“The Good Shepherd” by James Tissot

Confused by stalwart evangelical Christian support for Donald Trump? Don’t be. Organized religious movements, especially those of the Christian variety, are only nominally “religious” or faith-directed. They are, in fact, political movements (always have been; they started that way). We aren’t confused by U.S. Chamber of Commerce support for Trump, for example. These captains of industry don’t like the guy either; it’s not clear they ever respected him as “a businessman” (I mean, who bankrupts casinos? That’s really hard to do). But the Chamber anticipated that Trump, as president, would deliver policy outcomes that would keep American corporate interests rich and powerful. The Chamber’s support for Trump doesn’t confuse us at all.

The president’s evangelical Christian support is identically political and transactional.

To be fair, the president’s evangelical support is even more politically on the nose because, as it happens, the world’s two most prominent monotheistic religions, Christianity and Islam, were both founded as uniquely, overtly political movements — and so they remain. The disconnect and confusion come when something like ‘evangelical Christianity’ is viewed as a movement or phenomenon of faith. As such, its support for someone sporting such a “rich” history of bigotry, sexual predation, white supremacy and transgressive plutocracy would be totally mystifying.

However, when evangelical Christianity is rightly viewed as a political movement, the hypocrisy and our confusion about it fall away. Or they should.

Look at what Trump has promised and, in part, delivered to this political constituency of his: not enlightenment or even a righteous example but rather the appointment of judges who are likely to rule against abortion and gay rights (though the latter backfired on the evangelical right last week); the channeling of taxpayer money to private, largely religious, certainly segregated schools; recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, thereby laying the groundwork for the fulfillment of biblical prophecy; and restoration of an America that is ruled by white Christian men, despite a population that is ever more diverse. Quite apart from Trump and Republican Party policies, evangelical Christians also tend to be strongly supportive of American militarism abroad, race-based immigration policy, and authoritarian policing, three more things that make it darned near impossible to, among other things, love they neighbor as thyself.

We can agree nearly all of these priorities as maintained by Trump’s evangelical base don’t touch on faith much at all; even the fulfillment of policy serves only Christians themselves, not the breadth of God’s family. Many of these political goals demonstrably transgress New Testament teachings. Instead they are far more concerned with the wielding of power, social influence and control, and money — the stock in trade of most political movements.

Many Americans are thrown by this — the inability of nominal Christians to render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s (Romans 13:1). Even religiously observant onlookers get stuck on the hypocrisy of the situation — to a point. Trump’s personal behavior would surely offend lots of evangelicals were he raising their grandchildren or coaching their son’s Little League team, for example. But he’s not doing that. He’s delivering political power and influence, and that trumps all. Apparently. Evangelical Christians are no different from any other political constituency in their search for return on investment — a return they frankly didn’t realize from many Republican presidents up to now.

What has changed with Trump is the extent to which individual members of the religious right wing attempt to cloak these plainly political aims in religious vestments. That is to say, under Trump that practice has fallen away almost entirely — and this should help the rest of us better understand what has always been true: that organized religious movements don’t give a fig about salvation (yours, theirs, anyone’s), not when earthly power, influence, social control and money are at stake.  

Listen to the way Steven E. Strang, founder of the Christian publishing house Charisma Media, reckons this political calculus today:

“I believe that God answered our prayers in a way we didn’t expect, for a person we didn’t even necessarily like,” he told The New York Times last winter. “Christians believe in redemption and forgiveness, so they’re willing to give Donald Trump a chance.” Strang added that those who talk about Trump tarnishing the evangelical brand “are not really believers — they’re not with us, anyway.”

One thing is clear: This fellow Strang is not concerned with souls.

Neither is Penny Young Nance, president of Concerned Women for America, an evangelical organization formed to frame the 2018 midterm elections (to potential donors) as a civilizational struggle. Referring to Trump, she said, “His family can talk to him about issues of character.”

“Certainly we are all embarrassed,” Linda Leonhart, who is active in the women’s ministry at her suburban Dallas church, told  The Times in March 2019, citing the president’s serial lying, pettiness, impulsiveness, profanity and name calling. “But for the most part he represents what we stand for.” Not the Gospels, in other words, but the political gathering and wielding of earthly power, influence, social control and money.

