by John Fea
If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.
Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.
The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.
Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations.
The court evangelicals have befriended Trump as a way to win his approval and advance their agenda of making the United States a Christian nation. If Trump believes in their agenda, he has done little to prove it. He does not attend church regularly and his references to Christianity are mostly scripted political talking points.
The court evangelicals have largely turned a blind eye to Trump’s indiscretions. When he recently made disparaging remarks about MSNBC host Mika Brzezinski, they were mostly silent. Only Jerry Falwell Jr., the president of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world, made a public statement about the tweet. He told Fox News Channel that when Trump “hits them back on Twitter I actually appreciate that.”
Over the Fourth of July weekend, Court evangelicalism was on full display in Washington, during a Kennedy Center event honoring veterans.
Sounding like a 17th-century Puritan delivering a jeremiad calling the new Israel back to its spiritual roots, he described Trump as a messianic figure whom God had raised up to save the United States from spiritual ruin. Jeffress said, “but in the midst of that despair came November the 8th, 2016, and that day … God declared that the people, not the pollsters, were going to choose the next president of the United States.”
Historians can trace the court evangelical phenomenon to the early 1970s, when the popular evangelist Billy Graham remained loyal to President Richard Nixon, to quote biographer Grant Wacker, “long after most Americans smelled a rat.” When Nixon resigned in shame, Graham was embarrassed. He admitted that “Nixon’s magnetism clouded his judgment.” In 1993, Graham “urged young evangelists to avoid his mistake.”
In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan appealed to evangelical concerns about big government, the threat of communism and legalized abortion. Christian political movements such as the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition educated an entire generation of evangelicals to believe that Christian political engagement was tied solely to electing Republican politicians and controlling the Supreme Court.
Very few evangelicals criticized these efforts to advance a Christian agenda through politics; those who did could not compete with the economic prosperity and Cold War victories that Reagan delivered. But some who rode this wave of evangelical political power had a hard time sleeping at night.
SOURCE: The Washington Post