Evangelical support for Donald Trump was one of the more peculiar aspects of the 2016 election. Since then, it has been one of the most analyzed. Why are leaders like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr., so relentless in their public support of the president, even when his public conduct runs afoul of standards that evangelicals touted when Bill Clinton occupied the Oval Office?
Support for Trump has always been transactional—give us the judges!—but the sheer enthusiasm and willingness to overlook his abhorrent behavior demonstrates something deeper at work: a sense that this is a moment that cannot be wasted. Trump can’t just be tolerated, he must be embraced so as to secure policy victories heretofore unseen.
The concerns over the effects of this trend on American democracy have been well-established, both at this site and elsewhere. What is more troubling is the intensity with which some American evangelicals have been aligning themselves with populist forces abroad. In light of Victor Orban’s visit to the White House, it is worth exploring the relationship between American Christians and their brethren among the European far right.
A recent piece at TruthOut.org explores the amount of money American Christians have been sending to far right organizations in Eastern Europe. TruthOut is a left-of-center publication, and the piece comes with a couple of caveats: The “evil” Koch brothers are mentioned, and there are references to hate groups as defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center; conservatives know how little that designation means given the inconsistent nature with which the SPLC applies it.
It is easy to look at these caveats and dismiss the whole piece; that was my own initial temptation. This hits all the sweet spots: fundamentalists! Dark money! Koch brothers! Steven Bannon! But what about the accusations? Is there any merit to them? The answer is yes.
The World Congress of Families is a name that likely flies past rank and file evangelicals. The WCF was founded in 1997 by Allen Carlson, formerly of the Rockford Institute and a mainstay of social conservative policy. Its president is Brian S. Brown, also the president and founder of the National Organization for Marriage and International Organization for Marriage. NOM’s various statewide ballot initiatives have drawn a tremendous amount of coverage, and have served to galvanize Republican voters. Both the WCF and NOM have ties to a far more mainstream conservative organization, the Family Research Council. A 2018 post at the FRC noted a speech by FRC fellow Peter Sprigg at the 2018 WCF in Moldova. The event was hosted by then Moldovan President Igor Dodon, who also spoke at the 2019 WCF. Dodon was stripped of power in 2018 after refusing to appoint anti-Russian ministers to his Cabinet. The FRC renewed its pledge to the WCF in 2018. The 2019 WCF, held in Verona, Italy, featured as speakers Igor Dodon, Brian Brown, Allen Carlson, also a former FRC fellow, Katalin Novak, Hungarian Minister of State for Family, Youth and International Affairs and Vice President of the ruling Fidesz Party, and Giorgia Meloni, leader of Fratelli d’Italia, the leading nationalist party in Italy. The list of speakers from this year’s Congress extends well beyond this brief to include a number of far-right nationalists throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. Given the WCF’s ties to Viktor Orban’s government and numerous other nationalist and pro-Russian parties throughout Eastern Europe, the association of American social conservatives like the FRC is an occasion for pause.
Wherever you come down on a variety of socially conservative issues, America’s twin pillars of federalism and democracy manage to water down policy into something that is often palatable to both sides. Is it ideal? Hardly, but it has worked well enough to defuse a lot of social and political tension. At the moment, however, tension over social issues is ratcheted up in a way that we have not seen in years. It is this fear that has caused American Christians to seek solidarity with fellow believers in other countries, particularly in what remains of Christian Europe. That was a reasonable gesture that overlooks one important feature; Europe isn’t America, and European Christianity, for all of its suffering, is not American Christianity.
I can’t shake the feeling that American Christians—and my own people, evangelicals, in particular—are in unfamiliar territory. Evangelicalism possesses a language that is easy to replicate; South Park infamously lampooned this in an episode on Christian rock music. In evangelical-speak, it is easy for one concept to move in two very different directions. It is one thing to defend the traditional Christian positions on marriage. It is quite another to be aggressively anti-gay, as is apparently the case among the European far right. Critics of American evangelicalism often suggest that politicians use cultural issues to pad vote totals, and while there is some truth to that, the actual policies in question are mediated by the democratic process. This does appear to be the case in eastern Europe.
