Categories Religion in the world

Evangelicals using religion for political gain is nothing new. It is a US tradition

Last Friday the Trump 2020 campaign held its first rally at a megachurch. King Jesus international ministries, located outside of Miami, Florida, hosted the Evangelicals for Trump Coalition kick-off. Before boasting about his commitment to fight for the religious right’s agenda, the president bowed his head to receive prayers from prosperity preacher Paula White and other religious nationalists who offer spiritual cover for a corrupt and immoral administration.

As a bishop of the church, I am troubled anytime I see Christianity used to justify the injustice, deception, violence and oppression that God hates. Even if Donald Trump had a perfect personal moral résumé, his policy agenda is an affront to God’s agenda to lift the poor and bless the marginalized. The distorted moral narrative these so-called Evangelicals for Trump have embraced is contrary to God’s politics, which have nothing to do with being a Democrat or Republican. But this misuse of religion is not new. It has a long history in the American story.

When the segregationist George Wallace faced the moral challenge of Dr Martin Luther King Jr and the civil rights movement in 1960s Alabama, he also called upon religious leaders to vouch for him. “By no stretch of the imagination is George C Wallace a racist,” Dr Henry L Lyon, the pastor of Montgomery’s Highland Avenue Baptist church, testified. “He has shown fairness to all people, regardless of race or color,” the Rev RL Lawrence, a Methodist minister, concurred. They were vouching for the same Wallace who had infamously declared in his inaugural address: “Segregation yesterday, segregation today, segregation forever!” But they had adopted a false morality that framed King as an “agitator” and Wallace as a fair-minded defender of tradition and God’s good order.

This misuse of religion is, sadly, an American tradition. Colonists who cheated Native Americans out of land and forced enslaved Africans to build a new nation worshiped a God whose demand for justice troubled their conscience. “I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, acknowledging the basic moral contradiction between the principle of liberty he had appealed to in the Declaration of Independence and the practice of bondage that his plantation and the economy surrounding it depended upon. This conflict did not only exist within Jefferson’s soul. It divided every major denomination of the American church in the 19th century.

When abolitionists insisted on pointing out the immorality of human bondage, plantation owners responded by paying preachers and theologians to write justifications of race-based chattel slavery. They imagined a world in which the bodies and souls of black Africans were dependent on the paternalistic supervision of white civilization. Slavery was not simply a justifiable evil. It was, according to America’s slaveholder religion, a positive good. Just as they would argue in the 20th century that segregation was best for black and white people, evangelicals for Jefferson Davis contended that slavery was as good for the souls of black Africans as it was for the pocketbook of the plantation owner.

No one who has read American history can be surprised by the hypocrisy of Evangelicals for Trump. But we can learn from the history how their undoing will inevitably come from their public arrogance. While Davis and Wallace had power, they did not have to listen to the cries of those who suffered from the injustice they used the Bible to justify. They found religious leaders who were willing to tell them lies in order to have access to their power. But the ignorance they intentionally cultivated led them to misjudge the political realities of their day. The Confederate States of America could not last. Wallace’s 1968 run for president revealed the limits of his political imagination.

This theme of false religionists lying to despotic rulers runs throughout the Bible. Moses and Miriam had to contend with pharaoh’s religionists in Egypt, just as Elijah had to face the prophets of Baal at Mount Carmel. When Jesus proclaimed good news to the poor in ancient Palestine, he had to deal with religious leaders who twisted scripture to support the same governing authorities that had sought to kill him when he was a baby.

Religious hypocrisy is not new. But Jesus and the prophets of the Bible make clear that God hates this abuse of the holy. “Do you expect me to overlook obscene wealth you’ve piled up by cheating and fraud?” God asks through the prophet Micah. “Do you think I’ll tolerate shady deals and shifty scheming? I’m tired of the violent rich bullying their way with bluffs and lies.” These are the biblical values we have heard too little about in our public life.

Yes, there is a circle of Evangelicals for Trump who speak loudly about values they have long tried to associate with scripture. But that circle pales in comparison to the great cloud of moral witnesses that stretches from Moses and Miriam to Micah and Elijah; from Jesus and the disciples to Fredrick Douglass and Lucretia Mott; from Ella Baker and Martin Luther King to the moral movements for justice and equity in our world today. These moral witnesses have shown us what it means to push this nation toward a more perfect union. They have demonstrated what true faith in public life looks like. In this moment, we must remember and follow them as a coalition of moral witnesses for truth.

  • William J Barber, II is co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival, which is mobilizing poor people and their allies for a mass assembly and march on Washington in June 2020

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