In an excellent Nov. 13 Washington Post column about how white evangelicals have whored themselves to support the most immoral president of our lifetime, Michael Gerson hit upon a word that jumped off the screen at me: “transactional.”
He wrote: “This is politics at its most transactional. Trump was being hired by evangelicals to do a job — to defend their institutions, implement pro-life policies and appoint conservative judges. The character of the president was irrelevant so long as he kept his part of the bargain. Which Trump largely did.”
Reading this, a lightbulb went off in my head. I’ve used that very word before to describe conservative evangelical theology — just not in the political sense. And yet this crossover makes perfect sense.
Rooted in our frontier evangelism mindset, Baptists and other iterations of crusading Christianity came to place so much emphasis on “getting saved” that we acted as though faith is merely a transaction to be completed, like making a deposit at the bank or signing a contract for a house.
In the revivals of my youth — and even into seminary days — I recall hearing earnest preachers urge us to get serious and “do business” with God. In hindsight, I see now how common that business language was; it seemed so natural then that I barely noticed.
Transactional faith says if we do one thing God wants, God will in turn do what we want. Or the opposite: God makes an offer to us, and we must accept the terms of the contract in order to get the heavenly reward. The “just sign here” equivalent becomes the Sinner’s Prayer.
Of course, as every good salesperson knows, the best way to get someone to buy your product, to sign the contract, to make the transaction, is to make them afraid of the consequences for saying no.
“This special deal is only good for today.”
“Get yours while supplies last.”
“Are you prepared for your house to fall in tomorrow without this protection plan?”
“For the fundamental faith transaction, the scare tactic has to be hell.”
For the fundamental faith transaction, the scare tactic has to be hell — and not just the idea of hell, not just a figurative hell, not just a lack of heaven, but actual flames-and-torment-for-eternity hell. Dangle that flaming carrot enough and how can anyone refuse to “do business” with God?
This has worked pretty well for a couple hundred years, leading to tremendous growth among revivalist churches that preach a transactional faith. Which has led to church growth without faith, membership without discipleship. But no matter, the churches were full, and people were being converted and baptized, and all the business goals were being met or exceeded.
Small wonder, then, that some evangelicals just adapted this transactional model of faith to politics: We’ll give you votes if you’ll do what we want. That’s a shrewd enough business proposition.
Except for the fact that business transactions that operate on a quid pro quo like that often require turning a blind eye to pesky moral problems. What looks simple isn’t actually so simple.
Smart businesspeople understand the difference. One of the best-known automobile dealerships in Dallas is Sewell Automotive. I’ve never bought a car from them, but I’m well aware of their business model, as is anyone who has lived here for a while. They’ve been written up in magazines and featured on podcasts. Their motto tells the story: “Customers for life.”
Set aside whatever conceptions you have of car salespersons to understand this company’s intent. They want to sell you a car today, but they also want to sell you every car you will buy the rest of your life. They’re not interested in single transactions; they’re interested in relationships. They demonstrate that through outstanding customer service that has created an intensely loyal base.
Contrast that with most every other car dealership you’ve experienced. I’ve actually leased three cars from the same dealership and never worked with the same salesperson twice. And every time, the person I’m working with has been focused solely on closing this one deal in that one moment. They have been focused on a transaction.
“This transactional approach to politics for many years failed … because politicians could not ethically or legally deliver what evangelicals wanted most: Partisan domination.”
This transactional approach to politics for many years failed for evangelicals because time and again they signed the contract with politicians who didn’t deliver — because those politicians could not ethically or legally deliver what evangelicals wanted most: Partisan domination. Especially from Ronald Reagan forward, conservative presidential candidates have promised the moon to evangelical Christians but once in office were constrained by reality from fulfilling those promises.
Not least of all, any attempt to give evangelicals what they wanted would have run afoul of the First Amendment’s prohibition on “establishing” one religion in favor of another. Reagan and both Bushes understood this limitation, and the courts around them largely enforced it too. The deal could not be ethically done. Perhaps it could, but it would be a one-time deal that couldn’t last.
This, then, explains two things that have grown to full bloom in the past four years.
Donald Trump fancies himself the smartest businessman in the world. He knows how to get a deal done. He understands transactions. And, as the whole world now understands, he has no ethical boundaries in fulfilling such transactions. He lacks the moral restraints that kept previous presidents from selling evangelicals an illegal deal. He lacks the ethical restraints that drove previous presidents to want to woo voters for party, not just self.
“You’ll always be on top with me,” he seemed to say to evangelicals day after day, even while deriding their faith behind their backs. Which is perhaps not that different from what Reagan did, too, except for the second ingredient that has changed.
That pesky problem with the First Amendment? Let’s just reinterpret that. Forget that business about not favoring one religion over another. Let’s focus instead only on your God-given right to exercise your faith freely without consideration for anyone else’s beliefs or rights. Let’s call that “religious liberty” now.
Back to Gerson: “The character of the president was irrelevant so long as he kept his part of the bargain. Which Trump largely did.”
For the first time in 40 years, evangelicals finally got the transaction they wanted. Trump taught them how to turn the tables so the First Amendment itself — even Scripture itself — no longer had to stand in the way of their domination. No wonder they didn’t want him to get fired from the car dealership.
In the meantime, the reputation of the Christian church across America has been damaged by this kind of transactional theology. We’ve got a lot of work to do now if we want to restore trust and keep people coming back. We’ve got to work on relationships, not transactions.
Otherwise, it’s going to be hard to make customers for life everlasting.
Mark Wingfield serves as executive director and publisher of Baptist News Global.