There were paeans to American greatness; vague enthusiasm for religious liberty and protecting the unborn. Also promises of return to an earlier era of superior virtue and adjective-laden declarations of mutual admiration between the president and his audience. There was the occasional Bible verse, and, though it is still more than two months until Christmas, the claim that a Trump presidency will do wonders for Americans’ Christmas spirit. (I don’t know about you, but who’s in the Oval Office is just about the last thing I think about when celebrating the birth of Christ.)
Three days later, on Monday, The New Yorker dropped a lengthy new story about Vice President Mike Pence. Chief among the article’s more shareable tidbits was an account from several unnamed White House staffers of how Trump behaves toward Pence when the Values Voters can’t see him.
It’s not pretty. Trump has been observed “mocking Pence’s religiosity,” asking visitors if Pence forced them to pray with him, “belittl[ing] Pence’s determination to overturn Roe v. Wade,” and joking that Pence’s beliefs about gay marriage mean he wants to “hang” all gay people. Whatever one believes about gay marriage, that’s just not funny, and neither is the rest of it.
The contrast between Trump’s behavior in private and on stage at the summit is at this point not surprising — including, I suspect, for the Values Voters themselves. The White House, naturally, denies the New Yorker report, but it’s hard to buy their denial when the stories fit so well with so much of Trump’s long record in the public eye.
After all, his personal and political life has displayed none of the character or values the Values Voters celebrate. He is glaringly ignorant of the faith he professes to love, “just about runs the table on the seven deadly sins,” and is self-aggrandizing to the point of idolatry. If Trump did somehow succeed in reversing decades of cultural change to return a “moral clarity to our view of the world,” as he put it Friday, the president himself would be disgraced.
So why was Trump’s showing at the summit met with roaring applause?
That question and others like it have been analyzed six ways to Sunday since post-election polling revealed a record 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump. I won’t pretend to offer any new answers, but I do want to highlight one consistent explanation we’ve heard from evangelicals themselves: Trump’s a fighter, and they feel like he’s their man in the ring.
Many Christian Trump voters “wanted a strongman in Washington standing up for their interests, and took the slick real estate magnate seriously when he promised that he’d fight for them,” explains Jonathan Van Maren, a pro-life writer. “Some Republican candidates talked like pastors, but Trump talked like a gladiator.” They wanted “the meanest, toughest, son of a you-know-what” on offer.
That rationale showed up again at the Values Voters Summit on Friday. “What the president and his administration can do is once again make people feel like it’s OK to stand up and talk about these traditional values, and engage in these conversations,” said Tony Perkins, president of the organization that hosts the event.
Notice the language there: Perkins didn’t say Trump is making meaningful policy change on evangelicals’ top issues. He didn’t claim Trump has prioritized the pro-life agenda. He didn’t say Trump changed the legal context in which people talk about their Christian faith and values — and with good reason, as the president’s most prominent religious liberty project, his executive order from earlier this year, accomplished so little the ACLU said it had “no discernible policy outcome” and didn’t bother challenging it in court.
No, Perkins said Trump makes people feel safe to talk about their beliefs. But if we’re serious about our faith, that shouldn’t make an ounce of difference. We shouldn’t need emotional support from the president to speak with courage. Jesus certainly didn’t feel like Pilate or Herod made it safe to preach as he did.
The whole point of principles is we stick to them even if there may be unpleasant consequences, so how the president makes us feel isn’t part of the equation. And it especially shouldn’t be part of the equation when the president himself is so changeable, when the biggest Trump/religion story in the news can change in the span of three days from Trump praising Christians to him mocking us.
If our public witness depends on someone so inconsistent, it won’t be much of a public witness at all.