With Jeff’s permission, posted below is approximately half of the first draft of the first chapter of a book I’m working on. I’ve given the book the working title “End This Wicked Marriage: Why Evangelical Christianity Must Divorce Itself from Radical Rightwing Politics.”
The book’s purpose will be to bolster the convictions of never Trumpers and to help them de-program loyal Trumpists. If any of you would like to pass along constructive critiques to improve the book, I’d appreciate the feedback. So, here we go with the first half of chapter 1:
January 8, 2004, a day that will live in infamy. That was the day on which the very first episode of The Apprentice aired on NBC TV. Not coincidentally, it also was the day when a failed real estate developer was given the opportunity to re-invent himself, to transform his image from unsuccessful entrepreneur to genius billionaire business mogul.
Prior to that date, Donald Trump was a novelty, a tabloid oddity whose name and photo often appeared alongside zany yarns about Elvis sightings in Hoboken or Martian rays disrupting TV transmissions in Roswell. The would-be tycoon had filed for six corporate chapter 11 bankruptcies, despite having inherited at least $413 million from his father. The gap between Donald Trump’s self-portrayal as a prosperous entrepreneur and his actual business performance was as vast as his gargantuan ego.
The Apprentice, then, gave Trump the platform he desired in order to trounce the truth and perpetuate and expand his bogus narrative of himself as the ultimate self-made billionaire. And countless naïve viewers bought the blather with less consideration than they’d typically give to a lunch selection on the menu board at McDonald’s. Donald Trump suddenly became as ubiquitous as Big Mac value meals along any town’s fast-food alley—and equally empty of substance. Both were easily attainable, surprisingly satisfying—and dangerously detrimental if overindulged.
Surrender to Celebrity
While Trump was reinventing himself as a “reality” TV star, white evangelicals by the millions were being conditioned by “Christian” media to venerate charismatic “Christian” celebrities. Christian Television Network, SonLife Broadcasting Network, NRB Network, Trinity Broadcasting Network (TBN), Christian Broadcasting Network, and a host of similar TV channels—plus scores of YouTube channels—promoted evangelical celebrities such as Franklin Graham, Pat Robertson, Joel Osteen, Jerry Falwell Jr., Joyce Meyer, Creflo Dollar, John Hagee, Jim Bakker, Kenneth Copeland, Paula White, David Barton, John MacArthur, Robert Jeffers, and hundreds of other similar theologically shallow shysters.
In an age of lightweight literacy—particularly biblical literacy—evangelicals were subsisting on a diet of theological fast food. TBN et al were feverishly serving up their spiritual Big Macs, BK Whoppers, and greasy fries to a hungry but still undernourished clientele. While a few of the evangelical celebrities offered more substantial biblical fare, most centered their messages on name-it-and-claim-it, have-it-your-way doctrinal deviations, or on “owning the libs” in the furiously fuming culture war. Deep Scriptural study largely gave way to petty platitudes and superficial sermons.
Because of their biblical ignorance, most evangelicals were—and still are—susceptible to manipulation by fast-talking hucksters who are adept at developing shallow, rambling homilies out of a few perversely twisted Bible passages. How bad is this ignorance? According to Albert Mohler, a longtime leader within the Southern Baptist Convention, “The larger scandal is biblical ignorance among Christians. Choose whichever statistic or survey you like, the general pattern is the same. America’s Christians know less and less about the Bible.”[i] One telling evidence Mohler cited of that ignorance is obvious in this result from a George Barna Survey: “According to 82 percent of Americans, ‘God helps those who help themselves,’ is a Bible verse. Those identified as born-again Christians did better—by one percent.”[ii] Yes, that survey found that 81 percent of respondents who identified as born-again Christians believed that “God helps those who help themselves,” is a real Bible verse. No doubt it’s mere coincidence that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election.
Guardrails for an Honest Faith
Even when evangelicals do take the time to study the Bible they claim to revere, all too often they do so with a pre-determined conclusion. In other words, rather than letting the passages conform and transform their thinking, they conform the passages to their own rigid, immovable interpretation—generally established either through deference to a favored teacher or through cultural osmosis, as in “God helps those who help themselves.”
