Trumped by Pride: The Compromise of Evangelical Values

Something is happening to us.

It used to be we Evangelicals knew where to turn in times of trouble. It didn’t matter whether the challenge was an impending military conflict, a natural disaster, or an economic downturn — our first instinct was to find an altar or prayer room where we could petition the Almighty.

These sacred transaction sites have not disappeared. They have gotten lonely. We still pray, of course, but it is no longer our first resort.

In searching for reasons, it is safe to say disappointment, impatience, and distraction have all played a role in redirecting our steps (and perhaps our hearts) into more “practical” activities. Thus, hours once spent in prayer are now invested in community initiatives, social networking, and political action (including, but not limited to, voting).

It is true there have been scattered efforts to combine prayer and politics, but these activities (welcome and admirable as they may be) have thus far borne little fruit. The country is still a mess, and getting worse.

Hillary and The Donald

Enter the 2016 election with its myriad candidates, hyped debates, and endless attack ads.

According to media pundits and party operatives, distressed Evangelicals are likely to play a significant role in determining the next president of the United States.

That was certainly the central theme of the Iowa caucuses.

While Ted Cruz pulled off a modest victory on the Republican side, most national polls point to Donald Trump as the party’s likely flag bearer in the November election. For the Democrats, that role goes to Hillary Clinton, assuming she does not run afoul of the law relative to her handling (or mishandling) of sensitive government emails.

But here is where things get curious. Both leading candidates are routinely described as a mix of ruthless ambition and unbridled arrogance. And yet both have garnered considerable Evangelical support.

In one slightly dated poll (aren’t they all these days), Mrs. Clinton supposedly enjoys a substantial margin of support among Protestants (47%-39%). In itself this comes as no surprise, as Mainline churches have been trending liberal for years now. But the folks at Zogby Analytics add an interesting tagline — Hillary’s total includes 36% support among Born Again/Evangelical voters.

Mr. Trump seems to have found this same sweet spot. According to a nationwide CNN/ORC poll released in mid January, he was leading Ted Cruz among GOP evangelicals 39% to 25%. A New York Times/CBS News poll showed The Donald dominating the field with 42 percent of evangelical voters.

So this is where we have gone.

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“Part of the beauty of me,” Mr. Trump tells us, “is that I am very rich” (just in case we missed it). There is a gilded $100 million Manhattan penthouse supplemented by a Florida estate with 58 bedrooms, a 60-room summer retreat, a 2,000-acre vineyard estate, and a mansion on Beverly Hills’ Rodeo Drive. There are also beauty pageants and golf courses, private jets and helicopters, chauffeured limousines — well, we get the idea.

In addition to his wealth, The Donald also wants us to appreciate (deeply) his intellect. “Let me tell ya,” he says, “I’m a really smart guy.”

Though willing to share from this vast store of wisdom — which apparently isn’t easy even in a 320-page book — he is keen that we not undervalue his insights. Introducing How to Get Rich he warns: “Don’t let the brevity of these passages prevent you from savoring the profundity of the advice you are about to receive.”

In a CNN article aimed at explaining Donald Trump’s arrogance, psychoanalyst Michael Maccoby cites a comment by an executive at Oracle describing his narcissistic CEO Larry Ellison: ‘The difference between God and Larry is that God does not believe he is Larry.’”

While not all Evangelicals are prepared to deify Mr. Trump, The Donald has a quick Twitter finger for those who question his intelligence or fitness for office.

“Sorry losers and haters, but my IQ is one of the highest — and you all know it! Please don’t feel so stupid or insecure; it’s not your fault.”

This tit for tat response to critics has become a hallmark of Mr. Trump, reflecting a life philosophy recently articulated in the Washington Post: “If someone screws you, screw them back.”

And if you are the screwer?

“I think apologizing’s a great thing,” he told Jimmy Fallon on the Tonight Show, “but you have to be wrong. I will absolutely apologize, sometime in the hopefully distant future, if I’m ever wrong.”

