Patience is a Christian virtue, and no one has to cultivate patience like an evangelical Christian trying to be patient with Donald Trump. But patience, like all virtues, eventually wears thin, like a rock worn smooth by water and the passage of time.
Nearly all evangelicals like many of the things Mr. Trump’s administration has accomplished, and why not? We’ve got the tax cut and a booming economy, a president with respect for the Christian conscience and for the Constitution, as written and adopted, and now restored at the U.S. Supreme Court.
Most of all, they’re encouraged by a president who does not share the academic, media and cultural disdain for Christians and their faith. President Trump does not sneer at Christians for “clinging to God, guns and religion” and for taking refuge in a simple but abiding faith.
But some evangelicals, a key part of his base, are concerned now that they’re “walking too close to the world,” in the language of traditional revivalism. Close identification with secular politics and politicians reduces their emphasis on Christ’s commission to his church to preach his Gospel of redemption “to the whole world.” Anything in the way must be avoided.
There’s a continuing conversation among evangelicals over a meeting of 50 leaders in April at Wheaton College in Illinois where they talked about the future of evangelism and whether the movement has “become too closely associated with President Trump’s polarizing politics.”
By one post-election poll, more than 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump and most of them still support him, many with quibbles. Many of them, like many other Republican voters, voted with certain reservations after considering the alternative. Many Democrats, too, say they put a clothespin on their honkers (figuratively speaking, since nobody any longer knows where to buy the real thing) and pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton.
The organizers of the Wheaton session boasted of its diversity, citing representatives from several denominations and seminaries, including representatives of the Southern Baptist Convention. One participating pastor says the gathering demonstrated that “there’s now a red evangelicalism and a blue evangelicalism.”
But others, including a Southern Baptist seminarian, say the guest list gave the game away, suggesting that “the real purpose of the meeting was to marginalize evangelicals who support Trump.” Not so, says the Rev. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition and co-chair of the meeting. “It was not intended to be an anti-Trump meeting, nor was it. It was really about our public witness as evangelicals.”
“Witnessing,” or proclaiming the Gospel, is the essence of evangelism. Evangelicals, who typically go to the Bible for guidance in all things, have been suspicious of Donald Trump from the time of the first party debates in the opening days of the 2016 presidential campaign. They were put off by his not-so-private private life, his crude behavior and his tawdry sexuality, his several marriages and the lack of any public trace of a religious life. The evangelicals measured him against a religious standard in the way others measured him against their secular standards, swallowed their doubts, and exploited the opportunity, as they see it, “to do good.”
But evangelicals were invariably troubled by the question asked of Christ, as detailed the third chapter of Romans, Apostle Paul’s letter to the early Christians in Rome: “Why not do evil that good may come?” Or, do the ends justify the means? Isn’t there a biblical exception sanctioned by God? King David was an adulterer with a ravenous taste for the female flesh, satisfied with a thousand wives. Didn’t David even send the husband of the beautiful Bathsheba, whom he had seen bathing and was much pleased by what he saw, to be killed in battle? Then he took her, too. This put David in a quandary, and some evangelicals liken David’s quandary to their own in trying to decide whether they can support Donald Trump and still be faithful to their faith. God used David, and maybe he’s using Donald Trump in a similar way.
Such are our curious times, when unexpected skeptics and mockers of the faith presume to be learned students of the faith of those whom they scorn. The Nation magazine, which has never been accused of defending anyone’s faith, suggests that the Republican renaissance owes its success to following the harsh theological dictates of Martin Luther.
A former director of the CIA calls the president’s dealing with Vladimir Putin “treasonous.” A Democratic congresswoman incites her followers to violence against those who voted for the president, and do it in public. The skeptical and the ignorant attempt to parse the fine points of theology, the ignorant leading the ignorant. But scoffer and true believer can be of good cheer. This, too, shall pass. The Bible tells us so.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.
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