The South, Trump, and ‘End-Stage Protestantism’

Exploring religious support for the president
Facebook/President Trump Central
This image made the rounds online in the first few weeks of Donald Trump’s presidency.

The country’s dominant religion, Christian Protestantism, is showing signs of cracking up. So-called “mainline” Protestant denominations, in particular the Baptist and Methodist churches, are trying to reconcile their traditional faiths with growing numbers of racial minority and LGBTQ members, and not very successfully. Evangelicals continue to support the presidency of Donald Trump, even as every week seems to bring news of some statement or administration action that, on its face, defies the basic precepts of Christianity.

Charlotte is one of the centers of this faith in crisis. We’ve gotten to see, over the past two-plus years, the son of the city’s (and world’s) most famous evangelical pastor, and president of the organization that bears his name, go all in, no hesitation or internal struggle displayed, with his support for the president. “Everyone in the media is talking about the just-released tape & what the President said or didn’t say, what he meant or didn’t mean,” Franklin Graham tweeted last week, after the publication of an audio recording with his then-attorney, Michael Cohen, about hushing up evidence of Trump’s affair with Stormy Daniels. “It is a good moment to point out that everyone should realize that every word that is spoken or thought is recorded by God.” Graham, who once castigated Bill Clinton for his private affair and a few years ago decried the “culture of lying in politics,” did not express concern over the prospect that the president had an affair with a porn star and discussed, with his lawyer, buying the rights to the story in order to bury it.

The apparent contradiction has opened a thriving subgenre in journalism as earnest reporters try to make sense of it. The Washington Post last weekend published a widely read story about a Baptist pastor and congregation in rural Alabama as they try to reconcile “God, President Trump and the meaning of morality.” Some of the congregants quoted in the story are having at least a hint of a hard time. Others resolve the dilemma by skating right over it:

“A lot of his actions I don’t agree with,” Misty said. “But we are not to judge.”

What a good Christian was supposed to do was pray for God to work on Trump, who was after all pro-life, and pro-Israel, and pro-all the positions they felt a Christian nation should be taking. And if they were somehow wrong about Trump, said Misty, “in the end it doesn’t really matter.”

“A true Christian doesn’t have to worry about that,” said Brett, explaining what any good Southern Baptist heard at church every Sunday, which was that Jesus had died on the cross to wash away their sins, defeat death and provide them with eternal life in heaven.

“I think about it all the time, what it’s gonna be like,” she said.

“I know we’ll have new bodies,” said Brett. “We’ll be like Christ, it says.”

It’s easy to find other examples. A few days ago, Ray McKinnon—a Methodist pastor, former Mecklenburg County commission candidate, and founder of a local progressive organization—posted a video from CRTV, the television arm of the right-wing publication Conservative Review. A young woman named Allie Stuckey—who “tackles the complex issues that Americans grapple with every day”—had a few words about “SJW Christians,” whom she claimed aren’t Christians at all. (SJW, or “social justice warrior,” is a common political-right epithet for a progressive activist, or just someone who shows signs of concern for other people.) “SJW Christians are no different than non-Christians,” she said, “except for the fact that they go to church sometimes.”

She echoed Brett from Alabama in her rationale: Real Christians gain salvation exclusively through the grace of God and Christ’s sacrifice on the cross, the cleansing by the blood of the lamb. Allie gave nary a nod toward the idea of demonstrating faith through earthly deeds, a radical notion sanctioned and practiced by, most notably, Jesus. Allie, with relish, mocked the idea: “He didn’t come to Earth to teach us how to be nice people!”

So I’m seeing all this and wondering if American Protestantism has reached its terminal phase. That’s not to say I think Protestant denominations are about to close shop and fade away. I mean that some of them and their adherents have, in the era of this presidency, ceased to offer any coherent theology; that at least some have taken the concept of salvation “by grace alone,” the founding principle of Protestantism from the days of Martin Luther, to an extreme so absurd and grotesque that it no longer has any real connection to Christian faith. You may have heard the terms “late capitalism” or “end-stage capitalism,” referring generally to an unchecked market economy’s devolution to extremes of income disparity and graft. Have we reached the era of end-stage Protestantism?

In fairness, I also wonder if I’m viewing this from what the architects of the Reformation would have called a “papist” lens. Although I no longer practice, my upbringing was hard-core Catholic—altar boy at 11 o’clock Mass on Sundays, archdiocesan schools from K through BA, CYO, first confession at age eight, the whole Vatican Youth training program. Heaven knows (so to speak) that the Roman Catholic Church has a whole lot to answer for. But Catholicism, in its doctrine and practice, has generally emphasized a balance of faith and works as the on-ramp to eternal life. Maybe my theory was the product of some latent Catholicism rearing its Inquisitionist head. I tried to compensate by reaching out to a pair of Charlotte-area Baptist ministers.

