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Gerson: Trump evangelicals have lost their gag reflex


Billy Graham has been one of the most visible, respected and influential Christians in the world since the 1950s. But he often had a blind spot when it came to politics. Graham was Richard Nixon’s golfing buddy and spiritual adviser. He was there to pray with Nixon after every victory and loss. And Nixon consulted him on everything from his vice presidential pick to the conduct of the Vietnam War.

It must have been a heady experience. “Nixon showed his friendliness to me in many personal ways,” Graham later recalled. “He came to our home on the mountain. He often referred to the pineapple tea my mother served him when he visited her. ... In our games of golf together, he was always willing to coach me. ... He remembered birthdays.” In Graham’s view, Nixon was “a modest and moral man with spiritual sensitivity.” He “held such noble standards of ethics and morality for the nation.”

Graham was in denial about Watergate until the last. When he finally read through the Watergate tape transcripts—including profanity, political corruption, lying, racism and sexism—Graham remembers becoming physically ill. He said later of Nixon: “I wonder whether I might have exaggerated his spirituality in my own mind.” Graham’s biographer William Martin quotes a close Graham associate who is more blunt: “For the life of me, I honestly believe that after all these years, Billy still has no idea of how badly Nixon snookered him.”

We can now look back on such gullibility with nostalgia. Billy Graham had the alibi of self-deception. But Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Robert Jeffress and Donald Trump’s other evangelical advocates have no such excuse. They have made their political bargain with open eyes.

Trump has made profanity an unavoidable part of our political culture. He is in the midst of a gathering corruption scandal that has left close aides under indictment. He tells repeated and obvious lies. He incites ethnic and racial resentment as a political strategy and was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault. Add to this something that could never be said of Nixon: The credible accusation that Trump paid hush money to a porn star to cover up an affair.

And what is Franklin Graham’s reaction? “We certainly don’t hold him up as the pastor of this nation and he is not. But I appreciate the fact that the president does have a concern for Christian values, he does have a concern to protect Christians whether it’s here at home or around the world, and I appreciate the fact that he protects religious liberty and freedom.”

“A concern for Christian values.” I imagine there is considerable presidential stroking behind such a pronouncement—the current equivalent of remembering birthdays and pineapple tea. But Graham’s argument is as crudely political as it gets. Since Trump has delivered the goods on protecting Christians, evangelicals should give him the benefit of every doubt on moral matters, even when such doubts are absurdly transparent ploys.

The level of cynicism here is startling. Some Christian leaders are surrendering the idea that character matters in public life in direct exchange for political benefits to Christians themselves. It is a political maneuver indistinguishable from those performed by business or union lobbyists every day. Only seedier. You scratch my back, I’ll wink at dehumanization and Stormy Daniels. The gag reflex is entirely gone.

From a purely political perspective, the Trump evangelicals are out of their depth. When presented with the binary choice of Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, I can understand a certain amount of anguish. But that is not a reason to become sycophants, cheerleaders and enablers. Politics sometimes presents difficult choices. But that is not an excuse to be the most easily manipulated group in American politics.

The problem, however, runs deeper. Trump’s court evangelicals have become active participants in the moral deregulation of our political life. Never mind whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is of good repute.

Some evangelicals are busy erasing bright lines and destroying moral landmarks. In the process, they are associating evangelicalism with bigotry, selfishness and deception. They are playing a grubby political game for the highest of stakes: the reputation of their faith.

Not long after Watergate broke, a chastened Billy Graham addressed a conference in Switzerland, warning that an evangelist should be careful not “to identify the Gospel with any one particular political program or culture,” and adding, “this has been my own danger.” The danger endures.

Your Views: Comparing Trump to Christ begs these questions

I was troubled by the letter you published Thursday ("Democrats, not Trump, acting mentally unstable") that compared President Trump to Christ.

To that, comparison I ask these questions: Did Christ have to return $25 million dollars of his followers because of false teachings as Trump was required? Did the disciples pay $130,000 to an exotic dancer to maintain Christ's moral standing? After feeding the multitudes with five loaves and two fish, did Christ claim that crowd to be the largest ever assembled to see a prophet?

Let's see where Trump takes us and hope that path moves closer to the one that Christ walked.



Our Views: United Way needed now more than ever

The beauty of GoFundMe-style online fundraising is it’s quick and easy to start and to donate.

The downside is that it’s quick and easy—too easy. It’s another reason why the community needs the United Way to help ensure people’s generosity is put to good use.

The recent felony charge against Janesville resident Deanna Hatch, who solicited donations from the community to pay for the care of her husband, a disabled veteran, provides a fresh reminder of what can happen when people give without doing due diligence.

But the United Way, which will distribute this year $2.34 million to benefit 62 local health and human services programs, can be trusted. It vets each funding request on its merits.

