The Last Temptation
In April, Michael Gerson described how evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least religious president in living memory.
I grew up in an evangelical-Christian household, and I am currently a student at Liberty University. As I am a recent ex-evangelical, Michael Gerson’s excellent article, “The Last Temptation,” struck a resonant chord with me.
Growing up, I was taught conservative beliefs and values by my parents, whom I deeply love and respect. I learned to value biblical morality, human life, marriage, and faith in God, and to believe in the transformative power of Christ. During the 2016 campaign, when the president of my university, Jerry Falwell Jr., endorsed a man who has lived in complete and unapologetic opposition to all the things I had been taught to value, I questioned my religion, I questioned my faith, and I questioned my God. Falwell’s actions shattered the legitimacy I found in the evangelical movement and, by association, the Christianity I was familiar with. If Christ really had the power to transform his followers, why were they acting so contrary to his admonishments to love one another, human imperfection notwithstanding? Is it fine to ignore your scruples in pursuit of choosing “the lesser evil”? Was Christianity something to be sacrificed on the altar of more-important matters? In their fierce support of Trump, evangelical leaders said yes.
The self-serving actions of today’s evangelical leaders are not victimless. Those who have lost their faith or are turned off from Christianity entirely are the true victims.
I appreciated Michael Gerson’s thoughtful and well-crafted essay about evangelicals and Trump. However, the history he sketched featured a glaring omission. It’s true that before the Civil War, Northern evangelicals created and sustained the abolitionist movement, but it is also true that Southern evangelicals employed the Bible and their pulpits to not only justify slavery, but also advocate for the spread of that evil to the newly acquired western territories. It seems to me that defending and excusing Trump is consistent with the behavior of the Southern antebellum evangelicals, and to label it hypocrisy—while certainly correct—is far too mild.
Peter M. Leschak
Side Lake, Minn.
Gerson emphasizes the major role that evangelicals played in 19th-century reform movements, particularly the struggle against slavery. So far as Northern evangelicals are concerned, much of what he says is right, although I think he gives too much credit to evangelicals as a group rather than to individuals. What he ignores, however, is that Southern evangelicals were among the most prominent slavery apologists.
The white evangelicals who have achieved political prominence in the past 40 or so years have generally come out of the Southern tradition. They simply do not have a tradition of seeking justice for all people or of recognizing the social-transformative nature of biblical demands. Thus, the tradition of which Gerson is so (rightfully) proud is not the tradition of those who lead political evangelicals today; rather, northern white evangelicals have forgotten their own tradition and adopted the narrow biblical literalism and tribal social identities that characterize much of southern white religion. This, I think, is a major factor behind the things Gerson describes.
The place to find modern examples of the evangelical tradition Gerson magnifies is in African American churches, which have never forgotten the importance of social justice and have not made a hero of the most flawed person ever to become president.
I found Michael Gerson’s essay to be thoughtful and honest. I have monitored the activities of white evangelicals since the Reagan presidency and worry about their growing hostility and violence toward people who do not share their beliefs. Of course, they are wrongheaded to think that progressives intend to destroy religion. To the contrary, white evangelicals have taken aim at those who do not share their religious beliefs.
Ironically, it has been my experience that the most “Christian” people I know are atheists and Unitarians. Both groups work to help all those in need and to create a community of people whose primary goal is to elevate and improve all of our lives. Is it any wonder that so many young people are rejecting the churches of their parents?
My heartfelt thanks to the editors and to Michael Gerson for his article, “The Last Temptation.” As an evangelical Christian, I find the unflinching support of the potus by so many millions of evangelicals deeply discouraging. Thank you, Mr. Gerson, for offering the other side of the story.
Gerson’s description of the fear-driven, reactionary responses of some evangelicals is a needed caution that will hopefully lead to correction. At the same time he seems to paint with too broad a brush. Many of us, as evangelicals, tried to choose a candidate other than Trump. Once it was between Trump and Clinton, we didn’t choose Trump; we chose against Clinton. There is a philosophical difference between free markets and controlled economies, between strict constitutional constructionism and a so-called living constitution, between peace through strength and peace through capitulation, and between engaging faith in the public square and attempting to eliminate it from the public square. The choice was easy, even if we have to live with embarrassment (like evangelical Democrats had to do during the Bill Clinton presidency).