Campaigning in Iowa, Trump assured CNN he had “a great relationship with God,” and he tries to “do nothing that’s bad.” When asked about an event in Ames last year where he said he didn’t think he had ever sought forgiveness from God, Trump responded: “When we go in church and I drink the little wine…and I eat the little cracker — I guess that's a form of asking forgiveness.”

But the supremely confident Donald is not exactly obsessing about forgiveness these days. As he boasted to supporters in Sioux Center, Iowa: “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose any voters, okay?” (Hillary Clinton has apparently used this same calculus in relation to the current FBI investigation into her unsecured email server.)

Hillary, who counts truckloads of Christian supporters, especially among African Americans, seems to prefer aloofness and dissembling over Trumpian bombast.

According to former White House Secret Service agent Dan Emmett, Mrs. Clinton routinely treated agents and support staff like personal servants — never venturing so much as a ‘thank you’ even in the face of great sacrifice.

Such behavior, assuming it is true, betrays a sense of entitlement that has come to characterize the political elite in Washington.

Entitled, aloof people are just as likely as bombastic people to think of themselves as being above others. And this inherent sense of superiority can drive them to bend the truth or skirt the law in situations where the latter is seen as an impediment to their higher purposes.

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Thus, in Hillary Clinton’s world, it is perfectly acceptable to lie brazenly and then blame the controversy on critics. But the practice is apparently wearing thin even among her fellow progressives. At a CNN town-hall event at Drake University, a student confronted the former secretary of state over what comedian Stephen Colbert would call her “truthiness” problem. Looking right at Hillary, he said: “I’ve heard from quite a few people my age that say you're dishonest.”

Her response? “I've been around a long time — people have thrown all kinds of things at me. I can’t keep up with it. They come up with these outlandish things, they make these charges, I just keep going forward because there's nothing to it. They throw all this stuff at me, and I am still standing.”

According to syndicated writer Jonathan Tobin, “The point here isn’t just that she behaved wrongly and won’t own up to it. It’s that she still seems to consider the very act of answering questions about her conduct to be beneath her dignity. The defensive and surly tone with which she made these statements reeks with arrogance.”

Caught up in their candidate’s self-importance, an honesty-be-damned group of Clinton supporters demanded recently that media outlets avoid describing Hillary as polarizing, calculating, entitled, or disingenuous. Those who failed to comply would be pilloried publicly as “sexists!”

But at a Bernie Sanders’ rally in Iowa it was Clinton’s own televised comments that sent hundreds of young caucus goers into a robust chant of “She’s a liar! She’s a liar! She’s a liar!” Shocking spectacle even by the standards of today’s political circus.

Evangelicals Rationalize Their Support

So how are Evangelical voters justifying their support for arrogance, dishonesty, and elitism? A recent set of interviews suggests that, for many, it is a battle between head and heart.

“Spirituality is a big issue,” says one disabled veteran from Lexington, Kentucky, “but we need somebody who’s strong.”

A female graphic designer from Iowa admits to being impressed by Trump’s forceful personality. “I could forgo, I think, some of my Christian and conservative principles slightly if I knew that Trump could repair the mess that the country is in. And that is something that I see in him. He might have the ability to just – ‘Boom’ -- take care of things very quickly.”

Another Evangelical voter, a 75-year-old retired schoolteacher, boils it down to success. “We want to see a winner, and I think we perceive him as a winner.” “He is the only one who can pull us back from the abyss,” says John Juvenal, a former Oklahoma City police officer.

And that, for Mr. Trump’s evangelical supporters, is apparently the bottom line: Save us, as only you can, and we will overlook your flaws.

As one California-based distributor of faith- and family-oriented films put it, “you don’t have to scream to the world that you’re a Christian.”

No, you don’t. But how does that justify throwing your support behind someone who has spent their entire life screaming they are not a Christian?

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In his book “The Art of the Comeback,” Trump bragged: “If I told the real stories of my experiences with women, often seemingly very happily married and important women, this book would be a guaranteed best-seller.”

