Sunday, July 24, 2016

Oh You Foolish Evangelicals!

Who has bewitched you?

It's a serious question when one considers that nearly 80 percent of white evangelicals plan to vote for Donald Trump. A recent Pew poll reports,
White evangelical Protestants who say they attend religious services regularly are just as strongly supportive of Donald Trump as are evangelicals who attend religious services less often. Fully three-quarters of both groups say they would vote for Trump over Clinton if the election were today, and roughly a third in each group describe themselves as strong Trump supporters.
Perhaps some Christian leaders are sowing confusion. James Dobson said Trump is born again. Then Dobson said he wasn't sure about Trump's conversion experience. Then he endorsed Trump. Dobson is not alone.  "Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, Jack Graham, Ben Carson, James Robison, Jerry Johnson, and many others . . ." serve on Trump's faith advisory committee.

There are, however, many evangelical leaders who do not support Trump. Most prominent among them are Russell Moore and Max Locado. It, therefore, seems unlikely that one can blame inadequate spiritual leadership for this inexplicable devotion.

For this discussion let's not argue about whether Trump is a Nazi or a fascist or whether those discussions are prompted by Satan. Instead, let's test the spirits a bit. First Damon LinkerPascal-Emmanuel Gobry, and Peter Wehner all make a convincing case that Trump is a Nietzschean in word and deed even if he may never have a read a word of the philosopher's works. Wehner sums up Nietzsche's philosophy:
To better understand Mr. Trump’s approach to life, ethics and politics, we should not look to Christ but to Friedrich Nietzsche, who was repulsed by Christianity and Christ. “What is good?” Nietzsche asks in “The Anti-Christ”: “Whatever augments the feeling of power, the will to power, power itself in man. What is evil? Whatever springs from weakness. What is happiness? The feeling that power increases – that resistance is overcome.” 
Whether or not he has read a word of Nietzsche (I’m guessing not), Mr. Trump embodies a Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian one. It is characterized by indifference to objective truth (there are no facts, only interpretations), the repudiation of Christian concern for the poor and the weak, and disdain for the powerless. It celebrates the “√úbermensch,” or Superman, who rejects Christian morality in favor of his own. For Nietzsche, strength was intrinsically good and weakness was intrinsically bad. So, too, for Donald Trump. 
To be fair, Richard Schacht, a writer, professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of Illinois (Urbana) and past executive director of the North American Nietzsche Society claims "Wehner’s summary of “Nietzschean morality” is a simplistic caricature." Schacht contends Nietzsche does not issue a "blanket endorsement of all expressions of the basic disposition he calls 'will to power.'” Schacht contends that Nietzsche has more empathy than Trump.
Power for Nietzsche is the name of the game, but what is at stake in it is something more: the fragile possibility of a “higher” humanity. 
Nietzsche’s moral vision revolves around the idea of realizing this possibility, upgrading rather than degrading power relations in human affairs. Mr. Trump’s, to put it mildly, does not.
If Trump does not to adhere Nietzsche's thought, perhaps his confidence and obsession with power come from a more benign source. Writing in First Things, Matthew Schmitz argues that Trump draws his inspiration from Norman Vincent Peale, "a decent man of sincere if not quite orthodox Christian faith" who preached about the power of positive thinking. It's clear that Trump, like Peale, believes “attitudes are more important than facts.” Schmitz likens Peale's outlook to the Beach Boys' Endless Summer album:
Like one of Job’s comforters, he told the suffering that they simply needed to look on the bright side. Where the Bible urges man to search his heart and know his faults, Peale encourages him to “make a true estimate of your own ability, then raise it ten percent.” For Jeremiah the heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked, but for Peale its dark recesses are bathed in California sunshine.
There is one small rub; Schmitz concludes that in Trump's hands, Peale's unorthodox theology has become something darker:
Trump feels no such restraint, and so has taken Peale’s teaching to its logical conclusion. He has called the widow whose house he tried to take a “terrible human being” whose lawyer is a “loser.” He has mocked a reporter for having a disfigured hand. He has demeaned a contestant on one of his reality shows by suggesting how she’d look in a pornographic scenario. And he has applauded Planned Parenthood for doing “very good work.” 