The Reverend Benjamin Boswell, the pastor at Myers Park Baptist Church, said he’s wrestled with the Trump question since he took over the congregation nearly two years ago. Myers Park is known as a relatively progressive church, and the majority of the congregation opposes Trump policies on immigration, for instance. But Boswell said he’s had to counsel his flock on some essential questions that wouldn’t have carried such urgency under previous Republican administrations: How do you love conservative friends and relatives, for one thing, when they support a president that tears the children of asylum seekers from their parents?

“We’re talking about it pretty directly,” Boswell told me. “Our church tends to be more progressive, and with a long, deep intellectual history. But I will tell you there have been stress points no one could have expected.”

Even before Trump was elected, Boswell said, Myers Park Baptist commenced a series of workshops on racial justice after the 2016 Keith Lamont Scott demonstrations in Charlotte. Not long before Trump’s election, the church began another series on immigration and the questions that face Christian congregations: How do you reconcile an aversion to immigrants crossing the U.S. border illegally and the Biblical admonition to welcome strangers as brothers and sisters? Members of the congregation are preparing for a pilgrimage this weekend. They plan to follow an immigrant scheduled for deportation from the ICE office in Charlotte through the stations of the federal deportation system, down to the detention center for immigrants in Lumpkin, Georgia. The majority of Myers Park’s congregation, he said, is “staunchly opposed to (Trump’s) immigration policy.”

Fair enough. But how are Baptists who support the administration supposed to reconcile that support with their faith? Boswell said he believes too many evangelicals issue a kind of “cheap grace” to political leaders who happen to subscribe to their own political positions, granting them “immunity” from consequences for their words and deeds. He brought up an unavoidable fact of this era in American history: While white evangelicals are steadfast in their support of Trump, black Protestants are just as avid in their opposition to him. It’s almost impossible, Boswell said, to separate the theology of white evangelicals from the historic and cultural fruits of their religion: Manifest Destiny, aggressive American Exceptionalism, and white supremacy.

“They’ve already sort of bought that hook, line, and sinker, and the logical conclusion of that, building over many years, is the Trump presidency,” said Boswell, who’s white. “This is not new. It’s just more obvious. If you go back to Nixon, you’ve got this problem. Too often, white Protestants have given a blank check to political leaders who align with their political perspectives.”

Greg Jarrell, whom I’ve written about and whose upcoming book has been excerpted in this magazine, is another southern Baptist minister who’s been trying to reclaim his religion from its history. I asked him about my “by grace alone” theory, whether support for the Trump administration is the dark, lonely terminus of that theological line.

Jarrell agreed, in part. Among his right-wing contemporaries, he sees more rank opportunism than an extreme attachment to foundational Protestant doctrine. He referred to a concept often cited by his friend Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove, a minister in Durham—that of “slaveholder religion,” a perverted faith that values white Christians’ cultural and political dominance over the tenets of Christianity. “That’s a real problem, an enormous theological problem,” Jarrell said. “So that’s how you get a political theology that can support Trump and Pence.”

Jarrell brought up a piece of doctrine, exclusive to Baptists, that I’d never heard of: “soul freedom,” the idea that “No pastor or priest, no doctrine or disciple, no book or belief, no church or creed comes between the individual and God.” It seems like a companion to the “by grace alone” principle. But taken to its logical limit, it outlines a theology in a bubble, an emphasis on unchecked individuality that, like Allie’s, divorces a practitioner of the faith from any responsibility to a larger community of faith, or to the world.

“That wasn’t Martin Luther’s idea,” Jarrell told me. “It was a long way from that. His idea from the beginning was to step away to refocus and be reconciled. Now we’ve reached a point where white Christians, especially in the U.S., are completely unaccountable to the rest of the Christian church … When you twist your faith toward soul freedom, the move you have to make is that an individual is accountable only to himself.”

There’s some sense to be made of Evangelicals’ allegiance to Trump, someone whose allegiance to no one but himself has been apparent for more than 40 years. But even the best explanations fall short of explaining the full phenomenon. The capitulation of Republican leaders to the president and his agenda, whether in the form of the Baptist Mitch McConnell or the Catholic Paul Ryan, can be excused as a cynical and pragmatic concession to power. But, Jarrell said, “with the standard people in the pews, man, I don’t have a clue, honestly.”

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