The truth is Donald Trump has two ruined (of his own) marriages, and is now on his third (with a woman who has posed for lesbian porn). He has made a bank-full of money from casino operations, owned strip joints and a vodka business, and acknowledged no need of repentance before a holy God.

And yet he has garnered the endorsements of Christian luminaries like Sarah Palin, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Phyllis Schlafly, and Duck Dynasty’s Willie Robertson.

Go figure.

And they are not alone. Last October, about 40 Pentecostal and Baptist leaders — including Paula White, Jentezen Franklin, Clarence McClendon, Jan Crouch, Kenneth Copeland, David Jeremiah, and Dallas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress — laid hands on The Donald on the 26th floor of Trump Tower in New York and asked God to give the candidate “wisdom, strength, and courage.”

Asked to explain the appeal of the Trump candidacy, one participant, Cleveland pastor Darrell Scott, replied: “We appreciate directness, we appreciate bluntness, we’re more in-your-face.”

But it is Falwell’s endorsement that has generated the most heat, and is undoubtedly the most surprising. As Chancellor of the conservative Liberty University and scion of the late founder of the Moral Majority, he is widely regarded as one of the nation’s Evangelical standard bearers.

Defending his public support for Trump, Falwell noted that any parent who had a sick child would seek the best doctor they could find. This was the philosophy of his late father who said “when he went into the voting booth, he wasn’t trying to elect a Sunday school teacher, or pastor, or even somebody who shared his theological beliefs.” Rather, the elder Falwell said, he “was trying to elect the most qualified person to be the president of the United States.”

The most qualified person? The best doctor available?

To suggest the immoral, foul-mouthed, and biblically illiterate Donald Trump is that person is to assume what ails America is something other than moral depravity and spiritual neglect. It also presumes what is called for is human rather than divine intervention, and the fundamental leadership required in this perilous hour is not a call to humility and repentance, but the application of strongman tactics and fiscal know-how.

While Hillary Clinton’s support among Evangelicals is weaker, there are those like Tony Campolo (“I know Hillary to be a committed Christian”) who truly believe the former First Lady will lay the groundwork for… what? A spiritual revival? Mrs. Clinton has made at least halting efforts to present herself as an Evangelical, going so far as to tell a group of supporters last year that “the Bible was and remains the biggest influence on my thinking.” But she has also boasted of playing “an instrumental role in bringing Lady Gaga to Italy” for a gay pride concert during her tenure as Secretary of State.

And then there is Hillary’s strong support for same-sex marriage, and top marks earned from NARAL Pro-Choice America for her votes against the partial birth abortion ban and parental notification.

Strange behavior from someone who claims to be a biblically influenced, committed Christian.

But even if we agree Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are spiritual bad actors, what does this actually tell us? Does it follow that their ambition and arrogance is the principle problem facing the nation right now?

In answering these questions, we might start by reminding ourselves that the following statements belong to us. And as Jesus told the religious order of his day, the mouth speaks out of the overflow of the heart (see Matthew 12:34 NIV).

“Spirituality is a big issue, but…”

“I could forgo some of my Christian principles slightly if I knew…”

“We’re not trying to elect a Sunday school teacher…”

Yes, we are fed up with governmental corruption and inaction that has led to our present woes at home and abroad. The frustration is perfectly understandable, but it does not tell the whole story.

If we think the dysfunction in Washington, DC is anything other than a reflection of our own selfishness, compromise, and neglect, we are seriously deceived. And it does no good to talk of deliverance if we are unwilling to break the habit of blame shifting. It is easy to fixate on the government’s shortcomings, but we cannot afford to overlook our own.

As Christian writer and social commentator Os Guinness so aptly puts it, “The problem is not the wolves at the door. It is the termites in the floor.”

Whether Evangelicals will recognize this danger in time is an open question — but our recent migration to ungodly, narcissistic candidates is not an encouraging sign.