While I enjoyed Michael Gerson’s taking the high road in tracing the evolution of evangelicalism from its noble roots to its morally bankrupt support of Donald Trump, I felt that he ignored a major player in this march to damnation: the rise of the televangelist. Televangelists were the morally vacuous Christian forerunner to the morally vacuous political leader we have today. One can draw a line from those who believed in and funded the likes of Jimmy Swaggart and Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker to those who supported Trump.
In its heyday (not so long ago), televangelism was rocked by a series of sex and crime scandals. I was hoping that “The Last Temptation” would examine why viewers a generation ago continued to believe in their TV leaders in the midst of scandal, and therefore give us insight into Trump voters’ unwavering beliefs today. Why did folks continue their support when their Christian leaders were exposed as frauds, especially when they were the ones being defrauded? I am hoping that someone will write that article.
Michael Gerson’s “The Last Temptation” is a very well-written and thoughtful piece. Yet while he nibbles at the edges of a potential cultural and political explanation, he can’t quite seem to discover the existential underpinning of this noxious phenomenon. Simply stated, that core rationale is the willing abandonment of reason itself.
When the basis for one’s identity is not evidence, reason, and critical thinking but rather theology—which axiomatically means belief without evidence—then anything can be justified to the credulous. It is this willful surrender of truth to wishful thinking that underpins this movement.
Gerson may be right that many evangelicals lost their interest in decency by supporting Trump and that their religious tradition is now defined by resentment. But he is wrong in perpetuating the myth that this is bad for the country because religion “is essential to the country’s public life.” Religion might be essential to some people’s life, but not to everyone’s. Although religion has indeed motivated social justice and the common good throughout this country’s history, it has also motivated injustice, division, and harm. It is clear today that religion is required for neither the moral high ground nor high office. Any rescue from their leaders that evangelicals need, therefore, should be seen primarily as a private concern. What the American public might need rescue from, however, is a religious tradition that has an outsize voice in government.
New York, N.Y.
The messages that have steadily cemented white evangelicals within both the Republican Party and the churches that marry traditionalist theology with Republican politics are so ingrained that even those conservatives who lament the current state of American evangelicalism can’t help reinforcing them.
Take the conservative columnist Michael Gerson: In a recent story for The Atlantic, he wrote a heartfelt lament for the evangelicalism of his youth. He damned the evangelical leaders surrounding Mr. Trump as “blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents” and bemoaned that “little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness.”
Mr. Gerson opposed Mr. Trump during the 2016 campaign, calling him a “deeply and defiantly ignorant” man who suffers from “serious moral impairment.” Yet while Mr. Gerson and many of his fellow Never Trumpers—like the Southern Baptist Russell Moore—believed Mr. Trump to be dangerously unqualified, they could not bring themselves to the obvious conclusion to vote for Mrs. Clinton …
In Mr. Gerson’s retelling of American religious history, liberal Christians “found better things to do with their Sundays than attend progressive services” and abandoned key Christian tenets: “Many combined their faith with the Social Gospel—a postmillennialism drained of the miraculous, with social reform taking the place of the Second Coming.”
These critiques have grown more frequent over the past few years as the religious left became savvier and figures like the Rev. William Barber attracted national attention for his Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina (a weekly social justice protest at the state capitol in Raleigh).
Generations of white evangelicals have been conditioned to see evangelicalism as so synonymous with Republican politics that the idea of a non-Republican political option for religious voters simply does not exist.
Amy Sullivan Excerpt from a New York Times column
The Big Question
On Twitter, we asked people to pick their favorite reader response to May’s Big Question. Here’s how they voted.
Q: What item would you put in a time capsule to help the next century understand our current moment?
“Commander v. Chief” (April) misstated the university at which James F. Simon is employed. In fact, he is a dean and professor emeritus at New York Law School. We regret the error.
To contribute to The Conversation, please email firstname.lastname@example.org. Include your full name, city, and state.