Guilt by Association in the Age of Trump

Updated: Mar 31


As you may know, the Global Center for Religious Research recently published an open letter, signed by more than 30 (and counting) “faith leaders, biblical scholars, philosophers, and other academics,” which calls...


“…all American evangelical Christians of moral conscience who recognize and regret the corrupting and corrosive influence of Donald J. Trump, to join [the signatories] in repudiating those evangelical leaders and institutions that have politically entangled themselves with him.”


The letter is powerful, as it catalogs and rebukes Mr. Trump for his moral and legal crimes, and argues that evangelicals who stay silent and do not repudiate the evangelical leaders and institutions who have wholeheartedly embraced Trump are complicit in Trump’s crimes with them. Plainly stated: silence is tacit consent. I agree with this assessment, and as a former evangelical myself who studies religion academically, I am proud to have my signature is on the letter.


Now, the letter explicitly states that it is not a call to “adopt or reject any theological doctrine, to abandon the term ‘evangelical,’ or to abandon the practice of evangelism.” It’s also clear that the repudiation it calls for will “take different forms for different people.” But it also quotes Brian McLaren who says “I think it’s time for all white Evangelicals of conscience to consider withholding their consent from churches that aren’t vocally and actively resisting…” In other words, it’s time evangelicals to start leaving certain churches—not only churches that are actively pro-Trump, but those that are not actively repudiating or resisting him in some way. And this seems right. If silence is tacit consent, and your church is not vocally objecting to something that is obviously and indisputably immoral, then it’s giving its tacit consent to the immorality.


But I believe the letter neglected another argument in favor of such action. Perhaps it rightly did so for the sake of brevity. But in defense of my choice to sign the letter, I would like to articulate that argument here: the argument regarding guilt by association.


In my book chapter, “Moral Culpability and Choosing to Believe in God,” I argue that voluntarily belonging “to a group that participates in immoral behavior makes one guilty by association” especially “if holding a belief entails membership in [the] group [and] adherence to the belief in question plays a direct role in motivating the immoral behavior.” For example, a believing member of the KKK is guilty by association of its crimes, even if they do not directly do any of its horrific actions themselves. I correspondingly argue that, for those who admit belief in God is something that one must choose to do as a matter of pure faith, rejecting theism is the morally preferable action. Theists as a group, motivated explicitly and especially by their belief in God, have simply committed too many moral crimes.


I consider many objections to my argument, but the only one that really has any traction is this: one can absolve themselves of such culpability and still remain in the group by fighting against the moral crime in question from the inside—by being “the voice of reason from within [the] religious group, openly critical of such actions, trying to change it for the better.” Although I express skepticism about the effectiveness of such efforts, I am perfectly willing to admit that, in this way, one can be absolved of the guilt one acquires by association by belonging to such a group.


The surprising thing (at least to me) is how this objection to my argument reveals exactly why my argument actually bolsters the case for what the open letter is calling evangelicals to do. The problem the letter is addressing is the fact that too many evangelicals who do not support President Trump are not being “the voice of reason” from within the group. They are not “openly critical” of Mr. Trump and/or the leaders and institutions that have embraced him. They are not trying to change evangelicalism for the better. And this is exactly what the letter is calling them to do. It is what the letter is insisting they must do or be morally culpable.


This Sunday thousands of evangelicals, who oppose Trump and recognize him for the moral monster that he is, will attend church and listen to pastors deliver overtly or subversively pro-Trump sermons. But they will likely not leave or object because “this is the church I grew up in,” or “have always attended,” or where “my [Trump supporting] parents attend.” They will sit through Sunday School or Bible Study lessons, where the vocal Trump supporter goes off every Sunday about how Trump was placed in the oval office by God, and never saying a thing.


Or they will praise the fact that their pastor remains “politically neutral” by refusing to mention, praise, condemn, or do anything about the morally horrendous actions of Trump, so as not to upset the MAGA hat wearing members of their congregation. But pretending Trump does not exist, that he is not doing things like putting children in cages when everyone knows that he is, that he is not ignoring the existential threat that is climate change, makes that pastor complicit in Trump’s moral crimes. And the same holds for those who remain silent about their pastor’s complicity.


