When the news broke late Friday afternoon that Donald Trump was caught on camera in 2005 bragging about sexually assaulting women, many expressed their disgust and began pontificating that this would be Trump’s final straw. Yet even as we moved into the early Saturday morning hours and more and more Republicans were issuing pro forma statements about the video, a number of prominent evangelical leaders doubled down on their support for Donald Trump. And thus we began to witness the early stages of a cycle to which we have become numb: Donald Trump does something “indefensible,” Republican leaders issue statements attempting to distance themselves from him, some evangelicals offer justifications for Trump (e.g., “We’re all sinners,” “He’s still better than Hillary,” etc.), and very few actually withdraw their support.
Sarah Pulliam Bailey has already compiled an impressively long list of evangelical leaders who are standing firm in their support for Donald Trump. Here are a few of the highlights:
- Ralph Reed, leader of Trump’s religious advisory board: “People of faith are voting on issues like who will protect unborn life, defend religious freedom, grow the economy, appoint conservative judges and oppose the Iran nuclear deal.”
- Darrell Scott, Cleveland pastor: “I don’t condone the conversation; but I don’t condemn the man!” (Translation: Hate the sin, love the sinner, especially if he’s a Republican presidential candidate.)
- Robert Jeffress, pastor and member of Trump’s religious advisory board: Trump is “still the best candidate to reverse the downward spiral this nation is in.”
- David Brody, Christian Broadcasting Network: “This just in: Donald Trump is a flawed man! We ALL sin every single day. What if we had a ‘hot mic’ around each one of us all the time?”
- Steve Scheffler, head of the Iowa Faith and Freedom Coalition: “Naturally I’m disappointed, but, you know, the Bible tells me that we are all sinners saved by grace and I don’t think there’s probably a person alive that I know of that hasn’t made some mistakes in the past.”
Last September I wrote that the hand wringing among so many in the media over why evangelicals support Trump exposed their acceptance of the myth of the evangelical voting bloc. My point last year was that people vote their politics and that we should not paint evangelicals with a broad brush or assume that they vote a particular way solely because of their religious beliefs. Yet the support by leaders of American evangelicalism today of a serial womanizer who repeatedly talks about dating his daughter appears to many as par for the course. Many of the conversations I’ve been having since Friday have centered around how American evangelicalism is complicit in allowing the structures that give us men like Donald Trump to go unchallenged. And so by Sunday when the majority of those issuing statements in support of Donald Trump were from evangelical leaders, I was disheartened, but not surprised. The speed at which so many evangelical leaders came to the defense of this man caught bragging about his past sexual assaults only served to confirm their complicity in the sustainability of our rape culture.
The particular flavor of evangelicalism in which I grew up trafficked in a toxic evangelical masculinity. This evangelical masculinity combined old fashioned patriarchy with the authoritative discourse of theology. You see, the evangelicalism I grew up in taught that women were not fit to be in any position of leadership over any man. Evangelical masculinity glorified men who policed young women’s bodies because men are sexual and visual beings and they cannot help themselves. The evangelicalism I grew up in celebrated pastors and camp speakers who objectified their wives, bragging about how “hot” they were and how great the sex was to show that if you remained “pure,” God would bless you with a “hot” wife who’s good in bed.
At the root of all of this is the insistence that since God is predominantly described in masculine terms in the Bible, God must only be referred to as masculine. Terry Wilder, Associate Dean and Professor of New Testament at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of the flagship institutions of the Southern Baptist Convention, lays it out this way:
Jesus has instructed us to call His Father “our Father.” He is truly the Father of believers in Christ. God is also the Father of all humanity. For whatever reason, God clearly expects to be understood primarily in masculine terms. Thus, that is how we should speak of Him as well.
Wilder is quick to note that he does not think this means that men are superior to women. Indeed, very few evangelicals would state such a belief so blatantly. Instead, they would argue that men and women are different and should be understood as complements of each other. Unsurprisingly, however, complementarianism always manifests itself with men being “properly understood” as holding leadership positions and women as being in positions of support.
