to be kicked out. Justice asks how we can find a place for everyone. Law and order’s primary concern is enforcement. Justice’s primary concern is reconciliation. As an act of law and order, Jesus’ cross satisfies God’s demand for blood. As an act of justice, Jesus’ cross is God’s means of inviting us to live under mercy. Because our culture has been so thoroughly infused with a law and order mentality, when we say “justice,” the first thought that comes to mind is people getting punished for doing wrong. But the shalom and mishpat that are biblical peace and justice are concerned with creating perfect harmony where everyone belongs.
There were three things that Donald Trump described in his vision for law and order: safe neighborhoods, secure borders, and protection from terrorism. It’s all about keeping bad people out. “We don’t want them in our country.” That was Trump’s loudest applause line. Law and order is built upon the basic premise of the total depravity of everyone else. Under a vision of law and order, it’s preposterous to ask whether “safety” includes the right of black people not to be shot and killed by police. If they protest that violence against them, then they are the social “chaos” and “instability” that threatens law and order. Law and order doesn’t mean that everyone is treated justly; it means that people who suffer do so in a way that doesn’t make the majority of people feel uncomfortable.The reason Donald Trump’s vision for law and order is so resonant that 78% of white evangelicals plan to vote for him is because he’s describing the white evangelical heaven. It’s all about law and order. When your exclusive focus is on who gets into paradise and who gets locked out, then there’s no concept that God’s greater purpose is reconciling humanity to himself and reestablishing harmony in the universe. If you’ve got your Jesus paperwork in order, you can go to heaven. But if you don’t, then the slightest flaw merits eternal damnation. Evangelicals say that everyone is a sinner, but once you get “saved,” you’re not really in the same category as the sinners who deserve to be tortured forever. The more wicked you think humanity is, the greater the gap between the saved and the damned, which dovetails perfectly into a xenophobic law and order politics.
So when Russell Moore and other white evangelicals decry Trump’s candidacy, what they’re decrying is the exposure of the consequences of their law and order theology. It’s true that Trump is ignorant of the spiritual idioms and catchphrases which white evangelicals use as rhetorical circumcision marks. But it’s disingenuous to act like his rhetoric is somehow alien to white evangelical sensibilities. It’s just that Trump unveils the full ugliness of evangelical law and order thinking. Thankfully, we have a God who prefers justice to law and order (and thankfully a growing number of evangelicals recognize this).