This entire trend betrays a naive outlook on the world. The common refrain of faith and family has blinded American evangelicals to the reality that Eastern Europe is increasingly marked by autocrats who honor the Christian faith with their lips but rarely with their lives.
Evangelicals often fail to recognize that political arrangements in the U.S. are often markedly different from the rest of the world. It’s easy enough to think of certain cultural traits as American, but even the most mom-and-apple-pie patriot will come around and acknowledge the profound diversity that exists in American life. Europe is an old place and there are threads that go back far deeper than anything American evangelicals can imagine in their own lives. The blood and soil nationalism of Old Europe, especially the Hungary of Viktor Orban, rarely makes such allowances.
Evangelicals are behaving in a way that is naive at best, dangerous at worst. How can American Christians be certain that their moral principles are not manipulated by autocrats as a means of consolidating power? Living with moral differences in a democracy is a real challenge, but the reality is that this won’t stop with LGBTQ rights. It is not hard to imagine Christians of any theological persuasion, to say nothing of Jews or Muslims, finding themselves outside of a particular cultural definition of the Christian faith and then facing similar persecution in the name of nationalism. One wonders how Christian critics of liberalism will square that circle.
Inevitably we circle back to American evangelicals’ embrace of Donald Trump. After Obama, evangelicals and traditionalists felt they needed a strong man to protect them. There has been plenty of bureaucratic overreach that forced citizens to choose between their livelihoods and their consciences. Every American Christian who heard about Jack Phillips got a little nervous: What if that was their business, or that of a friend or neighbor? Masterpiece Cakeshop was a real case, not simply the sort of overblown school dress code violation that Jay Sekulow used to hawk on the 700 Club. It was inevitable that liberal overreach would result in pushback from right-wing voices.
The problem was that Christians fell into the trap of seeking protection from a political figure rather than our political institutions. It would be one thing to cite the First Amendment just as St Paul cited his Roman citizenship before the emperor in Acts 25. That’s happened in many cases, but Christians have moved beyond life together as the church and started to behave as members of a tribe. (There are exceptions to this; evangelical voices from the Ethic and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention and the Acton Institute have, for example, spent considerable time pushing back against China’s mistreatment of the Uighurs and arguing on behalf of religious liberty for other faiths in America.) It seems that American Christians are overlooking the degree to which social conservatism in eastern Europe is used as a means of consolidating cultural power behind autocratic regimes.
Believers are making a couple of grave errors. First, in purposefully aligning support under the wing of a strongman like Trump or Orban, in the belief that democratic norms have failed to properly protect the church and that by paying tribute to a pagan ruler, perhaps the church will be left alone to worship and minister as it sees fit. Second, there is the practice of allowing a reasonable Christian position to be co-opted by a cult of personality with the intention not of declaring a theological truth, but of consolidating the power of a secular ruler. It is one thing for the pro-family movement to make inroads among a political party. It is something else altogether to align your movement behind a demagogue.
Eventually the worm turns, and when Christians find themselves on the outs with Orban, Putin, or Trump, where then will they go? It’s an inevitable conclusion. History makes it plain that church and state may walk a long way together before the church must eventually say, “We’ve gone as far as we can go.”
There are many impulses at work. The immediate Christian impulse is somewhat understandable, as American believers seek to make common cause with believers in other countries. That’s simple enough while overlooking all of the aforementioned differences between various groups. The second impulse is more heartbreaking—old fashioned American naivete. It seems highly unlikely that American evangelicals—both lay people and their leaders—grasp the anti-liberalism among their sympathizers in Eastern Europe. There is a final impulse, more ominous than disheartening, and that is that American Christians, in all their varieties, are willing to give up on liberalism. Gabriel Schoenfeld’s recent piece in the American Interest makes that very argument; liberalism is in dire need of assistance against autocracy right now, and too many traditionalists are happy to abandon it. Dalibor Rohac’s paper for AEI on Orban and the corruption of conservatism is a helpful primer on all that is wrong in Hungary. Traditionalist conservatives have been quick to praise Hungary’s pro-natal policies, and in the abstract, they are perfectly fine policies. Indeed, they seem of a kind with many of the Reform-con policies of the previous decade. Yet the policies are obscured by anti-immigrant, pro-nationalist rhetoric. On the cultural front, one need not endorse the rainbow halo around the Virgin Mary to be troubled by Orban’s framework of what is acceptable Hungarian culture.