These folks are not concerned with the teachings of scripture, much though former Attorney General Jeff Sessions might have tried to cite it in defense of this xenophobic policy or that one. Former White House Press Secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders attempted these same diversions. In 2020, it should be clear that Americans Republicans are more concerned with using scripture in the derivation and deployment of political identity and power, reflecting a Christian tradition that is nearly 2,000 years old.

The mere acknowledgement that Trump may be less than ideal morally — but that he delivers things like Brett Kavanaugh and protections for Christian health workers — is itself a tacit acknowledgement, on the part of Christian voters, that political concerns are equally important, if not more important, than matters of personal faith. For them, it’s a simple exercise in compartmentalism, a word that does not appear in the Bible, for the record. I doubt very much these folks would want Trump for a son-in-law (faith). But they love what he’s doing as president (politics).

•••

It’s not my intention to demean the faith of any individual believer. Indeed, it’s important to distinguish individual faith from organized faith.

The underlying faith of an individual — its particular strain, its level of fervor, its level of tolerance (to live or work beside non-believers, for example) — varies from person to person. Anyone who attends a church or mosque or synagogue or temple well understands this dynamic: We accept readily and comfortably the idea that whosoever might sit beside us in the pew does not believe or interpret God, sacred texts nor his/her faith exactly as we do.

Faith isn’t monolithic. It’s personal and highly variable, even within units so small as a congregation — or a family.

Organized religion is different because it actively seeks to synthesize these many disparate interpretations of faith into something monolithic, something shared, something potentially powerful, something with influence outside the confines of a single church, congregation or denomination. Indeed, these are the qualities that make it “evangelical”. It is this mobilization of aggregated, individual faiths that transforms the personal into the political — because the overarching goals of any organized religious movement are nearly always identical to those of any organized political or social movement: the gathering of power and influence, the exertion of social control or influence. More often than not, it’s also about the gathering of money.

[Do we really think all these evangelical pastors are so worried for the souls of parishioners during the pandemic? I don’t. Without regular Sunday gatherings, the plate is not passed and they don’t get paid.]

In the case of Christianity, the organized religious movement we Americans know best, this outreach, this bid for larger power, influence, social control and money is baked right in. Christians have a scriptural obligation to spread the gospel (as do Muslims, incidentally). I’m not sure exactly what it is about monotheism that so cynically mobilizes personal faith in the service of these larger, overtly political goals (power, social control, money). Even self-proclaimed political entities such as the Republican or Democratic parties do not require members to canvas on their behalf. That’s why the Grand Old Party may well be gone in 20 years while Christianity will be around for another 2,000.

Still, it’s precisely our failure to distinguish individual faith from organized religious politics that confuses us when it comes to people like Trump, or entities like the Christian Coalition or Operation Rescue. This confusion, this co-mingling of faith and politics, is no accident.

The history is important here. Religious establishments of any size much prefer that adherents consider individual faith and the desires of organized religious entities to be one and the same. Until a few hundred years ago, it demanded this comingling. Until the Protestant Reformation, it was heretical to seek and maintain a personal connection with the Christian God. Until the 18th century Enlightenment, even Protestants rarely separated their personal faiths from the tenets of their chosen denomination — to do so would diminish the power and influence of that denomination.

Enlightenment philosophy (and the democratic republics it enabled) changed everything. It detached one’s personal faith from the will of a state-run religion, from the ostensible will of denominations and their respective leaders.

As such, mobilizing the faithful is more difficult today than at perhaps any time since the early days of the Christian church, when dozens of Christian sects were running around pitching folks to come on board.

But this does not change the fact that today, as ever, Christianity operates in the society at large as political entity. The tax-free part is just the outstanding deal American Christianity wangled for itself when the Republic was formed (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Sweden and even Italy are examples of western, Judeo-Christian nations that tax their organized religious movements, meaning their churches).

Our failure, as Americans, to de-couple faith from the politics inherent to these organized religious movements lead to confusion. It makes it intellectually dishonest to blame all of Islam for the actions of Boko Haram or Barbary Pirates, or all of Christianity for the behavior of the Westboro Baptist Church or Spanish conquistadors. These religious movements confuse us. They don’t seem at all godly, or sacred, or driven by any concern for the soul — because the essence of these subgroups (and the organized movements behind them) are not religious at all. They are political.

