New Introduction by the Editor-- I was ready to go to press, and then I saw this headline: “Tony Perkins: Trump Gets ‘a Mulligan’ on Life, Stormy Daniels.” The sub-header reads: “The Family Research Council head says that evangelical conservatives are willing to overlook Trump’s past behavior so long as he delivers for them on policy.”
This headline warrants a glossary:
Tony Perkins—president of the Family Research Council, long-time Religious Right Activist
Stormy Daniels—claims to have had an affair in 2006 with Donald Trump three months after Melania gave birth to his son; in 2011, she told her story to In Touch magazine who claim to have verified it with two sources and a polygraph test; latest development is a Wall Street Journal article which reports that, before the presidential campaign, lawyers for Trump paid Daniels $130,000 to keep silent.
‘Mulligan’—a golf term, an gentleman’s agreement granted by the other players to give a player a ‘do over’ because of a bad shot.
And one other term for our glossary—
A Religious Indulgence-- "a remission before God of the temporal punishment due to sins whose guilt has already been forgiven, which the faithful Christian who is duly disposed gains under certain prescribed conditions through the action of the Church. . .” (Catechism of the Catholic Church); a practice understood by Martin Luther in his day to be a cynical “payment for services rendered” which only serves to further condemn one’s soul to Hell.
Perkins gave an interview to Politico’s Edgar-Isaac Dovere. Dovere asks, “What about the porn star stuff [Daniels affair]? What about all that? Doesn’t that do anything?” Perkins contends that “evangelical support is not unconditional. If the President were to all of a sudden revert back to some of that behavior as president, the evangelical support will not be there for him.” But of transgressions in the 70 previous years of Trump’s life, Perkins says, “We kind of gave him—‘All right, you get a mulligan. You get a do-over here.’” When Dovere challenges him about the possibility of hypocrisy, Perkins interrupts him, “. . . Why should I not support him now when he is actually doing the things I have asked him to do?”
As long as Trump doesn’t disappoint evangelicals politically, Perkins predicts, they’ll stick with him. Perkins calls him “a very transactional president,” but what exactly is our bargain? Perkins says, “From the policy standpoint, he has delivered more than any other president in my lifetime.” “Whenever the policy stops, and his administration reverts to just personality,” Perkins adds, “that’s where I believe the president will be in trouble.”
So apparently an on-going “transaction” is taking place between Donald Trump and evangelical conservative leaders. He delivers policy or, in the words of Perkins, he continues “doing the things I have asked him to do,” and they give Donald Trump a “do over,” even if he has famously said that he has never apologized nor repented for anything in his life.
The article below was looking for an angle. I could have written about another accusation of Trump’s immorality and corruption. I could have written about the seeming hypocrisy of Graham and, now, Perkins. I could have written about another blow to the credibility of evangelical witness. I could have delved into the nuance of Graham and Perkins’s comments—that the past is ultimately unknowable and easily faked; that the past is the past; that the past is forgivable; that the past is made up for by present performance. But Perkins’s interview spotlighted what I found so troubling in Graham’s response, and it gave me the image of a modern day sale of indulgences. Do Trump's transgressions matter to God if they happened four, five, or ten years ago, as Graham says? If so, how do they matter? “In all candor,” Perkins says, “I don’t think the president is using evangelicals.” Okay, fine, but are evangelicals using the president, to the risk of the human's soul?
How Much Do We Value Trump’s Soul?
One expects to watch Saturday Night Live on—hello?!—Saturday night. One expects to hear from the son of the world’s most famous evangelist on a Sunday morning. Instead, I saw in my Saturday news feed an interview with Franklin Graham, wherein he was asked about President Trump’s alleged extra-marital affair with Stormy Daniels. As reported by NBC News:
“President Trump I don’t think has admitted to having an affair with this person,” Graham told MSNBC’s Alex Witt. “And so this is just a news story, and I don’t even know if it’s accurate.” Pressed on the possibility that the Journal’s report, and subsequent confirmation by multiple news outlets, were accurate, Graham argued that any such transgression would have no bearing on the man Trump is today. “I believe at 70 years of age the president is a much different person today than he was four years ago, five years ago, 10 years ago,” Graham said. “He is not President Perfect.”
Notice of the Saturday Night Live skit appeared in my Sunday news feed, and so I watched it on a Sunday morning. The week’s host Jessica Chastain leads a sketch built around a game show. She steps to her podium opposite the three contestants and says, “Hey folks, welcome to What Even Matters Anymore?, the show where I tell you something our president did or said, and you tell me ‘does it even matter anymore?’” The first question has to do with Trump’s comments about African countries and Haiti. The Kate McKinnon character buzzes in: “That’s really bad. That has to matter. Yes.” Her answer is apparently wrong. Chastain shakes her head and says, “Unnnh, actually, it does not matter. Zero consequences, and everyone just moves on.”
In the second round question, imagine Franklin Graham with his hand on the buzzer, or you yourself as a contestant.
Chastain: “Next, the president has an extra-marital affair with a porn star right after his wife gives birth to a son, and then he pays the porn star to shut up. Does it even matter to, say, his evangelical base?”
Kenan Thompson as a contestant: (buzzes in) “To evangelicals, of course it matters. It is against everything they stand for.”
Chastain: “You would think so, but no. They say he has just repented, and they forgive him. And Mike Pence is, like, “This, my dude!”
