Toward the end of the book of Numbers, the Israelites are still out wandering around the desert, hoping to stumble across the Promised Land. Water’s running low and Moses goes to God, hoping to talk him into sparing a little from heaven. “Take the staff, and you and your brother Aaron gather the assembly together,” God tells him. “Speak to that rock before their eyes and it will pour out its water.”
Moses does almost exactly as instructed, hitting the rock with his staff instead of speaking to it. This seems like a forgivable error—Moses had signed up to lead these people on a fairly straightforward hike from Egypt to modern day Israel and, owing to their bitter disobedience, found himself in charge of a forty-year goose chase.
His temper was bound to be fragile. He probably hit a lot of rocks. But this appears to be the first time he hit a rock he was supposed to be having a conversation with, and for God, it was the last straw.
“Because you did not trust in me enough to honor me as holy in the sight of the Israelites, you will not bring this community into the land I give them,” God told him.
This strikes me as one of the Bible’s saddest stories. Here is Moses—one of history’s greatest heroes, an eternal icon for all those who seek freedom from tyranny—cursed to see his dream deferred. It was Joshua who ended up leading the Israelites into the Promised Land, leading them along the route and in the way Moses had taught them.
Trump supporting evangelical leaders look a lot like Moses.
This seems a bit unfair, but then, as I reflect, it’s also painfully common. Spiritual pilgrimages are long, and very few people ever live to see them completed from start to finish. Sometimes they are held back by tragedy, as with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and sometimes by vengeful power, as with Joan of Arc.
But more often, I think our own spiritual journeys get waylaid by the sort of small mistakes that Moses made. We don’t forsake the goals God gave us, but we lose sight of them in infinitesimal—maybe even defensible—measures here and there.
A little laziness, a little hard-headedness, and next thing you know, the next generation is picking up a torch you accidentally dropped. And you’re stuck watching them march ahead of you into a land you’d always hoped to have for your own. If you’re charitable and just a little humble, you might even be able to applaud them on their way.
This has helped provide me with some context for the most confusing phenomenon I have observed in my life: the evangelical capitulation to President Donald Trump.
No, confusing isn’t quite the right word. During the run-up to the 2016 election, it was mystifying. Infuriating. Even, at times, heartbreaking.
At this point, we hardly need to re-litigate all the things that make President Trump unworthy of Christian praise. He has shown himself to be proudly against almost everything Christians claim to be for.
He is a vain and cruel man, obsessed with power and wealth. He sows fear and distrust, stoking the very worst impulses of our society. He is quick to speak and slow to listen. He notoriously has no respect for sexual morals or women’s bodies—be they Rosie O’Donnell’s or his own daughter’s. And as to the truth, well, you treat your washcloths with more respect.
He is, in other words, exactly the sort of person you would expect the Religious Right to lambast with their famous smear machine. That, as you may be aware, did not happen.
Evangelicals—the white ones anyway—voted for Trump in waves. They didn’t just help him get elected; they were the key to his victory. Aided by the support—sometimes begrudging, sometimes enthusiastic—of several high profile evangelical leaders like Wayne Grudem, James Dobson, Eric Metaxas, and Jerry Falwell, Trump got just the sort of minority vote he needed to win.
An Opposition We Can’t Seem to Communicate
The frustrating thing in my ensuing conversations with Christian brothers and sisters who supported Trump during the campaign has been how self-evident I find my opposition to Trump to be. How do you explain something that feels as natural as your own skin? It’s like explaining why you find the stars beautiful.
I try anyway, by running the now famous gamut—Trump’s a liar, a racist, a sexual predator, and so on—knowing in advance that these reasons will convince no one who isn’t already convinced and feeling insane because of it, like Copernicus who looked like a wild-eyed madman when he insisted that the earth rotated around the sun, to the scorn and derision of his colleagues.
The reason I consider opposition to Trump to be self-evident is simple: the things I oppose in him are cooked into my bones, and they have been since my childhood. They do not stem from a deep love of Hillary Clinton or a coastal disdain for the white working class of the rust belt. I neither loved Clinton nor do I live on the coast.