While faith is personal, organized religion — because it’s inherently political — is additionally about communal identity. Those who share such identities don’t share identical faiths, as discussed. Still, they move and socialize and vote together as part of a tribe. Since 1980, we recognize identity as a building block of political affiliation. Again, it is this conference of social and political identity that takes one’s personal faith and translates it into political support, outside the self, outside the church where one might worship, beyond any denomination.

Does mere participation in an organized religious movement or denomination transform one’s personal faith from a religious expression to a political expression? It can. We see this demonstrated when one’s personal faith and religious identity are co-opted by the groupthink of a congregation, of a denomination, of a still larger movement such as “evangelical Christianity”. For those movements are based on the political stances religious leaders have strategically chosen for these groups.

•••

In the West, we know Christianity best — how it works, how people use it, how people adhere to its teachings, or not. We all know people who live their personal lives quite sincerely according to the teachings of Jesus Christ. We additionally know people who treat those teachings more casually. Knowing all these different people individually, recognizing the range of personal faiths, helps us reckon the difficulty and impracticality in painting large groups of evangelical Christians, or any Christians, with a broad brush.

Where Islam is concerned, here in America (where it remains a minority religion) and further afield, we’re not so well equipped to bring the same nuanced view to bear. We observe this when North Americans attempt to reckon the role Islam plays in nominally religious movements such as ISIS, Al Qaeda, Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Shabazz, etc.

Part of this uncertainly is explained by our relative unfamiliarity with Islam, with the Koran.

But it’s largely a matter of mistaking the political for the religious — something we do all the time with Christianity. Indeed, it’s precisely this disconnect that lies at the heart of our confusion with Trump and his evangelical “base”. It’s this disconnect that has people on the left continually howling about the “hypocrisy” of this or that, just as it leads westerners to howl about the aggression “inherent” to Islam.

Recognizing the politics inherent to organized religion, any organized religion, clears up the confusion instantantly.

Consider ISIS. Muslims outside this movement are not fans; they are quick to point out the folly of attributing to their faith its acts of naked political and military extremism. Islam is a movement whose adherents number in the billions, of course, the overwhelming majority of whom do not, as a matter of personal faith, practice in this capricious, nihilistic, militaristic form.

It’s naïve and blinkered frankly to observe ISIS and think it represents Islam somehow. But Western governments (our government) along with other political entities and media everywhere do a very poor job distinguishing between something like ISIS and Marxist movements like the FARC, in Columbia. They are identical, but because FARC is literally godless, we tend to think of it differently. For whatever reason, it’s difficult to think of ISIS and not think of Islam. And so its caprice, nihilism and over militarism confuse us.

But when we observe ISIS as a political movement, worry over this disconnect falls away very quickly — or it should. Indeed, there is no need for peaceful Muslims to explain anything away. The actions of ISIS, when rightly viewed as political actions, aren’t confusing at all: Here is a group of militants who seek land, treasure, social control and regional influence. Once it has achieved these things, it endeavors to maintain possession of them. ISIS may wave the black flag and invoke Allah, but its geopolitical goals are no different than those of any other marauding armies, be they led by South American Marxists, Napolean, Julius Caesar or Genghis Khan.

It’s a messy, imprecise business, this quest for motivation — mainly because leadership of these nominally religious movements, like ISIS, all state quite plainly and publicly that they are acting in the name of God, or God is acting through them. These are what we call “lies”.

The business analogy is again helpful to our understanding here. Like FARC, corporations don’t make any attempt to hide behind or work in the context of any religious movement. And so, we’re not confused by the actions of Volkswagen, which, you’ll recall, hid the actual emissions of its diesel cars a few years back in order to sell more vehicles to climate-conscious buyers. This was a scandal but there is no moral compass we expect VW executives to follow. They tried to make more money by marketing low-emission vehicles without having to pay for their manufacture. They got caught. They should be punished and are being punished. We are not confused about the motivations or high-minded tenets of its organization, not in the least.

