The Cost of Trump to Evangelicals

The Cost of Trump to Evangelicals December 14, 2018

Several years ago when I was preparing to teach an Intro to Sociology course, I ran across a theory in environmental sociology. As that is not my field, I did not take note of who developed this theory and I have not taken the time to look it up for this blog. So forgive me for not supplying a link to the theory. But the theory seems sound to me.

The theory goes something like this. The benefits of cleaning up our environment tend to be long-term, uncertain and somewhat hard to define. The costs of cleaning up our environment tend to be short-term and concrete. The benefits outweigh the costs but due to the nature of the benefits, we tend to overlook them and are willing to engage in activity that harms our environment.

Here is what this could hypothetically mean. A factory is built for a town. The factory pollutes the air. But other than the smell, the costs of that pollution will not be felt for some time to come. Furthermore, we do not know just how costly it will be ten years from now when we see some of the full effects of the pollution. No reasonable scientist can say that five percent of the town’s population will get cancer because of the factory. He or she can only say that the pollution will make the town less healthy. But the benefits of the factory will be immediate and are fairly easy to document. The factory will bring 100 new jobs and a couple of million dollars to the economy. Faced with such a choice, we often will pay the heavier long-term costs for the short-term benefits.

I think of this theory when I consider the support of conservative Christians for President Trump. For them, Trump brings very tangible short-term gains. They sometimes recognize the long-term costs of Trump, but those costs are unknowable at this time in history. Thus, like the town willing to foul its air for a few more jobs, Christians have been willing to sully their reputations for a few Supreme Court Justices.

So let’s look as fairly as possible at what conservative Christians have gained through Trump. I am looking at the issues that they consider important, and I am not interested, at this time, in arguing whether these issues should be important to them. My contention is that Trump is bad even for those who support him, and to make that point, I have to take their concerns seriously. Imposing the values of others on conservative Christians will get us nowhere in trying to convince them that Trump is not worth their support.

As I implied above, conservative Christians have gained at least two Supreme Court seats from the Trump administration. They have also benefited from many other judicial appointments. I will also say that they have benefited from the fact that Clinton is not president. She has shown them no love, even during her campaign when she should have been asking for their vote, and I think it is reasonable to assert that her administration would have been brutal to them. I do not see Trump’s actions on immigration or tax cuts as issues that conservative Christians particularly care about and thus do not see that as a benefit they enjoy. It boils down to judges and not having Clinton as President to understand what conservative Christians have gotten from Trump. That may not seem like much but they are tangible short-term benefits.

But what have these Christians lost in their efforts to support Trump? The loss is less tangible but much more potentially devastating for them. For example, I have argued in the past that Christians have given up their moral authority in their support for Trump. They will not soon get that authority back, and I fear the time will come when they will need that authority.

Feminists lost a great deal of moral authority about twenty years ago when they defended President Bill Clinton at all costs. The charges against him were much more substantial than the ones they tried to use on Clarence Thomas, and yet they defended him at every turn. So what happened in 2016? Trump was clearly on the ropes after the Access Hollywood tapes. But to answer those charges, he seated Clinton’s accusers at his debate with Hillary Clinton. The message was clear. The same feminists who defended Bill Clinton had no moral authority to now press their case against Trump. I do not know how the loss of moral authority will come back to bite conservative Christians. But I am fairly certain that at some time, it will hurt them, and I suspect the pain will be great. The cost is unknowable but its potential devastation should give conservative Christians pause.

Another cost that is not easily calculated is the cost of losing our reputation. Whether we like it or not, support for Trump is going to be tied to support of his actions and immoralities. I have pointed out conservative Christians who defend his paying off a porn star. Because nothing says Christian moral values like having an affair with a porn star than then paying her off right? The hit on our reputation will damage our witness and ability to impact society for some time to come. And if you come at me with the “we elected a politician and not a pastor,” then I will ask you how that argument set with you when it was used to defend Bill Clinton? If you rejected that argument at that time, then you should reject the argument now.

I know that some will argue that our reputation will never be good for certain individuals in our society. They are correct. There are some anti-Christian bigots who will hate us as long as we disagree with them in any way. But those bigots cannot rob us of our dignity. Only we can give that away. It is more dignified to live out an ideology rejected by the mainstream with consistency than to cravenly latch onto an immoral leader to save us. In the first case, people who disagree can still respect us for standing by our principles. In the second case, it looks like all we want is power.

A third cost is the blow supporting Trump did for Christian unity. Young Christians and Christians of color were disturbed by the election of Trump. Many of them are troubled by the hyperfocus of many conservative Christians on issues tied to the culture war. I know of the situation more of Christians of color than for younger Christians and can tell you that several of them have told me that they have a hard time trusting white evangelicals after their support of Trump. Having been told how important morality is, and that these white evangelicals would not support anything tied to racism, they are horrified at the numbers of them that supported the immoral, race-baiting Trump. Let me be clear that I am not talking about BLM individuals who only expect white Christians to comply with their orders. I am talking about Christians of color who want to have an honest dialog with their religious brothers and sisters but now feel betrayed by them.

I suspect that some of these feelings are shared by many younger Christians as well. The allies that conservative Christians lost through their support of Trump cannot be easily measured. But that loss is real and will punish conservative Christians for some time to come. At a time when Christians have become more marginalized in the public square, we need each other more than ever. Is the support of Trump really worth the costs of Christian unity?

I am certain there are more costs I have not articulated, but these three will do to express my point. The costs to supporting Trump are not a clear cut or as quantifiable as the benefits conservative Christians gained from that support. But they are real, and I have every reason to believe that those costs will, over time, be much higher than the benefits. Yes, it is great to have two Supreme Court justices who seem to respect religious freedom, but is that really worth losing your ability to impact society with your moral authority, reputation and as a unified Christian body? After all, those Justices will someday retire and die. Will we have our reputation back by then? And yes, Clinton would have been a disaster in different ways than Trump, but she would have been President for eight years at the most. The loss of that moral authority, reputation and costs to our unity will last much longer than eight years. Truly conservative Christians will pay a higher cost for the short term benefits they are receiving right now under Trump.

The lack of clarity of the costs makes it hard for those like myself to dialog with conservative Christians to help them to see the problematic nature of their support of Trump. Even some that do see these costs can rationalize the support of Trump by thinking that they will deal with those costs years from now when they manifest themselves. I fear that at that time, they will see just how high those costs are and that those costs are truly much higher than their temporary benefits.

Update: I must say I am amazed. I figured I would get pushback from conservative Christians in a blog that explicitly criticizes them. Yet the same set of liberals who get mad if I critique progressives and progressive philosophy are now mad that I am not calling those Christians bigots, racists and whatever term they prefer to use to shut down communication. I think such comments say much more of my critics than they do of me. If a person is in such a state that they can only talk about an out-group in stigmatizing and dehumanizing terms then rational discourse is no longer possible and so I will not attempt it any longer here. Seriously the caliber of comments like these make me reconsider whether there is much gained in leaving the comments open or if by doing so I am creating even more opportunity for polarization in our culture. One final note, I will remove stupid atheist memes and have already done so. This particular blog is not an argument about theism and if you have so little self control that you have to lash out at theists with stupid memes then please do so elsewhere.

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