Here’s prominent evangelical pastor and author John Piper in a 2012 sermon on the nature of manhood and womanhood:
At the heart of mature manhood is the God-given sense (disposition, inclination) that the primary responsibility (not sole responsibility) lies with him when it comes to leadership-initiative, provision, and protection. And at the heart of mature womanhood is the God-given sense (disposition, inclination) that none of this implies her inferiority, but that it will be a beautiful thing to come alongside such a man and gladly affirm and receive this kind of leadership and provision and protection.
Men and women are different, the logic goes. One is not better than the other; they were simply designed for different roles. Yet while evangelicals might not say that because God should be understood in masculine terms maleness is inherently better than femaleness, such an understanding of who God is directly informs the complementarian view of gender popular among many evangelicals that results in a hierarchical system in which men are on the top and women on the bottom. Saying that a system does not hold women to be inferior rings hollow for many when by design that system cannot accept women in positions of leadership. It is no surprise, then, that no complementarians interpret God’s design for men and women in a manner that puts women in positions of leadership over men.
Some evangelical leaders have spoken out against Trump, and some, like Russell Moore, have been vehemently against him from the beginning. Moore, who is the President of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, called evangelical support of Trump a “disgrace” and a “scandal to the gospel of Jesus Christ and to the integrity of our witness.” But while Moore may deserve praise for standing against so many other evangelicals who do support Trump, he is still the President of an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention, whose Baptist Faith and Message explicitly forbids women from serving in the role of pastor or being ordained in any capacity and calls for wives to submit to their husbands. Danny Akin, President of Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, who has also spoken out against Trump, writes that “unless a husband asks his wife to do something that is unbiblical, illegal, immoral, or unethical, she is to follow his leadership.” Yes, these beliefs are based on their reading of the Bible, but they also contribute to a culture in which women are viewed as inferior to men.
And then there is evangelical purity culture, which further serves to slut shame young women and to misguide young men on a woman’s value based on her sexual history. I came of age during the height of the True Love Waits campaign, which meant that I regularly heard about why I should wait until marriage to have sex. I heard camp pastors say explicitly, on more than one occasion, that us guys should think twice about having sex with a girl (heteronormativity is still alive and well in evangelicalism) because she will one day be another man’s husband and how would we feel if someone had previously had sex with our future wife. These young women were never called “property” explicitly, but the implication was clear. We were not wronging a young woman by having sex with her without the commitment of marriage, we were wronging her future husband; we were damaging his goods. This is how I was taught to be a man.
Having grown up evangelical, I know first hand just how sincerely evangelicals believe. I am not arguing that evangelicals misinterpret the Bible or that they intentionally and maliciously mistreat women. But I am saying that their theology which informs their ideals of masculinity bears some responsibility for buttressing patriarchy in our society. Sometimes this is explicit, as when a pastor suggests that Hillary Clinton is not fit to be President because she is a woman. But more often, it is the early lessons we are taught about who God is, about the “proper” roles of men and women, and about what gives – and takes away – our worth and value that allows a patriarchal system to replicate itself generation after generation.
We cannot divorce some evangelicals’ views of women from the theology that allows it. If the theology does not change, the attitudes toward women will not change. So, while Donald Trump almost certainly does not share evangelicals’ theological beliefs, his treatment of women as sexual objects that must remain “hot” to be worthy of attention and his beliefs that women are inferior to men, are only relevant in relation to men, and must be subservient to men bring him in near perfect alignment with certain manifestations of evangelical masculinity. I am not suggesting that these evangelical leaders find Trump’s words and deeds acceptable, but their theology that allows for the demeaning of women, even if not explicitly demanding it, is part of what has allowed Trump’s version of masculinity not just to exist, but to thrive.
Image via Gage Skidmore