Why do evangelicals — or at least, white ones — love President Donald Trump so much? Why do they stick by a president who has barely even read the Bible, has defiled marriage, and embodies the antithesis of so much of what their churches preach? Why, according to polls, did they essentially decide overnight that it’s no longer important for a president to have strong personal morals to be an effective leader?
In conversation with CNN’s Michael Smerconish on Saturday, former Reagan and George W. Bush adviser Peter Wehner, an anti-Trump conservative and himself an evangelical, tried to break down the calculus white evangelical voters have used to embrace Trumpism — and how it is poisonous for the future of Christianity in America.
“The thesis is that Donald Trump has tapped into something deep among some white evangelicals,” said Wehner. “The bottom line is that he will fight for them. Not that he himself is of Christian faith. Not even he himself is a manifestation of Christian virtues, but they feel like they are involved in an existential struggle against a malicious enemy that they consider to be the Left, the American Left. And Trump will try and vanquish that enemy. And that he’ll do it in means that they themselves might be uncomfortable with doing — there’s a ruthlessness to Donald Trump and a dehumanization of them that they feel like is necessary to defeat a foe that they think will destroy most of what they know and love.”
“The now-president famously employed Roy Cohn as his attack dog, as his lawyer, when he was a Manhattan-based developer,” said Smerconish. “And as I read your piece, I was thinking, it’s as if the evangelical community has similarly hired a ringer, hired a fighter for them, regardless of whether he’s one of them?”
“Yeah, I think that’s a good analogy,” said Wehner. “That is exactly it. They feel like he’ll bring a gun to a cultural knife fight, Donald Trump, that he hates the same people that they hate. And that he’ll employ means that’ll get it done.”
“Now in doing that, I think it’s led them into all sort of dark alleyways,” added Wehner. “I think it’s been tremendously discrediting to the Christian faith. And I think it’s shown to a watching world a tremendous amount of hypocrisy, after all this ‘character counts’ and ‘personal integrity’ and political leadership was central to what a lot of evangelicals argued when Bill Clinton was president. And now that it’s Donald Trump, they’ve decided to push it aside, which means for them that reality is a means to an end, not an end, it was something to be used as a political weapon. And when that happens, when people look at it and see and say, ‘oh, I get it, this is all a game,’ then that can have a corrosive effect on the trust that people have for Christians.”
“I am a Christian, as you said, my faith is more important than my politics,” said Wehner. “They’re both important. But to see what’s happening to the witness of Christ and Christianity in all of this, it’s a painful thing to see. I argue in my book that I think a lot of these white evangelical leaders are doing more to hurt Christianity than the so-called New Atheists ever could.”