As President Trump moves into a state of political and social isolation, it is worth reflecting on how many from the established institutions in America have abandoned him. It seems that entire groups set up to advise him, representing the heads of industry, the intellectual and artistic elite and many Republican political figures, have got off the Trump train. But there is one group that continues to support him. This is the group of evangelical leaders who gathered to make up a so-called Evangelical Advisory Board. No doubt they believed that being close to Trump they could further their right-wing Christian agenda. There is only one Christian leader who has left this group for reasons of conscience. His name is A.R. Bernard and he runs a mega-church in New York. All the other members including Jerry Falwell of Liberty University, Paula White, Robert Jeffress and Kenneth Copeland remain at the side of the President. They still feel able to link their Christian beliefs and consciences with Trump’s confused and dysfunctional values and aims.
This metaphorical presidential train, to judge from its paucity of passengers, is likely to end up in a siding. Those still on board will, in all likelihood, find their professional reputations completely destroyed. It is hard to respect those who have aided and abetted a leader as unstable and malign as President Trump. The question remains as to why there are still so many conservative religious leaders backing the president. He is not known for his Christian commitment. It is widely held that his embrace of a variety of religious ideas has been a shabby political ploy. Now that the train is beginning to leave the tracks, why do these leaders still want to be aboard the Trump train?
There has of course always been a traditional alliance between the Republican Party and American conservative religion. This goes back to the dawn of the American Republic. I do not propose to go into this traditional link. Rather I want to examine why so many conservative Christians in America today want to support the lies, the unpredictability and the sheer bombast of their President.
According to political watchers, the number of lies and half-truths told by the President in public statements over the past six months exceeds a thousand. Detailed fact-checking takes place and I have no reason to suppose that this claim is incorrect. The most recent lie is the one which was told to the rally in Arizona. It involved the President leaving out the three crucial words ‘on both sides’ when repeating verbatim an earlier speech about the events at Charlottesville. By omitting these three words he completely changed the meaning of what he had said in the earlier speech. Everyone had seen the original pronouncement so his accusation against the media of making ‘fake news’ was extraordinary but also insulting to the intelligence of his hearers.
Americans are perhaps going to have to get used to living in a post-truth society where ‘alternative facts’ are common. The degradation and destruction of truth in such a short space of time nevertheless needs some explanation. In an article in the New York Times Molly Worthen has traced the roots of the way that parts of traditional America have always harboured a deep distrust of factual and scientific truth. This preference for a truth that feels right rather being factually correct stems from a preference for a so-called ‘biblical worldview’. Ordinary people have been routinely taught by their churches to distrust the ideas of scientists and the mainstream media when these come into conflict with the Bible. It is because of this that ‘climate change is not real; evolution is a myth made up by scientists who hate God and capitalism is God’s ideal society’. The expression ‘biblical worldview’ sounds innocuous but it can also be seen to be a full-frontal attack on reason, fact and free enquiry. For an unhealthily large proportion of Americans science and learning are treated with at best suspicion and at worst downright opposition.
When we say that the inerrant Bible shapes the entire worldview of conservative America, we are saying something distinctive about American society. The politics of Britain and indeed of every other western country has not been impacted by religious ideas as thoroughly it has in some parts of the States. The word ‘evangelical’ when used in America carries a distinct political nuance and association with extreme right wing social attitudes. Conservative ideas about the Bible, its inerrancy and complete authority are held by individuals and congregations in this country, but these do not seep as deeply into the minds of Christians as in America. It is hard to see Trumpism, ‘alternative facts’ or a tolerance for rampant falsehoods ever gaining traction on this side of the Atlantic. But when up to 40% of the American population believes that the world is only 6000 years old, it is not so difficult to see that there will be considerable tolerance for all kinds of irrational ideas in the area of politics. The problem for the rest of us is that irrationality and hostility to reason is not just something that is a harmless eccentricity. It is something that is potentially dangerous and a threat to the whole world. The Bible reader who believes that history may be shaped by reading the Book of Revelation is a potential threat to all humankind. One longs for sanity and reason to return to the conduct of the world’s affairs. May that respect for reason and truth soon return to the counsels of all in authority. As the Prayer Book puts it in the Litany, may those set over to rule us have ‘grace wisdom and understanding’.