For an op-ed aimed at providing “clarity” about a troubling phenomenon—the strong support for Trump among white American Christians—the only thing in Ross Douthat’s latest that stands up to close scrutiny can be found in his next-to-last sentence:
In the light of Trumpism, many hard truths about American Christianity — its divisions, its failures, its follies, its heresies — stand ruthlessly exposed.
Amen to that. The rest of the column is an amalgam of hooey and whistling in the dark.
Douthat’s boldest whopper is his claim that the Good Christians of this country reject Trump.
This Good Christian group of clear thinkers would, of course, include him and buddies of his like Robert George and George Weigel, two conservative Catholic luminaries, and Russell Moore, the ethics panjandrum for the Southern Baptists, all of whom have recently written and spoken out against Trump.
Douthat also claims that “regular churchgoers” reject Trump or have doubts about him, citing a month-old George Barna poll that reported Trump behind Cruz by six points (24% to 30%) among Evangelicals who had been to church during the past week.
But Douthat simply chooses to ignore the Barna poll’s bottom line: “In short, Trump is very popular among self-identified Christians.” (Emphasis added.) Douthat likewise chooses not to cite Barna’s finding that 32% of Christian Republicans are in Trump’s corner; according to Barna, Trump is 13 points ahead of Cruz within this group.
Parallel to the unsupported claim that the Good Christians are stoutly resisting Trumpism is Douthat’s equally dubious assertion that The Donald’s only real traction comes from fallen-away Christians or mere “cultural” Christians—those living in Douthat’s “Christian penumbra,” which includes much of the South.
Well, yeah, sure… those fakers.
I like to make statements of this kind myself; it’s the oldest trick in the world. In my case, the line has always been something like this: Those so-called Christians who hate queer people and who show so much contempt for women’s good judgment can’t be real Christians. They’re mere tribalists. They might wave their Bibles around, but they don’t know what the Bible actually says...
But here’s the problem. It’s just slightly presumptuous for Douthat, or me, or anyone else, to make sweeping statements about who’s in and who’s out of company of saints on earth. And it is certainly presumptuous to make those distinctions on the basis of church attendance. I can never forget William Sloane Coffin’s reminder that “going to church no more makes you a Christian than being in a garage makes you a car.”
The main takeaway of the Douthat column, however, and the bit that truly boggles the mind, drastically undercuts the overall thrust of his argument. This is where Douthat concedes that a significant number of the Good Christians have, in fact, gone over to Trump because they feel that the liberals have taken their country away from them.
Oh, my goodness gracious!
Douthat puts it somewhat more delicately, of course, alluding to serious Christians’ dismay over “what the last 10 years or more of social and political change have revealed about the extent of the nation’s drift.”
But here’s the kicker:
If this is really a post-Christian society, they seem to be thinking, then Christians need to make sure the meanest, toughest heathen on the block is on their side. So it makes sense to join an alliance of convenience with a strongman, placing themselves under his benevolent protection, because their own leaders have delivered them only to defeat.
Douthat concludes that Trump succeeds precisely by “courting” these Good Christian nihilists, thereby trumping (literally) whatever positive impact the remainder of the Good Christians might have.
After all of these contortions in simultaneously insisting that Good Christians reject Trump, even though a great many embittered Good Christians embrace him, wouldn’t it be easier for Douthat to just admit what most sane people do admit about the entire body of white American Christians (whether Catholic or Evangelical or something else); i.e., that their outlook has been essentially tribal for a good long time, if not forever? And further, that the ever-percolating wellspring of this tribalism has been good old white nationalism, together with a lot of subservience to the myth of the self-sufficient individual whose enemy is never the corporate exploiter but always the Big Government bogeyman?
In other words, why can’t Douthat admit that the apostasy he deplores is at the center of white Christianity and not at the margins?
Again, I am grateful to Douthat for that second-to-last sentence that references the divisions, failures, follies, and heresies that beset American Christianity and that Trump’s success with Christian voters now exposes.
But rather than jump through hoops in an effort to save the brand despite its failings, Douthat might simply have acknowledged the truth that Ambrose Bierce brought home over 100 years ago, in providing a perfect definition of the prototypical American Christian:
Christian: One who follows the teachings of Christ insofar as they are not inconsistent with a life of sin.