The support of white evangelicals for Donald Trump continues to exasperate and perplex. About 80 percent of them voted for him in 2016—the most recorded for a Republican candidate since 2000—and his approval rating among them remains high. In June, some 1,000 evangelical pastors plan to meet the president, both to “celebrate” his accomplishments (as one leading pastor put it) and to rally Christians for the midterm elections. Neither Trump’s relations with Stormy Daniels, nor his endorsement of alleged sexual abuser Roy Moore, nor his reference to “shithole” countries, nor his toxic tweets, recurrent racism, or general crudity, have proved a deterrent to most conservative Christians—to the dismay of many commentators.
“I’m stunned at the evangelical support for this president,” Mika Brzezinski remarked recently on the MSNBC show Morning Joe. “I don’t understand it. It’s almost like they’re excited to be in the White House and get access to him.” Those in the evangelical community who are writing books about the president, she added, “are overlooking the most humongous moral failings.”
Peter Wehner, a former speechwriter for George W. Bush, took to the op-ed pages of The New York Times in December to explain “Why I Can No Longer Call Myself an Evangelical Republican.” Throughout his life, Wehner wrote, he had identified with evangelicalism and the Republican Party, but Trump and Moore were causing him to reconsider his affiliations: “Not because my attachment to conservatism and Christianity has weakened, but rather the opposite. I consider Mr. Trump’s Republican Party to be a threat to conservatism, and I have concluded that the term evangelical—despite its rich history of proclaiming the ‘good news’ of Christ to a broken world—has been so distorted that it is now undermining the Christian witness.”
The death of the Rev. Billy Graham in February set off a new round of chiding. In Politico, Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, wrote that “to chart the troubled recent course of American evangelicalism—its powerful rise after World War II and its surprisingly quick demise in recent years”—one need look no further than the differences between Graham and his eldest son, Franklin, who took over his empire. Where the father “was a powerful evangelist who turned evangelicalism into the dominant spiritual impulse in modern America,” Prothero wrote, his son is “a political hack” who “is rapidly rebranding evangelicalism as a belief system marked not by faith, hope, and love but by fear of Muslims and homophobia.”
The alarm over the evangelical embrace of Trump reached a crescendo with Michael Gerson’s cover story in the April issue of The Atlantic, “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way (and Got Hooked by Donald Trump).” Gerson—perhaps the most prominent evangelical writing in the mainstream media—stated that “Trump’s background and beliefs could hardly be more incompatible with traditional Christian models of life and leadership.” The president’s “unapologetic materialism” is “a negation of Christian teaching”; his tribalism and hatred for “the other” “stand in direct opposition to Jesus’s radical ethic of neighbor love”; his worship of strength and contempt for “losers” “smack more of Nietzsche than of Christ.” Christianity, Gerson declared, “is love of neighbor, or it has lost its way. And this sets an urgent task for evangelicals: to rescue their faith from its worst leaders.”
The verdict is clear: In supporting this thrice-married, coarse, boastful, divisive, and xenophobic president, evangelicals are betraying the true nature of Christianity. In making such charges, however, these commentators are championing their own particular definition of Christianity. It is the Christianity of the Sermon on the Mount, in which Jesus blesses the meek, disdains the rich, welcomes the stranger, counsels humility, and encourages charity. “Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also,” he declares—a most un-Trumpian sentiment.
Yet this irenic message is just one strain in the New Testament. There’s another, more bellicose one. In Matthew, for instance, Jesus says, “Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace but a sword”—to “set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” In John, he declares, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life,” and “no one comes to the Father except through me”—a statement long used to declare Christianity the one true path to salvation. The Book of Revelation describes with apocalyptic fury the locusts, scorpions, hail, fire, and other plagues that God will visit upon the earth to wipe out the unbelievers and prepare the way for the Messiah.
From the earliest days of the faith, this militant strand has coexisted with the more pacific one. And it was the former that stirred the founder of Protestantism, Martin Luther. In his fierce ideas, vehement language, and combative intellectual style, Luther prefigured modern-day evangelicalism, and a look back at his life can help explain why so many evangelicals support Trump today.
In defending the cause of Christ, Luther was uncompromising. No one, he wrote, should think that the Gospel “can be advanced without tumult, offense and sedition.” The “Word of God is a sword, it is war and ruin and offense and perdition and poison.” In Luther’s famous dispute with Erasmus of Rotterdam over free will and predestination, the renowned Dutch humanist suggested that the two of them debate the matter civilly, given that both were God-fearing Christians and that the Bible was far from clear on the subject. Exploding in fury, Luther insisted that predestination was a core Christian doctrine on which he could not yield and that Erasmus’s idea that they agree to disagree showed he was not a true Christian.