Instead, my reasons for opposing Trump are drawn from the principles instilled in me by the evangelical culture that made him president.
The Day Evangelicals Embraced the Relativism They Warned About
When I was young, it was in vogue for youth pastors to caution their teen audiences against the fearsome march of relativism. This notion, largely popularized by popular author and speaker Joshua McDowell, was a soft interpretation of philosophical relativism that said America’s secular culture was literally losing its grip on reality, and its rejection of the Bible as the ultimate standard truth would eventually lead to a rejection of truth in general. “If we decide spiritual laws don’t matter,” the theory went, “what will stop us from deciding that other laws don’t matter?”
This sounded like the usual Christian wolf-crying even to my teenage ears. Who in their right mind would ever decide that the truth didn’t matter? I figured it was just another example of Christians fretting over the cultural boogiemen that were coming for them. I was being naïve, as it turned out, but my old Christian leaders were wrong on one point: this particular boogieman didn’t come for them, but from them.
How else do you explain the oddness of it all? The exhortations to “listen to what Trump means, not what he says.” The explanations that we must take Trump “seriously but not literally.” And of course, the refusal to believe any news from the “mainstream media,” even when that news is as verifiable as the weather.
People who defend Trump must behave as functional relativists, relegating all of his statements and actions to a place of fluid meaning and interpretation. His gross language about women is just “locker room talk,” so it can’t be held against him. His horrifying language about immigrants and Muslims is just a healthy zeal for the law. His covert dealings with Russia . . . well, maybe Russia’s not so bad after all. All presidents lie, you know. We’re not electing a “pastor-in-chief,” after all.
All of this is much more than just moving the goalposts from where they were for past candidates. It’s a disembowelment of Christianity’s most cherished principles, ethics we have deemed to be part of America’s moral bedrock since its very founding.
But when I try to insist on this, I feel like I’m speaking a foreign language to the people who taught me how to talk in the first place. I start feeling like there is some intentional gaslight going on. Maybe I’m wrong, and I misunderstood all those childhood lessons about the importance of civility and respect. Maybe it is crazy to insist on honesty and basic human decency from our elected officials.
Or maybe we are all part of a spiritual journey that was begun by those who will not finish it.
Maybe we will all die before we reach the Promised Land.
Here is a hard lesson: our spiritual leaders will teach us to do things that we will do in ways they do not understand. Moses wasn’t allowed to go into the Promised Land. Our leaders and family members, pastors and small group leaders may have consciences, worldviews, political purity tests or even just simple technological blind spots that don’t allow them to join us here in a moral, principled opposition to President Trump. They may see our moving forward without them as foolhardy, rebellious, perhaps even heretical.
As author and pastor Jonathan Martin says, “Some of you can’t be faithful to what spiritual fathers/mothers invested in your past, without offending them in the present.”
It may be hubris to say this, to be so sure of one’s rightness that you accuse the other of dying before they make it to the Promised Land. I’ll acknowledge that’s a risk, but I also acknowledge this: I will also die before I reach the Promised Land.
I’ll instill spiritual lessons of my own into the next generation that they will use in ways that seem wrong to me. And when that day comes, will I have the wisdom and humility to recognize a great and holy pattern that has been carried on for several millennia now? Will I realize that they are honoring God and making his kingdom known in ways I never dreamed of doing? I don’t know. I hope so.
Looking back to look ahead
And so we come back to Moses, who himself died looking wistfully at a Promised Land he would never set foot in. According to Deuteronomy, his final moments were actually spent on a mountain overlooking the Promised Land, with God by his side.
Few biblical heroes had a warmer, gutsier relationship with the Almighty. Moses and God joked with each other, discussed how to handle Israel together, even quarreled and bartered together. They were like a lot of old friends that way.
“I have let you see it with your eyes,” God tells Moses about the Promised Land. “But you will not cross over into it.”
If the Bible is to be believed, those were the last words Moses ever heard. He departed this mortal coil looking at the place the people he had liberated would go to flourish, and live, and worship and belong.
There are worse ways to die.
Cover image by Eddie Sitgson.