When Donald Trump shouts he is going to “Make America great again,” he is offering to serve as our hired muscle. That we are responding with applause and endorsements is evidence we have lost confidence in God.

By leading with crass ambition and arrogance, Mr. Trump shows he has no idea what is at the root of American greatness. And by the look of things, neither do we.

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Aligning With the Divine

At the October 2015 meeting with The Donald at his New York headquarters, some Evangelical participants counseled him to tone down his rhetoric (for purposes of electability). Others, however, urged the candidate to be himself. Said one: “Don’t tone it down so much that you are no longer the person that you are.”

Given Mr. Trump’s in-your-face pride and arrogance, one can only ask: Why in God’s name would Evangelicals encourage this!?

Since words and votes both speak, it can be argued that any Evangelical who supports Mr. Trump is encouraging The Donald to “be himself.” And if recent surveys are accurate, that is an awful lot of us.

There is danger here. By disregarding Scripture that is emphatic in its rejection of the proud and haughty, we risk standing in opposition to God.

But here it is good to let the Almighty speak for Himself.

“By your great skill in trading you have increased your wealth, and because of your wealth your heart has grown proud.” (Ezekiel 28:5)

“…whoever has haughty eyes and a proud heart, him will I not endure.” (Psalm 101:5b)

“The Lord detests all the proud of heart. Be sure of this: They will not go unpunished.” (Proverbs 16:5)

“Haughty eyes and a proud heart, the lamp of the wicked, are sin!” (Proverbs 21:4)

“To fear the Lord is to hate evil; I hate pride and arrogance, evil behavior and perverse speech.” (Proverbs 8:13)

Even in the face of such unambiguous language, some Evangelicals remain determined to identify loopholes and exceptions that will allow them to pursue a marriage of convenience with Mr. Trump (or Hillary for that matter). These individuals are fond of citing historical cases where God used arrogant, and even ungodly, leaders to further His purposes (Sesostris III, Nebuchadnezzar, Cyrus the Great, Artaxerxes, and Xerxes II come to mind).

Two things are conspicuously missing from this argument.

First, the people of God played no role whatever in the rise to power of these leaders. There was no Christian Coalition, no Moral Majority, no Tea Party. As slaves and exiles, they harbored no concept of democratic elections.

Secondly, although God may have used these men, there is no evidence He approved of them. To the contrary, He eventually brought each one low (in keeping with the warning of Proverbs 11:2; 16:1, & 18:12).

As God makes clear in Psalm 138:6, He is aware of the proud, but reserves relationship for the humble.

“Though the Lord is on high, he looks upon the lowly, but the proud he knows from afar.”

As always, God’s primary concern is not with the arrogant outsider, but with those who bear His Name. And to them He presents a clear choice:

The man (or woman) who makes the Lord his trust — rather than looking to the proud, or to those who turn aside to false gods — will be blessed (Psalm 40:4).

The one who trusts in man — who depends on flesh for his (or her) strength and    whose heart turns away from the Lord — is cursed (Jeremiah 17:5).

In the Apostle Paul’s second epistle to Timothy, he includes a graphic description of the kind of behavior that will be on display in the last days. Penned nearly two millennia ago, it bears striking resemblance to the life and times of one Donald Trump. Those of us who call ourselves Evangelicals will do well to review the passage and heed its warning.

“People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God — having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people” (2 Timothy 3:2-5).

The Apostle James explains why this separation is necessary.

“You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world means enmity against God? Therefore, anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think Scripture says without reason that he jealously longs for the spirit he has caused to dwell in us? But he gives us more grace. That is why Scripture says:

‘God opposes the proud but shows favor to the humble’” (James 4:4-6).

Choosing the right side is the first and most important step to victory — which is why it is self-defeating to vote for a candidate whose overweening ambition and pride insures they will be opposed by God.

If we truly want to make America great again (and we must at least consider the possibility this is no longer God’s top priority), our surest path is the way of humility.

May we choose wisely.