If you had to give this US Presidential election a slogan, it really would have to be ‘Yes, This Is Really Happening’…
Look, I won’t bother to catalog in detail here the myriad reasons that I think Trump is singularly unqualified for high office- the hate, the fear, the lies, the conspiracies, the arrogance, the sexual boasting- and go straight to one aspect of the whole thing that has me thinking:
The large number of prominent Evangelicals supporting him.
When news started to filter out some months ago that many influential Evangelical Christian leaders- as well as many suburban, older, white Evangelical voters (this is a very important distinction to make this early in this piece; younger, black, and Latino Evangelicals, who are largely forgotten and ignored when the term ‘Evangelicals’ gets used in a political context, are another matter entirely) were endorsing Trump, many of my Christian friends- particularly the Evangelical ones- were apoplectic. My social media erupted with posts with variations of ‘Why? WHY?! WWHHYYYYYYYYY!!!???’
Me? I wasn’t surprised in the slightest.
Why? Well, I’ll have to preface this by saying the unthinkable: Donald, this has nothing to do with you…
I’ve been cognizant of politics for over 30 years, and in those years, there have been few political realities as enduring as Evangelical Christian America’s dislike for Hilary Clinton.
I don’t mean ‘dislike’ in the sense of the ‘dislike’ one might feel for a politician with whom one disagrees; I mean ‘dislike’ in the same way one ‘dislikes’ smallpox…
Clinton is loathed, loathed on an elemental level; feared for what her presence might mean for their lives and the lives of loved ones; they hope and pray that all possible actions will be taken to stop her before she destroys again.
And like smallpox, she is loathed by many not as a person or a personality, but as an entity, a force; a disembodied, existential threat.
Whenever Clinton ran for President, the majority of suburban, white, older Evangelical Christian America was going to support whoever opposed her.
Last year, Donald Trump- an amoral, a-religious, profane, thrice-married, twice-divorced adulterer and CEO of a bankrupt gambling empire- became that opposition.
Most Evangelicals, of course, initially supported Jeb Bush, Cruz, Rubio, Carson… sometimes for their Evangelical and conservative bona fides, but always, underneath, because of the threat of Clinton. Each of these men in turn succumbed to Trump’s unique and unprecedented brand of insult-fuelled bullying, eventually leaving only Trump…
… and Clinton, the important part of this sentence being the ‘… and Clinton’.
Many observers thought that, for the majority of Evangelicals, support for Trump would be an insurmountable obstacle.
Focus on the Family founder and prominent Evangelical leader James Dobson laid the groundwork for demolishing that obstacle last June, announcing that Trump had recently come to ‘accept a relationship with Christ’ and was now ‘a baby Christian’. He gave no details, even saying he didn’t know when this conversion had occurred, only suggesting that it had been recent.
The right-wing, conservative Evangelical word breathed a collective, almost-audible sigh of relief. Trump was one of them.
What followed was, in my opinion, one of the most fascinating theological developments in the history of American politics, what I’d call ‘Reprobate Theology’.
At the heart of ‘Reprobate Theology’ is a dual commitment to the Christian doctrine of Total Depravity and the Pauline view of salvation. Emerging from Augustine of Hippo, Total Depravity concludes that every person is enslaved to sin, unable to satisfy divine justice in any way other than the unmerited grace of God. Through this grace, accomplished through the death of Christ, according to the Apostle Paul, the utterly depraved human becomes ‘a new creation; old things have passed away; all things are become new (2 Cor. 5:17)’.
So far, so standard Christian theology. But its specific political praxis that ‘Reprobate Theology’ comes into its own.
This praxis is twofold; first, there is the idea that the depravity itself is somehow to be, if not celebrated, then explicitly seen as irrelevant beside God’s ability to use the depraved person to do his will. God’s use of the person effectively takes all concerns, not just of the person’s sinful history, but indirectly their current qualifications, expertise (or lack of either), basic character, and temperament off the table, out of consideration.
And, ironically, the more depraved the better, it would seem. Many Evangelical Trump supporters immediately began scouring the Biblical text for serial adulterers given a divine pass. They didn’t have to look far. David! Solomon! Samson! Killers, adulterers, warlords, despots… And God used them! Why can’t he use Donald Trump? After all, he’sdepraved! I’m a sinner and God uses me! Stop judging! God’s got a plan…
Thus, bad behaviour is not an indication of a person’s character (regardless of everything drummed into my head from 8 years of Baptist High School…) but of the greatness of God’s forgiveness…
Helpfully, ‘Reprobate Theology’ is cyclically reinforcing; ongoing revelations of depravity serve only to strengthen it; the worse you are, the more God is glorified if he uses you.
