By Rev. Dr. William J. Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
Many of President Donald Trump’s critics have raised concerns in recent weeks about his alleged affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. If the revelations are true, Trump’s infidelity is a serious matter between him, his God and his spouse.
Quickly, so-called white evangelicals rushed to defend the president, urging the nation to “forgive” and move on. “All these things were years ago,” Jerry Falwell, Jr. told CNN. Another stalwart of Trump’s faith advisors, Tony Perkins, told Politico he and others are willing to give the president a "mulligan" on issues of personal morality because he champions an evangelical agenda.
It is easy to point out the hypocrisy of men who have cried so loudly about character in public leadership, only to defend a man who has spent his life flaunting conventional morality. But the truth is, America has had to give every president a mulligan on some personal failing or another. If Trump’s pastoral advisors want to forgive him, that is their right. Infidelity generally has its own consequences.
The greater moral issue, which impacts all of us, is this administration’s policy decisions, which are hurting vulnerable people and undermining our democracy. In these matters of public justice, no one has the right to give the president a mulligan. And this is especially true for our nation’s theological leaders, who should be torchbearers for morality, not enablers of ethical decay. Unfortunately, what we are seeing now is a revival of a specific and subversive strand of Christianity, one with a historic legacy stretching all the way back to slavery.
Get the think newsletter.
The infidelity that we must concern ourselves with is called "whoring after other gods” in the Bible (see Hosea 9:1 or Amos 7:17). Whenever a nation chooses to hurt the poor, oppress the stranger, mistreat the weak and corrupt the courts in the Bible, prophets accuse political leaders of public infidelity. Unlike in a marriage, such adultery is not a private matter; it must be challenged and called out in the public square.
Today, too many preachers are willing to overlook personal moral failings in exchange for access to power. Jerry Falwell, Jr., responding to critics, claimed Jesus’ teachings are about private morality, not public policy: “Jesus said love our neighbors as ourselves but never told Caesar how to run Rome,” he wrote on Twitter.
Though this is a common distinction among white evangelicals in the U.S., it is not a distinction the Bible makes. Jesus himself says that, at the final judgment, “all the nations” will be gathered before him to give an account for how they treated the most vulnerable among us. The prophet Isaiah, whom Jesus quotes often, condemns “those who legislate evil” and exhorts the faithful to “loose the bands of injustice”— a political act in any society. It’s hard to imagine someone who proclaimed the “kingdom of God” in the first century not having a vision for the transformation of society.
It’s hard to imagine, that is, unless your whole faith has been built upon the justification of systemic evil. Falwell’s distinctly American reading of the Bible is not new. It was passed down to him by generations of so-called Christians who learned to read the Bible in the 19th century as a text that did not condemn, but rather affirmed race-based chattel slavery.
Today, too many preachers are willing to overlook personal moral failings in exchange for access to power.
“Between the Christianity of the slaveholder and the Christianity of Christ, I see the widest possible difference,” Frederick Douglass said after escaping from bondage to fight alongside other abolitionists for systemic change. For those moral activists, the Dred Scott Supreme Court decision and the Missouri Compromise were deeply moral issues — inseparable from one’s personal relationship with God.
After the Civil War, when federal troops enforced the Reconstruction amendments for a brief period in the South, slaveholder religion did not go away. Instead, it developed a way of using scripture to criticize “Northern corruption” and black political power. In a word, slaveholder religion framed the attempt to expand democracy in the 1870s as immorality. Indeed, the return of white supremacy following Reconstruction is called the Redemption movement because its champions framed it primarily as a “moral” movement.
We cannot understand the “Moral Majority” that Falwell’s father helped organize to counter the policies of the civil rights movement apart from this history. This strand of slaveholder religion has always been primarily concerned with the consolidation of power and the justification of systemic injustice. The Trumpvangelicals are not forsaking their god to defend Trump. They are showing us that their god is cash, not Christ.
The Trumpvangelicals are not forsaking their god to defend Trump. They are showing us that their god is cash, not Christ.
For Trump's personal failings, he needs help. For his mean and vulgar use of power, he and his allies in Congress need public critique and moral resistance. No matter how high the Dow Jones average, it is not a sufficient payoff for us to keep quiet when our president uses DACA students and sick children as bargaining chips for a racist, useless wall.
Every movement to expand democracy and strive toward a more perfect union in America’s history has required a public moral witness that holds up the best of our religious and Constitutional traditions. When we come together across divisions in the human family and commit to fight together for love and justice, we can win. It’s how we ended slavery and child labor. It’s how we won the right to vote for women and African-Americans. And it is what this moment demands: a moral movement to save the soul of this nation and revive the heart of democracy.s
William J. Barber, II is president of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of the Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival. Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion and is the author of "Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion."
Rev. Dr. William J. Barber and Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
The Rev. Dr. William J. Barber, II is President of Repairers of the Breach and author of "The Third Reconstruction" with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove. Wilson-Hartgrove directs the School for Conversion. Together with other clergy and moral activists, they are both preparing for The Poor People’s Campaign: A National Call for Moral Revival.