Why Bethel Church's pastor Beni Johnson is wrong to back Trump
Throughout this intriguing US presidential election campaign it's been repeatedly stated that evangelicals vote in disproportionate numbers for Donald Trump. It's a phenomenon that's baffled commentators, given Trump's complex marital history, his past record of support for abortion and his many appalling comments directed at women and minorities. In fact, this support is largely a myth: it isn't the good churchgoing evangelicals who are voting for him, but those for whom 'evangelical' means the same as 'CofE' did in Britain until fairly recently. It's a social label, not a religious one.
There are some prominent exceptions, though. Trump's won endorsements from pastors including Jerry Falwell Jr, Robert Jeffress and televangelist Mike Murdock.
Now he's picked up another. Beni Johnson, senior pastor with her husband Bill at the influential Bethel Church in Redding, California, has declared her support for him in a long and detailed Facebook post.
The 3,000-member church is known for its sign-and-wonders approach to worship. Its influence is far wider than its immediate congregation, however: it runs a School of Supernatural Ministry and a web TV service viewed by about 30,000 people. Around 24,000 people download the Johnsons' sermons every week. So when Beni Johnson speaks, people listen.
And it's worth seeing exactly what she says, because it sums up how brilliantly Trump has made his message so credible that people are prepared to overlook his transparent unfitness for office on grounds which, on any logical analysis, are simply spurious.
Johnson has eight points.
1. "He is not your ordinary politician." His ideas, like a "sound immigration policy, returning manufacturing jobs to America [and] negotiating better trade deals", go against the status quo. Electing another career politician is "electing the problem to fix the problem".
Trump supporters genuinely believe the 'career politicians' aren't interested in jobs, trade and immigration and that an 'outsider' can come in and just fix things.
2. "Trump is not reliant on donors... No one owns Trump." True, he doesn't have to raise vast amounts of money to run and pay it back in favours. But that implies money is the only way of controlling someone. Trump doesn't want money, but he does want power. It's hard to see his flip-flop on abortion, for instance, as anything other than a trade of principles for influence with evangelicals.
3. "He doesn't have much of a filter. Bravo." Johnson sees Trump's gaffes as evidence of integrity. He doesn't have 'handlers': "Where you see a loose cannon, I see a man who says what he means and means what he says." This would be a reasonable point, if what he said wasn't so dreadful. Mexicans, women, disabled people, Muslims, veterans – he's insulted them all. It's a kind of integrity, but not in a good way.
4. "He speaks for us little people. Hate to break it to ya' – but we don't have much of a voice." She goes on: "Trump actually discusses the concerns of the middle-class, blue-collar worker." In this, Johnson taps into the same anger and disillusionment that drove the rise of the Occupy movement on the left. She attacks the "crony-capitalists, tucked into the pockets of Big Business executives who want to outsource your job to China". Let's not deny she has a point – but the idea that Trump can, or would wish to, reinvent the global capitalist system that's done so well for him is questionable, to say the least.
5. "A stellar family. We often forget that we are not only choosing a president but choosing a First Family." Trump's family, she says, would ornament the role. That's a rather strange view of the election, but it does indicate something of what some Americans expect of their President; not just a chief executive, but the embodiment of their values.
6. "A man of sound morals." Trump treats his workers well, she says, and she brushes aside his two divorces: "Sure. Marriages sometimes don't work out. Ask Newt Gingrich or even Ronald Reagan himself. He's on friendly terms with both ex-wives, though. What does that tell you?" She's right, marriages do break down and public figures should be judged no more harshly than anyone else because of it. That doesn't automatically give him a gold star on the morality chart, though.
7. "His policies are spot-on." There's a list of policies here with which Johnson agrees. She likes him on taxes, saying he'll "take on the hedge-fund managers and blast their ridiculously unfair tax rate". It "simply shows an individual with an astute understanding of finance and a genuine sense of fairness". According to the respected Tax Policy Center, however, Trump's plans would cut taxes at all levels but the largest benefits would go to the highest earners. Unless they were accompanied by very large spending cuts they would increase the national debt by 80 per cent by 2036.
She likes his "love and support for our military and vets" – though he notoriously refused to describe Sen. John McCain as a war hero because he'd been captured.
He is against Common Core, an attempt to standardise educational measurements across the US in response to mediocre achievement. It is much-contested, but many on the right are opposed to it because it is associated with federal rather than state intervention.
She likes his approach to abortion – he's now against it – and that he is opposed to mandatory vaccinations. The latter is another cause popular among conservatives who question the safety of vaccinations and argue it should be up to parents to decide whether to vaccinate their children. Medical science is clear that children should be vaccinated.
Trump also believes in "protecting our Second Amendment Rights" – that is, he is opposed to gun control.
Johnson is also in favour of his support for Israel, which she says is nuanced, his "strong stance to destroy Isis and protect Christians being persecuted" and his "medical reform" – he would repeal Obamacare, which has resulted in the number of uninsured Americans falling to record low levels.
These policies are common to all of the Republican candidates.
8. "Negotiation skills." Johnson says: "When our leader walks into an international forum, or that one-on-one meeting with the British PM, there is no adviser that can speak for him. It's the one time the president sinks or swims on his own merits. As such, a stern – even arrogant – president with negotiating expertise is of paramount importance. Governors have keen negotiating skills, sure – so do CEOs." One of Trump's PR victories has been his ability to portray himself as a professional surrounded by amateurs, the only person who has actually achieved anything in business. Of course, negotiating the purchase of a golf course is rather different from negotiating a nuclear deal, but he has managed to persuade most Republicans that they're basically the same.
There are two more things to notice about Johnson's post, one to her credit, one not so much.
The first is that she doesn't attempt to say that voting Trump is the Christian thing to do. She simply lays out why she's voting for him. She avoids rhetoric about 'Making America Great Again' and sticks to the facts as she sees them.
But the second is that, aside from the holes in her arguments where on things like taxation she doesn't appear to have engaged with Trump's critics, she doesn't really seem to get who he is. His attitudes to women and to Muslims; his divisive and violent rhetoric; his rejection of the common decencies of discourse; his appeal to the lowest in his supporters – all these are indications of flaws in his character at the deepest level. One doesn't have to agree with politicians' programmes to respect them as people. Leaving aside whether he would be effective in it, Trump would not grace the office of US president. No one who values the dignity of the office should be voting for him.
Beni Johnson's post may gain Trump a few more supporters. At least, her support lends him more legitimacy among a significant bloc of voters, and that can't be a good thing.
Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods