There is a fine line between reflecting the concerns of voters and performing a crude and offensive imitation that mocks and defiles their deepest beliefs. OK, maybe not so fine a line.
Donald Trump has now taken to calling himself an “evangelical.” He also finds Ted Cruz a little fishy in the conservative Protestant orthodoxy department. “Not a lot of evangelicals come out of Cuba,” Trump said recently. “It’s true. Not a lot come out, but I like him nevertheless.”
Trump could be an evangelical if he were serious about it. Evangelicals come in a surprising variety of flavors. The wealthy and powerful, we are told, have a tougher time of it, with that whole camel-through-the-eye-of-a-needle thing. But the offer is universal.
Actually being an evangelical, however, requires a basic grasp of theology. After praying with Billy Graham, the mobster Mickey Cohen claimed a conversion experience. When Cohen resumed his former lifestyle, some Christians challenged him. Cohen supposedly replied: “Christian football players, Christian cowboys, Christian politicians: Why not a Christian gangster?”
So, why not an evangelical Trump?
Some theological objections might be offered. It is not characteristic of evangelicalism – apart from the very worst televangelism has to offer – to count your worth in dollars or elevate pride to an art form. Or to trivialize communion (“my little wine” and “my little cracker”), or dismiss the idea of Christian conversion (“it doesn’t happen that way”), or reject the need for forgiveness. “Why do I have to repent or ask for forgiveness,” Trump has asked, “if I am not making mistakes?”
Evangelicals don’t normally view misogyny, personal insults, character assassination and mocking the disabled as “fruit of the spirit.” And bald-faced lying is usually frowned upon.
And then there are Trump’s policy initiatives, recently including the “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States” (later qualified to exclude citizens).
None of this is surprising from Trump, who has fully embraced the style and substance of European, right-wing, blood-and-soil, anti-immigrant populism. A number of conservative radio personalities have consistently given Trump air cover, essentially abandoning conservatism for anti-establishment agitation and nativism.
Many leaders and institutions are being tested in this moment of political and moral choice. Will the American right be defined by resistance to cultural and ethnic change and motivated by resentment of “the other?” Or will it stand for the application of conservative ideals to modern challenges, in the confidence that such a message can appeal broadly, even to newer Americans? In my political lifetime, the options have never been so clearly defined: reaction or reform.
There are evangelicals who feel the pull of reaction, attempting to recover a lost (and largely imaginary) Christian America. Others, like Franklin Graham, seem motivated by some particular animus toward Islam. And some are experiencing the anxiety and fear that come from lost social position. Trump has been scoring about a quarter of evangelical voters in Iowa, about 20 percent in South Carolina.
But Trumpism has a cruelty at its core. And it comes into conflict with evangelicalism at some very basic points. Evangelicals pulled into a movement of exclusion are betraying a tradition encompassing the abolitionism of William Wilberforce, the compassionate reforms of Lord Shaftesbury and the humane populism of William Jennings Bryan. That is a broad ideological range. But it does not include a nasty, angry nativism.