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USA: Jesus or Trump? Conservative Christians Face Growing Rift

Russell Moore, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today and a former stalwart of the American Baptist church, said during an interview this month that he saw Christianity as being in « crisis » because the teachings of Jesus were being viewed by a growing number of people as « subversive » to their right-wing ideology. By Aleks Phillips

Donald Trump evangelical
Republican presidential candidate and former President Donald Trump speaks at the Faith and Freedom Road to Majority conference at the Washington Hilton on June 24, 2023, in Washington, D.C. There is tension among evangelicals between those who are concerned with Christian character and those intent on winning the culture war, theologians told Newsweek.

« Multiple pastors tell me, essentially, the same story about quoting the Sermon on the Mount, parenthetically, in their preaching—’turn the other cheek’—[and] to have someone come up after to say, ’Where did you get those liberal talking points ?’ » he told NPR.

While devout Christians rebuffing the words of Jesus Christ may come as a surprise to some, what Moore was elucidating was what experts described to Newsweek as a rift within the conservative Christian faith that has been growing for decades—but had come to be defined by support for Donald Trump of late.

« What Russell Moore’s talking about is real and important and certainly, for anyone who cares about the longer history of Christianity, it’s deeply concerning, » said Heath Carter, associate professor of American Christianity at Princeton Theological Seminary. « But I don’t think it’s new. »

Darrell Bock, a senior research professor at Dallas Theological Seminary, said: « This group of Christians has been concerned about the country and the shift in the country for four decades now, and Trump has dominated the last decade of those four decades. »

The two theologians spoke of a dichotomy between theological evangelicals, who are concerned primarily with Christian character, and “political” evangelicals intent on winning the culture war.

However, they offered differing views on whether conservative Christian ideology was now being molded in Trump’s image, or whether support for the former president and Republican candidate was seen as a means to a more Christian society.

« There’s lots of people today who call themselves evangelicals, who may even go to an evangelical church...I think [Moore’s] concern is that they are more attuned to Fox News and more attuned to right-wing media and whatever Donald Trump is saying on that day than they are to the historic teachings of the Christianity or the scriptures, » Carter said.

However, Bock argued that « Trump is a symptom of a larger orientation that has allowed Donald Trump to surface. The issue is not Donald Trump, it’s just that Donald Trump has presented himself in such a way that he aligns himself with already extant concerns that many evangelicals had and thus they connected to him because of those shared concerns. »

An Entanglement of Beliefs

While on the surface, calling the instruction to turn the other cheek « liberal » would imply a rejection of the teachings of the Bible, Carter suggested that evangelists’ view of what it meant to be Christian was being shaped by the current political discourse, leading some to align themselves with different parts of the Bible.

« We’re living in a time of deep political polarization, and we shouldn’t imagine that the way that people read the Bible is somehow outside of that polarization, he said, noting that evangelicals were likely familiar with the Sermon on the Mount » but they may not think of those verses in the context of our world today

He mentioned so-called Matthew 25 progressives—politicians who align themselves with the tract of scripture in which Christ describes the righteous person as someone who gives to the needy—as an example of a similar but opposing realignment among left-wing Christians.

« Jesus doesn’t sit neatly into contemporary political categories, » said Carter, who writes about the intersection of Christianity and public life. Jesus lived in a vastly different moment in time and Jesus was not thinking about life in the categories that 21st-century Americans do.

« At the same time, the gospel—the teachings of Jesus—continue to resonate, partly because there are aspects of them that are perennial. »

Bock noted that those on the political left and right used labels to avoid engaging with alternative viewpoints.

« If I can label something as liberal, then I don’t have to discuss it; I can dismiss it, » he said, adding that in the context of Christianity, doing so suggested political motivations usurping theological concerns.

Carter said: « At its best, the Bible can puncture our categories, it can puncture the ways that people see the world, but oftentimes more routinely, when people go to church and they hear the words of the Bible read aloud...they hear it through the lens of our polarized political landscape. »

This is, fundamentally, because religious and political beliefs were just categories of the values we individually hold.

« It’s not easy to isolate them, » Carter said. « There’s more fluidity, there’s more entanglement—and there always has been. And it’s hard to say which is prior here: is the religion motivating the politics or is the politics motivating the religion ? »

But he also questioned what it meant to be an evangelical, suggesting the definition had been shaped by political discourse.

« There are actually people who are not in any recognizable sense Christian but who identify as evangelical, partly because of the way that term has been kind of associated with Donald Trump and with a right-wing political orbit, » Carter said.

Character or Culture

While Trump has strong support among conservative Christians, it is far from universal, and those who have spoken out against him—such as Moore—have been characteristically described as disloyal by the former president.

Rather than the teachings of the Bible that evangelicals hold dear shifting to fit a modern worldview, Bock spoke of an ongoing tension within evangelicalism between those who prioritize a Christian character and those who want to see a Christian society at all costs—which « drives people towards Trump. »

« You’ve got a theological evangelicalism, which is concerned about the way in which many Christians are engaging the culture—and that’s what you’re hearing from Russell Moore, » he said. « And then there’s the political evangelical [who] simply wants to win the culture war and is willing to do most anything to get there.

« They see Trump as a fighter for the cause and so they are supportive of him, not because they have great feelings about his character—they generally don’t—but because they feel like he is the best fighter for the cause. »

Bock said that in doing so, « they totally bypassed in the process the character of the person with whom they aligned » because for them the larger issue is the moral values of wider society.

The author of the 2016 book How Would Jesus Vote? added: « The tension is the inconsistency itself undercuts the credibility of trying to fight against what’s going on in the culture—and that’s what the more theological evangelicals are concerned about. What they’re basically saying is the position is incoherent; it can’t sustain what it’s fighting for because it’s internally inconsistent. »

Author: MANZI
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