politics

The Symbolic Power of Trump the Convert

Photo: Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

At the March for Life last Friday, Donald Trump sounded much like a typical Evangelical president. “Unborn children have never had a stronger defender in the White House,” he told a massive audience. “Sadly, the far left is actively working to erase our God-given rights, shut down faith-based charities, ban religious believers from the public square and silence Americans who believe in the sanctity of life.” Not far from where Trump stood on the Washington Mall, impeachment proceedings continued. The evidence for Trump’s abuse of power is at this point overwhelming, but it did not seem to trouble the anti-abortion activists who gathered to hear the president speak. Trump himself only referred obliquely to his troubles.

“They are coming after me because I am fighting for you,” he said. In response, the crowd chanted “four more years,” Reuters reported.

Trump is the first president to appear in person at the March for Life. Like all Republican commanders-in-chief before him, he had previously delivered the usual rote remarks by proxy or by video link. There is a cynical edge to his history-making decision to change habits. Mere weeks ago, the outgoing editor of Christianity Today called for Trump’s removal from office. The criticism outraged Trump, who prides himself on his high level of Evangelical support. “The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!” he tweeted, and while the statement is bizarre there’s a logic to his bombast. Trump faces impeachment proceedings during an election year. He needs the support not just of Evangelicals but of the other conservative Christians who make up the pro-life movement, so off to the march he went.

The rationale for Trump’s field trip is easy enough to diagnose. But while the president’s cynicism is obvious to his critics, his Christian supporters see something else entirely. Trump’s enthusiastic reception by Friday’s marchers clarified the Christian case for his presidency. What looks like hypocrisy to the average liberal can look like a redemption arc to others.

Republican dealings with the Christian right have always had a transactional quality to them. The effect is far more pronounced under Trump than it was under George W. Bush, who was, if nothing else, a true believer. Trump’s appearance at the march, then, resurrected a familiar conundrum. Why would any devout Christian support a man like Trump? His language is foul; his affairs, plentiful. Asked by Maureen Dowd in 2016 if he’d ever paid for an abortion, the future president demurred. “Such an interesting question,” he said. It is. But if his refusal to provide a direct answer troubles pro-life Christians, their angst is invisible to the naked eye.

The usual answer, of course, is that for white conservative Christians, Trump’s actions as president obscure his personal transgressions. Maybe he paid for an abortion, maybe he didn’t, but at least he put pro-life justices on the Supreme Court. Indeed, the elevations of Brett Kavanaugh and Neil Gorsuch are only two entries in the ledger of Trump’s contributions to the pro-life movement. He appointed pro-life conservatives to influential roles within the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Homeland Security, sided publicly with the Little Sisters of the Poor in its fight to deny birth-control coverage to its employees, and indulged the pro-life movement’s most hyperbolic instincts to better cast Democrats as infant-murdering villains. “Nearly every top Democrat in Congress now support taxpayer-funded abortion all the way up until the moment of birth,” he said at the march, before repeating his much-loved but entirely false claim that Virginia’s Democratic governor Ralph Northam, a former pediatric neurologist, wants to “execute” babies after birth. In return for his efforts, the crowd promised him another term.

But a purely transactional understanding of Trump’s appeal to the Christian right may understate his true importance to the cause. Even if he embraced Christ and the pro-life cause rather late in life, his evolution is a testament to the regenerative work of the Gospel. God can use anyone, even Trump. A few of the president’s Christian supporters have even identified what they believe to be a biblical precedent for his role. He’s a new King David, a morally complicated but divinely anointed figure who had his own problem with infidelity. “God uses imperfect people through history. King David wasn’t perfect,” Energy Secretary Rick Perry said on Fox News last year.

Trump, then, isn’t a hypocrite, at least not to the Christians who truly embrace him. He was lost, but is now found. He is a convert, and a convert is a powerful figure indeed. To his supporters, Trump’s trajectory only confirms the rightness of their own beliefs. He is proof that God works through the Christian right to draw in and transform men and women of influence. Impeachment proceedings present a sliver of Trump’s character, and show it to be a present horror, not an artifact from an older, less pious stage of life. But the trial itself may be taken by some as additional proof of his merit. When Trump complained on Friday that “they” were out to get him, his tone of vexed martyrdom was perhaps familiar to marchers. The Gospel of Christ crucified is foolishness to the Gentiles, the Apostle Paul wrote. Unbelievers attack what they do not understand.

To Some Christians, Trump Is a Convert, Not a Hypocrite