Now think of the Catholic Church — not necessarily its ongoing child molestation but the cover-up in which it has engaged, over the course of decades. The scandal of this cover-up never fails to horrify and confuse us. How could a faith-based organization be so cruel and callous? How could they merely reassign offending priests to new parishes? How could they attempt to buy so much silence? None of this comports with the teachings of Jesus Christ.

However, when we recognize the cover-up as a political act — actions implemented by a political entity seeking to preserve political power, social control and cash flow — they still horrify us, but they do not confuse us. Or they should not.

Imagine the same sort of child molestation had been committed by officials of, say, the Republican Party. We would not condone their actions, nor the ensuing cover-up. But on some level, we would recognize the practicality in trying to cover them up, to mitigate the damage any such scandal might have on its electoral prospects, on it ability to wield power, to make policy, to raise money. We don’t presume any real moral core to an organization like the GOP (I certainly don’t). We recognize the party for what it is — a political organization that seeks only to win office, hold office, and wield power.

We further recognize that while the church hierarchy has behaved abominably, individual Catholics or even individual clergy can still act as caring, good-hearted people of faith. In the west, we know enough about the Catholic Church to add this nuance to our judgments.

Our relative ignorance of Islam and its 1,400 year history, however, makes this sort of nuanced judgment much harder. Acts of terrorism committed by individual Muslim and/or organized by groups of militant Muslims, lead many in the west to brand the entire Islamic community as a cult of death. But terrorism is not a religious act. It is a political act.

What’s more, the long history of Christianity is similarly political and similarly littered with acts of brutal violence leveled in the name of Almighty God. This history of shameful, cynical, political acts has been prosecuted on behalf of Christianity by nation states (the Crusades), within and between states (the Wars of Reformation), by roving bands of adventurers acting only nominally in the name of a state (the colonization of New Spain), and small cells operating within quite modern Westphalian states (the Army of God here in the U.S., The Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda).

The point here is not to compare and contrast how senseless violence has been perpetrated in the names of Islam, Christianity or any other organized religion. The point is to understand the motivations behind these acts as having been primarily political.

Every time there is an act of Islamic terrorism, we westerners struggle to understand to what extent it was driven by Islam-inspired intent, in the same way educated Muslims of the 11th century struggled to understand the faith-based intents of the Pope and his minions during the Crusades — in the same way we liberal westerners struggle to understand the motivations of evangelical Christians in their support for such a decidedly and demonstrably un-Christian leader like Donald Trump or Roy Moore.

Sadly, people are easily led astray, and not by accident. It is precisely the religious invocations from these people — the Pope, Trump, Moore, the head of ISIS — that tend to legitimize them as high-minded, religiously principled, perhaps even sacred, however despicable and sociopathic they might be in objective reality.

These invocations are mere flags of convenience, of course. Throughout the Common Era — from the Crusades, to the Wars of Reformation, to European colonization of Africa and the Americas; from the Shia vs. Sunni schism, to the conquest of North Africa and Andalucia, to the late 20th century rise of Wahhabism in Saudi Arabia  — the leaders of these movements have used religious invocations to veil what are plainly brutal, perfectly practical, geopolitical power grabs.

There is no need to square the teachings of Jesus Christ or Allah with these actions. In the case of ISIS today, discard the impulse to reckon the religious teachings of Mohammed with the treatment of Yazidis or Kurds. The Gospel of Matthew does not in any way inform the demonstrably secular, political motivations of Ralph Reed’s Faith & Freedom Coalition, or Trump’s zero tolerance border policy. The role of religion in all these cases is meaningless gloss.

•••

As alluded to above, Christianity and Islam did not develop this political capability over the course centuries. Both arrived on the scene fully equipped.

You won’t learn this in Bible study, but there were dozens of Christian sects running around the eastern Mediterranean preaching wildy divergent versions of the Gospel in the first 200 years of the Common Era. One particular strain, what became the Church of Rome (which became what we recognize as modern Christianity) ultimately built the largest following by outcompeting other sects for adherents, for power and influence, for money. The competition between these early sects and their respective belief systems wasn’t necessarily religious or doctrinal. It was political. And so it remains remains today.

For example, the particular Pauline sect that would grow into the Church of Rome at first welcomed women as deacons; this set it apart from Judaism, from other Christian sects, and from most of the polytheistic belief systems with which it also competed for adherents in the first two centuries C.E. It might well have been the will of God to raise women up in this fashion. Perhaps not. But it was undoubtedly good retail politics.

However, as the Paulines gathered numbers and stature within the Roman Empire, this ascendant Christian sect became ever more patriarchal (a lot more). Female deacons were eventually deemed heretical. Again, this shift wasn’t a doctrinal matter. It was a political matter: Paulines would never be taken seriously by the patriarchal Roman power structure in which they operated, nor would they continue to grow in the universally and staunchly patriarchal Mediterranean world, if women were allowed that sort of power within the movement. And so, female deacons were phased out.

Consider the Christian obligation to spread “the good news”. Again, not a religious decision but a political decision, one of not insignificant genius. Unlike followers of Judaism (the non-proselytizing sect from which Pauline Christianity grew), observant Christians have an obligation to stump for the faith. Not coincidently, Muslims have a similar obligation baked right into the Koran.

This obligation to proselytize has proved a monumental political boon to Christianity, but it has also proved difficult to square with doctrinal realities. For example, when Spanish conquistadors colonized New Spain, they killed millions of native peoples who refused to convert. Not one but a succession of popes backed this murderous effort, telling conquistadors the act of killing uncooperative heathen was the only way to save their savage souls. This is nonsense, of course, and pretty scatological nonsense at that. The Vatican wanted New World silver as badly as the Spanish and Portuguese monarchs who organized these colonial efforts, not to mention the conquistadors themselves, and their troops. Trying to understand this doctrine in terms of the Christian faith is a waste of time. (Ditto for the millions of additional indigenous Americans killed by their exposure to European germs. God’s will? Jeezum, let’s hope not.)

In a political context, however, the Popes’ serial blessings make perfect sense: If these natives are not with us politically, and indeed if they stand between our control of this land and its valuable natural resources, kill them all dead. We’ll just say we’re saving their souls, as a rhetorical device.

These cynical shifts in doctrine, these bits of realpolitik embedded in “sacred” Christian mores — the Inquisition, the Papal Schism, the sale of indulgences, the colonization of Africa and the Americas, the modern backing of fascist dictators, etc. — are mystifying and obviously hypocritical when viewed solely through a prism of faith. They make no sense whatever when viewed as religious acts.

However, when they are viewed through the proper prism, as geopolitical acts, only a fool would fail to see the logic in them.

We see this deployment of ‘the religious as obfuscation’ throughout history, mostly starkly perhaps when Christians are pitted politically against other Christians. The Wars of Reformation raged through Europe for more than a century, starting in the 1530s; smaller-scale but no less deadly skirmishes between Protestants and Catholics continued well into the 20th Century. Each claimed the will of the same God. Stunning atrocities were committed on both sides. When viewed as manifestations of Christian theology, as “acts of faith”, these wars are impossible to reckon with the teachings of Christ.

As political acts, however, these attempts to gather and consolidate power and influence over people, territory and resources aren’t mystifying at all. They are abhorrent, just as the tit-for-tat actions of Shia and Sunni Muslims are abhorrent. But when viewed as political acts, they’re not confusing in any way.

And here’s the thing: Christians don’t need a knowledge of or sympathy with Islam to understand the naked politics wielded by Taliban leaders in Afghanistan today, just as 14th century Muslims didn’t need a knowledge of or sympathy with Christianity to understand the political motivation behind the Reconquest of Spain.

Political figures of all denominations and belief systems routinely deploy religious rhetoric to explain or justify the naked gathering or practical consolidation of secular power. It throws observers off the scent, precisely because it’s designed specifically to mask one’s true, naked, often base motivations.

•••

When it’s not “our” religion or “our”country being co-opted or compromised for these nefarious or otherwise expedient purposes, it’s easier to spot the naked politics involved. When Sloban Milosovic embarked on an ethnic cleansing campaign against pockets of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia, Eastern Orthodox Christianity was the tool he used to mobilize one group of people against another — the goal being the formation and consolidation of Greater Serbia, devoid of Muslims, whose political allegiance to a Serbian state could never be counted upon. Milosovic wanted land, money, influence, and power. As so, like many had before him, he used the organizing principle of Christianity in a political fashion to motivate this aggression, even though that very aggression quite obviously countermanded the teachings of Jesus Christ, on which Eastern Orthodox faith is based.

