Michael Gerson: A higher call than street fighting
Baptists tend to be teetotalers, but some obviously make an exception for the potent Kool-Aid they serve at the White House. It has produced (metaphorically) a different kind of belligerent intoxication.
Consider a recent tweet by Jerry Falwell Jr.: “Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys’. They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”
Where to begin? It is worth noting that for some evangelicals, the pretense of reluctantly supporting Donald Trump only because of the binary choice with Hillary Clinton has been abandoned. Falwell is calling for an extensive effort at Trump cloning. It is not enough that the president is a cruel, nativist, misogynist hothead. Now the local alderman should aspire to his example.
It is paradoxical that some conservative Christians should reject the concept of a “living Constitution” while embracing the “living Beatitudes.” Blessed are the street fighters. Blessed are those who compare their enemies to Nazis. Blessed are the bullies.
On second thought, this is less paradoxical than heretical. It is also common in Christian history. In a variety of political and cultural contexts under the rule of Constantine, and Charlemagne, and the Romanovs, and Mike Pence Christian believers have turned to government to protect and further their institutional interests. Henry VIII who practiced his own vigorous form of misogyny was given the title: “Defender of the Faith.” I suppose some at the time might have reasoned: At least he isn’t a wimp.
With no exception I can think of, the results of becoming a darling of the king have been damaging to the church. Politicians always end up demanding something a compromise of principle, a blessing of expediency, or a pardon for wrong. Access and privilege in politics are not free. The point is demonstrated when a pastor praises a president during the same week that thousands of detained migrant children are moved, under cover of night, to a remote detention facility in Tornillo, Texas. Instead of being a voice for the weak, Falwell provided an alibi for the strong.
This is disturbing and discrediting. How can anyone supposedly steeped in the teachings of Jesus be so unaffected by them? The question immediately turns against the questioner. In a hundred less visible ways, how can I be so unaffected by them?
As a lesser matter, this approach is bad politics. Those who accept the preference of the state eventually share in the fate of the state. What happens when new leaders take control, as they always do? How are those identified with the old regime treated by the new? Will a different president accept the sputtering excuses of evangelical leaders who lent their authority to bigotry? It is a fair bet they will be treated in the next Democratic administration like members of the ACLU are treated in this one as political players, political enemies and political targets.
This approach is a formula for institutional failure. When churchmen use the tools of power to protect their institutional interests rather than demonstrating the defining mission of their institutions it often ends in scandal. When Catholic bishops turned to payoffs and subterfuge to protect the church, it gathered a terrible guilt and, eventually, a terrible reckoning. When elders in a mega-church seek to protect their pastor from justified charges of sexual exploitation rather than seeking first the welfare of the exploited the whole church comes under judgment.
American history offers a hopeful corrective to this tempting dead end. When the state of Connecticut finally disestablished Congregationalism in 1818, the evangelical pastor and reformer Lyman Beecher was thrown into depression. “It was as dark a day as ever I saw ... The injury done to the cause of Christ, as we then supposed, was irreparable.” But his despair was temporary. “For several days I suffered what no tongue can tell for the best thing that ever happened to the state of Connecticut. It cut the churches loose from dependence on state support. It threw them wholly on their own resources and on God.”
The result of disestablishment was a proliferation of healthy, private institutions. “They say ministers have lost their influence,” said Beecher. “The fact is, they have gained. By voluntary efforts, societies, missions and revivals, they exert a deeper influence.”
It is what evangelicals need at this hour: A higher call than street fighting. A deeper influence than Donald Trump can possibly provide.
Michael Gerson’s email address is email@example.com.