In 2018, Kaitlin Flanagan wrote an article for The Atlantic that referred to Donald Trump as “the porn president.”
Flanagan featured Anderson Cooper’s interview with former Playboy model Karen McDougal. Cooper asked his guest about the time back in 2006 when her boyfriend asked her to join him for a “romantic getaway” in Lake Tahoe. McDougal’s eyes brimmed with tears as Cooper recounted the sordid facts.
While she was enjoying her romantic getaway, her boyfriend’s wife, Melania, was home caring for a newborn child. And while he was supposed to be having an affair with McDougal, her boyfriend was negotiating a little side-action with a porn star.
McDougal told Cooper she still admired Donald Trump and had been proud to vote for him in 2016.
With a few notable exceptions, America’s evangelical community is also standing by its man. With each fresh indictment, the ardor grows.
‘Too far up that tree’
On a recent edition of The Bulwark podcast, Charlie Sykes and Tom Nichols were lamenting the demise of the political party they once called home.
“These are people who have climbed way too far up that tree,” Nichols said, and they “would rather watch the world burn than to deal with the psychic cost of having to admit they were taken.”
“After this is all done,” Sykes replied, “we have to rebuild that civic virtue … and the institution that would be essential to doing that would be, I think, the churches. And, wow, I’m cringing just saying that because … we’ve seen the complete corruption of the churches in this era of Trump.”
As I argued in my last column, large segments of American Christianity have embraced a logical system in which a perfect God writes a perfect Bible in order to help a perfect church provide leadership to a perfect nation. I call it the logic of perfection.
“If a corpulent reprobate can help make that happen, he has our votes.”
If the church has lost her leading role in American life, the argument goes, and if America is no longer a shining city upon a hill, the remedy is to reclaim our biblical mandate. And if a corpulent reprobate can help make that happen, he has our votes.
Logic of love/logic of perfection
For the most part, we appeal to logic when we need to justify our behavior. How should your church respond to the LGBTQ community? The logic of love says all people are created in the image of a loving God, so all must be welcomed in the family of God. The logic of perfection argues we know how God feels about “the LGBTQ agenda” by reading God’s inerrant word, so we have no choice but to exclude these people.
The logic of love is simple: Because God is love, we should love one another. Stated negatively, if you don’t love, you don’t know God (1 John 4:7-8).
This simple logic is rooted in the teaching of Jesus. The Sermon on the Mount and the Parable of the Prodigal Son continue to shock us because they push love logic to its limits. “The Law and the prophets,” Jesus said, can be boiled down to two simple propositions: “Love God with all your heart, soul and mind, and love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:36-40).
Jesus filtered his Bible through the logic of love, an interpretive shift too audacious for most Christians to follow. For us, the logic of love must always be qualified by the logic of perfection.
In part, that’s because both forms of logic appear side-by-side in the Bible. When the glory of God was revealed to Moses on the mountaintop, the nature of God was described in words that echo throughout the Hebrew Scriptures:
A God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children
and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation.
This “loving” God punishes the child for the parent’s sin. This God orders a divinely chosen people to slaughter and enslave its neighbors (see, for example, 1 Samuel 13-15). Moreover, everything that happens, for weal or for woe, comes directly from the hand of God.
If your husband and both your son die in quick succession, it’s because God ordained it be so. When Naomi returned to Israel after losing her husband and two sons in the land of Moab, she tells her friends, “Call me no longer Naomi (pleasant), call me Mara (bitter) for the Almighty has dealt bitterly with me.”
In Psalm 102 the psalmist blames God for his plight, the logic of perfection gave him no choice:
I eat ashes like bread
and mingle tears with my drink,
because of your indignation and anger,
for you have lifted me up and thrown me aside.
“This bipolar God, half love and half wrath, shapes the atonement theology you probably learned in Sunday school.”
This bipolar God, half love and half wrath, shapes the atonement theology you probably learned in Sunday school. God created a perfect world, but humans screwed it up so royally that we all deserve to die. The loving side of God wanted to forgive us, but the logic of perfection demanded we pay for our crimes even if we were flat broke.
So, God sent us the God-man. Being human, Jesus served as our substitute; being divine, Jesus could cover our debts. Problem solved.
