I have always admired Billy Graham, his autobiography sits proudly in my study bookcase. For me as a young Christian his was an example of living. If ever anyone deserved to be greeted by Jesus at the gates of heaven with “good and faithful servant” then it would be Graham.
The one thing that struck me with Graham was his Political savvy and bipartisanship. Graham recognised the importance politics play in the life of both a nation and in the lives of Christians, but he retained his political neutrality.
Although he was a religious advisor for 12 presidents, from Truman to Obama, and attended eight inaugural ceremonies, Graham found a way to stay nonpartisan and stand firm to his religious calling.
“Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person,” Graham stated in a 2013 interview with The New York Times. “We have to stand in the middle in order to preach to all people, right and left.”
Things however have changed since Graham took that journey to Glory. Now we see in the states a large shift in the evangelical church towards the Republican Party. Indeed as someone looking from the other side of the pond often in a rather bemused way I have found it incredulous that so many Christian leaders have lined up behind Donald Trump.
To find out why that has happened we need to move back the early eighties and late seventies. A coalition of Right leaning evangelical leaders led by televangelist Jerry Falwell, galvanised Christian conservatives. The landmark 1973 Roe vs Wade Supreme Court decision, which legalised abortion became the big issue which they rallied around. In 1980 the support given to the divorced former B movies film star Ronald Reagan propelled him to the presidency at the expense of born again Christian Jimmy Carter.
All of a sudden Falwell Snr with the Moral Majority movement, Pat Robinson with the 700 club had fused Evangelical Christian8ty and right wing politics together. American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer the case. “For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party,” Randall Balmer, professor of religion at Dartmouth College comments.
So began a close link. Since Reagan all Republican nominees have sought favour and support from the evangelical church movement. In fact without their support it could be reasonably argues that there was no route to the nomination.
Even with this close link between the GOP and Evangelicals it would still have been unimaginable only a few years ago for someone as brash and controversial as Trump to be considered as a suitable candidate for President. Trump in 2015 was more famous for his interviews with Shock Jock Howard Stern and his hosting of The Apprentice.
One thing that is often overlooked in the UK is how much of a shrewd operator Trump can be, he is at his crux a salesman, but he is a good one, he knows how to court and draw in others. Trump was watching Fox News when he saw a Evangelical Leader endorse his bid for office and denounce the Obama administration, that preacher was magachurch pastor Robert Jeffress. Trump invited him to his base at Trump Towers “We became friends instantly” Jeffress remarked and this seems to be a reoccurring theme, while the likes of Bush Snr and Jnr both courted the Evangelical vote they were never allowed the same access to the Oval Office and seats of power that Trump has afforded to them.
Another early supporter of Trump was Jerry Falwell Jnr, the man who had taken up the baton from his father Falwell Snr the man responsible for the fusion between the republicans and the evangelicals. Falwell, the then President of the influential Liberty University, had hired the now disgraced Micheal Cohen, then Trump’s principle lawyer to prevent release of some provocative photographs. Cohen introduces him to Trump and got his endorsement in 2015.
Another controversial evangelical figure who came to prominence was Paula White , the thrice married prosperity preacher who has been personal advisor to Trump for nearly 20 years and is widely credited with the person who converted Trump to Christianity and who serves as his spiritual advisor.
I have personally struggled with the relationship between Trump and the evangelical church. Donald Trump, whose personal traits make him a thoroughly implausible vessel for evangelical aspirations, or so it would seem, accused of multiple extramarital affairs, current Mrs Trump is a former glamour model, it’s his third marriage. He is given to outbursts of temper and profanity . He has talked of grabbing women by the genitals, demeaned immigrants from poor countries and said, in defiance of a central Christian tenet, that he has never seen reason to ask God for forgiveness.
Yet an alliance, and a strong one at that has been formed. It is estimated 80% of evangelical White Christians voted for Trump in 2016. Billy Graham’s son, forgoing the advice of his father is one off Trumps biggest supporters stating “I believe he’s president of the United States for a reason,” Mr. Graham has said of Mr. Trump. “I think God put him there.”
Trump throughout his career has always been good at using people, however in order to use people there is a skill, one of the failings of the mainstream media is to portray Trump as just a blunt instrument , a dumb bully, he is so much more savvy than this, he is the first ‘X-factor’ president. He understands media, a sound bite, he wrote a book called ‘The Art of the Deal, he understands how to influence and cajole people. Many of the pastors who have been invited to the White House, even those who were critical of him, testify how they were won over by his charm, his ability to listen and show empathy to them.
Trump has, despite his portrayal in the main stream media, had a fair amount of successes, the peace deals, the economy (although the debt is worrying) and even his tough stance with NATO.
It must be said as well that there has been advantages to the evangelical movement in having a pact with Trump, a heavily weighted conservative Supreme Court and gains on the issue of pro life - although at what cost does this come? For decades Hollywood has portrayed evangelical Pentecostal conservative Christians as cruel, ignorant, greedy, and hypocritical. Many now see the way Trump acts and the way Christians hove aligned with the president as proof of that.
One of the things Billy Graham was admired for was his ability to present the Gospel as a good life, it’s a trait in many great Christian leaders Theater critic and essayist Kenneth Tynan, who, after reading Lewis’s That Hideous Strength, said, “How thrilling he makes goodness seem—how tangible and radiant!”
Tynan perceived something essential about Lewis. One of his most impressive qualities was his ability to present the good life—and his Christian faith, which shaped his understanding of the good—as tangible and radiant, a thrilling and captivating journey, a way to find joy and fulfillment.
Something that I have noticed, all be it as I have stated watching from afar is that much of the modern Evangelical message seems to be borne out of fear, what they stand against. Trumpism admirably feeds into this zeitgeist. The greatest cost of the Trump years to evangelical Christianity isn’t in the political sphere, but rather in what Christians refer to as bearing witness—showing how their lives have been transformed by their faith.
For good or bad the evangelical church will be remembered for their allegiance to Trump no matter what happens now, although it looks more and more likely Trump will have to leave the White House to Mr Biden the future is uncertain and fascinating for Trump, the GOP and the Evangelical movement.
There are still some who believe even at this late hour Trump will be triumphant, they have been notable people holding onto Prophecies that Trump will still, against ever decreasing odds retain power. One commented to me that if the prophesies fail Christians will be left with egg on their faces.
But what of The Trump family? This years GOP condense was dominated not just by Trump but by his family as well, could we see Trump or Kushner ticket in 2024? Or has the Trump family served its usefulness to the Republican Party? Likewise where does the likes of White and Graham go now? It will be fascinating to see.
One thing is for sure now, whatever Trump does next he has certainly made his mark on History.
My prayer out of this is there will be something new born, perhaps harking back to the politically aware but bipartisan stance of Billy Graham, who always was more interested in the souls of men than their affiliation. As a Brit I will never fully understand the Yanks and their devotion to the flag, the American dream and their guns. I do know one thing however, as Important as that may be we are still only travellers in this world. If Jesus is not the most important aspect of your faith, your Christianity, then something is seriously askew. I pray that God will guide us through this maelstrom of life.