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Bill Straub: A great political enigma of our times is why evangelicals continue to be devoted to Trump

It has developed over the past few years into one of the great political enigmas: Why have evangelicals, those Bible-quoting, sin-hating, Sunday-go-to-meeting folks who are the quintessential salts of the earth, so enthusiastically embracing President Donald J. Trump, a lying, cheating, misogynistic four-flusher who spews insults and profanity as often as evangelicals shout “amen’’ and seems to represent all the attributes that usually sends them to their knees to pray for deliverance?

It’s a subject of unending curiosity, written up everywhere from the Boston Globe to The New York Times, as the presidential campaign season begins to shift into second gear. At first blush it does appear that Trump, aka President Extremely Stable Genius, aka President Great and Unmatched Wisdom, and the evangelical community make for strange bedfellows. Really strange bedfellows. While most evangelicals preach modesty, Trump boasts he is the greatest in the world, regardless of whatever subject might be careening through his mind at that precise moment. While evangelicals show respect, Trump constantly exhibits disdain for everything except money. While evangelicals pray to the great deity, the only time the word “God” passes through Trump’s mouth is in the form of a blasphemy.

Yet when Trump brags his supporters will maintain their allegiance to him even if he murders someone on Fifth Avenue, he’s talking about evangelicals. And he’s right.

Make no mistake, evangelicals, defined by Wikipedia as “Protestant Christians who believe in the necessity of being born again, emphasize the importance of evangelism, and affirm traditional Protestant teachings on the authority and the historicity of the Bible,” form one of the nation’s largest, most vibrant voting blocs. According to the Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College in Illinois, the school that presented the nation with the late Billy Graham, among other notables, the United States is home to more evangelicals than any other place on the globe. About 25 percent of the population – about 80 million people — lay claim to evangelicalism, making it the nation’s largest religious grouping.

And boy do they vote, especially white evangelicals. Around 60 percent cast ballots and more than 75 percent trend Republican. They are particularly enamored with Trump. The Pew Research Center found at one point that almost 80 percent of white evangelicals give his job performance a thumb’s up.

Kentucky is center stage for evangelical Trumpsters. According to Pew, 70.6 percent of the nation’s adult population considers themselves to be Christian. Of that, 24.5 percent claim evangelical Protestantism. In the commonwealth, 76 percent are Christian and a whopping 49 percent – almost twice the national average – are evangelicals, constituting about 1.66 million people. If, as reported, 60 percent of them vote and 75 percent of those ballots go with the GOP, Kentucky Republicans – and Trump – can count on 745,396 votes, a significant haul by anyone’s standards.

Still, the question remains, given Trump’s character, or lack thereof, why do they adore him so?
Just recently, it occurred to me that the answer can be found in (cue the Elmer Bernstein score) The Magnificent Seven. Not the sequels or the recent not-too-bad remake with Denzel Washington, but the real, legit, 1960 version with Yul Brenner, the hippest man in the world Steve McQueen and directed by John Sturges.

(Author’s Note: To cinephiles out there, I fully realize The Magnificent Seven is an Americanized version of Kurosawa’s monumental Seven Samurai. I’m using the Sturges film for this column because a) I’m a lifelong devotee of Westerns, and b) I don’t speak Japanese.)

For the uninitiated, residents of a small, Mexican farming community are terrorized by a gang of bandits led by Calvera (played by Eli Wallach in a precursor to his renowned turn as Tuco in The Good, the Bad And the Ugly). The peasants have neither the arms nor the ability to fend off Calvera but three leaders head out seeking to purchase guns in hopes of protecting their homeland. Instead they encounter Chris Adams, who offers to put a team together – thus the Magnificent Seven – to thwart the terrorists. The seven, of course, are gunmen, gamblers and various ne’er-do-wells who don’t represent the farmers’ cultural or moral norms but they carry the ability to get the job done.

In the end, of course, as Chris famously notes, “Only the farmers won.”

That, in short, is the situation facing the nation’s evangelicals. Like the farmers in The Magnificent Seven, they feel their way of life is being threatened, not by bandits but by secularists who maintain, appropriately, that non-believers and various other religious folks have a right to have their voices heard in the village square.

Evangelicals insist secularists are foisting abortion, same-sex marriage and other abominations upon them. It’s not sufficient in their minds to advise them to get around the issues by simply refusing personally to have an abortion or marry a gay partner because, remember, they maintain God will pass judgment on nations as well as individuals, potentially placing them in the line of fire for the sins of others.

As Billy Graham once wrote, “When ancient Israel turned against God, the prophets warned that God’s judgment would eventually come upon them — and it did. But God also warned that the surrounding nations would be judged too because they had no regard for God — and they were. Sometimes it happens in one great catastrophe; sometimes it happens in a series of smaller disasters and defeats. But it happens.”

So the move toward a secular society, away from religion, is making evangelicals feel vulnerable and, like the peasants in The Magnificent Seven, they lack the ability to effectively respond. As one of the villagers said, “Even if we had the guns, we know how to plant and grow, we don’t know how to kill.’’
Enter Donald J. Trump, who will agree to do anything for money and power and knows how to bully people around. He has nothing in common with evangelicals, but they have what he wants – money and votes. So he plays the game, promising them the moon and giving them seats on the Supreme Court.

The villagers were reluctant to get behind the Magnificent Seven at the outset. So it was with evangelicals and Trump. Ultimately, though, the villagers and evangelicals embraced the ways of their polar opposites. Suddenly, the villagers felt comfortable taking up arms. Just as suddenly evangelicals determined that building a wall to keep brown people from crossing the southern border was a pretty good idea, as was separating babies from their mothers, who may never see them again.

In the end, as hinted at earlier, Calvera is killed and the farmers return safely to their fields. Here in contemporary America, evangelicals continue their undying support for Trump, who is loading the courts with anti-abortion judges and trying to make sure bakers don’t have to make wedding cakes for same-sex couples.

But sometimes you have to wonder if God, surveying his creation, thinks maybe a nation supporting a thrice-divorced man who acknowledged sexual assault, cheated his way through business dealings, lies an astounding amount of the time, regularly turns his back on people of color, calls other nations “s—thole countries,’’ removes babies from the loving arms of their mothers and commits all sorts of other sins, doesn’t in itself require him/ her to pass judgment on the nation?

Trump’s former press secretary Sarah Sanders, upon leaving the administration, said, “I think God calls all of us to fill different roles at different times and I think that he wanted Donald Trump to become president, and that’s why he’s there.”

Then, one must assume, God knows how to get rid of him too.

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Gene Clabes

Gene Clabes, who helped found KyForward and the Northern Kentucky Tribune, who I knew for more than 30 years to be a crackerjack newsman and all-around good guy, sadly died at age 74 last week to the sorrow of all who knew him, including me.

Gene was just an all-around good and talented person who always seemed to have his finger in various pies, newspaper work, the thoroughbred industry, many things seemed to capture the agile mind of this son of Henderson. Always a joy to talk to and be around.

He leaves his wife, my long-time editor and dear friend, Judy, two sons and a bunch of grandkids. My regards to them on this terribly sad occasion.

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The NKyTribune’s Washington columnist Bill Straub served 11 years as the Frankfort Bureau chief for The Kentucky Post. He also is the former White House/political correspondent for Scripps Howard News Service. A member of the Kentucky Journalism Hall of Fame, he currently resides in Silver Spring, Maryland, and writes frequently about the federal government and politics. Email him at williamgstraub@gmail.com.

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