In his later years, Luther produced venomous attacks on groups he considered enemies of Christ. In his notorious On the Jews and Their Lies, he denounced the Jews as “boastful, arrogant rascals,” “real liars and bloodhounds,” and “the vilest whores and rogues under the sun.” In Against the Roman Papacy, an Institution of the Devil, he called the pope “a true werewolf,” a “farting ass,” and a “brothel-keeper over all brothel-keepers.” When in 1542 a Basel printer was preparing to bring out the first printed Latin version of the Quran, Luther contributed a preface explaining why he supported publication. It was not to promote interfaith understanding. By reading the Quran, he wrote, Christians could become familiar with “the pernicious beliefs of Muhammad” and more readily grasp “the insanity and wiles” of the Muslims. The learned must “read the writings of the enemy in order to refute them more keenly, to cut them to pieces and to overturn them.”
Luther arrived at his own interpretation of the Gospel after experiencing years of debilitating doubt as an Augustinian friar. The prescribed rituals and sacraments of the Roman Catholic Church—designed to offer a clear path to salvation—provided little relief. No matter how often he went to confession, no matter how fervently he prayed the Psalter, Luther felt undeserving of God’s grace. Sometime around 1515, while lecturing on Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Luther had his great intellectual breakthrough: Salvation comes not from doing good works but through faith in Christ. Upon discovering this truth, Luther later wrote, “I was altogether born again” and “entered paradise itself through open gates.” In thus describing his sudden spiritual transformation, Luther provided a model for millions of later Protestants seeking similar renewal. Being born again is one of the defining characteristics of evangelicalism, and it was Luther who (along with Paul and Augustine) created the template.
Another key feature of evangelicalism is the central place of the Bible, and here, too, Luther provided the foundation. In his view, neither popes nor councils nor theologians have the authority to define the faith—the Bible alone is supreme. In his famous To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate of 1520, Luther described his world-altering concept of the priesthood of all believers: Every lay Christian, no matter how humble, has as much right to interpret the Bible as any pope or priest. Luther was thus shifting the locus of authority from credentialed elites to ordinary believers, empowering them to define their own faith.
In Europe, however, these populist ideas were quickly snuffed out. Kings and princes together with bishops and abbots cracked down on all who sought to apply them. The most dramatic case came during the German Peasants’ War of 1524–25, when farmers and laborers—inspired, in part, by Luther’s tracts—rose up against their secular and spiritual overlords. They were put down in a savage bloodletting that left more than 100,000 dead. Luther himself—fearing anarchy and furious at those who invoked his writings to better their lot—endorsed the slaughter in a lurid pamphlet titled Against the Robbing and Murdering Hordes of Peasants. “Let everyone who can, smite, slay, and stab” the peasants, he wrote. “It is just as when one must kill a mad dog; if you do not strike him, he will strike you, and a whole land with you.”
Although the killings had started before Luther’s pamphlet appeared, he was strongly urged to retract his screed. He reluctantly prepared An Open Letter on the Harsh Book Against the Peasants, but, rather than disavow his position, he restated it in even starker terms. To those who said he was being unmerciful, he wrote, “this is not a question of mercy; we are talking of God’s word.” Luther was incapable of apologizing.
Luther’s peasant tracts badly damaged his reputation not only among the peasants but also among many of his fellow reformers. The experience hastened his own retreat from his early radicalism into a reactionary intransigence in which he opposed all forms of resistance to injustice and maintained that the only proper course for a Christian was to accept and acquiesce. He took as his watchword Romans 13: “Let everyone be subject to the governing authorities.” It was the individual who had to be reformed, not society. Luther also believed in the concept of the “two kingdoms,” the secular and the spiritual, which had to be kept rigorously apart. Christ’s Gospel was to apply only in the spiritual realm; in the secular, the government’s role was to maintain order and punish evildoers, not to show compassion and mercy. The Lutheran churches in Germany and Scandinavia (like most established churches in Europe as a whole) became arms of the state, developing a top-heavy bureaucracy that bred complacency, discouraged innovation, and caused widespread disaffection.
Not so in America: With no established churches to confront and freedom of worship guaranteed by the Constitution, American Christians have been free to create their own spiritual pathways. Over time, Luther’s core principles of faith in Christ, the authority of Scripture, and the priesthood of all believers became pillars of American Protestantism—especially of the evangelical variety.
Consider, for example, the Southern Baptists. With more than 15 million members and 47,000 churches, the Southern Baptist Convention is the largest Protestant denomination in the United States; through its seminaries, publications, public-policy office, and network of missionaries, it has profoundly affected American social, cultural, and political life. The Southern Baptists’ various statements of belief bear Luther’s stamp throughout. The “starting point” of everything related to their churches, they declare, is each individual’s “personal faith in Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord of their lives.” Under the related doctrine of “soul competency,” the Southern Baptists affirm “the accountability of each person before God.” This is a plainspoken version of Luther’s doctrine of sola fide (“by faith alone”). The Bible, they further maintain, is the “supreme standard” by which all human conduct and religious opinion must be measured—a restatement of Luther’s principle of sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). Finally, the Southern Baptists explicitly embrace the idea of the priesthood of all believers, asserting that “laypersons have the same right as ordained ministers to communicate with God, interpret Scripture, and minister in Christ’s name.”
