Impeachment and blind loyalty

Tom Krattenmaker,
Oregon writer, USA TODAY contributor and Yale Divinity School communications director.

Listening to President Donald Trump’s chief evangelical pastor ally, someone might get easily get confused about who, exactly, is the subject of the House Democrats’ impeachment proceedings.

“I have never seen (evangelical Christians) more angry over any issue than this attempt to illegitimately remove this president from office, overturn the 2016 election and negate the votes of millions of evangelicals in the process,” says Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas and part of Trump’s inner circle of evangelical supporters. “If the Democrats are successful in removing the president from office, I’m afraid it will cause a Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”

A reminder to my evangelical fellow citizens: The impeachment process is not targeting you.

Loyalty and a persecution complex

Part of the problem with the Trump phenomenon is the overly large degree to which his supporters identify with him and find validation in his ascent to the most powerful political position in the world.

This has induced a blind loyalty famously captured in the president’s own words when he conjectured that he could shoot someone on a busy New York street and not lose voters. When The Washington Post asked the president of Liberty University whether there is anything that would endanger his and other evangelical leaders’ support for Trump, Jerry Falwell Jr. gave an answer as revealing as it was brief: “No.”
President Donald Trump and Pastor Robert Jeffress in Washington, D.C., in 2017.

President Donald Trump and Pastor Robert Jeffress in Washington, D.C., in 2017. (Photo: Oliver Douliery/Pool)

Polling data backs up Falwell’s point: 80% of white evangelicals 45 and older say they view Trump favorably, about double the approval rating of the aggregate public.

I thought Jesus was the only one who merited such devotion from Christians.

In the network of white evangelicals committed to Trump, iron-strong loyalty has a twin called “persecution complex.” You can hear its voice in the way the Christian Broadcasting Network celebrated its CBN News operation last week on the occasion of the network’s 58th anniversary: “Giving a voice to the forgotten and persecuted,” the headline said. You can hear it, too, in Jeffress’ bid to stoke grievances by calling the impeachment process an attempt to “overturn” the 2016 election and “negate” the votes of the evangelicals who voted for Trump.

Reject blind devotion to Trump

Where Jeffress sees an election being overturned and votes negated is hard to fathom. So Trump was barred from taking office in January 2017? Was stopped from appointing a pair of conservative justices to the Supreme Court? Never got his opportunity to yank the United States out of the Paris agreement on climate change mitigation?

By this logic, there could never be an impeachment. Never mind the fact that the framers put it in the Constitution.

Don’t blame incivility on religion: Christian principles are an antidote to nastiness.

But the untruthfulness of Jeffress’ exaggerations isn’t the half of it. In a time that calls for sober deliberation, his hot-headed, Civil War-spiked rhetoric is akin to spreading ultra-flammable kindling on a dry forest floor during fire season.

It’s my hope that large numbers of evangelical Jesus followers reject such reckless nonsense and undiscerning devotion to Trump and get their eyes back on the prize. If any group has the spiritual resources to shift its ultimate allegiance from a feet-of-clay politician to someone worthy of veneration (aka God), it’s evangelical Christians. After all, they’re the ones who have been telling the rest of the country for decades now that their lives answer to a higher calling and are grounded in a deep faith. If God is their ultimate allegiance, then Trump is not.

Our leaders are humans, not deities

Whether we are conservative or liberal, religious or not, in this time or any other, we as Americans are called to maintain some healthy space between our hearts and our favorite politicians. We are citizens, not subjects. Our leaders are flawed human beings, not deities. Loyalty is an admirable quality in many circumstances. But when a human object of devotion violates just law and moral standards, it’s time to break away and recommit to the “something bigger” that forms who we are: our faith, our principles, our conscience.

This is a dangerous moment that requires the best of us. It’s time for cool heads, high principle and sober regard for the gravity of the moment.

Listen to the official voice of the impeachment process, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. There is no audible savoring of the prospect of sticking it to the Trump-loving evangelicals and slamming their beloved president behind bars. (Alas, plenty of liberals are carrying on that way and really ought to stop.) “We must be somber,” Pelosi says. “We must be prayerful and we must pursue the facts further to make a decision as to, did (the president’s conduct) violate the Constitution of the United States?”

White evangelicals, the impeachment process is, above all, about protecting the constitutional principles and rule of law that sustain the country you love. It is not an assault on your faith. It is not an attack on you. Trump’s ignominy does not need to be yours.

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