After Trump's acquittal, it's time we started talking about 'US white evangelical extremism'

Donald Trump during his fiery presidential debate with Joe Biden in which he refused to condemn white supremacists(Photo: CNBC)

Donald Trump has been acquitted in the Senate trial. That is not a surprise. When only six Republicans were prepared to vote last week that the trial was constitutional, it was clear that the seventeen Republican votes necessary for a Senate conviction would not be forthcoming.

That is because the Republican Party expresses outrage for what occurred at the Capitol on 6 January (in line with the vast majority of US citizens) but accepts no responsibility for what led to it. In such a view, little tracks back to the direct words and actions of Donald Trump, or to their own devoted adherence to his cause. Or, if they accept a connection, they are unwilling to confront it head-on since they wish to both distance themselves from Trump, while at the same time benefitting from the support he still has among his base. Hence Mitch McConnell's mixed messaging.

'Battle'? What 'Battle'?

After the Capitol insurrection, I predicted that 'a battle' would now occur for the nature and the future of the Republican Party. I was wrong. The brief tussle that happened after those events can scarcely be elevated to the status of 'a battle'. Even as the broken glass was being swept up in the corridors of power in January, two-thirds of Republican lawmakers voted against the certification of the Electoral College votes for Joe Biden. In short, they willingly lined up behind the dishonest and delusional "Stop the steal" narrative that Trump had been developing since November.

Then, Liz Cheney had to fight to secure her political future because she voted in favour of Trump's second impeachment. Her 'neo-con' credentials failed to protect her from Republican criticism when subjected to the litmus test of loyalty to Trump. At the same time, Republican lawmakers could not find it in themselves to censure Marjorie Taylor Greene, despite her outrageous views and her less-than-convincing apology for them. The matter at stake clearly being not to antagonise the Trump-base or fundamentally criticise 'Trumpism'.

Straining out gnats...

Consequently, this led to legal gymnastics in an to attempt to avoid confronting Trump's behaviour at all. The first was to claim that an ex-president could not be impeached. The 1876 impeachment of Secretary for War, William Belknap, was quoted despite its ambiguity (the House had found him guilty, despite his hurried resignation in advance of the vote, while the Senate voted to acquit him).

The only thing certain from this was that it was up to the Senate to decide, and Republicans could not sufficiently utilise this ambiguous precedent to prevent the trial. However, it remained as their smokescreen. Indeed, while McConnell was Republican leader of the Senate he had refused an early recall of the chamber, so ensuring that it was an ex-president who came to trial there.

Then, there was the claim that the 1969 Supreme Court judgement in Brandenburg v Ohio allowed for inflammatory speech (protected under the First Amendment), so long as it did not explicitly advocate violence that immediately ensued. But this too was a 'straw man', since action judged as heinous and unbecoming in a president did not need to meet the judicial standard applied in a normal court of law's definition of such a 'crime'. In short, if then-President Trump acted in a way that was seriously inappropriate as president and encouraged illegality, then Congress was well within its rights to try him and impeach him.

All of this was designed to find a legal argument which would stop Trump's behaviour being addressed at all. One is reminded of Jesus' condemnation of those prepared to "strain out a gnat but swallow a camel" (Matthew 23:24). And, while the legal 'gnats' were being prepared and 'strained', a whole lot of 'camel-swallowing' was going on!

...swallowing camels

Clearly, for many Republican supporters (including many lawmakers), the relentless and unjustifiable attacks on the legitimacy of Biden's election; multiple failed lawsuits designed to support this claim; the phone call to a Georgia official, designed to "find" necessary votes to get Trump over the line, were not enough to make them confront Trump.

Then there were Trump's words on 6 January: "We will stop the steal", "fight like hell", "We are going to the Capitol". While the Capitol was under attack, Trump still tweeted: "Mike Pence didn't have the courage to do what should have been done to protect our Country and our Constitution."

Finally, there was his tweet while the police restored order: "These are the things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously and viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly and unfairly treated for so long."

Apparently, these words were not sufficient to be classed as inciting, or colluding with, what occurred on 6 January. Or if they were, the alleged 'unconstitutional' nature of the trial of an ex-president was sufficient to allow most Republicans in the Senate to avoid condemning Trump with a guilty vote.

For most observers, the fact that Trump also dropped in phrases such as "Peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard" and "stay peaceful" will appear as the careful phrases of a person who winds up a mob over many weeks, but then skilfully drops in words to show that what ensues is 'nothing to do with me!'

Whatever Republican lawmakers privately feel or publically state, Trump now clearly thinks that this tactic worked. After all, he has been acquitted. As far as he is concerned, he has been found to be innocent. Huge numbers in his base will agree with this conclusion, regardless of the nimble footwork of Senate Republicans, which was designed to condemn but not convict.

What is really depressing is the evidence which shows that huge numbers of US evangelicals have invested in the 'gnat straining' and 'camel swallowing' business. While expressing dismay at what occurred on 6 January – accompanied by disapproval of the impeachment of 'their man' for it – many still take no responsibility whatsoever for what led up to it. Four years of enthusiastic support for Trump; subscribing to delusional conspiracy theories; buying into Trump's self-serving undermining of the US electoral process; and then supporting his "Stop the steal" narrative, has characterized the behaviour of many.

However, there is little sign of them taking responsibility for the outcome of such moral compromise, and then collusion in mendacity. However, as Jesus reminds us: "By their fruits you will know them" (Matthew 7:16). Consequences track back to causes; outcomes derive from inputs. We evangelicals, of all people, should be the first to recognise the reality of this scriptural truth.

Many US evangelicals (as many evangelicals globally) subscribe to a belief that, in the Last Days, huge numbers of people (other people, of course) will have their minds gripped by a 'spirit of delusion'. While no balanced commentator would describe Trump as the antichrist, it could be argued that if US white evangelicals want to attend a dress-rehearsal of how 'a spirit of delusion' might grip a community, they have front row seats to view their own behaviour.

We are used to hearing concerns expressed about 'Islamist radicalism'. Perhaps it is time we started talking openly about 'US white evangelical extremism' as a major cause for concern. This not only affects the USA, since it also involves many in the global evangelical community whose outlook is influenced by the radicalised section of the US evangelical Right.

"Sow the wind and reap the whirlwind" (Hosea 8:7)

There is a saying that a frog will not jump out of a cooking pot (please don't try this at home), so long as the heat is turned up gradually. Over the past four years the heat has steadily been turned up in the USA. Behavioural norms have been undermined. Lies have been normalized. Democracy has been weakened. Racial injustice has been downplayed. Wrong has not been sufficiently confronted and opposed. Apocalyptic claims have been made in order to justify extreme right-wing positions.

Huge areas of US life have been regarded as acceptable collateral damage, in order to achieve a select number of key evangelical objectives (plus ones that have nothing to do with the gospel, but a lot to do with right-wing goals). A wind has been sown. The whirlwind is now blowing and has yet to run out of destructive energy. Or, to put it another way, the frog is still being boiled.

Martyn Whittock is a Licensed Lay Minister in the Church of England and an evangelical. As a historian, he has a particular interest in the interaction between faith and politics. His book Trump and the Puritans: How the Evangelical Religious Right Put Donald Trump in the White House (co-author James Roberts) explores the connection between Trump and the US evangelical community. He has also written a number of guest blogs and opinion pieces on this subject, during 2020, for print and online news platforms; has been interviewed on a number of radio shows exploring events in the USA; and appeared on Sky News discussing why US evangelicals support Donald Trump.