Needless to say, there are some significant differences between the beliefs of the Southern Baptists and those of Luther. The Southern Baptists, for instance, practice adult baptism, which Luther vigorously opposed. On many key points, however, their beliefs parallel those of Luther, even though his influence is rarely acknowledged.
Billy Graham himself was deeply affected by Luther. From the fall of 1949, when he led his first major crusade, until the 1980s, Graham was the face of evangelical Christianity in America. Invoking the Bible as his sole authority, he offered a simple message centered on Christ’s atoning death on the cross for humankind’s sins and his resurrection from the dead for its salvation. “No matter who we are or what we have done,” Graham observed in Just as I Am, his autobiography, “we are saved only because of what Christ has done for us. I will not go to Heaven because I have preached to great crowds. I will go to Heaven for one reason: Jesus Christ died for me, and I am trusting Him alone for my salvation.” This intense focus on the Bible and on salvation through faith in Christ came directly from Luther.
In the recent eulogizing of Graham, there has been a tendency to gloss over his aggressive early evangelism. He was a strident anticommunist, a tireless critic of pornography, and a fawning supporter of presidents. While he insisted on integrating his crusades, he shunned the broader campaign for civil rights. Graham refused to participate in the 1963 March on Washington and dismissed Martin Luther King Jr.’s conviction that political protests could create a “beloved community” in which, even in Alabama, “little black boys and little black girls will join hands with little white boys and white girls.” Graham declared that “only when Christ comes again will the little white children of Alabama walk hand in hand with little black children.” In both his obsequiousness toward the powerful and his opposition to social change, Graham was very much Luther’s heir.
Luther’s impact on American life is most apparent when looking at the place of the Bible in it. According to surveys, nearly nine in 10 American households own a Bible, and nearly half of all adult Americans say that the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Bible-study groups have proliferated in schools, workplaces, locker rooms, and government offices, including the White House under Democratic and Republican presidents alike. The massive new Museum of the Bible in Washington, DC, with its multitude of biblical artifacts, is the creation of Steve Green, the president of the Hobby Lobby craft-store chain and a member of a prominent evangelical family. All of this can be traced back to Luther’s belief in Scripture as the sole authority.
Many evangelicals are animated by the same type of faith- and Bible-based individualism that Luther espoused. This outlook can be seen in the motivational sermons of Joel Osteen, the purpose-driven appeals of Rick Warren, and the defiant statements of Kim Davis, the Kentucky county clerk who in 2015 refused to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples and went to jail for it. She said:
I never imagined a day like this would come, where I would be asked to violate a central teaching of Scripture and of Jesus Himself regarding marriage. To issue a marriage license which conflicts with God’s definition of marriage, with my name affixed to the certificate, would violate my conscience. It is not a light issue for me. It is a Heaven or Hell decision…. I have no animosity toward anyone and harbor no ill will. To me this has never been a gay or lesbian issue. It is about marriage and God’s Word.
These remarks recall Luther’s concluding statement at the Diet of Worms of 1521. Ordered by a representative of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V to recant his writings, Luther resisted: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by clear reason…I am bound by the Scriptures I have quoted, and my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not retract anything, since it is neither safe nor right to go against conscience.” Luther’s bold defense of his religious conscience has become a hallmark of the Protestant tradition, and Davis, consciously or not, stands squarely within that tradition.
The message from evangelical pulpits is overwhelmingly one of self-reliance, personal responsibility, individual renewal, scriptural authority, and forging a personal relationship with God and Christ. American evangelicalism has further assumed the populist stance of the young Luther. His rebellion was directed at the dominant institution of his day—the Roman Catholic Church. He denounced the ordained clergy, anointed theologians, and university scholars who, appealing to custom and tradition, sought to silence and discredit him. Protestantism, in short, arose as a revolt against the elites, and Luther’s early appeals to the common man and his disdain for the entitled lent the movement a spirit of grassroots empowerment that remains alive to this day. His insurgent nature further implanted in the faith a reflexive adversarialism—a sense of being forever under siege.
Luther’s rebelliousness was, however, paradoxically joined to an opposition to real-world change. While rousing the masses, he refused to endorse measures that would concretely address their needs. This combination of incitement and passivity is apparent in contemporary American evangelicalism, with both its ceaseless agitation against the centers of power and its shunning of any real program to address the underlying sources of resentment and dissatisfaction. In accord with Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, many evangelicals see the proper role of the government to be imposing order, not showing mercy.
Donald Trump has followed this approach. On the one hand, he has played on the conviction of evangelicals that they are an oppressed minority who have been prevented from practicing their religion as they see fit. He has vigorously defended the right of the faithful to say “Merry Christmas,” of pastors to speak freely in their pulpits, of church-run hospitals and health-care organizations to refuse to offer contraceptives. He has also appointed judges committed to those principles (and adamantly opposed to abortion, a key issue for this group). At the same time, Trump has carefully avoided taking on the powerful financiers and magnates who have helped to create the economic system that has inflicted such hardship on his base. Trump’s insults, invective, and mocking tweets against enemies real and perceived seem a long way from the Sermon on the Mount, but they very much mirror the pugnacity, asperity, and inflammatory language of the first Protestant.