WASHINGTON — It has always struck me as strange that a narrative about genocide — Noah and the ark — should be employed as a children’s story. As the other boys and girls in Sunday school focused on the cuteness of the rescued animals, I remember thinking about the mass of humanity desperately clawing to get into Noah’s boat. This exposed an early tendency to see the glass half empty — particularly when it contained so many floating corpses.
Now I understand that all the best stories have sharp edges of tragedy and danger. Even so, the story of Noah is an odd curricular choice for young children. Fresh off the boat, according to the biblical account, he plants a vineyard, gets drunk and lies naked in his tent. This is a source of consternation to Noah’s sons, who don’t want to see the dark side, much less the backside, of their father. So they cover him with a handy duvet.
Rabbinic and early Christian scholars — figuring that there must be more to the story than meets the eye — postulated that adultery, rape or castration were somehow involved. But there is an application closer at hand.
I thought of drunk, naked Noah while reading the Public Religion Research Institute’s 2019 American Values Survey. In its pages, white evangelical Protestants (WEPs) are fully disrobed. And it is an embarrassing sight.
Consider the matter of immigration. Republicans who are WEPs are the most likely group to say that immigrants are invading America and changing its culture. More than 90% of WEPs favor more restrictive immigration policies. They support the policy of family separation at the border more strongly than other religious groups, and more strongly than Americans as a whole.
How have we come to the point that American evangelicals are significantly crueler in their attitude toward migrant children than the national norm? The answer is simple enough. Rather than shaping President Trump’s agenda in Christian ways, they have been reshaped into the image of Trump himself. Or, more accurately, they have become involved in a political throuple with Trump and Fox News, in which each feeds the grievances and conspiracy thinking of the others.
The result has properly been called cult-like. For many followers, Trump has defined an alternative, insular universe of facts and values that only marginally resembles our own. According to the PRRI poll, nearly two-thirds of WEPs deny that Trump has damaged the dignity of his office. Ponder that a moment. Well over half of this group is willing to deny a blindingly obvious, entirely irrefutable, manifestly clear reality because it is perceived as being critical of their leader. Forty-seven percent of WEPs say that Trump’s behavior makes no difference to their support. Thirty-one percent say there is almost nothing that Trump could do to forfeit their approval. This is preemptive permission for any violation of the moral law or the constitutional order. It is not support; it is obeisance.
An extraordinary 99% of Republican WEPs oppose the impeachment and removal of the president — which probably puts me in the smallest political minority I have ever had the honor of occupying.
If Donald Trump survives the impeachment process, and somehow wins a second term, many explanations will be offered. It may be that the Democratic Party went too far left, or picked a nominee with a glass jaw, or couldn’t swim against the political tide of a good economy. But there will be one reason behind all of these reasons: Because evangelicals lost their taste for character, and gave their blessing to corruption. And this grand act of hypocrisy would mark them for a generation.
The reform of evangelicalism is probably the work of men and women of a rising generation, who have significantly different views and values from their elders. About two-thirds of young white evangelicals believe that immigrants strengthen the country. Their approval of Trump is significantly lower. Time will work in favor of sanity.
But we should not underestimate the cultural trauma that many leaders of the religious right have inflicted. It is in the order of things that a younger generation should challenge the views and values of its parents. It is a source of cynicism and social disruption when an older generation betrays civilizing values in full sight of its children. Many evangelical leaders now lie drunk, naked and exposed.
Michael Gerson’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.