Living with the Evangelical Tribe in the Trump Era, Part 4
The first time I heard someone say, “I’m not voting for Donald Trump; I’m voting for the Supreme Court” as a way to indicate that yes, indeed, she was voting for Donald Trump, I was astounded by the violation of logic. After all, the Principle of Non-Contradiction (PNC) is the second of the three classic laws of thought: [A is B] and [A is not B] are mutually exclusive. I could imagine the scene where some magistrate seeks to arrive at the truth:
A. “Yes or no, Ma’am, did you vote for Donald J. Trump in the 2016 election?”
B. “I voted for the Supreme Court, not for Donald Trump.”
A. (Showing her a copy of the 2016 ballot) “Please show me where the Supreme Court’s name appears on the presidential ballot? What? You cannot? Okay, then please show where on this page you touched the stylus that registered a presidential vote. . . . Let the record show that her finger rests next to Donald J. Trump/ Mike R. Pence (Republican). So, Ma’am, did the computer then count your vote for Donald J. Trump?
B. I suppose that’s how electronic voting works.
A. So you did vote for Donald Trump.
B. No, I voted for Justice Neil Gorsuch.
Last week in The Liberator Today we considered those of our evangelical friends who voted for Donald Trump, but who did so without a particular reason. They were “apathetic voters” who voted, but whether out of ritual, disconnect, or weariness, they didn’t care to develop a rationale behind their vote. I can release them from my worst projections of why they voted for Trump. This week’s group of Trump-voters had reasons, or at least rationalizations. To release them from our worst projections, to give them the “benefit of the doubt” and to give us the benefit of some breathing space in relating to evangelical support of Trump, we need to proactively look past the “who” of their vote, because, despite the protestations otherwise, they did in fact vote for Trump. Nonetheless, to look at “what” they voted for is still not sufficient. We will need to isolate that portion of the “what” which they voted for.
In May 2016, after Trump had wrapped up the Republican nomination, I wrote a Liberator Today article entitled “If You Pick Up One End of the Trump Stick. . .”. It was based on the old proverb: “If you pick up one end of a stick, you pick up the other end too.” It’s a package deal. You may choose (i.e. “pick up,” e.g. “vote for”) a stick because of what you see on one end of the stick, but you can’t pick up only that one end. The whole stick comes up with you. I told the story of cleaning up brush near my house and picking up a crab apple branch that looked innocuous enough, but unbeknownst to me, on the hidden end of the branch was a colony of red ants. I paid the price with stinging red welts up my forearm.
Evangelical voters genuinely saw some things that they found appealing, or at least tolerable, on one end of the Trump candidacy. For instance, consider the evangelical voter who had longed for a Rubio, a Carson, or at least a Cruz, and who got Trump instead as the Republican nominee. Since she couldn’t find a person she believed in, she instead looked to the values or issues she could believe in, which in this case was her desire to see conservative Supreme Court justices who might finally overturn Roe v. Wade. The appointment of a conservative Supreme Court justice was not just a wishful thought. There was an actual slot that Republicans had forced open in refusing to hear Merrick Garland’s nomination. Was the Non-Trump candidate, Hillary Clinton, likely to appoint a conservative justice? No. In fact, the scuttlebutt in Congress at the time was that if Hillary won, Republicans would rush through Garland’s appointment because he was sure to be more moderate than whomever Hillary nominated. But what about other Non-Trump options for their voting: a third party candidate like Gary Johnson, an independent Republican like Evan McMullin, a symbolic vote for someone like Libby Dole? Here the question for our Trump-voting Supreme Court voter changes. The question is not “Who would be most likely to appoint conservative justices?” but rather “Who would most likely have a chance at appointing conservative justices?” They rationalized—correctly, no doubt—that our next president would be either Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton, not Johnson, McMullin, or Dole. If they were voting for a “what” of actual Supreme Court appointments, they couldn’t risk any other “who” than Donald Trump.
I have no patience with the rationalization of a person who truly wanted to vote for the package deal of Donald J. Trump— the “whole stick” of racism, misogyny, xenophobia, narcissism, lying, bullying, proto-fascism—and who landed conveniently on a more socially acceptable rationalization to present to the evangelical tribe. This kind of rationalizer is a wolf (a proto-fascist in his own right) in sheep’s clothing (the familiar stance of an evangelical as pro-life.) But I can understand the logic of someone who worked through the decision tree of “Who would most likely have a chance at [giving me at least something of my highest priorities.]” I heard other rationalizations: people who were “not voting for Trump,” but who were instead “voting for the Republican party platform” or “voting for party loyalty” or “voting to shake up business-as-usual in Washington.” We can argue with their perceptions of the clean end of the Trump stick. For instance, I think Neil Gorsuch is the last Supreme Court justice we’ll get from Trump that is picked on a conservative or strict constructionist basis. The next appointment will likely be more in keeping with Trump’s modus operandi—either sold off to the highest bidder in Rod Blagojevich style, or picked to exonerate Trump himself from the Russian investigation.
