What happens when being saved, trusting Jesus, and being born again clashes with secular politics? “Could there be,” Wittgenstein asked, “human beings lacking in the capacity to see something as something – and what would that be like? What sort of consequences would it have? ….We will call it aspect blindness.” This turns out to be more than a debased ethical disposition in relation to evangelicals and Donald Trump.
For more than five years, I have been asking why Donald Trump’s gospel of “getting even” finds a comfortable home among evangelicals. In my mind, we are dealing with the essence of good and evil, but evangelicals seem to have no compunction about supporting a president who “gets even” with his enemies even beyond the grave. Trump’s recent non-eulogy of General Colin Powell reignited my concern about Trump’s taste for vengeance.
Growing up as an evangelical in the South, matters of good and evil dominated every aspect of life. This was branded into my brain from childhood. The Christians who raised me took religion seriously. Questions of good and evil were on the corner, everywhere. As Clyde Edgerton put it, “At the heart of everything are the big questions of good and evil. What is good? What is evil? Why? How?”
Thinking about good and evil has always been the norm among evangelicals. Being saved mattered more than any other aspect of life. Whether you were going to heaven or hell had more significance than where you were spending the weekend, going to college, or working after graduation. Good and evil were the twin foundations of evangelical life. Evangelicals seemed in agreement about the nature of evil. Yet now, the mixture of good with evil in politics has made it almost impossible for there to be general agreement about what constitutes evil or good. Nothing can be taken for granted. Once notions of evil were unassailable and now, they are subjects of dissent and acrimony.
People think I’m angry at their faith convictions, but I’m not. They think I’m mocking their faith, but I’m not. I know they are very serious about their faith and deeply sincere, but what they are serious and sincere about is not the gospel of Jesus Christ. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t align properly with the gospel according to Trump. There’s a huge disconnect. For me, there’s a moral imperative that good and evil must be dealt with and ignoring either becomes an impossibility.
When people question why Donald Trump speaks and acts as he does, the politics of the matter are of little comfort. There’s a sense of perversion involved in Trump. The essence of evil is that the person does it because he can. “For the hell of it. Because he could.”
This is a theological issue crying out from the ground for attention. There can be no rhyme or reason for much of what Trump says or does, but he says and does it anyway. “Look at what’s going to happen here, look what I can do. Let me do this to him before somebody does it to me.” That’s the essence of a power trip. Little has been made of Trump’s devotion to revenge. His speeches often underscore that getting even is one of the most important principles of this life. After losing the 2020 election, Trump has dedicated much of his effort to getting even with the Republicans who voted to certify the election. He is haunted by the necessity of revenge. In a more normal time, evangelicals would have run away from Trump’s revenge-soaked rhetoric. They don’t serve a God of revenge. They swear to believe in Jesus – the man of forgiveness.
Getting even is the primary commandment in the Trump gospel. He claims that he likes the verse in the Bible about “an eye for an eye,” except that Trump is not a believer in conditional retaliation. He believes in unlimited retaliation – the most ancient and barbaric way humans have ever responded to offenses. Trump says, “One of the things you should do in terms of success: If somebody hits you, you’ve got to hit ’em back five times harder than they ever thought possible. You’ve got to get even. Get even.” Trump willingly and deliberately goes where no president has ever gone before. He threatened to put Hillary Clinton and her lawyers in prison if he won the election. He tried to smear Judge Gonzalo Curiel, the American-born federal judge hearing a fraud case against Trump University, as a “Mexican” unqualified to preside over this litigation.
In 2011, he addressed the National Achievers Congress in Sydney, Australia, to explain how he had achieved his success. He noted there were a couple of lessons not taught in business school that successful people must know. At the top of the list was this piece of advice: “Get even with people. If they screw you, screw them back 10 times as hard. I really believe it.”
The gospel of “get even” promoted with such glee by Jerry Falwell, Sr. and Donald Trump came full circle when Trump spoke at Liberty University and told the Christian student body that getting even was the gospel. There in the school that Falwell founded, Trump planted the flag of “Get Even” and a university vice-president defended it.
Michael Cohen, Trump’s lawyer, and now convicted felon, defended Trump’s “get even” remarks. He blamed the biased liberal media for ignoring a successful speech and nitpicking about the “get even” remarks. Trump spokesperson Michael Cohen told ABC News. “I conferred with Johnnie Moore at Liberty University and questioned whether Jesus would ‘get even.’ The answer is ‘he would & he did.’ Johnny explained that the Bible is filled with stories of God getting even with his enemies, Jesus got even with the Pharisees and Christians believe that Jesus even got even with Satan by rising from the dead. God is portrayed as giving grace, but he is also portrayed as one tough character – just as Trump stated.”
Somewhere Rowan Williams is saying, “Bad religion is about not trusting God,” seeing God as “a presence that is at best critical or hostile, always to be outmaneuvered where possible.”
Trump’s “get even” gospel of screw them 5, 10, or 15 times harder struggles to stack up against Jesus’ insistence on forgiveness: “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times.”
It gasps for air when having to occupy the same space as “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” The “get even” gospel mocks, blasphemes, and belittles the nonviolent politics of Jesus. Trump, the beloved “strongman” of American evangelicals exhibits the opposite of Jesus – an actual anti-Christ.
There’s no denying that Trump’s message of revenge goes against the grain of the teachings of Jesus. There’s no doubt that such a stance is an alliance with evil, a perversion of the gospel. In fact, there is no gospel in the four horses of the Trump apocalyptic: Rage. Revenge. Resentment. Ressentiment.
I have reached the conclusion that the reason evangelicals are not put off by Trump exacting revenge is that they like it. Because being able to viciously attack people already considered evil by evangelicals makes Trump seem like a person of great strength and power. If this is the case, then were are quite close to blasphemy – an evangelical kind of active despising of the truth. And that is a theological issue that trumps all secular politics.
Rodney Kennedy has his M.Div. from New Orleans Theological Seminary and his Ph.D. in Rhetoric from Louisiana State University. The pastor of 7 Southern Baptist churches over the course of 20 years, he pastored the First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio – which is an American Baptist Church – for 13 years. He is currently professor of homiletics at Palmer Theological Seminary, and interim pastor of Emmanuel Friedens Federated Church, Schenectady, New York. His sixth book – The Immaculate Mistake: How Evangelicals Gave Birth to Donald Trump – is now out from Wipf and Stock (Cascades).