“Funding decisions are made through a highly competitive process, and grants are awarded to high-performing nonprofits that provide programs and services aligned with our three strategic priority areas of health, education and financial stability,” Mary Fanning-Penny, president and CEO of United Way Blackhawk Region, explained in an Oct. 23 op-ed about the grant allocation process.

United Way recruits volunteers and subject-matter experts to examine all grant requests, and volunteers must sign a code of ethics policy and disclose any conflicts of interest, she noted.

Only after a rigorous vetting process, including a financial analysis and review of program effectiveness, does the United Way award funds. No program automatically receives money based on any previous allocation. Each funding cycle, a program must demonstrate that it’s worthy of United Way’s financial support.

United Way’s intensive selection process gives donors, who have neither the time nor expertise to evaluate the area’s many programs, peace of mind. United Way does the due diligence so the donor doesn’t have to.

Donating to the United Way might not feel as exciting as giving money directly to someone who says they need it, like Deanna Hatch did. But when donating via GoFundMe or similar websites, it’s difficult to know for sure how your money is being used.

Hatch made a convincing case. She claimed to have plans to remodel her house to make life better for her bed-ridden husband. But as a Delavan couple who lent her $10,000 discovered, she didn’t spend that money like she said she would, according to court documents.

Now she’s also being investigated for abusing and neglecting her husband, leaving anyone who gave her money feeling pangs of regret. Not only did those funds not help her husband, they went to a person suspected of abusing and neglecting him.

What if those who gave money to Deanna had given their funds to the United Way or a reputable veterans-related organization? Maybe that money would have gone to someone who needed it instead of being consumed by a deception.

Yes, we must continue to give generously. But now more than ever, the United Way is needed to vet programs and help the community steer clear of fake causes.

Sound Off for Wednesday, Jan. 23

On drunken driving: I think Wisconsin should erect a wall like the Vietnam Memorial to show those who have been killed by drunken drivers. Make sure it’s large enough because unless stricter laws are enacted, you will need much more room, and I don’t think this is tasteless at all.

On Janesville storm sewers clogging: The reason is because everybody is throwing their leaves down there. If we quit putting the leaves out in the curbs and letting people do this, we wouldn’t have this problem when it rains. It’s ridiculous that we have to go down these streets and they’re so flooded because the storm sewers are so loaded up, and all it would take is for the city to get rid of leaf pickup.

On the Milton School District board meetings: I tried watching the audio/video of the meeting, and it is absolutely worse than the live streaming they were doing, which they really can’t do now. Unbelievable. Can’t we get somebody that knows what they’re doing so we can see these meetings?

On Ted Peck’s Jan. 14 column on hunting crows: Crows are very friendly and loved. My father had one, and it would come and land right on his arm and talk to him. Peck should keep his opinions to himself because he’s pretty useless as far as I’m concerned.

On trip to China: Why is the Janesville School District chief information officer in China? Is this an indication that Superintendent Steve Pophal will travel to China eventually and continue to support this expenditure of taxpayer dollars? Mr. Pophal, what is your position on recruiting Chinese students?

On Saturday story, “The big boom” (Page 3A): I’m calling about the article about the pickup exploding out by Milton. The Rock County Sheriff’s Office can’t identify the vehicle because there’s no VIN numbers. What are they, a bunch of keystone cops? They got VIN numbers on the serial plate. There are serial numbers on the transmission, on the motor and on the frame.

On Rock County government: It’s simple what to do with the county board and this lovely sheriff. November is coming. It’s called vote. That’s all you have to do to get rid of this clown who doesn’t believe in the law.

On government shutdown: It is sad that Sen. Tammy Baldwin and her fellow Democrats care more about amnesty for illegal immigrants than voting for a bill that would fund the children’s health care insurance program and the military.

  • The bunch of useless clowns elected to run the country have proven again they are useless. These clowns have no morals or sense of duty to the people. The sad part is they are still getting paid. Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The 4-year-old in the White House does not help.
  • Want to stop government shutdowns? All members of the Senate, House and their staff forfeit all pay and benefits for every day it’s down. Problem solved.

On welfare programs: Why is Gov. Scott Walker constantly obsessed with hyper-regulating FoodShare, Medicaid and other programs? Does shaming people in need give Walker a psychological power trip? His mental stability to be governor needs to be questioned here. Remember, Scott, these citizens vote, too.

On the economy: I like how President Trump is taking credit for our stock market and the economy doing so good. The real reason why it is doing so good is under the eight years of Barack Obama. I like how the Republicans take the credit for the accomplishments of the Democrats. It amazes me.

On Sunday one-year anniversary coverage: It’s President Trump’s one-year anniversary as president, and there’s nothing about his accomplishments, the economy and promises kept. Nothing at all. On the front page, there’s a picture of the women’s march sponsored by Emily’s List, a far-left socialist organization. Whose side are you on?

On weekend’s NFL games: What a pleasure to tune in and not see a bunch of disrespectful nobodies kneeling on the sidelines. I think President Trump’s message about respecting the American flag is getting through to them.