When we began to see the surprising rise of Donald Trump, leading evangelical voice Russell Moore wrote an op-ed in the New York Times challenging evangelical Christians to rethink their support of a man so antithetical to the Christian faith that to vote for him would be to “repudiate everything they believe.” Well six months later it appears evangelical voters have repudiated everything they believe. But what if evangelicals (or any tribe, for that matter) aren’t primarily compelled by what they believe but instead by what they love? In fact, what if every one of us will gladly repudiate what we believe before we would ever repudiate what we love? And what if Donald Trump, though contradictory to evangelical beliefs, is the embodiment of current evangelical loves?
I think that’s what is going on.
Five years ago I read James K.A. Smith’s book Desiring the Kingdom, and it changed the way I viewed people. I knew enough Augustine to know that we are motivated by our loves. When I say love, I mean much more than romance, though romance is certainly a very powerful love. I use love to describe those deeper longing and desires of the human heart. Contrary to Western enlightenment that views us as minds compelled by our thoughts, the Bible views us as lovers compelled by our loves. Ideas certainly inform our loves, but ultimately we are what we love. Or to put it another way, we follow our desires more than our doctrine.
But what Smith helped me see is the way in which our loves are formed. Smith argues that loves are formed by our habits. Of course we know this is true with our personal habits, but what we often don’t see is the formative power of corporate habits, what Smith refers to as ‘cultural liturgies.’ Every culture shares common habits, and these habits form common loves.
For example, is it a coincidence that the vast majority of Americans are bent toward greed and overconsumption? Of course not. Our culture has trained us to be ravenous consumers. Take our elaborate shopping malls as an example. Your local mall is not a neutral ground, just a place to go and buy stuff. Instead your mall is doing something to you. The sights, the sounds, the routines, and even the architecture are all deeply formative, training us to love American excess.
Behind everything that a culture loves are cultural liturgies that have formed those loves.
Now consider Donald Trump. In one sense he makes no sense. From a character and even policy standpoint, evangelical support of Donald Trump is utterly mystifying, and countless articles are being written trying to explain this phenomenon. But all of them seem to come to the same conclusion: evangelical support for Donald Trump is a referendum on the current state of evangelical doctrine and convictions. I think these explanations are missing the point. I agree that current evangelical thought is woefully shallow, but it’s not like you need to be John Calvin to discern the mess that is Donald Trump. I think we aren’t giving the convictions of evangelicals enough credit. They know enough to know what Trump is saying and doing is wrong, and yet they are still supporting him.
Why? Because we are never compelled by our ideals like we are by our loves. And when you look at Donald Trump through the shared loves of the evangelical Culture, he starts to make perfect sense.
What happens when the liturgies of our greedy culture train evangelicals to love money and power? What happens when the liturgies of talk radio train evangelicals to love anger and paranoia? What happens when the liturgies of social media train evangelicals to love sensational sound bites more than thoughtful discourse? What happens when the liturgies of modern worship services train evangelicals to love novel, flashy, and glib emotional experiences that feel more like a rally than corporate worship? What happens when the conference culture of the church trains evangelicals to love the big celebrity leader? What happens when preaching that prioritizes relevant, shocking, and brash sermons trains evangelicals to love “tell it like it is” ranting? What happens when the liturgies from the days of the Moral Majority train evangelicals to love America as much as Jesus, which then leads to an incessant longing within churches to “make America great again!”
What happens? Evangelicals in love with Donald Trump happens.
Evangelicals don’t believe in Donald Trump as much as they love Donald Trump and all that Donald Trump represents. Watch these rallies and you will quickly see they have nothing to do with inspiring ideas and hopeful policies; they’re worship services. And standing on the stage before the great throng of longing souls is the manifestation of their common love feeding their hungry hearts with his nonsense.
Russell Moore closes his op-ed with a plea to evangelicals: “We ought to listen, to get past the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms and hear just whose speech we’re applauding.” But what if the boisterous confidence and the television lights and the waving arms are precisely what evangelicals have been trained to love? What if they can’t listen because they are enraptured? What if they applaud, not because Trump has given them a speech, but because Trump has given them what they love?
It is clear that evangelical support for Donald Trump serves as a humbling rebuke that we cannot ignore, but what is less clear is what needs rebuking. The easy answer is our doctrine and conviction, but the better answer is our loves. Indeed, Donald Trump is a clear indication that the evangelical Church is ignoring the Apostle John’s simple command, “Do not love the world or anything in the world.” Evangelicals in our day are in love with the world and things of this world, and that is why evangelicals in our day are in love with Donald Trump.
-Rev. Robert Cunningham (@tcpcrobert on twitter)