by Rodney Kennedy
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton (OH) – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary. He is also putting the finishing touches on his sixth book: The Immaculate Mistake: How Southern Baptists and Other Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump.
Jack Graham, senior pastor of Prestonwood Baptist Church, Plano, Texas, has penned a robust defense of President Trump, “Why It Is Wise for Christians to Support President Trump.” Here, at last, is an actual defense of the president worthy of a critical response. After four years of evangelical defenses of President Trump that came straight out of the crazy land of “make the Bible say whatever you want it to say,” a Southern Baptist preacher has taken the time to lay out his reasons for defending President Trump.
Rev. Graham is responding to the editorial in Christianity Today that calls for the impeachment of President Trump. Evangelicals usually resist such public displays of disagreement, given their commitments to homogeneity, but this is a fight well worth watching, and I think, in my usual pugilistic way, a fight worth engaging. Perhaps the fact that evangelicals are arguing about President Trump represents a small tremor beneath the foundations of the Tower of Babel.
Graham’s opening gambit is well known among preachers of the South. He sets himself up as a poor preacher insulted by those who think he and his fellow tribe members are “foolish and gullible” (while actually he is quite certain that he is “wise as a serpent”). The idea that evangelicals are gullible and not that bright is mostly a misunderstanding fostered by media elites who fail to grasp how the evangelical mind works. It is a mistake to treat evangelicals as if they are not-very-smart-Christians who have been duped by the great and powerful Wiz, i.e., President Donald Trump.
Instead of dummies, evangelicals are the ultimate pragmatists. Whatever it takes to win is the evangelical credo. The evangelicals are the organ grinder; Donald Trump is their monkey. In fact, President Trump is more the culmination of decades of evangelical dreams than he is the providence of God. The smoldering fires of “residual resentment” have been smoking since the Scopes Trial in 1925. As Jerry Falwell, Jr. put it, Donald Trump is “our dream candidate.”
Rev. Graham represents evangelical pastors who know exactly what they want and how to get it. And he repeats what has become a mantra for the defenders of the president in the evangelical circle of power, the people historian John Fea identifies as “court evangelicals”: “Our critics seem to have a theology with so little grace and they fail to recognize that someone with an unrighteous past can still make righteous decisions on behalf of those they lead.” Accusing liberals of lacking grace would be laughable if Rev. Graham weren’t so sincere in his false charge. Jerry Falwell, Jr. has made this same argument by saying that Trump is like King David, who in Falwell’s words was “an adulterer and a murderer,” but was still used in mighty ways for God.
It used to be that evangelicals would proclaim that true repentance was required for a person who committed sin. But President Trump has publicly announced that he has never done anything that requires repentance, and so he sees no need to repent. David, on the other hand, cries out to God, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your steadfast love; according to your abundant mercy blot out my transgressions. Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin” (Psalm 51:1).
Perhaps the most incredible claim Graham makes is that Christians in the United States are oppressed and persecuted. When you have a successful, wealthy, and influential evangelical preacher claiming that Christians are oppressed in the US, you know you have a problem. Preachers making hundreds of thousands of dollars in salary, building multi-million-dollar facilities, and jetting around the country in private jets are not a persecuted clan. More than this, no one has taken away their ability to spew forth their vile rhetoric.
The most disturbing argument that Rev. Graham makes comes under the guise of “religious liberty.” Rev. Graham gushes,
“When it comes to the United States’ role in advocating for religious liberty around the world, the facts are incontrovertible. Just take into account the State Department’s Ministerial on International Religious Freedom, which represented the largest human rights event of any kind in State Department history.”
The appeal to “religious liberty” sounds like a liberty bell whose clapper is broken. The evangelicals have been at the forefront of the attempts to oppress women, gays, immigrants, people of other faiths, and liberals. Graham and company use their religious liberty argument to build the false claim that they are the persecuted ones. The religious liberty that Rev. Graham wants is the liberty – once again – to oppress others and stick a Bible in their faces. It’s like Queen Mary claiming her “religious liberty” to behead dissenting Protestants had been taken from her.
Rev. Graham also insists that Trump’s election is proof positive of the “providential hand of God.” My opposition to this statement has nothing to do with God’s providence, but with the preacher’s arrogant assertion. How easy it is to survey what happens in our nation, and then blithely ascribe it to God’s “providential hand.” David Bentley Hart, in The Doors of the Sea: Where Was God in the Tsumami?, notes that whenever events that defy cause and effect occur, it is the strident atheists and unrelenting Christian preachers who show up with loud, certain, absolute proofs of cause and effect.
