Thursday, March 15, 2018

"Providing Religious Cover for Moral Squalor"

Once more, Michael Gerson had added his voice to the ongoing discussion about the relationship between right-wing religion and Donald Trump's presidency and its long-term consequences for American religion in general, what he fittingly labels "providing religious cover for moral squalor". (See "the Last Temptation," The Atlantic April 2018 -

A life-long Evangelical himself, Gerson recognizes the shocking incongruity between right-wing religion's past attitudes toward licentious language and behavior and right-wing religion's current embrace of President Trump. But he quickly moves on to the heart of the problem: "Trump's unapologetic materialism - his equation of financial and social success with human achievement and worth - is a negation of Christian teaching." Once there, however, we are really no longer speaking solely of Trump (however extreme an example he may be) but of the essential project of the Republican party (an institution to which Gerson still has a historical attachment).

That said, Gerson's portrayal of the statements and behavior of one-time opponents of cultural and moral decay, now turned court chaplains, their supposed moral convictions corrupted by partisan identification hits home. "Blinded by political tribalism and hatred for their political opponents, these leaders can't see how they are undermining the causes to which they once dedicated their lives. Little remains of a distinctly Christian public witness."

Gerson recalls (in lengthy detail) the familiar history of American evangelicalism's "fall from a  great height" and how the resulting defensive stance against contemporary culture "was happily exploited by the modern GOP." Interestingly, he contrast evangelicalism's "lack of a model or ideal of political engagement - an organizing theory of social action" - with Catholicism's "coherent, comprehensive tradition of social and political reflection." Of course, Gerson well knows, "American Catholics routinely ignore Catholic social thought. But at least they have it. Evangelicals lack a similar tradition of their own to disregard."

In contrast, Gerson stresses how wholly "reactive" the evangelical political agenda has been. His own experience suggests the real potential for evangelical social engagement, but laments how "such concerns find limited collective political expression" in part, he argues, because of "the relative ethnic and racial insularity of  many white evangelicals." Here he makes another unfavorable comparison with the heavily Hispanic Catholic Church.

One result of this highly reactive dynamic has been an apocalyptic self-perception as "a mistreated minority, in need of a defender who plays by worldly rules." In this understanding,  "protecting Christianity" has become "a job for a bully." By giving political considerations "pride of place," evangelicals, Gerson argues, "have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense."

He is particularly troubled that Trump supporters' decision "that racism is not a moral disqualification" for the presidency "is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities." Acknowledging the presence of counter-examples in the evangelical orbit and the growing disenchantment of younger evangelicals with political negativity, Gerson remains, however, highly anxious for the future - for the evangelical religious tradition and - "because, religion, properly viewed and applied, is essential to the country's public life" - for America. he concludes by calling on evangelicals "to rescue their faith from its worst leaders."

It is edifying that Gerson remains inspired by his faith and motivated to recall it to a more positive relationship with civil society. Christian history, however, offers abundant examples of opportunities missed, with catastrophic consequences - for example, the amputation of a once vibrantly Christian North Africa and a thousand years later the religious partition of Europe, both of which weakened the Church for centuries and continue to do so today. It remains to be seen what will be the long-term legacy of the unholy alliance between right-wing religion and an unapologetically materialist partisan project.  

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