Wednesday, January 6, 2021, was Epiphany, a holiday in the Christian calendar that celebrates the coming of the magi to worship the Christ child. But precious few American Christians spent the day thinking about worship, or gold and frankincense and myrrh, or even the star that marked that event. Instead, many of us spent the afternoon and evening glued to the news – whether television, or Twitter, CNN, or others. The shocking events of a mob incited to violence by the President and his attorney were everywhere. This insurrection attempted to force the Senate and House of Representatives to reject the certified results from the states so they could make a new reality – one in which the votes they did not like would not count. By the end of the week, five people, including a Capitol police officer, would be dead.
For Christians, of course, part of the perplexity is that Trump’s core supporters and some of his most strident forces on Wednesday claim to be Christian. Mostly, they are white evangelicals, who have made an idol of President Trump. This has, for the past four years, raised a question among progressive Christians and “evangelicals for Biden,” who have wondered how to deal with sisters and brothers in the faith who seem to have gone so desperately astray. The great majority of thinkers who have taken on this question have arrived at some form of considering those who have fallen under the sway of Trumpism as the “spiritually weak.” In considerations of I Corinthians 8-10, theologians have suggested that Christians ought to be generous with those who have followed President Trump because they see their devotion to the president as a part of their faith.
But in the discussions of what should be done in the aftermath of a violent, vengeful, attack on the Capitol, a new vision of how to treat these white evangelicals and their leaders has arisen. The vision came when both elected Republicans, like House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, and various evangelical leaders, said that any action to administer justice to President Trump, or his enablers, or his attorneys, would make things far worse – and that would be the fault of Democrats, or the Biden Administration, or cancel culture, or BLM, or Antifa, etc.
In that moment, the veil lifted. Nothing could be done about President Trump’s actions, or those of his insurrectionist mob, or his enablers in the Senate, House, and Supreme Court, because then they would react in righteous fury, and it would be the Democrats or the left’s fault. It took me back to my early years in ministry in the Midwest. I could hear the voices of battered women I counseled as a young and ignorant pastor so long ago. “He said, ‘Look what you made me do!’” “He says I should be grateful because he doesn’t hit me nearly as much as his friends hit their wives.” “He said, ‘You make me so angry – why do you keep making me so angry that I lose my temper?’”
If we change our vision of the members of the Trump evangelical camp from spiritually weak who must be carefully tended, to violent abusers, the calculus changes. Therapists and pastoral counselors who work with victims of batterers know that there is nothing that can be done to satiate the rage the abusive person feels. For the battered wife, child or husband, there is no amount of gourmet cooking, no amount of sexual submission, no amount of perfect cleaning that will adequately and permanently stop the cycle of abuse.
Of course, that’s what we’re seeing now. The mob that gathered did so to “Stop the Steal” of the election by Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. Nothing could or would persuade them that the election actually was clean and fair; in fact, they believe that they are some of the few people who are seeing clearly. Democrats and leftists and people who don’t accept white evangelical Christianity have forced them to this point. White evangelicals are not to blame.
This should not be surprising, as another classic mark of the abuser is gaslighting. I remember an abused wife who had escaped her abuser telling me that when she and her husband were both intoxicated, he had fallen down the stairs. When she asked him about it the next day, he was adamant that it was she who had fallen. His bruises were not evidence; her memory really must be suffering from her alcoholism. This has been the pattern for the Trump evangelicals from the size of his inauguration crowd down to the present claims that Trump actually won in a landslide. No evidence has or will ever matter. They have entered the world of “alternative facts” and choose to remain there.
Reinhold Niebuhr long ago argued that religious people lie both to others and to themselves because of their anxiety of being exposed as spiritually or morally or religiously deficient. He held out the vision of the final judgment, when Christ would judge truthfully, though in grace, the sins of the world. That beautiful vision of the final judgment’s meaning is no less significant for the treatment of the Trump evangelicals. Christians must judge them truthfully, while offering a graceful way forward for those who accept the truth. Only then can any process of healing occur. But attempting to find a process that they accept must be rejected – they are in no spiritual or political place to dictate judgment. Reconciliation must be preceded by truth, or it has no foundation on which to stand.
R. Ward Holder is Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire, and Temporary Pastor at Newton Presbyterian Church