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Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump walks with campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, left, after speaking at a news conference on Aug. 25 in Dubuque, Iowa. (Photo: Charlie Neibergall/AP)
During the closing moments of a conference call with thousands of evangelical pastors across the country on Tuesday, Sen. Ted Cruz shared one of his father’s favorite lessons to him.
“No one bears greater responsibility for the condition of this country than do the pastors,” said Cruz, quoting Rafael Cruz, who is a pastor. “If the flock stumbles into a ditch, you don’t blame the sheep. You blame the shepherd.”
Cruz, a Republican from Texas who is running for president, went on to urge the ministers to lead their congregations by preaching the need to pressure congressional Republicans to hold a vote to defund Planned Parenthood this fall.
Doug Stringer, an evangelical leader who helped organize the call, also spoke, challenging pastors not to shrink from speaking about Planned Parenthood from their pulpits. He referenced the biblical story of Jonah, who reluctantly delivered an unpopular call for repentance to the town of Nineveh (after first trying to avoid the assignment and ending up in the belly of a whale).
“Are we living in a Nineveh moment, and are we like Jonah, that reluctant prophet?” asked Stringer. “Or that voice of righteousness that should be speaking over these atrocious issues and yet we’ve been reluctant because of our ease and comfort and the fear of what people will think?”
The calls to action may have inspired some of the pastors on the line. And yet it’s hard to imagine much dissent in evangelical congregations over pastors speaking out against Planned Parenthood.
However, there is a hot button issue that could well be uncomfortable for Christian ministers to address publicly, even though it is one on which they would have a uniquely influential voice. That is the growing concern among some conservative and evangelical leaders that Donald Trump is increasingly stirring up anti-immigrant, nativist passions among the grassroots.
There is Trump’s call to deport all of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the U.S., along with his reference to illegal immigrants as “rapists” and “murderers.” And there is his linkage of the racial unrest in Ferguson and Baltimore over the past year to illegal immigrants, which has no basis in fact or logical argument but seems to be an ugly attempt to connect anger against immigrants to African-Americans.
“It’s hard not to think that’s a dog whistle of some sort … fomenting resentment against black people,” says Russell Moore, president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission. “It’s hard not to see that.”
There is also Trump’s attention-grabbing stunt in 2011, when he repeatedly accused President Obama of failing to produce a birth certificate proving he was born in Hawaii and mused that the president was actually born in Kenya, despite documentation proving this theory false.
Ben Domenech, founder of the Federalist, a conservative online publication with growing clout on the right, wrote last Friday that even if Trump remains a long shot whose candidacy continues to reside in the theater of the absurd, his rhetoric and positions on immigration risk dragging the Republican Party away from its historical role as a classically liberal party aimed at limiting the size of government and toward the identity politics that drives extremist nationalist parties in some European countries.
“The faction of the country that believes not in freedom but identity politics for white people adores” Trump’s call to round up 11 million undocumented immigrants and deport them, Domenech wrote.
Trump’s rhetoric has stirred some racial ugliness already. Two Boston men attacked a Hispanic homeless man this month and said they were inspired by Trump. And the New Yorker’s Evan Osnos has chronicled the support for Trump among white nationalist activists.
Trump told Bloomberg News this week that he does not want the support of white supremacists like David Duke, the former Ku Klux Klan leader who has praised Trump. And he eventually condemned the Boston attack, although he initially observed only that his supporters are “very passionate.”
Yet if conservatives continue to conclude in greater numbers that Trump’s rhetoric is in fact crossing a line, then it is a challenge ripe for confrontation by evangelical pastors.
The Christian faith is clear on the issue of racism. Texts like Galatians 3:28 — “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free” — are unequivocal, as is the second chapter of Ephesians, which unpacks how Jesus’ death and resurrection had “destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility” between Jews and Gentiles.
“For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one,” Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14. “His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility.” That paradigm extends to all ethnicities and races in the view of most Christians.
Moore pointed out that the Old Testament, as well, “repeatedly called on the people of God to show mercy to the stranger, to those who sojourn among you,” and that the foundational Judeo-Christian teaching that all humans are created in the image of God applies, of course, to all races and ethnicities.
As has been demonstrated time and again now, Trump’s supporters are impervious to criticism of their hero; in fact, their fervor is often increased when he is attacked. Even when the criticism comes from someone as undeniably conservative as Glenn Beck or Michelle Malkin or Erick Erickson, Trump’s supporters lump his opponents in with the elite, establishment institutions they love to hate and reject almost all critical analysis out of hand.
In this context, there is one group of influencers that might have a slightly higher chance of breaking through to Trump supporters and breaking the fever that has hold of at least a subset of them. And that would be, for the evangelical Christians who support Trump, their pastors.
Trump’s support — ephemeral or not — cuts across wide swaths of the electorate, and evangelicals make up a significant portion of those who say they like the businessman and reality TV star. It may be easy for evangelicals to dismiss criticism from the press or from other “establishment” political candidates. But a pastor speaking to their conscience is harder to ignore.
Some conservatives are not convinced that the racist or prejudiced label is a fair one to apply to Trump.
“I don’t think it’s legitimate to say that there is in any way in the Trump campaign any semblance of a racist agenda,” says Brent Bozell, a veteran conservative activist who is one of Cruz’s most active and prominent endorsers on the right. “If there were, it should be denounced.”
Bozell says, in fact, that discussion of race would “make Trump even stronger, rather than hurt him.”
But Stringer, in an interview, said, “At the grassroots level across America, there are pastors intentionally working on [racial] reconciliation,” and that Trump’s message and rhetoric “doesn’t fly with us.”
“I don’t think the church would rally behind something like that, because the church is a plumb line of reconciliation and of justice and truth,” said Stringer, who helped organize the outreach to the more than 100,000 pastors who were invited to the conference call with Cruz.
The Cruz campaign declined to comment about whether Trump’s rhetoric should be challenged, and in fact Cruz himself has repeatedly gone out of his way to avoid criticizing Trump at all. The Texas senator seems to be aiming to win over Trump’s supporters whenever the businessman fades or implodes, as most still expect him to.
However, doubt is beginning to creep into the minds of many who have watched Trump defy gravity time and again. Moore said that pastors and religious leaders have for this reason so far avoided saying anything publicly about Trump.
“I think many Christian leaders are just assuming that this is so crazy, that the Trump boom will eventually take care of itself,” Moore said. “And as time goes on, the more we’re seeing that’s not necessarily the case.”