In the course of several recent bike rides through various Michigan suburbs, I’ve now passed at least two lawn signs that read:
“God loves you, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
Surprised that I’d never seen this message before, it seemed at first a generous sentiment, even for those, like myself, not religiously inclined.
Unconditional love? Who wouldn’t want that? And the idea that it happens by default, with no apparent obligation or action required on my part, gives it a certain something-for-nothing appeal.
But as I thought it through, I realized something more insidious might be at work here. Taken to its logical conclusion, this could be interpreted as a sort of moral waiver. No matter how you behave — no matter how cruel, greedy, bigoted, or violent you are — you’re off the hook. If God is going to love you anyway — and if there’s nothing you can do to stop it — you’re free to be just as vile as your nature allows. He’s giving you a pass.
And with the word “vile” in mind, my thoughts turned, quite naturally, to Donald Trump. And I realized that what I might have been looking at was the lawn sign of an evangelical Trump voter. I could be wrong, I have no evidence. But I like the hypothesis.
So assuming I’m correct, what is that sign trying to say? Is it a rationale for Trump? A way of excusing his wretched excesses? Are they saying that God loves him unconditionally, even as he openly shreds the values they claim to hold sacred?
And are they not also, perhaps, excusing themselves? Not just for abiding this monster, but for celebrating him? For turning their faith inside out to accommodate him? For tying their theology in knots to somehow justify their own mind-bending hypocrisy?
Of all the constituencies Trump appeals to, evangelicals have been the hardest to figure. Their ability to reconcile their professed beliefs with his out-front, in-your-face moral depravity is something I simply cannot get my brain around. Hence all my question marks — I have no answers.
This is, after all, a guy who never met a commandment he wouldn’t break. All ten — including, arguably, thou shalt not kill — have been under severe stress since he took office. Yet the submissiveness of evangelicals just grows stronger. They follow Trump, dare I say, religiously.
This didn’t start with Trump. The mutual flirtation of evangelicals with the far right has been going on for decades, and their destinies have grown increasingly intertwined. Trump is the culmination of that flirtation, but not its origin.
Republicans have been working this angle for a long time. To the billionaires who own the party, evangelicals are rubes — religious nuts from the sticks, easily manipulated, sure to vote for any numbskull who can quote the Bible. They’ve been running the same con forever. They use bought-and-paid-for celebrity preachers — the Falwells, Pat Robertson, etc. — to promote an agenda that’s reliably white, racist, misogynist, homophobic, and xenophobic, without saying any of that stuff aloud. All behind a thin veneer of moral rectitude.
Part of the con is that this agenda never gets delivered on. Republicans have consistently paid lip service to the priorities of so-called social conservatives, without actually acting on anything beyond their traditional big business priorities: deregulation and tax cuts.
So while evangelicals were waiting decades to see Roe v. Wade overturned, what they got instead was a black president and gay marriage.
But in 2016, they finally caught on. Trump was just the guy to tell the Republican establishment to shove it. Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio never saw it coming. Trump swept aside every Republican in his path, and evangelicals were in the thick of it.
Despite being the most religiously challenged figure they could conjure in their worst nightmares, they embraced Trump completely. Seeing him as their best bet to get what they’d been promised for so long, they were now happy to trade Republican lies for Trump lies. Trump lies were bigger, bolder, far more plentiful, and right out there in the open. He gave them permission to channel their inner racist, and they loved him for it.
Of course, with Trump, the con is never over. He promised them he’d stick it to the fat cats, but instead he gave fat cats a $2 trillion tax break. He promised them he’d end immigration, but instead he locked children in cages, which must be hard to square with Jesus’ teachings. He promised them he’d stop China from getting away with whatever, in his warped imagination, they were getting away with, but instead he started an absurd trade war that has hurt farmers — many of whom are evangelicals — far more than China.
So even before the pandemic, Trump was arguably making the lives of evangelicals significantly worse. Now he has nothing to offer them, short of maniacally prying open their churches and inviting them to die. Which underscores his contempt for them.
Because to him, they’re still rubes, even as he shamelessly panders to their worst instincts. And they continue to worship him.
I guess there’s nothing he can do about it.