It is probably impertinent for a British person to be writing any comments about the 2016 American presidential election. But the result, the election of a new American president next Tuesday, does affect all of us wherever we live in the world. From the point of view of this blog we have a special concern for the way that American political thinking from the Right is enmeshed with some of the most reactionary and conservative theological ideas. This gives us reason to be alarmed. A quick review of some Christian websites, however, has given me some cause for hope whatever the outcome next week. Even if Donald Trump is elected as president, it seems to be true that conservative evangelical opinion is in the process of fragmenting over this election. If conservative opinion, whether political or religious, begins to lose its unanimity it becomes far less dangerous to the rest of us than if it remained a totally united front. We should nevertheless all be acutely aware of the constant danger of a juggernaut of right wing political and religious power sweeping all before it in America and then in the rest of the world. As for Trump himself, one conservative supporter has been talking about him as a ‘baby Christian’ who wants to receive forgiveness for his past mistakes. Others have noted that his life is no example of godly living. Cynically one would expect the less savoury parts of his personality to become, in the event of his election, even more apparent. His narcissism, his brashness and his total lack of relevant experience are likely to come into full view in the months following his election. Most of us in the UK who take any interest in these matters will be supporting the flawed but experienced candidate- Hillary Clinton.
One old saying claims that you can tell a person’s character by the company he keeps. A bit of delving on the Internet reveals that there are a variety of evangelical leaders who are prepared to swallow any squeamishness they might feel and support their candidate Trump. Looking at the list of eminent evangelicals who have become identified with Trump’s cause, I find only a few names that I recognise. One name that does come up is the veteran evangelical leader, James Dobson. For over 25 years Dobson was the leader of a Christian ministry called Focus on the Family. This offered advice to parents on how to bring up their children. An early book entitled Dare to Discipline used to sit on my shelves. It was notable for the way that parents were encouraged to use a stick (paddle) to impart godly discipline and follow the teaching of the book of Proverbs. This tradition of using violence as part of the way of bringing up children goes right back to the days of the Puritan Fathers. It is a theme common in Calvinist Protestant thought in America. Also, with his interest in the family Dobson is strongly pro-life. Among the few promises made by Trump which touch on areas of belief, there has been a strong endorsement of the anti-abortion cause. One of the decisive ways through which a president can most affect the values of the nation is in his right to nominate candidates for the Supreme Court. The judges who constitute this Court have the last word on whether abortion and gay marriage are possible in American society.
A second name that is familiar to followers of the American scene is Gerry Falwell Jnr. He is the oldest son of the founder of the Moral Majority, also Gerry Falwell. Falwell Jnr is the President of Liberty University, the largest Christian university in the world. He is closely identified with the Southern Baptist network and is not afraid to become involved in political issues like his father before him. While many evangelical leaders supported Ted Cruz when he was still a Republican candidate, Falwell has consistently supported Trump since 2012. Among his right-wing conservative views, Falwell is a strong supporter of the Second Amendment which sets out the right to bear arms. He also, bizarrely for a Christian university, allows his students to carry arms on campus. The support for Trump by Falwell is also linked up strongly with his economic opposition to many of Obama’s fiscal policies.
The third name, that of Paula White, will not be known to most UK readers. But her name is well known in the world of religious broadcasting in the States. She is associated and works with many of the big names of the charismatic world, including Benny Hinn. Like most of these charismatic leaders involved in broadcasting, her message is strongly ‘prosperity gospel’. It seems that she was the one who organised a meeting in September between Trump and various other tele-evangelists within her network. She also held a meeting at Trump Tower last year when she cited Isaiah 54, praying that ‘any tongue that rises against Trump will be condemned’. She also told a 10,000 strong rally in Florida that Trump ‘needs to be our next president’.
The final couple that need to be mentioned among Trump supporters, are Kenneth and Gloria Copeland from Texas. Like Paula White this couple are fabulously wealthy prosperity preachers. As with many of their ilk they were targeted by a Senate investigation in 2007. This raised many questions about the tax-free status of their and other similar ministries. Although the Copelands initially supported Ted Cruz, they appear to have thrown their weight behind Trump in more recent months. In a meeting in September the Copelands prayed with Trump that ‘God would give him wisdom according to James I and that God would reveal himself’. This was not, officially speaking, an endorsement of Trump though it is hard to read it any other way.
The two main strands of conservative evangelical opinion, the Calvinist and the Charismatic/Pentecostal are thus represented among those who support Donald Trump for president. It would have been possible, no doubt, to have found other names within these cultures who take another point of view. But it is clear from this rapid survey that some Christians appear to believe that God has given the American Republican party a divine blessing. This is in no way affected by the moral or intellectual suitability of the candidate put forward. The prosperity preachers we have mentioned will, no doubt, have their own particular reasons for supporting the Republican party. There are, in all likelihood, some networks and cosy relationships which allow their wealthy ministries to escape being exposed to detailed scrutiny. For both groups of conservative opinion, the theological issue that seems to dominate their thinking right across the world has nothing to do with the nature of God. It concerns sexuality and family life. Many of us would see this obsession with sex as being much more to do with maintaining male social power than any theological principle. Trump does not appear to have anything to say of theological significance to the voter but he still manages to obtain the support of millions of conservative Christian voters. All he has to do is to hint that he shares the desire of many Americans to retain the social status-quo of the male dominated family.
All of us await the results on Tuesday with trepidation. The one sliver of good news is, as I mentioned at the beginning, that conservative opinion may fragment further if Trump is elected. The sheer inability of many Christians to stomach such an unlikely candidate as representing their Christian values, may mean that in the medium to long term the conservative Christian Right may be weakened. Surely there must be many good Christian people in America who are saying something along these lines. ‘If my Christianity requires my support for such an improbably inexperienced and flawed candidate, then there is something amiss with the system of political life in America as well as those Christian leaders who want to tell me how to vote!.’