Christians are prone to see one another as brothers and sisters regardless of nationality—this is even commanded in Scripture!—but in practice it is no easy task. That task is more difficult, almost absurd, when working on transnational cultural projects. Even if Christians wanted to pursue Patrick Deneen’s project of pressing into the end of liberalism, shouldn’t great care be taken to avoid support for authoritarianism? Schoenfeld notes that Deneen is concerned that liberalism has brought freedom of conscience under assault. I do not dispute the merit of this claim, but is the increasing alignment between traditionalist American Christians and traditionalist authoritarians really an arrangement that will serve the interests of freedom of conscience? Is Hungary a place that protects individual freedom of conscience? Poland? Russia? Does the Christian faith and its moral implications require the support of quasi-fascists? God help us if it does.
This is not limited to evangelicals; Catholic writers from a variety of publications have explicitly argued that in Trump they have found a protector against the tide of illiberal liberalism.
Here are two recent examples from Sohrab Ahmari (since deleted) and Tim Carney
Bill Weld is primarying Trump. Weld also happens to be dead wrong on the very issue that has caused half of my Catholic conservative friends to support Trump: The right of religious institutions to operate acc. to their own understanding of moral law rather than elite morality.
— Tim Carney (@TPCarney) May 5, 2019
There is indeed a strong illiberal bent among modern progressives. The cases of Chick-Fil-A, Catholic adoption agencies, Hobby Lobby, and Little Sisters of the Poor are just a handful of examples of a broader trend to isolate religious believers culturally, if not legally. It is easy to understand why any group would try to find protection under the wing of a leader or party. The problem plaguing Christians in this moment is that they are seeking shelter specifically from Donald Trump and not from the auspices of the Constitution.
And protection from Trump, in the form of both his speeches and his Twitter feed as well as administrative policy, will not come without cost. The cost is not simply the sheer hypocrisy of acknowledging your support for the man. No, the cost ultimately comes when one is forced to publicly rally to Trump’s defense.
Catholics have managed to avoid this at the institutional level (no bishops or cardinals in MAGA hats, thanks be to God), but the previously mentioned tweets demonstrate a willingness on the part of influential writers, editors, and thought leaders to publicly ignore or excuse Trump’s anti-democratic tendencies simply because he directs those tendencies at the illiberal left. Evangelicals are less coy. While the real influence of leaders like Graham and Falwell is debatable, they maintain a large public presence that has been used to build up gleeful support for a man who would, in any other time, have drawn resounding criticism. Some Christians have clearly made the arrangement in their own minds that paeans to Caesar are a fair price to pay in order to receive protection from his benevolent hand.
We should not accept this. By consolidating power within a particularly cultural identity, the state is given a cudgel that can then be wielded in a number of directions. What appears as a shelter for traditionalists in one moment becomes the dominant cultural hegemony in the next, and a moral trajectory that should be promoted within an ethos of love is enforced with the cold bureaucratic arm of the state. We would hope it ends there, but history is no guarantee. There is a need to aid Christians around the world, and sometimes that requires going through government channels. But what Viktor Orban and Donald Trump want is not a moral nation or a kingdom of God on Earth. They want power, and they will not likely tolerate robust opposition.
For years conservatives have argued for a moral vision to inform public policy, legal theory, and political action. The last few years have seen that vision dissolve into pure power plays in Washington, D.C. In Europe, it has the additional distinction of merging with nationalist movements unconcerned with compassion and persuasion. American Christians—intellectuals, pastors, laypeople—should think carefully about how to promote the Gospel and a Christian moral vision without finding shelter under the arm of secular strong man. The Kingdom of Man, we may find, is no shelter at all.
I think the underlying concern is one of wisdom. Is it wise to inject oneself into the cultural morass of other countries, especially when, in true Graham Greene style, American efforts appear spectacularly overmatched? I’m not sold on the idea of malicious Christians looking to impose a biblical order on the rest of the world. Instead, we’re seeing a large number of Quiet Americans naively crossing the Alps in hopes of doing the Lord’s work, only to discover that work looks very different in another country.