The direction that I want to take in this article was determined for me by two things: 1) the presence in this story of Franklin Graham, whose family name is associated with the concept of modern day evangelism; and 2) an old editorial by Erick Erickson that I had been working through even this past week. Erickson, a influential conservative Republican blogger and evangelical Christian, did publish something new this week that in mentioning the “spread of the Gospel” highlights at least one thing that still matters.
The [Republican] party was supposed to be the party that championed the concerns of people of faith. Instead, it is a party that demands people of faith support a party ahead of their God. Trump’s statement about Haiti and African nations runs headlong into this. Many of these evangelicals take seriously the need to spread the gospel and so have funded many missionary causes around the world.
During the week however, I had been reading an Erickson article from 2016, from a month before the election. He was explaining why he was withholding his support from Trump the candidate. One of the reasons he gave I never imagined I would ever see in print: Erickson believes that the eternal soul of Donald Trump is at stake. When an evangelist fails to hold a person accountable for his sins, he fails to offer the only "support" that really matters, the support of a forgiving God in Christ Jesus. When the reason that the evangelist fails to hold a person accountable for his sins is because he wants something out of the transaction, well, Erickson finds that too loathsome to contemplate.
Here now is a man in Trump who sees no need to be saved and has no understanding of a faith he professes. And he sees Christians cheering him on in his rebellious state, defending him when they blasted others for the very same sins. The whole purpose of shunning the unrepentant sinner is to drive him to God. Yet, Christians in America are cheering on this rebellious sinner providing him no reason at all to repent. All Christendom should be ashamed we are putting our needs in this temporary place ahead of saving a soul bound for eternity.
The following paragraph has four sentences each detailing a reason why Erickson was not supporting Trump. After reading each one, you can ask yourself whether that reason matters. Then ask yourself whether the fourth sentence also matters, or matters as much as the others?
That I see so many Christians justifying Trump’s immorality, defining deviancy down, and turning to anger and despondency about the future tells me I cannot in good faith support Trump because his victory would have lasting, damaging consequences for Christianity in America. We harm our witness by embracing the immoral, unrepentant strong man. We harm our American virtue by buying into the idea that one man can make America great again. Further, we risk losing Donald Trump’s soul for the sake of our selfishness.
The selfishness that Erickson refers to is that we evangelicals want something from Donald Trump. He explains: “Christians looking for a strong man to protect the church instead of the strongest man who conquered death is a terrible thing to see. . . . I have to say I was truly blown away by having a Christian sit next to me on Friday and argue that we should support an immoral adulterer who had never asked for forgiveness because of what he might do for Christians.” In his NBC interview, Franklin Graham alludes to the specifics:
"We certainly don't hold him up as the pastor of this nation and he is not," Graham said. "But I appreciate the fact that the president does have a concern for Christian values, he does have a concern to protect Christians whether it's here at home or around the world and I appreciate the fact that he protects religious liberty and freedom."
Trump met with evangelical leaders twice in the run up to the election: once in New York City (June 21, 2016) and once in Orlando (August 11, 2016). You may remember that immediately after the New York meetings, James Dobson had started a rumor that Donald Trump had professed a saving faith in Jesus Christ and should be treated as a “baby Christian.” The Trump campaign never responded. Listen however to how Trump finished his remarks in Orlando two months after Dobson’s pronouncement. He exhorted evangelicals: “So go out and spread the word. And once I get in, I will do my thing that I do very well, and I figure it's probably maybe the only way I'm going to get to heaven, so I better do a good job. OK?”
I can’t help but believe the evangelist Billy Graham would say, “Actually, not OK, Mr. Trump. Let’s rewind. There is only ONE WAY for any of us to get to heaven, and it is NOT what we do or don’t do to ‘show concern for Christian values,’ or ‘to protect Christians whether it’s here at home or around the world,’ or ‘to protect religious liberty and freedom.’” Instead—and you can verify this on the C-Span video—the immediate response of the audience was to laugh.
According to NBC News,
When asked about the legislative dysfunction currently plaguing Congress, [Franklin] Graham had a more fervent response, citing “sin” as a major reason for the budget impasse that eventually led to a government shutdown. “Our country's got a sin problem, and I believe if these politicians in Washington would recognize the moral failure of so many of their policies that maybe we could fix it.”
Suddenly Franklin Graham adopts the language of his dad, but it’s the country, not the eternal soul, that has a “sin problem” and “their policies” that have “the moral failure” and not an adulterous husband hanging, as evangelicals believe we all do, on the precipice of Hell’s damnation. For Erick Erickson however, the Gospel matters. He declares: “I will not harm my witness nor risk Trump’s soul to serve my political desires.”
What if in the end, Graham, Dobson, and the other evangelical leaders who so famously have access to Trump, are judged not because they loved Trump too much, but because they loved him too little? In his new article, Erickson claims, “Trump was always a devil’s bargain for most evangelicals.” This is a reference to those stories wherein Faust sells his soul to Mephistopheles for worldly gain, or wherein Robert Johnson sells his soul to the devil in order to become the world’s greatest blues guitarist. You can’t sell your own soul to the devil and still be considered Christian. You can’t sell another person’s soul and still be considered a preacher of the Gospel.
One expects to pray on a Sunday morning, and my wife and I did. We were convicted that we too had placed too little value on the soul of the person Donald John Trump. “What Even Matters Anymore?,” the game show host asks. We felt God buzz in with an answer.
Sources and Links:
Politico: Summary and audio of Perkins's interview
NBC News: Franklin Graham's interview
Vanity Fair: SNL Skit with Commentary
Washington Post: new Erickson editorial
Washington Post: old Erickson editorial
C-Span: video of Trump's speech to evangelicals