Peale is now largely forgotten, and his bestseller languishes in used book stores. This is a shame, for it has led us to underestimate the influence and power of the self-sufficient faith that he promoted, and that he imparted to his greatest student. Peale meant to preach a gentle creed, one that made hellfire and terror into mere afterthoughts. In Trump it has curdled into pagan disdain. Both forms of this philosophy have captured the public imagination, and both stand at odds with the faith taught by Christ. 
Christianity is a religion of losers. To the weak and humble, it offers a stripped and humiliated Lord. To those without reason for optimism, it holds up the cross as a sign of hope. To anyone who does not win at life, it promises that whoever loses his life for Christ’s sake shall find it. At its center stands a truth that we are prone to forget. There are people who cannot be made into winners, no matter how positive their thinking. They need something more paradoxical and cruciform.
Even if one grants that Trump is not a Nazi, a fascist, or a power worshiping Nietzschean, Trump's "pagan disdain" for basic Christian tenants and attitudes should dissuade evangelicals from supporting him. In this election cycle, however, evangelicals appear deeply fearful that the Presidential race is not merely about flesh and blood but rather a struggle with first fallen angel. Speaking at the 2016 Republican Convention Ben Carson said,
"Now, one of the things that I have learned about Hillary Clinton is that one of her heroes, her mentors was Saul Alinsky. And her senior thesis was about Saul Alinsky. This was someone she greatly admired and let me tell you something about Saul Alinsky," . . . 
"He wrote a book called Rules for Radicals. It acknowledges Lucifer, the original radical who gained his own kingdom. Now think about that. This is our nation where our founding document, the Declaration of Independence talks about certain inalienable rights that come from our creator, a nation where our Pledge of Allegiance says we are ‘One nation under God.’ This is a nation where every coin in our pockets and every bill in our wallet says, ‘In God We Trust.’ So are we willing to elect someone as president who has as their role model somebody who acknowledges Lucifer? Think about that."
Having misplaced my copy of Rules for Radicals,  I will trust this Politifact article quoted Alinsky properly: "the first radical known to man who rebelled against the establishment and did it so effectively that he at least won his own kingdom — Lucifer." Whatever Alinsky's statement may owe to the Bible, it likely owes as much, if not more, to John Milton's Paradise Lost, an epic poem that has Lucifer say,
.. Farewell, happy fields,
Where joy for ever dwells! Hail, horrors! hail,
Infernal world! and thou, profoundest Hell,
Receive thy new possessor—one who brings
A mind not to be changed by place or time.
The mind is its own place, and in itself
Can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less than he
Whom thunder hath made greater?
For those who hold Carson's view, it worth being reminded that it's not enough to hate evil, one must also cling to the good. There's no discernible good in Trump's politics.

Finally, if the political, theological, and philosophical musings are not convincing arguments that this overwhelming support for Trump will bear no fruit, consider Christianity's source material. Jeremiah warns,
“Cursed is the one who trusts in man,
    who draws strength from mere flesh
    and whose heart turns away from the Lord.
That person will be like a bush in the wastelands;
    they will not see prosperity when it comes.
They will dwell in the parched places of the desert,
    in a salt land where no one lives.
The Psalmist says,
Do not put your trust in princes,
    in human beings, who cannot save
When their spirit departs, they return to the ground;
    on that very day their plans come to nothing.
Evangelicals became a political force after the Roe v Wade decision. Despite their support for Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush, that decision stands. Evangelicals also see the more recent Obergefell v. Hodges decision was a significant defeat in the culture wars. Their support for Trump will not alter the marriage debate.

Many may believe they stand at Armageddon. That fear may or may not be well founded, but no one should ever confuse campaigning for Donald Trump with battling for the Lord. 

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