Yes, I am using the Master and Commander weevils video clip, once again.
Why? I still think if offers a cheerful take on the bitter, agonizing, real-life decisions that many religious conservatives have had to make while coping with the rise of Donald Trump.
I bring this up because of a new essay in The Atlantic that, for a moment, I thought was going to dig into the mainstream-press obsession with the 80 percent of white evangelicals "just love" Trump thing. Of course, if you have been reading evangelical publications over the last year or so -- such as World and (here we go again) Christianity Today -- you know the reality is more complex than that.
The Atlantic headline, on another must-read essay by Emma Green, proclaims: "Evangelicals Are Bitterly Split Over Advising Trump."
The hole in the story is suggested in the headline. This piece is really about the behind-the-scenes debates about the work of Trump's evangelical advisory group. Yes, evangelicals are debating the wisdom of old-guard evangelicals standing up for this president, no matter what he says or does. But the larger issue is that many evangelicals, including many who voted for the man, remain divided over whether he is qualified to be president or to remain as president.
So why are Jerry Falwell, Jr., and the Rev. Robert Jeffress doing that thing that they do? These two Christian conservatives, and others, are given a chance to say what they have to say. Then there is this crucial summary:
Critics of the council see this as the problem: Evangelical leaders are willing to explain away anything Trump does, even when he creates controversy and potentially exacerbates painful situations. “I think a lot of his advisory council members right now are in the business of enabling,” said Noah Toly, a professor of politics and director of the Center for Urban Engagement at Wheaton College, an evangelical school outside of Chicago. Along with a small group of colleagues, Toly spearheaded a letter from Wheaton faculty condemning the white supremacy on display in Charlottesville. “If the advisory council were perceived to exist in order to challenge the president on important issues, not just to send out a few tweets … I might think differently,” he told me. “But it seems to me, and I think a lot of other evangelicals, that the advisory council exists to legitimize the presidency in the eyes of the evangelical base.”
Note that, again, the emphasis is on debates about the advisory council -- not debates about white evangelicals and their strained relationship with Trump, period.
Which is the bigger story? That second subject, of course. However, to really get into the "lesser of two evils" puzzle that faced cultural conservatives in the 2016 race would mean talking about, for starters, Hillary Clinton, religious liberty, third-trimester abortion, the U.S. Supreme Court, LGBT-approved locker rooms (and showers) and a host of other issues.
Reporters have resisted that. It's easier to hang on to the "80 percent of white evangelicals just love that Trump man" shibboleth.
Now, note that the Atlantic article does have very interesting material from Toly, the professor from Wheaton. This is precisely the kind of environment in which many evangelicals would have been openly pro-Clinton, or openly #NeverTrump #NeverClinton. At many evangelical colleges it would have been very awkward, even professionally dangerous, to support Trump.
So why is Toly the key voice here, on the other side of the debate from the Make America Great Again evangelicals and the White House advisory committee?
Part of the problem, in my opinion, is that evangelicals are -- in many places -- so split on Trump that they cannot really afford to talk about it. It was painful to have the Trump vs. Clinton race force a "lesser of two evils" decision. Right now, someone needs to poll evangelicals about Trump vs. Pence.
So why aren't people talking on the record?
Are there any academics reading this? If so, you know that the worst possible divide in an academic or religious community is 50-50 or, oh, 52-48 percent or something like that. In other words, the split is so painful that people cannot afford to talk about it much, in the open, because the stakes are too high for people on both sides.
That's the way it is right now in many institutions full of cultural conservatives. People like Jeffress and Falwell are out there, talking to the media over and over and over. They are committed. A few evangelicals on the left can speak openly, with confidence, if they are in communities in which they know they represent the winning side.
Everyone else in the middle is being forced into silence, for the most part. With a split this big and this bitter, the stakes are too high. You need silence. You need the problem to JUST GO AWAY.
I think you can see a hint of what is actually going on in the Atlantic piece, right near the end. Read between the lines on this:
Because they’re always on television and occasionally posting selfies from the Oval Office, the members of the advisory council have become the assumed voice of the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted to put Trump in office. In reality, evangelicals have extremely divided views on how to approach politics. “Whatever credibility we had, we are selling that now in order to achieve and retain power and influence, which is a bargain that isn’t worth it,” said Toly. “We have to be willing to call out evil wherever it happens, and not remain silent in order to retain influence on other issues. I don’t see a lot of that happening right now.”
You know what many people trapped in the middle say: But what about the Supreme Court? It was painful to vote for Trump, but they knew what Clinton would do once in power, in terms of the American legal future on issues linked to the First Amendment and the free exercise of religious convictions.
So -- lesser of two evils.
But what is happening NOW? What are the stories behind the scenes these days?
For a few minutes, I thought The Atlantic was going to go there. However, I assume that many key players still cannot afford to talk on the record. Things are too tense and dangerous.