Secondly, ‘Reprobate Theology’ explicitly makes all past depravities off limits in terms of measuring competency or adequacy. Now that Trump is a ‘Christian’- a ‘new creation’- his past is off limits. After all, you can’t judge a brother in Christ. And we’re all sinners, sinners saved by grace…
My social media has been filled for two weeks with ‘Reprobate Theology’, and it’s very difficult to argue against. ‘Trump is a serial misogynist’; ‘So was David, and God used him’. ‘He has a bad character’; ‘So did Samson, and God used him’. ‘He’s woefully uninformed on even the basics of foreign policy, diplomacy, economics, trade…’ ‘’God has used the foolish things to confound the wise’…
The misuse of the Biblical text in this way is profoundly disturbing and personally frustrating for me. I care far, far too much for the Biblical text to see it used to excuse racism, misogyny, and stupidity.
Needless to say, ‘Reprobate Theology’ is meaningless because it can only be used in one direction; it uses the Biblical text to insulate Trump from criticism, but not Clinton herself or her husband. Their past indecencies, indiscretions, and alleged crimes are fair game.
In fact, they are all magnified, as the election itself becomes, not simply an election, but a spiritual battle of Armageddon-sized proportions.
Why? Because Clinton herself has been so dehumanized for so long, she has morphed in the collective consciousness of ‘Reprobate’ theologians into something almost entirely abstract. She is not simply a liar; she is untruth personified. She is not simply incompetent; she is chaos itself. She is not pro-choice; she is death walking around.
And she is certainly not a Christian, a lifetime of Methodism notwithstanding. Clinton’s Christianity is dismissed out of hand with the same finality as Trump’s is accepted.
The logical conclusion of this is radio host and notorious conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s rant on his radio show:
(Hilary Clinton) is an abject, psychopathic demon from Hell that as soon as she gets into power is going to try to destroy the planet.
I’m sure of that, and people around her say she’s so dark now, and so evil, and so possessed that they are having nightmares, they’re freaking out.
Folks, let me just tell you something, and if media wants to go with this, that’s fine. There are dozens of videos and photos of Obama having flies land on him, indoors, at all times of year, and he’ll be next to a hundred people and no one has flies on them.
Hillary, reportedly, I mean, I was told by people around her that they think she’s demon-possessed, okay? I’m just going to go ahead and say it, okay?
They said that they’re scared. That’s why when I see her when kids are by her, I actually get scared myself, with a child — with that big rubber face and that — I mean this woman is dangerous, ladies and gentleman. I’m telling you, she is a demon. This is Biblical. She’s going to launch a nuclear war. The Russians are scared of her.
Imagine how bad she smells, man? I’m told her and Obama, just stink, stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that evil off, man. Told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’m not kidding, people say, they say — folks, I’ve been told this by high up, folks. They say listen, Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur. I never said this because the media will go crazy with it, but I’ve talked to people that are in protective details, they’re scared of her. And they say listen, she’s a frickin’ demon and she stinks and so does Obama. I go, like what? Sulfur. They smell like Hell.
Before you dismiss Jones, understand that his show attracts 2 million listeners a week and Trump, when being interviewed on Jones’s website in December of last year, praised him. ‘Your reputation is amazing’, Trump said, ‘I will not let you down’…
‘Reprobate Theology’ is similar to the idea of ‘Disaster Theology’ I posted about on 21 August- it’s nonsense. It’s unsystematic, illogical, hurtful, hateful, and utterly biblically baseless. Any theological model that requires so many loopholes and exceptions to ‘work’ is simply bad theology- random, pointless, and anti-Christian.
The theological lesson of the 2016 US Presidential race might just end up being that, if the doctrine of Total Depravity is seriously brought to bear upon it, you just might end up supporting a candidate who is totally depraved…
Jon Hatch is a theologian, educator, and activist. He spent 13 years living and working in North and West Belfast with various reconciliation projects sponsored by Corrymeela, the Irish Peace Centres, and local churches and faith-based groups. He blogs on issues relating to faith, politics, and culture at http://reflectionsforthursdays.blogspot.com. This post was first published on his blog.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.