Stephanie McCrummen’s big Washington Post story about a white evangelical church full of Trump-worshipers is rightly getting a lot of discussion. It’s a fine piece of reporting, even if this trope of studying red-county Trump voters like a 19th-century anthropologist has been beaten well beyond the point of death. If you’ve still got any free WaPo articles to read this month, it’s worth using one for this: “Judgment days: In a small Alabama town, an evangelical congregation reckons with God, President Trump and the meaning of morality.”
Having said that, though, McCrummen’s opening gets off on the wrong foot — heading into a direction that makes it impossible for her to report, or perhaps even to see, the full picture. Here’s that opening. It’s a lovely piece of writing, and the pastor’s name is almost too Flannery to be believed. But in an effort to describe this church’s moral and theological obtuseness, McCrummen winds up almost participating in it:
Clay Crum opened his Bible to Exodus Chapter 20 and read verse 14 one more time.
“Thou shalt not commit adultery,” it said.
He prayed about what he was going to do. He was the pastor of First Baptist Church in the town of Luverne, Ala., which meant he was the moral leader of a congregation that overwhelmingly supported a president who was an alleged adulterer. For the past six weeks, Crum had been preaching a series of sermons on the Ten Commandments, and now it was time for number seven.
It was summer, and all over the Bible Belt, support for President Trump was rising among voters who had traditionally proclaimed the importance of Christian character in leaders and warned of the slippery slope of moral compromise. In Crenshaw County, where Luverne is located, Trump had won 72 percent of the vote. Recent national polls showed the president’s approval among white evangelical Christians at a high of 77 percent. One survey indicated that his support among Southern Baptists was even higher, surpassing 80 percent, and these were the people arriving on Sunday morning to hear what their pastor had to say.
By 10:30 a.m., the street alongside First Baptist was full of slant-parked cars, and the 80 percenters were walking across the green lawn in the sun, up the stairs, past the four freshly painted white columns and into the church.
“Good to see you this morning,” Crum said, shaking hands as the regulars took their usual places in the wooden pews, and soon, he walked up to the pulpit and opened his King James.
“Today we’re going to be looking at the Seventh Commandment,” Crum began. “Exodus 20:14, the Seventh Commandment, simply says, ‘Thou shalt not commit adultery.’ ”
The people settled in. There was the sound of hard candy unwrapping and thin pages of Bibles turning.
Get it? This pastor and his entire congregation are wholly devoted in their political fealty to Donald Trump, but they’re also “Bible-believing” Christians and their King James Bibles unambiguously condemn adultery and adulterers like Donald Trump.
The set-up here is that poor Pastor Crum and his earnest congregation are just trying to work their way through the Ten Commandments, and boy are they in for it when they get to No. 7 and have to figure out how to deal with that without allowing it to dampen their enthusiastic fidelity to Trump.
But that’s nonsense. There is no suspense or anguish or dilemma for these folks on arriving at verse 14 of Exodus 20. Whatever dilemmas or anguish or uncertainty they might have had were all conclusively settled weeks ago when Pastor Crum first started this Ten Commandments series with the First Commandment and the first three verses of that chapter:
And God spake all these words, saying,
I am the Lord thy God, which have brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage.
Thou shalt have no other gods before me.
I’m sure that the folks in Luverne, like most Southern Baptists, regard the Ten Commandments as not officially starting until verse 3, there, with “Thou shalt have no other gods before me.” They probably didn’t dwell much on Exodus 20:2, treating it as little more than a bit of divine throat-clearing before God gets to the important bits.
But it’s impossible even for them to have disregarded it entirely. You can’t just jump in at “Thou shalt have no other gods before me” unless you’ve clarified the antecedent for “me” — until you’ve identified which God it is that’s talking there.
That’s important, because the Gods are not all alike but they all use that same name. And the followers of all those different Gods all just say they believe in “God,” or in “the one true God.” And so the same word gets used by very different people to mean very different things and it all can be very confusing unless we have some way of sorting out which of the many very different “God”s we’re talking about when we say “God.”
And that’s what verse 2 does. It says, “Which God? The God that led your escape from Egypt and your liberation from slavery.” That God. The God of refugees and former slaves. The God of liberation and emancipation. No other god, no other gods.
Crum and his congregation stuck their noses into that verse and thumbed their noses at that verse and then kept right on going, not hesitating until weeks later when they arrived at the adultery business. They assume — and McCrummen seems to assume right along with them — that the commandment about adultery is somehow of greater significance, and is less negotiable, than any of that apparently optional earlier stuff about Egypt and international flight and the end of bondage.
That’s the framing here, as it is in nearly all such articles about white evangelical support for Trump. And once you accept that framing, then the whole supposed “dilemma” or “awkwardness” of support for Trump evaporates. Anybody who imagines that the moral atrocities of Trump and Trumpism begin and end with adultery is not someone who’s going to let his adultery worry them either.
Or, more to the point, theologically — any pastor or congregation that has already made it clear they do not know, worship, follow, or love the “God who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery” is bound not to be bound by any of the Ten Commandments, because those commandments come from only that God, and no other gods, and apply only to the people of that God.
And Pastor Crum and the members of his congregation have never met that God. The Bible itself says so:
Everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.
That’s 1 John 4:7-8. Chapter and verse.
This isn’t to say that the members of this hateful bunch don’t know some “God.” Or that they’re not Christians or not sincere in their devotion to “Jesus.” They are. It’s just that their White Jesus is a very different person than the Jesus the author of 1 John was writing about. And their White God — emphatically — is not the “God” of Exodus 20:2, the God of refugees, asylum-seekers, and fugitive slaves.