Will Trump-Moore nexus be a turning point in history of American Evangelicalism?

Mark your calendars for Tuesday, Dec. 5, when the Brookings Institution and Public Religion Research Institute release results from the eighth  annual “American Values Survey.”

Those in the D.C. area can attend a 10 a.m. presser and panel at Brookings. (Media contact: press@prri.org or 646–823-2216). There will be special interest in the eight-year trend lines and how the Donald Trump Era is reshaping moral and political attitudes among white evangelicals.

Analysts inside and outside the evangelical movement note its famously moralistic past, including excoriation of President Bill Clinton. Countless articles have joined in head-scratching over the willingness of certain old-guard evangelical personalities and so many constituents to pooh-pooh sexual misconduct accusations as they back President Trump and now also  Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore, who faces Alabama voters Dec. 12.

The Religion Guy won’t rehearse those matters, which are all over the news, or assess the credibility of the two politicians’ denials of wrongdoing.

But let's look ahead. Here’s a big-think theme for reporters: Is the Trump-Moore nexus reinforcing a developing image of moral hypocrisy that could mar evangelical Protestantism the way molestation scandals grievously damaged the moral stature of U.S. Catholicism the past three decades?

You may want to start a research folder on this.

The evangelical plight has been examined by an outside critic, Molly Worthen of the University of North Carolina, Southern Baptist spokesman Russell Moore, and a conservative Catholic, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat. Douthat’s piece in turn provoked notice from Eastern Orthodox author Rod Dreher (including a fascinating mini-essay from a reader). In addition, note this GetReligion podcast, featuring a classic Billy Graham take on this issue.

Meanwhile, the  evangelical conundrum gets scant attention in conservative pundit Charles Sykes’s anti-Trump screed “How the Right Lost Its Mind.” 

As usual, Douthat is particularly interesting, proposing weakness in the upcoming generation as grass-roots evangelicalism, more sociological than theological with its “God-and-country, pray-and-grow-rich tendencies,” shuns Christian orthodoxy.   

Then consider a new release from evangelical Baker Books: “Choosing Donald Trump: God, Anger, Hope, and Why Christian Conservatives Supported Him.” Author Stephen Mansfield, who wrote previous books about the faiths of Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, laments the religious policies of Democrats like Mr. Obama and Hillary Clinton that helped ensure Trump’s triumph. (Click here for our own tmatt's interview with Mansfield on these issues.)

Yet he thinks President Trump, though he won 81 percent of the general-election vote among self-identified evangelicals, is a “pagan brawler” and “among the least religious” people ever to seek the U.S. presidency. (Christianity Today noted that pre-election polling showed that roughly half of white evangelicals did not want to vote for Trump, but were willing to do so in order to defeat Hillary Clinton.)

Religious conservatives are now “wed to him,” he contends. “They have taken responsibility for him now, and this may, in time, exact a very dear price.” Thus “the Trump presidency could become among the most religiously decisive in American history.”

Mansfield unleashes these verbatim words to depict Trump: Ignorant, inexperience, stunningly inept, undisciplined, ill-focused mind, distorted facts, distant relationship with the truth, clumsy or duplicitous, racist rants, prejudiced, insult-fests, pride, obsessed with self-promotion, unrelenting self-centeredness, turbulent soul, raging, crass, bullying, urged violence, aggression, brazen, caustic, disparaging, mocked, bludgeoning, vengeance as a virtue, grudge matches, viciousness, victory at nearly any cost, juvenile, inexplicable insecurity, narcissistic, at war with the world, cynical, boastful, hedonist, immorality, infidelity, and turned pursuing women into blood sport -- not to mention his foul language.  

In sum, “a maddening, unrepentant, ill-mannered, ever-bragging, ever-warring jumble of bad boy, billionaire, and aspiring saint.” Mansfield proposes that in all of the above Trump is nothing more than “the average American today written large.” Quite an indictment.

Religiously astute readers will observe that Mansfield treats a particular sliver of high-profile personalities within evangelicalism as though they dominate national Christian leadership. Other flaws are evident. Nonetheless, Mansfield adds fodder for this era of religious re-examination.

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