Don’t Try to ‘Church Up’ Donald Trump

By Heather Wilhelm Published on June 23, 2016

In the otherwise forgettable 2001 movie Joe Dirt — the Orlando Sentinel, rather amusingly, compared it to “choking to death on popcorn” in a review — the title character, played by David Spade in a mullet, pulls up to his new job at a radio station. Exuding brash confidence, he informs the gruff security guard that his name is not “Joe Dirt,” but instead the French-sounding “Joe Dear-Tay.”

“Don’t try to church it up, son!” the guard hollers, ramming his head through the window of Spade’s ramshackle car.

I thought of this scene, oddly enough, as I read reports from this week’s evangelical summit with Donald Trump. On Tuesday, more than 1,000 “faith leaders” descended upon New York to meet with the presumptive GOP nominee. In the confab’s wake, Trump announced his “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board,” a group of 25 advisers ranging from former Focus on the Family head James Dobson and Southern Evangelical Seminary President Richard Land to former Congresswoman Michele Bachmann.

In the wake of the announcement, however, it was Jerry Falwell Jr. who took the most unexpected heat. The son and namesake of the late Moral Majority leader and the current president of conservative Liberty University, Falwell Junior endorsed Trump back in January. He was back at it this week, posting a photo on Twitter featuring himself, his beaming wife and Trump: “Honored to introduce @realDonaldTrump at religious leader summit in NYC today!” he wrote. “He did incredible job!”

It was a lovely picture, really, with everyone looking top-notch — including the sassy, half-clothed model posing next to Trump on the Playboy magazine cover proudly framed behind them on the wall. Critics on Twitter reacted with bemusement, mockery and disdain. For his part, Falwell proceeded to freak out, tweeting: “Honored for same hypocrites who accused Jesus of being a friend of publicans and sinners to be targeting me over a decades old mag cover!”

Well. There are many rejoinders to this line of logic, including the point that “the same hypocrites who accused Jesus” have been dead for 2,000 years. There’s also the fact that Falwell, who compares himself to Jesus in his defensive tweet, is up to more than simply offering selfless biblical love for “sinners” — a term, the New Testament tells us, that applies to every single one of us — as he cozies up to the rich and powerful Trump.

Falwell’s top priority, as should be obvious, is gaining access to the halls of political power. Unfortunately, he also serves up a dicey reminder of other quixotic evangelical attempts to “church up” Donald Trump. At the summit, Franklin Graham reportedly compared Trump to Moses and David, great yet flawed men who were eventually used by God. The Rev. Michael Anthony, a pastor from York, Pa., who attended the event, truly upped the ante, telling he felt “God was speaking through” Trump when he discussed the freedoms of religion and speech.

Come on, guys. First of all, Donald Trump is not running for national pastor — thank goodness — nor does he want to. Furthermore, it’s quite clear that Trump views “the evangelicals” as simply one interest group among many.

“Christianity … I owe so much to it in so many different ways,” he told the summit, offering vague thanks for his family before veering into classic Trump territory: “I also owe it for, frankly, for standing here, because” — wait for it, wait for it — “the evangelical vote was mostly gotten by me.”

Trump told the summit that he would appoint pro-life, conservative judges, which is all fine and good — that is if, unlike many of Trump’s other claims during this campaign season, it actually turns out to be true. Other offerings Trump tossed out to the Christians included getting department store employees to say “Merry Christmas,” allowing coaches to pray at public schools, and getting “back into a position” where going to Sunday school is “automatic.”

Like Trump’s citing “an eye for an eye” as his favorite part of the Bible — a teaching Jesus firmly repudiated — this is cartoon Christianity, and it makes no one look good. Oh, and then there was this interesting exhortation: “What you really have to do is pray to get everyone out to vote for one specific person,” Trump told the crowd. “We can’t be politically correct and say we pray for all of our leaders because all of your leaders are selling Christianity down the tubes.”

Members of Trump’s evangelical advisory board are not required to endorse him, and many have not.

“We as Christians often ask ourselves, ‘What would Jesus do?’” wrote board member Land, responding to critics at the Christian Post. “Frankly, I cannot imagine our Savior would draw His robes around Himself and walk on the other side of the street and spurn Mr. Trump’s request for spiritual counsel and advice.” Land noted that he would serve on a similar board for Hillary Clinton if asked.

This seems like a fair and sane approach. Attempting to suddenly transform Donald Trump into an evangelical hero does not. So, friends, if you think Trump’s a better bet than Hillary Clinton, make your case. When you make your arguments for or against Donald Trump, make them on the merits. Whatever you do, don’t try to church it up.


Heather Wilhelm is a writer based in Austin, Texas. Her work can be found at and her Twitter handle is @heatherwilhelm.

This article originally appeared at RealClear Politics June 23, 2016 and is reprinted with permission.

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