These are the same arguments we get when evangelicals say God sends hurricanes to punish gay-friendly cities. These are the same preachers who “read the signs” and insist that the Rapture will occur in the next few years. These are the same arguments advanced by preachers when they push the idea that God gave us the various geological strata in the rocks to test our faith. To manipulate God like this is to drag God into the political mess we have all created, and then announce, on the basis of nothing at all, that somehow this is all God’s will. I think God is embarrassed with how his name gets bandied about as supporting this or that cause.
All of this is in keeping with what Rowan Williams describes as “bad religion.” God’s mysterious ways are appealed to when we want history to work out according to our dreams and aspirations. Bad religion is about manipulating God, stamping God’s signature on the goals and policies of conservative evangelicals. These preachers would really struggle with the theological assertion that Jesus never promises us success within history.
What does puzzle me here is how these evangelical preachers, who are deeply committed dispensational premillennialists, seem to have jettisoned premillennialism — with its rhetoric of doom, fear, and declension — in favor of what had been a discredited postmillennialism. Instead of wanting Jesus to hurry up and come back, they apparently want Jesus to wait, at least until they have gone about the business of straightening out the country and undoing all the terrible policies enacted by President Obama. They are the organ grinders, and President Trump is delighted to dance to this odious tune.
But in keeping with other evangelical preachers, Graham reverts to premillennialism when it suits his argument. So it is that Graham argues that President Trump’s moving of the United States embassy to Jerusalem is proof-positive that he is a strong supporter of Israel. The hypocrisy of this support for Israel is hard to grasp since it is based on a steadfast belief that a new Temple will be built in Jerusalem, Jesus will return to Jerusalem, the church will be raptured, and the unbelievers will be destroyed. This, of course, would include most Jews. David Sofian, rabbi emeritus at Temple Israel in Dayton, Ohio said to me, “Of course, we are aware of how evangelical support of Israel is rooted in their awful theology, but we will take their money now and leave it to you liberals to take care of this mess.”
Rev. Graham attempts to restore some historic and traditional evangelical faith in his arguments. He speaks of President Trump’s efforts at prison reform and feeding the hungry. This is commendable, but again it is not standard operating practice among evangelicals, whose efforts in these critical social areas are often undone by their opposition to the government programs designed to help the hungry, the poor, and the prisoners. But for the good that they do in these areas, I offer commendation and thanks.
But as a review of any presidential rally will show, it is obvious that all that applause and laughter is not engendered by Trump’s support of feeding the hungry, setting the prisoners free, and caring for the poor. Graham demonstrates this reality, by rapidly shifting his argument from humanitarian efforts to a scathing condemnation of the evangelical enemy du jour: socialism. Using populist misunderstandings of socialism, and painting all aspects of social concern as demonic, Graham insists that President Trump has been the “strongman” holding back the threatening tsunami of socialism, i.e., “the dangerous and destructive ideology” that has “resulted in massive religious persecution for the past century and the death of millions.”
I am not calling into question Rev. Graham’s sincerity because I have no doubt of his sincerity. I am sure he is a very serious and sincere Christian. What I don’t recognize is the Christianity he represents. I am convinced that the Christianity represented by the evangelical defenders of President Trump is in fact not Christian. It is not shaped by the gospel but by the secular political philosophy of evangelical leaders. It is an “Americanized” faith that has faith in the USA, in “Make America Great Again,” in a false patriotism that excludes dissenters, in a greed-infested idolatry of wealth, in an ignoring of the teachings of the prophets and especially of Jesus.
This version of Christianity no longer knows how to recognize idolatry. It exists in an atmosphere of fear, nostalgia, and a deep-seated desire to have the power to control others (John Fea, Believe Me). Pulling no punches, Stanley Hauerwas concludes that churches identified with the “church growth movement” are nothing more than paganism in disguise” (In Good Company: The Church as Polis, Kindle ed., 4).
What Rev. Graham defends is not historic evangelical faith, but a Trump evangelical understanding rooted in secular political power and wealth. Graham’s argument in behalf of President Trump represents just another example of the church and her preachers failing to take the radical good news of Jesus to heart and apply it to all of life.