Some time ago I began writing the third in a series of profiles of so-called “faith leaders” who make up an indispensable part of the Trump base—this one about Jerry Falwell Jr. I was puzzled: how could so many millions of people be taken in by the many fraudsters who Trump has assembled around him? Or for that matter, how can they be taken in by Trump himself?
I know some evangelical leaders aren’t right-wing political operatives or gambling casino lobbyists like Ralph Reed, founder of the Faith and Freedom Coalition. I know some aren’t multimillionaire con artists like Paula White and Jerry Falwell Jr. And I know some are true spiritual seekers; moral and ethical human beings, people of faith who live lives of purpose. People who are in politics for the right reasons. In that category, Jimmy Carter is always the first person who comes to my mind. And, of course, Donald Trump is the last.
But I can’t write off the rest of them, or of their followers. Evangelicalism is too important to ignore. Why? Because the set of beliefs held by so many millions of evangelicals may determine my own fate and millions of others. Because, in the minds of so many evangelicals, people who live ethical lives and think of themselves as decent people are nevertheless destined for a place in hell. And because that set of beliefs is such a driving force behind our fraught politics and is shaping our collective fate.
We “Fed Up New Yorkers” set out—some think naively—to reach evangelicals, not so much to have an ongoing conversation but to try to convince them that whatever their religious views, Donald Trump will do to America, and maybe the world, what he did to Atlantic City. It’s what he has done all his life: leave nothing but chaos, bankruptcy, and destruction in his wake. It’s what we’ve been experiencing for the past four years and it promises to get far worse. What we didn’t anticipate was the heated responses, both agreement and furious disagreements, among evangelicals themselves.
Those who created this little forum sometimes feel we have a ringside seat in someone else’s family dispute. We read the comments and responses but seldom respond ourselves. I have lived a life in and around politics. I think I understand the political mind as well as most people. And I feel qualified to offer opinions about it. We thought it would be enough to demonstrate with hard, indisputable evidence the corruption of some of the most prominent of these faith leaders who have entered politics. And, of course, document the corruption of Donald Trump himself. This is a man who portrays himself as a non-politician but who has bribed politicians all his adult life and who merely went over to the other side of the table to become a bribe-taker. Like it or not, that is the plain, hard truth.
But for many, if not most, evangelicals that isn’t enough. Not even close. Why not, I wondered? Those of us who oppose Trump, who believe his reelection will be the end of American democracy and worse, tend to think the most passionate Trump supporters are simply living in a parallel universe. That’s a universe of “alternative facts,” as Kellyanne Conway put it. We think these are people whose ideas about the world beyond their own immediate experience are brought to them by the likes of Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson, and Rush Limbaugh. For those Trump supporters, we have learned, he could indeed shoot someone on Fifth Avenue with impunity. (As I write this, I’m reminded that William Barr has made that very argument to the United States Supreme Court, which fortunately and forcefully rejected it.)
HOW ISRAEL, JERUSALEM AND THE JEWISH TEMPLE AFFECT BELIEF IN THE RETURN OF JESUS
But it occurred to me that this rock-solid loyalty is about much more than Fox News. It’s deeper than that. It has to do with the core beliefs of millions of evangelicals. How could I begin to answer a question about the beliefs of the people we’re trying to reach, yet knowing so little about what it is they actually believe? I’m embarrassed to say, coming from outside that religious tradition, that I had never framed the question that way. Not even after a personal experience, which I’ll describe in a moment, one that should have given me that understanding long ago.
So I did a little research. Readers steeped in the subject will correct me. (Spare the ALL CAPS outrage, please.) As I now understand it, evangelicals emphasize the importance of personal conversion and faith as the means of salvation. It’s the born-again experience, and faith in the authority of the Bible as God’s word, that distinguishes evangelical believers from others, including other Christians.
Devout Christians and many Jews, especially the “Israel, Right or Wrong” crowd—not anyone I’m friendly with; the Likud-Netanyahu AIPAC people—yearn for reconstruction of the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem, destroyed 2,000 years ago. But evangelicals want that for very different reasons from the Israelis and American Jews who support that vision. Many, maybe most, evangelicals believe the Temple’s restoration will signal Jesus’s second coming.
That’s not only the grass-roots evangelical supporters. It’s also powerful people like Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo, vice-president and secretary of state, both longtime evangelicals. Pompeo referenced the Book of Revelation to defend the U.S. drone-strike assassination of the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani. He talks about the “rapture” to defend America’s support of Israel. He and Pence, along with other top officials, attend a White House End Times Bible study group,
So whether you think this is all batshit crazy or not, be afraid, very afraid.
Apparently, one important strain of this faith, if I can call it that, is the belief that Israel as a nation will embrace Jesus as the messiah right before the Second Coming. For those who hold that view—fervently—the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem will trigger the final war, Armageddon. As part of that, Jews will accept Jesus as their savior and he will return to reign over a thousand-year period of peace. God’s Kingdom initiated in Jerusalem, in short. For those who believe this, Israel’s control of that territory since 1967 signals the end times.