It’s important to recognize that most of us in the West didn’t wring our hands trying to figure out how this thug reckoned his Christian faith with these actions. We took it for granted that this was no fault of Eastern Orthodox Christianity itself. And yet, this is a dispensation we seem unwilling to grant Islam.

Roy Moore’s recent, failed run at a U.S. Senate seat from Alabama illustrates this dynamic in another way. Few candidates have ever framed their candidacies in more faith-based terms, and despite the man’s long, demonstrable record of cradle-robbing and under-aged sexual predation (to say nothing of judicial jackassery), some 70 percent of white Alabamans voted for him anyway. More than 90 percent of Alabama Republicans voted for him. Nearly every one of these white, Republican Alabamans would identify as Christian; a large majority would identify as evangelical Christians.

The decision-making of these voters is confounding when support for Moore is viewed in the context of the religious movement that is evangelical Christianity. Ditto for Trump.

However, it makes perfect sense when viewed in the context of the political movement that is evangelical Christianity. When push comes to shove in the public square (a place outside individual faith) politics nearly always prevails. That is the genius of political movements operating under the guise of organized religious faith.

Mind you, merely recognizing the political is not the same thing as effectively combatting the political. Observe the now-infamous cake maker from Colorado, whose legal argument — that his “sincerely held” Christian faith should allow him to refuse service (the creation of weddings cakes) to gay couples — was recently heard at the U.S. Supreme Court (Masterpiece Cakeshop v. Colorado Civil Rights Commission). The high court found for the cake maker in July 2018, by a 7-2 majority. Observe how the “sincerely held” religious conviction of a business owner can now, in wake of another recent SCOTUS decision (Burwell v. Hobby Lobby Stores, Inc. in 2014), deny employee access to government-funded abortion and contraception services via company health care plans.  

So soon as religious conviction is manifest outside one’s personal faith, it is politicized. Today more than ever before, I’d argue. The conservative majority now sitting on our nation’s highest court seems not to care how or even whether to prove if someone’s faith is sincerely held. This is the linchpin of these legal arguments: Without these “sincerely held” beliefs, these legal exemptions from the law are not granted. If we’ve proved nothing else here, it’s that members of religious movements will do or say almost anything to gain, wield or preserve the movement’s power, to assert social control, to cash in. And yet the court takes these plaintiffs at their word, on faith.

Movements built around such blatant political goals can blind themselves even to the scriptural tenets of their own faith. Witness the recent refusal of right-wingers and Trump supporters to utter the words “Black Lives Matter”, or otherwise acknowledge the thrust of that argument: that police in this country kill people of color more often and indiscriminately than white folk.

Vice President Mike Pence has made his political career on the strength and visibility of his so-called religious convictions. Upon entering high office in 2016, he made it clear: “I’m a Christian, a conservative, and a Republican, in that order.” On Juneteenth 2020 (June 19, the day marking the practical end to American slavery, in 1865), he was pressed by CBS News re. this refusal to utter those three words, Black Lives Matter.  

If he weren’t so blessedly obtuse, Pence could have artfully dismissed this matter by referring to scripture, perhaps the time-honored and completely apt Christian ideal of The Good Shepherd. According to Luke 15:3–7:

He told them this parable. “Which of you men, if you had one hundred sheep, and lost one of them, wouldn’t leave the ninety-nine in the wilderness, and go after the one that was lost, until he found it? When he has found it, he carries it on his shoulders, rejoicing. When he comes home, he calls together his friends, his family and his neighbors, saying to them, ‘Rejoice with me, for I have found my sheep which was lost!’ I tell you that even so there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, than over ninety-nine righteous people who need no repentance.”

And yet, Pence did not go there. Instead he opted for full-on pander mode, insisting that “all lives matter”. He’s still a Christian, a conservative and a Republican, in that order. It just so happens that all three allow him to place political expedience ahead of the clear moral outlines of his faith.