And to cease being complicit in these ways is exactly what the letter calls American evangelicals to do.


Now, some in my circle have objected to the letter (and my signing of it) by suggesting that it is not anyone’s place to tell American evangelicals what they are guilty of. In closing, let me respond to this objection by drawing an analogy that the letter itself brings to mind:


"Just as the underground Confessional Church separated itself from the German Evangelical church in the 1930s, by way of the Barmen Declaration which declared that current political convictions should not influence church teachings, we call on evangelicals to end the cult-like determination to ignore, excuse, and justify Mr. Trump’s blatant and obvious depravity."


In the 1930s, German Christians of many stripes embraced Hitler and Nazism, and did so using much of the same language that evangelicals are using today regarding their support of Trump:


German Christians: “God fashioned for himself a man (Adolf Hitler) … and gave him the greatest mission in our history: to pull the German people up out of despair and to restore their faith in life.” (A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940, p. 147)


American Evangelicals: “Mr. Trump, I believe you’re going to be the next president of the United States. And if that happens, it’s because God has a great purpose for you and for our nation.” Pastor Robert Jeffress, FBC Dallas


German Christians: “Adolf Hitler, with his faith in Germany, as the instrument of our God became the framer of German destiny and the liberator of our people from their spiritual misery.” (A Church Undone: Documents from the German Christian Faith Movement, 1932-1940, p. 197


American Evangelicals see Trump as one who protects them from (what they see as) persecution and fights for (what the define as) “religious freedom” (or “religious liberty”). According to Matt More, a former chairman of the South Carolina Republican Party, evangelicals “see Trump as sort of a Moses figure who is leading them out of the wilderness.”


Now, one might object to this comparison by noting that, while some have argued that the similarities between Trump and Hitler are numerous, others have argued the comparison is specious by citing the many differences between Trump and Hitler. (For example, Trump does not seem to be bent on conquering the world through military might.) But there are three things to say about this as it regards to my point, and the point being made by the open letter:


(1) What is being compared by the open letter is not Trump and Hitler, but the German Evangelical church’s support of Hitler and American evangelicalism’s support of Trump. Both ignore their moral failings and both are very cult like.


(2) The comparison is being drawn between what happened during the rise of Nazism in the 1930s, not with what happened before the fall of Nazism in the 1940s. No one is suggesting that anything Trump has done is as bad as everything Hitler eventually did (e.g., Jewish concentration camps). They’re worried about the similarities of what is happening now with what happened in the 1930’s before the concentration camps. They’re afraid that current events herald worse ones to come.


(3) History doesn’t repeat, it rhymes. Thus, the fact that the American evangelicals support of Trump isn’t exactly like the German Evangelical Church’s support of Hitler doesn’t mean there is nothing to worry about—that the comparison isn’t apt. It rhymes. And that is worrisome enough.


With all this in mind, I can explain my rational for signing the letter though an analogy. If a German Christian, who I knew was opposed to Hitler, came to me in the 1930s and said, “Today in Church, someone put down a copy of Mein Kampf next to the Bible at the front of the church and the congregation cheered,” I would have had no reservation about immediately and emphatically telling them that they needed to leave that church. “Leave now, or you will be morally culpable for a great many sins.” I simply believe something very similar applies to the way American evangelicalism has embraced Trump, and I believe the open letter is telling them something very similar, for very similar reasons.

Besides… One does not have to be a moral philosopher to identity Trump’s actions as immoral, nor does one need to be a Biblical scholar to know that evangelicalism’s leaders and institutions have perverted the gospel to defend him. Evangelicals themselves have traditionally had no problem condemning the immorality of others (Catholics, Muslims, liberals), and as a citizen of this country and this planet, and as a well-informed conscientious observer, I am completely justified in calling for actions that I believe are for the good of both. Indeed, as declared in most Christian circles, accountability is expected. Christ himself commanded it. Or as Proverbs 27:17 says, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another.” Therefore, I have no reservations about signing a letter which calls evangelicals who recognize Trump for what he is to do what they should have done long ago: repudiate the evangelical leaders and institutions that have perverted the gospel and lost all moral credibility to defend him.

And if you are a religious scholar, religious leader, or former evangelical—and I have convinced you—please join me in signing the letter.

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