As I understand it, this isn’t the view the majority of Christians. But nonetheless it is held by millions of American evangelicals, the core of Donald Trump’s electoral base. He doesn’t believe a word of it, of that I’m certain. But he has his evangelical advisers and his son-in-law who advised him to take one highly provocative step: to move the U.S. government’s embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those advisers told him this would both solidify his hold on his evangelical base and to bring in pro-Israel Jewish Americans in battleground states, who could be the margin of victory or defeat. He has been told that this is a key signal to his core group of evangelical supporters that he’s a true believer, even God’s instrument.
Here, for example, is Robert Jeffress, a key evangelical supporter: Donald Trump “stands on the right side of you, O God, when it comes to Israel.” He added, “Jerusalem has been the object of the affection of both Jews and Christians down through history and the touchstone of prophecy.”
What did he mean by “prophecy?” That refers to the conversion of the Jews, the second coming of Jesus, the end of the world—the Apocalypse—violence and destruction as never known to mankind. And moving the embassy was a necessary step in bringing it about. (CLICK HERE for more on Jerusalem, evangelicals and end-times beliefs; and HERE for a related analysis.)
In these “end times,” centered on Israel’s control of Jerusalem, Christians won’t suffer an apocalyptic fate; they will be “raptured.” They get to heaven, home free. It’s we heathens, the Catholics, Muslims, everyone else, but especially the Jews who don’t convert, who will bear the brunt of the horror. For the remnant of our miserable lives, of course, and then for all eternity.
So if you hold such beliefs, and millions of people do, put aside all thoughts of kindness, compassion, mercy. This is divine judgment visited on non-believers: we heathens, the “others.”
Not surprisingly, when people act on these views, things can get personal and very ugly. And that’s where we are right now. We have a man in the White House who exploits these dark visions for his political and personal gain, no matter the cost to the country or the world.
WHAT DOES IT SAY FOR HUMANITY’S FUTURE IF ALL ‘HEATHENS’ ARE CONDEMNED TO HELL?
I’ll end this with a personal story that illustrates the point.
I’ve never forgotten it: a dinner on Hilton Head Island. I had recently retired from the presidency of George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, a school I had founded. The School’s chief financial officer had left at the same time I did. We had worked closely for several years. Before coming to the School, he had been the chief financial officer of a Fortune 200 company. I knew he was a strong Christian believer; he knew I was a Jew; but we never talked about those things. I don’t think the word “evangelical” ever came up.
In any case, when it came to finance, he was far more sophisticated than I. Our skills complemented one another. We enjoyed a very good relationship. Or so I thought .
After GWU acquired the School, he had moved to Hilton Head and set up a mortgage brokerage firm. It was the late 1990s. I was planning a trip to Savanah and he invited me to dinner at his club, along with one of our graduates who had worked briefly for him. The graduate’s wife, also a GSPM alum, was at the dinner too. A friendly gathering.
We had finished our dinner and settled down with our coffee and dessert. That’s when Jim, the host, said—and I haven’t forgotten these words, so it’s pretty much verbatim—“Neil, you were one of the best people I’ve ever worked with. But you’re a heathen and you’re going to hell.”
I was stunned. He meant it, of course. But it was so outside the realm of my own thinking about the world, even of the spiritual world (about which I have some thoughts that I needn’t burden you with) that I couldn’t even take it personally. That’s the truth. I don’t remember how I replied but I do remember thinking afterwards that this was a man I had worked with closely for several years. We had had a great success, and he had played an important role. I thought I knew who he was.
I didn’t have a clue.
All this time, he had seen me as a “heathen.” I didn’t even know what the word meant but he made it all clear at that dinner: I was destined to go where evil souls spend eternity, horribly punished for their sins. He saw me not as a colleague, as a fellow human being, but as the “other.” I wondered whether he had felt justified in doing things to me, at my expense, that I had trusted he would not do, things I would never have known about. He was, after all, the School’s chief financial officer, and a very sophisticated one.
Now, more than two decades later, I don’t make any such claim about him. I was, even then, long past worrying about such things. I had achieved what I set out to achieve. That was all that mattered to me. Still, I wondered about Jim’s state of mind. Did he feel justified on some religious basis to treat me differently from the born-again? I don’t know the answer. But I do know a little bit of the history of how the “other” fares in fraught times when entire nations go off the rails.
The genocide in Rwanda, the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, the murder of the Jews in Germany and across Europe, the fate of Native Americans in the U.S., the enslavement of Black people in the Americas, down to the horrific police killings of Black people today: the “other” always gets the short end of the stick. Not in some future realm, not in heaven or hell, but right here and now.
The self-fulfilling prophecy is such a cliché that I hesitate to use it. But as Trump said about the pandemic that rages out of control in our country as in no other, it is what it is. We now have the key antagonists in the Middle East gearing up for nuclear war- And if you’re in a powerful political position to act on those beliefs about the other—in a position to bring the U.S. government to act on them—we may well be in that mode of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Armageddon, ready or not, here we come.