Richard T. Hughes, professor emeritus at Pepperdine University and Messiah College, suggests three guardrails that could have kept evangelical Christians “true to their own prophetic faith.” Those three guardrails are “a serious engagement with the biblical text, a knowledge of Christian history, and critical thinking.” But, as Hughes notes, “white evangelicals have, for the most part, abandoned [all three].”[iii]
Serious Engagement with the Biblical Text
This element requires more than merely reading the text. Serious engagement with the text necessitates that the reader first understand the writer’s intended audience and purpose. Moses did not write the book of Exodus to you or me to apply as we choose. Nor did David write the Psalms nor Paul his epistles to modern-day Americans—not to us corporately, and especially not to you or me individually. Reading Bible books as if they were aimed at us individually can lead to gross misinterpretations and applications—yet doing is not an uncommon practice. It is, in fact, encouraged by the evangelical celebrities listed above.
For nearly eight years I worked as a curriculum editor at a prominent international evangelical Bible study ministry. Since its founding, the ministry had taken what is referred to in theological circles as a dispensational approach to interpreting the Bible—though not in an overt manner. About halfway through my tenure at that ministry, upper management—particularly within the publishing department, where I worked—experienced dramatic turnover.
The new managers preferred a different interpretive approach (referred to as a hermeneutic). When I raised some concerns about the change from the ministry’s origins, one of the replies I got from my new immediate supervisor was that when she was a teen, she’d expressed to her pastor that she was claiming an Old Testament passage as a personal promise to her. (I can’t remember now what the passage was.) That pastor—a dispensationalist—counseled her that the passage was written to an Israelite kingdom thousands of years ago—in a different dispensation—and that claiming it as a promise directly for her was presumptuous and likely to leave her disappointed. She would not accept his counsel; she left that church and turned against any type of dispensational teaching.
Was her pastor wrong or insensitive to disabuse her of the notion that one may “claim” a Bible passage as a personal promise? Many among today’s conservative evangelical churches would say yes, that pastor was wrong. After all, Paul wrote to his protégé, Timothy, “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Timothy 3:16). Yes, Paul did write that statement. But one must differentiate between useful for and directly applicable to. A hammer can be useful for cracking open a walnut shell, but that’s not what it was designed to do. Certainly the principle of applying force to a hard-but-breakable surface makes a hammer an acceptable tool for cracking walnut shells, but that does not mean that the nut retailer Diamond of California should scrap their mechanized shelling process in favor of hundreds of hammer-wielding nutcrackers.
Regarding biblical applications, one should not assume, for example, that a Divine promise to an ancient people can or should be directly appropriated by a present-day Christian believer. One today would be sorely mistaken in trying to literally live out, for example, this passage from Jeremiah’s prophetic book: “You are my war club, my weapon for battle—with you I shatter nations, with you I destroy kingdoms” (Jeremiah 51:20).
That does not mean, however, that the passage is meaningless for today’s Christians. Rather than trying to apply the passage directly as stated, one must discover the universal principle at the foundation of the passage. To do that, first one must determine the audience—direct and indirect—for this passage. The earlier portions of the chapter plainly state that the passage is all about God’s judgment on the nation of Babylon. “See, I will stir up the spirit of a destroyer against Babylon and the people of Leb Kamai. I will send foreigners to Babylon to winnow her and to devastate her land” (Jeremiah 51:1-2).
A Knowledge of Christian History
Jeremiah wrote this passage to his people, the Israelites, but he wrote it about how—and through whom—He would execute His judgment on Babylon. And by combining our knowledge of this passage with our knowledge of history (Hughes’s second guardrail), we may accurately conclude that Jeremiah was prophesying of the Medo-Persian empire’s conquest of Babylon in 539 BC, an event that in itself, obviously, has no direct bearing on the life of anyone today.
So then, since you and I are not part of the ancient Medo-Persian army that defeated the Babylonians, is there an underlying, universal principle in this passage that we can learn from and apply?
Yes, there is, but only in a very broad sense. That principle is that God often works behind the scenes to accomplish His will—and that His followers can take patient comfort in that knowledge. What the passage does not mean, however, is that, for example, the USA as God’s “chosen nation”—the so-called “new Israel”—is His instrument to pour out “holy hell” on its “ungodly” enemies.
Yet I saw similarly unsophisticated Scripture interpretations far too often throughout my evangelical years. I’ve seen it repeatedly over the last four-plus years as white evangelicals have repeatedly mangled and twisted Scripture while defending the wicked man with whom they made a grievous Faustian pact.