What Jesus actually said
You get this tortured logic out of the Bible by cutting and pasting prooftexts. What the Bible says about salvation is the simple logic of love: Jesus saves us because God loves us. Simple as that.
The logic of perfection appends a plethora of ifs, ands, and buts to the love of God. Jesus sweeps these qualifications into the theological dustbin. God is love, so we must be love.
In a confirmation sermon preached in 1938, Dietrich Bonhoeffer spelled out the cost of following Jesus:
With this “yes” to God belongs just as clear a “no.” Your “yes” to God requires your “no” to all injustice, to all evil, to all lies, to all oppression and violation of the weak and poor, to all ungodliness, and to all mockery of what is holy.
Suppose you want to persecute the queer community, or you wish to relegate women to second-class citizenship or to conquer and enslave a neighboring country. The logic of love stops you cold. But the logic of perfection gleams with possibility.
If God commanded Israel to enslave her neighbors, I should be able to do it too. It’s in the Bible, and the Bible is the perfect word of a perfect God.
If you wish to believe America, God’s chosen nation, always has been on the side of truth, justice and peace, the logic of love slams on the brakes; the logic of perfection tramps on the gas pedal. A perfect God has called us to have dominion from sea to shining sea, and our blessing flows from our obedience. The occasional misstep notwithstanding, the course of American history was ordained by a perfect God.
In short, if you want to really get real lowdown and dirty, biblical descriptions of a violent God are a feature, not a bug.
“If you want to really get real lowdown and dirty, biblical descriptions of a violent God are a feature, not a bug.”
Many evangelical Christians would like to honor the logic of love but are thwarted by the logic of perfection. It doesn’t feel right to subjugate women or to persecute the queer community, but the Bible seems to give them no choice.
Black evangelicals apply the logic of love to their own civil rights struggle; but when gay rights is on the table, the logic of perfection takes charge. Trying to honor the logic of love while affirming a logic of perfection is a crazy-making proposition.
Losing our religion
In fact, there are plenty of American evangelicals who have dispensed with the logic of love so they can make the most of the Bible’s nasty bits.
In interviews inspired by his new book, Losing Our Religion: An Altar Call for Evangelical America, Russell Moore has been sharing the story of a pastor who preached on turning the other cheek. A parishioner asked where the preacher got such “liberal talking points.” When the preacher explained the teaching came straight from the lips of Jesus, his accuser just shrugged. “Yes,” he said, “but that doesn’t work anymore. That’s weak.”
I suspect the churchman in Moore’s story spends a lot of time listening to talk radio, TV preachers and conservative cable news. He has heard the logic of perfection applied to everything from the glories of American history to the candidacy of Donald Trump. Considered against this backdrop, the logic of love sounds downright subversive. Because, well, it is.
Moore has spent the last few years visiting with thousands of church people across the nation.
“I was less likely to hear about wayward children going out into ‘the real world’ and losing their faith,” he reports, “as I was to hear about wayward parents retreating into an imaginary world and losing their minds.”
“Evangelicals once lived in an uneasy tension between the logic of perfection and the logic of love.”
Evangelicals once lived in an uneasy tension between the logic of perfection and the logic of love. The strain has become so severe in recent years that many churches have jettisoned the logic of love altogether. How else do you explain how 81% of white American evangelicals could vote for a man who uses women as playthings, stiffs his business partners, exploits the nation’s highest office for personal gain, then resorts to treason when he’s voted out of office?
Charlie Sykes is right; the most visible segments of American religion have been corrupted. This is appalling, but it’s nothing new. Congregations that have abandoned the logic of love are in no position to school Americans in “civic virtue” or anything else. Churches of this stripe have replaced the biblical Jesus with a chest-thumping substitute.
Here’s the good news: Churches across America are embracing the logic of love with all its daunting implications. Most of these churches are of modest size and limited visibility. They are sailing in uncharted waters. They are reading their Bibles in radically new ways. They are rethinking their theology from the ground up. With Bonhoeffer, they realize saying “yes” to God means saying “no” to hatred and oppression.
I am fortunate to belong to that kind of church. If you don’t, my advice is to start looking. And if you can’t find that kind of church, maybe God wants you to start one.
Alan Bean serves as executive director of Friends of Justice. He is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
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