What remains problematic however is that these voters, by necessity, picked up the other end of the Trump stick too, and they can claim no ignorance of what that other end was. I at least didn’t know about the fire ants on the partially buried end of the crab apple branch, but by the end of the primaries, the facts about Trump were on the table: he lacks both character and competence. We will have to apply some mixture of grief, forgiveness, and freedom to how our Trump-voting friends chose to process that knowledge. And we will have to come to grips with the fact that both sides of the Trump stick got picked up on all our behalves. We are all left holding it, including deportable DREAMers, banned Muslim immigrants, debased “grab-able” women, Las Vegas concert attenders, the American citizens of Puerto Rico, 30 million nervous residents of Seoul, and a planet that continues to warm under a renewed commitment to the fossil fuel industry.
Part of our freedom will be a prophetic freedom that calls white evangelicals to be responsible for their choices. Certainly this means not equivocating about for whom indeed they voted. Neil Gorsuch was NOT on the ballot. Responsibility means admitting that their choice was not without known and foreseeable consequences, and that they participated in the unleashing of those consequences. I’ll have more to say about our prophetic freedom and additional responsibilities at the conclusion of this series. Our Trump-voting friends will be called to loosen their grasp on their shiny favorite end of the Trump stick and join their brothers and sisters in Christ in resisting the evil and attending the suffering on their other end. The anti-opponent chant of “lock her up, lock her up” must be replaced with the solidarity chant of “set them free, set them free” (cf. the mission of Christ in Luke 4:18-19).
We will never be able to call evangelical Trump voters to a new compelling project of love and justice in the Trump era unless WE stop beating them with the other end of the Trump stick. This morning an old friend from my Moody Bible Institute days posted on Facebook a meme of Bill and Hillary Clinton and asked the question: “What one word would you use to describe this family?” She chose the word “corrupt.” My immediate thought about her meme was, “Who cares?! What does Clinton corruption have to do with anything anymore?” My friend is still fighting the 2016 election (and probably the Barack, George W. and Bill elections as well.) She’s also fighting a counter-factual election. She invites us into an apocalyptic fantasy of “what if Hillary had won instead?” But then I stop and see in myself that I too expend so much energy re-fighting in the pit of my stomach the 2016 election. I so badly want people—even certain people—to come up to me and say, “Lowell, you were right, I was wrong, I shouldn’t have voted for Trump.” To my shame, it’s eroded my compassion, which is a problem because while my Trump-voting friends are free to make their choices, they themselves are not exempt from the consequences of those choices. And so I do confess thinking: “Well, will you look at that, the climate deniers of Houston, TX just got hit with a hurricane,” and “Well, will you look at that, the worst shooting in American history was reserved for a country music concert in the state with the most lenient gun laws.” You pick up one end of the Lowell stick, and I cringe at what you will surely find on the other end.
My old friend voted for Trump in November, 2016; but what’s that got to do with anything that could be true of her in October 2017? She wants to lock Hillary up in October 2017; but what’s that got to do with the person she could be in 2018? I have the same hope for myself. I can’t spare a single “thought and prayer” for the victims of the Las Vegas massacre; but what’s that got to do with the compassionate intercessor I could be the next time around?
When my family lived in Varanasi, India, I used to do a mental exercise whenever I visited a Hindu temple. I was so enamored with Christ Jesus, that it was hard to see prayers offered up to a murthi, or idol. And I was so in love with the Indian people, I couldn’t bear the thought that their sincere prayers might go unheard and unanswered. So I developed in my mind a “split screen” like what is occasionally used in film-making. I created a split between the murthi on the one side and the human being doing the intercession on the other, and then I made the pro-active decision to limit my field of vision to the human side. They had real human concerns. They were praying for dying children, for unmarried daughters, for poor employment prospects, for rain for their parched crops, for fears and longings. In the same way, I can create a split screen between the two ends of the Trump-voter’s Trump stick. It doesn’t erase the fact that the two ends exist, anymore than Varanasi’s split screen erased the fact that Jesus was denied the devotion that he deserved. Nonetheless I can meet the Trump voter on the end of the stick that had meaning for them. Even if I don’t find as much common ground there as I might hope, I can nonetheless release them from my worst projections about them. In doing so, I find the space that I need for grief, forgiveness, and freedom to choose a new relationship with the white American evangelical tribe in the Trump era.