Columns » Jay Barth

Church politics



Donald Trump's historic success with white evangelical voters (with about four in five of their votes, according to exit polls, he met the high-water mark for GOP candidates in the modern era) was one of the keys to his narrow Electoral College victory. On the policy front and in other key ways, religious conservatives are now positioned to be a force within a Trump presidency. It is the progressive branch of Christianity that is benefiting in the immediate aftermath of the election, however, as Trumpism has become the foil for its New Testament-focused message.

The selection of vice president-elect Mike Pence — a true hero to religious conservatives because of his work on abortion and LGBTQ issues in Congress and as governor of Indiana — helped reassure religious conservatives that they would have a place at the table in a Trump presidency, making him one of the more consequential vice presidential candidates in memory. Shaped by campaign manager Kellyanne Conway's history in working with religious conservatives, the Trump campaign made particularly good use of the issue of the future of the Supreme Court in the stretch run of the campaign. (Hillary Clinton's full-throated defense of abortion rights in the third presidential debate also aided in the priming of this issue with voters most deeply concerned about that issue on both sides of the policy divide.)

Throughout his campaign for president, Trump also talked regularly about his dedication to eliminate the "Johnson Amendment," the provision of the tax code that bars all tax-exempt organizations from supporting or opposing candidates for electoral office or from lobbying on specific issues. While its origins had nothing to do with religion (the motivation behind the amendment was to prevent anti-Communist organizations from funneling money into the campaign of then-Sen. Lyndon Johnson's opponent for re-election to the U.S. Senate in 1954), Christian right groups and churches have been most agitated by it as they repoliticized in the 1970s and have aggressively challenged it in a series of court cases, in which it has been upheld. Critics of the ban have framed it as an abridgement of free speech and, indeed, particularly for the individual clergy members whose speech is limited by the ban, it raises interesting First Amendment issues. However, the debate over the ban also ties to the political power of churches and other religious institutions, particularly in regard to political money. If the provision were eliminated, church-related political entities could become, in essence, tax-supported super PACs as large, tax-exempt donations were made to them to indirectly aid candidates' campaigns.

So, both in terms of policy and in important institutional ways, conservative Christian churches may be the long-term beneficiaries of the Trump years. However, there is evidence that the immediate beneficiaries have been religious institutions at the other end of the political spectrum. As an article by Emma Green in The Atlantic this week notes, churches across various liberal denominations have seen major bumps in church attendance in the aftermath of the election. While the evidence is only anecdotal, progressive churches have been spaces where those questioning the cause and meaning of Trump's victory have sought solace in significant numbers.

Green also notes that, perhaps even more important than any increase in attendance (and, indeed, the dramatic increase in nonbelievers in American society limits that growth potential significantly), the rise of Trump "might be theologically, morally and intellectually generative for progressive religious traditions." Trump's competition-focused worldview and bombastic style is an implicit and explicit foil for a New Testament-centered theology focused on communitarian love. This array of sermons and essays serve as a spiritual extension of the secular slogan "Love Trumps Hate," employed by the Clinton campaign.

Considering my own ambivalent relationship with organized religion, I'm surprised to say that two of the most comforting events I've had in the aftermath of Nov. 8 resulted from sermons delivered from the pulpit of Christ Episcopal Church in downtown Little Rock (my friends, including my priest, who know well my secular sentiments are likely even more surprised). One came at a funeral that celebrated the life of a 95-year-old who evidenced communal love — rather than aggressive competition — in all his interactions with friends and with strangers. "God knows this world needs joy-fired lives like his more than ever," Rector Scott Walters concluded. The other, two days later, came at an appearance by the Church's new Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, the first African-American to hold the leadership position and a dynamic preacher. Curry also grappled with the meaning of these times, saying that our ultimate guidepost should be something we learned as kindergartners: the Pledge of Allegiance. After slowly repeating its closing words ("One Nation. Under God. Indivisible. With Liberty and Justice FOR ALL"), he bellowed: "That's the America I love and those were the words that we needed then and the words we that we need now. We will make it through our differences. We will make it through hard times, standing on the rock that is the core of who we actually are as a nation."

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