If Evangelicals Want to Win Politically, They Need to Stop Thinking of America as ‘A Christian Nation’

Evangelical politics as an alliance between Roy Moore and Donald Trump illustrates a crisis of evangelical political activism and theology.

by Nathanael Blake

Politics makes for strange bedfellows. In Alabama, Roy Moore, who made his career denouncing strange bedfellows, has enthusiastically embraced President Trump, even after the president endorsed Moore’s rival in the Republican senatorial primary. Moore’s brand is synonymous with the Ten Commandments; Trump’s is built on breaking them (albeit often ineffectively—he somehow went bankrupt trying to sell strippers and gambling to Americans).

This decadent tableau of evangelical politics as an alliance between Moore and Trump illustrates a crisis of evangelical political activism and theology. Eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, despite his decades as an unabashed advertisement for most of the seven deadly sins. These evangelicals don’t think they betrayed their principles in supporting Trump—the alternative was Hillary Clinton, who made no attempt to win evangelical voters and whose venality matched Trump’s.

But the Hillary excuse undermines the political theology of Moore and other evangelical leaders who believe America is a Christian nation with a covenantal relationship with God and a providential mission in the world. Their claim that the United States is a Christian nation is not only descriptive, but prescriptive. They don’t just acknowledge Christianity’s influence in America, they assert that the United States must admit God’s sovereignty and adhere to his law—like ancient Israel, America will be especially blessed by God if it remains righteous, and face divine wrath if it is not.

Winning Means God Likes You

As George McKenna has documented, this theological understanding of America began with the Puritans but has been adapted to the changes and crises of American history from the War for Independence to the present. Its mild form is seen in the spiritually sentimental patriotism expressed, for example, in the ritual singing of “God Bless America” at baseball games. Its strong form is championed by the likes of Moore.

But it is difficult to find a satisfactory place for President Trump in this worldview. He is a political ally of these evangelicals, who are therefore inclined to see him as divinely favored. But it is laughable to view Trump, who has lived as an ambulatory catalog of proud public iniquity, as an avatar of political Christianity, the pious leader of a Christian nation with a special providential purpose. The difficulties this theology of politics creates are seen in the grotesque attempts by many of Trump’s prominent evangelical defenders to compare him to the biblical King David, even though David’s contrition for his sins starkly contrasts with Trump’s denial that he needs forgiveness.

On this point it is no good to say, “But Hillary!” The biblical passages recounting the kings, good and bad, of Israel and Judah do not excuse wicked kings if the next in line to the throne would have been worse. For a covenant nation and its leaders, wickedness is wickedness. If the United States is a Christian nation liable to divine chastisement for the wickedness of its leaders, then backing Trump is madness. Supporting Trump is only supportable if abandoning the common evangelical conceit of America as a special covenanted Christian nation.

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SOURCE: The Federalist

Nathanael Blake has a PhD in political theory. He lives in Missouri.