Say what you will about the terrible, terrifying Trump years, one good thing has already come out of them: the discrediting of evangelical Christianity. For decades, believers have boasted of their superior virtue, especially in matters of sex and marriage and parenting and social propriety. They’ve blasted premarital and extramarital sex, LGBTQ people, divorce, pornography, sex work, foul language, crude behavior, and not being a Christian—as they define “Christian”—blaming these things for everything from 9/11 to Hurricane Katrina. They never get tired of going after Bill Clinton for his infidelities and Hillary Clinton for “enabling” them. (How frustrating it must have been for them that Barack Obama, the Muslim Kenyan communist, spent eight years in the White House with nary a whiff of scandal!) Now they’ve sold their souls to Donald Trump, who has partaken freely of practically every vice and depravity known to man. Urged on by their leaders, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump—more than voted for George W. Bush, an actual evangelical—and now everyone is laughing at them. It’s about time.
In the latest issue of The Atlantic, Michael Gerson, a former Bush speechwriter and current Washington Post columnist, mourns the loss of evangelical credibility in an angry, eloquent essay, “The Last Temptation.” As Gerson writes: “The moral convictions of many evangelical leaders have become a function of their partisan identification. This is not mere gullibility; it is utter corruption.” An evangelical himself, Gerson excoriates those leaders who make outlandish excuses for Trump’s behavior (my personal favorite: James Dobson’s explanation that the president is a “baby Christian”). Evangelicals, he says, have been driven to a kind of paranoia by their loss of cultural hegemony: They fall into absurd and unnecessary battles over school prayer and creationism, and losing those battles has made them seem—or actually be—“negative, censorious, and oppositional.”
I suppose it’s natural for Gerson to look on the bright side when he can: The evangelicals are his tribe. Thus, he’s full of nostalgia for the 19th-century evangelicals who opposed slavery, but he never mentions that the largest evangelical denomination by far today, the Southern Baptist Convention, split from those northern abolitionist Baptists in order to defend slavery (and, after that, segregation). He wishes more people knew about the good works that evangelicals have done and still do, but on what contemporary issue are evangelicals on the right side of history these days? When you look more closely, even those pastors and programs that Gerson lauds can be a bit problematic. One global health organization that he mentions, Franklin Graham’s Samaritan’s Purse, is tarred with a reputation for heavy-handed proselytizing and Graham’s own ravings against Islam as “an evil and very wicked religion” whose followers are going straight to hell. Gerson slides past evangelicals’ resistance to women’s basic equality as human beings, which goes way beyond opposition to their reproductive rights: Southern Baptists insist that wives submit to their husbands and ban women speaking from the pulpit or having religious authority over men. Gerson mentions the philanthropic work against AIDS done by the mega-preacher Rick Warren, but not that his church has promoted the idea that there is no biblical right to divorce for women abused by their husbands. Is it so surprising that many churchgoers who think women should obey even violent men have a soft spot for Donald Trump? At least he’s not gay—or a feminist like Hillary Clinton, who actually happens to be a devout Methodist.