Opinion | What Has Trump Cost American Christianity?
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By Ross Douthat
When religious conservatism made its peace with Donald Trump in 2016, the fundamental calculation was that the benefits of political power — or, alternatively, of keeping cultural liberalism out of full political power — outweighed the costs to Christian credibility inherent in accepting a heathen figure as a political champion and leader.
The contrary calculation, made by the Christian wing of Never Trump, was that accepting Trump required moral compromises that American Christianity would ultimately suffer for, whatever Supreme Court seats or policy victories religious conservatives might gain.
These calculations weren’t made by disinterested forecasters, looking out across the full sweep of American society and weighing aggregate costs and benefits. They were made by people embedded in particular communities, in red states and blue states, in different regions and congregations and traditions, whose immediate horizons shaped their expectations and analysis.
This last point is crucial as we approach a Republican primary campaign in which the votes of religious conservatives may determine whether we get another Trump nomination in 2024. Figures as various as Ron DeSantis, Tim Scott and Mike Pence are betting that there’s a path to the nomination that involves peeling away religious voters from Trump’s coalition, beginning in Iowa, where evangelical Christians often hold the key to the caucuses. “Has Trump hurt or helped Christianity?” probably isn’t going to be the framing that the non-Trump politicians choose, but some version of that question will hang around the political battle.
So it’s useful to ponder why the intuitive answer for, say, an Iowa Republican might be very different from the natural answer in New York or Boston or Washington, D.C. Consider some recent analysis by the politics and religion writer Ryan Burge, who tried to parse whether there was any kind of “Trump effect” in religious practice after 2016. Specifically, he looked at the share of Americans who never attend church in the six years since Trump’s election compared with that share during Barack Obama’s final six years as president.
Overall, the rate of church nonattendance has been climbing for some time, so one would expect some increase independent of political conditions. But Burge finds that among Republicans, the pace of disaffiliation didn’t change much between the Obama and Trump presidencies. Among Democrats, however, there were sudden increases in how fast nonattendance rose: at a 16 percent clip, up from 3 percent in the Obama years, among Democrats born in the late 1970s, and at a 14 percent clip, up from 2 percent pre-Trump, among those born in the late 1940s, to pick just two examples.
This implies that if you were a churchgoer in a mostly Republican area or congregation, you probably didn’t notice any significant change between the Trump era and the previous period. So the Never Trump insistence that a vote for Trump was culturally costly, that it was driving people away from Christianity, wouldn’t match your lived experience. Whereas if you were a Christian in a more liberal-leaning area, you might be more likely to have seen something like a Trump effect.
That divergent experience maps, to some extent, onto debates between pro- and anti-Trump Christian commentators. The most anti-Trump voices have often been figures invested in making Christian inroads within the professional classes or the liberal intelligentsia, or at least sustaining a Christian presence therein. The most pro-Trump voices have often been self-conscious outsiders to those spaces, operating within environments that are more consistently conservative.
So it’s not surprising that across Trump’s presidency and since, the first group would have had their fears about him confirmed and their hostility to him entrenched — because they were experiencing directly, in their social networks and their churches, some of the alienation and falling-away that followed his election. Whereas the second group, operating in a different context, would feel like the prophecies of doom had been wildly exaggerated, because they weren’t seeing the same crises.
In this reading, part of what sustains the religious right’s alliance with Trump — perhaps even through another election season — is that its social costs, its alienating effects, just aren’t that visible to most conservative Christians.
But that description stacks the deck in favor of the Never Trump side, because it presumes that what Burge is capturing is definitely caused by Trump and Trump alone. It might also be that the faster de-Christianization among Democrats is an acceleration that would have happened anyway, driven by general trends that are widening the divide between liberalism and Christian faith.
This counter-interpretation would stress, for instance, that Trump is probably not the main reason that euthanasia is spreading across the Western world or that young people are failing to pair off and marry and have kids. Or, again, he’s probably not the reason for the increasing appeal of post-Christian religious practices, from magic and witchcraft and even a small dose of Satanism to more banal forms of spiritualized self-help.
Which means, the more pro-Trump Christian might argue, that blaming Trump for making the task of believers in liberal America harder is just a way for certain Christians — the kind who imagine themselves to be elites in good standing, the kind who like to be published in The New York Times — to ignore the fact that their own position is increasingly untenable, not because of anything Republican voters have done but because liberal culture is leaving Christianity behind.
These perspectives aren’t actually mutually exclusive. It can be the case both that conservative Christianity’s relationship with Trump has had a toxic effect on Christianity’s appeal to non-Republicans, and also that some Never Trump Christians are so focused on the corruptions of their coreligionists that they’re missing liberalism’s profound post-Christian drift.
But seeing both sides doesn’t tell you how to integrate the two perspectives. Which brings me, finally, to Tim Keller, the Presbyterian pastor, author and evangelist who passed away last Friday.
Keller was an exemplar, maybe the exemplar, of a traditional Christianity trying to witness the most liberal portions of America. He built his church, Redeemer Presbyterian, in the heart of secular Manhattan; he won converts among the city’s liberal professionals; his books and sermons and public ministry were all designed for people with secular presuppositions and a deep suspicion of traditional Christianity. But he wasn’t compromised or half-assimilated: Keller at his most influential was always an orthodox Presbyterian, which made him a conservative on sexuality and marriage and gender roles, with a consistent chorus of critics to his theological left.
During the Trump era, Keller’s way of navigating these difficult waters, especially his emphasis on the political homelessness of Christians, drew a new kind of criticism from his right. He was accused (sometimes gently, sometimes harshly) of cultivating a winsomeness that no longer had a meaningful liberal audience, and failing to recognize that the time had come for sharper distinctions — a wartime Christianity, if you will.
But in fact Keller proved, until the end, that even if conditions were worsening for Christian preaching, the gospel could still be preached effectively, and the secular intelligentsia was not yet impregnably fortified against his kind of Christianity. (A small example: Read the excellent Keller obituary in The Atlantic written by the University of North Carolina professor Molly Worthen, and then go listen to Worthen’s recent appearance on the Gospel Coalition’s podcast detailing her own complex journey to the Christian faith.)
At the same time, he sustained his mission to the liberals without becoming a thundering critic of his fellow Christians who chose a more politically combative way. It was clear enough that Keller was not a Trumpist and that Trumpism made his kind of evangelism harder, but he did not adopt resentment against populism as a central identity or obsession.
Instead, more than almost any prominent religious figure in our polarized time, he maintained “Christian” as his primary marker of identity, and left a legacy of writings and sermons and personal encounters in which the soul of the reader or listener is always the central matter and politics figures little, if at all.
That isn’t the only way for Christians to balance the difficulties of the age; for those of us who cover or practice politics for a living, it isn’t a fully available option, and undoubtedly some aspects of his ministry belong already to a world that’s passed away.
But his legacy is still proof that factionalism and partisanship need not define every religious reputation, and that for the preacher, the Christian evangelist, there are still ways to be faithful and effective that start with saying “non serviam” to right and left alike.
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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author, most recently, of “The Deep Places: A Memoir of Illness and Discovery.” @DouthatNYT • Facebook
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