Between the lines: How religious leaders dismiss Trump’s misbehavior
“It is remarkable to hear religious leaders defend profanity, ridicule and cruelty as hallmarks of authenticity, and dismiss decency as dead language,” writes Michael Gerson in the cover story of the April edition of The Atlantic.
He is referring specifically to evangelical Christians who defend President Donald Trump despite his very un-Christian behavior. Gerson’s article is called “How Evangelicals Lost Their Way and Got Hooked By Donald Trump.”
But much of the lengthy piece could apply as well to many religiously observant Jews. It describes how a group whose beliefs and values reflect a commitment to piety and morality can somehow, seemingly inexplicably, give a pass to the coarsest president of modern times.
More than a pass, actually — it’s often enthusiastic support. (NJJN wrote about the phenomenon last September in an article headlined, “Orthodox Jews emerging as Trump’s truest believers,” based on an American Jewish Committee poll.)
Polling has shown that two groups most supportive of President Trump are evangelical Christians, with 81 percent voting for him, and Orthodox Jews, close behind with more than 60 percent of their vote. (Keeping in mind that American Jews in general voted 70 percent for Hillary Clinton, both the appeal of Trump to the Orthodox, and the political divide within the Jewish community, are remarkable.)
Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews have more in common than one might think. They believe in the absolute authority of the Bible and share a love for, and commitment to, Israel. According to Evangelicals, the end of days and the Second Coming of Jesus will take place after the Jews have settled in the Holy Land. So in a sense, political support for Israel today is a means to a religious goal in the future. But it should also be noted that many Christians cite God’s promise to Abraham — “I will bless those who bless you, and whoever curses you will be cursed; and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you” (Genesis 12:3) — as the primary reason for their spiritual, charitable, and political support of the Jewish state.
Orthodox Jews tend to be the segment of our community most engaged with Israel spiritually and politically; they visit frequently and send their children to study in Israeli yeshivas. Increasingly conservative in their voting habits in recent decades, many Orthodox Jews have praised Trump unconditionally for recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, moving the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv, clearly backing Israel in its struggle with the Palestinians, and pledging to tear up or strengthen the Iran nuclear deal.
Their alliance with Evangelicals is based on political pragmatism. After all, there are tens of millions of American Evangelicals who love Israel and who play an influential role in American politics, and Israel can use all the support it can muster. As Menachem Begin explained when he became the first Israeli prime minister to actively welcome Evangelical backing four decades ago, he was not concerned about their theological rationale. “When the Messiah comes, we’ll ask him if he’s been here before.”
Rabbi Avi Shafran, a spokesman for the Agudath Israel movement, told me he personally believes that “many Americans, for better or worse and accurately or not, assume that candidates for office and elected officials are far from moral paragons, and vote based on issues important to them.”
But do religious leaders have an obligation to call for ethics and morality on the part of government officials, especially the one in the White House?
Gerson, an evangelical Christian who served in the George W. Bush White House and is a visiting fellow with the Center for Public Justice, writes that Trump’s presidency “has been a disaster in the realm of norms. It has coarsened our culture, given permission for bullying, complicated the moral formation of children, undermined standards of public integrity, and encouraged cynicism about the political enterprise.” Gerson asserts that when men and women of faith “provide religious cover for moral squalor, winking at trashy behavior and” … offer “absolution for their political favorites,” they “have ceased to be moral leaders in any meaningful sense.”
I hasten to add that of course not all Orthodox Jewish leaders support or defend Trump’s behavior. But too many prefer to stay out of the fray, particularly on matters of values and character, and their silence can be deafening.
Granted, Donald Trump is unique in many ways, including being the president most publicly associated with anti-Semitism, through his lack of instinctive resistance to it, but also the most connected to traditional Judaism, through his Jewish family members.
Defense of Trump by religious figures of authority may seem illogical, but it aligns with the theories of Jonathan Haidt, a psychologist and NYU professor of ethical leadership. In his important 2012 book, “The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion,” he posits that once people make up their minds about something, it’s difficult to dissuade them. To the extent that when confronted with a logical counter argument, people tend to respond emotionally rather than intellectually, justifying what they’ve already decided. That kind of doubling down can be found all around us these days as religious defenders of Trump dismiss allegations about his sexual escapades as false or irrelevant.
I’m not naive enough to suggest that our political leaders must be paragons of virtue. But it’s not only Trump’s immoral behavior on many levels that is so disturbing. It’s his shamelessness, his bullying, and his constant lying to the degree that he negates objective facts, calling legitimate reporting “fake news.” And most sadly, it’s the reality that he can get away with it. Too many among the religious figures we look up to are enablers at a time when the fabric of our democratic society is at risk.