The Moral Collapse of Evangelical America (with Rob Schenck)

Rob Schenck joins us to discuss how his career in the evangelical world morphed into continued political engagement. 

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Reverend Rob Schenck joins us this week to discuss not only his book Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love, but also his career in the evangelical world and how it morphed into continued political engagement. Schenck, at the age of eighteen, decided that he would live his life in the service of God. He elaborates on how his religious life can be divided into three separate awakenings and how over the past few years he has come to see how politicized the evangelical community has become. 

After meeting President Ronald Reagan, Schenck became mesmerized by Reagan’s “presidential glow”, which inspired him to take his religious career into the political sphere. He notes how the Roe v. Wade decision invited the evangelical world into the sphere of politics. Up until Roe, many states had differing laws about abortion, but the Supreme Court decision allowed evangelicals to come together to form a stable pro-life movement.

When did evangelicals become present in the political discussion? Why were evangelicals so “gun-ho” to get rid of Roe v. Wade? Does Trump represent a cliff that evangelical America fell off of? Why did Trump choose to align with evangelicals?

Further Reading:

‘My Third Conversion’: Rev. Rob Schenck On Why He Took On Gun Control, from NPR. 

Rev. Rob Schenck’s website

Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love, written by Rob Schenck

The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute website

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[music]

00:00 Aaron Ross Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Aaron Powell.

00:09 Trevor Burrus: And I’m Trevor Burrus.

00:10 Aaron Ross Powell: Joining us today is Rob Schenck, he’s president of The Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute, and author of the new book, Costly Grace: An Evangelical Minister’s Rediscovery of Faith, Hope, and Love. Welcome to Free Thoughts, Rob.

00:21 Rob Schenck: Thank you. I’m honored to be with you.

00:23 Aaron Ross Powell: You frame this book around what you call your three conversions. And so the first was your conversion to Christianity from Judaism. So what drew you to Christianity in the first place? And I guess, specifically evangelical Christianity?

00:37 Rob Schenck: Well, a few things. One was my religious formation was nominal. We were not observant Jews. In fact, my family had an interesting history because my mother converted to Judaism to marry my father, so Judaism was not a serious commitment really in many ways, it was cultural and convenient. I did have a Jewish education in the synagogue, but it wasn’t serious faith for me. But I wanted that. I was looking for something deeper, and I found it, in a little country Methodist church, where the folks there had a very passionate faith, and where I truly sensed a presence greater than my own, greater than a human presence, it was a spiritual experience for me. And when I first heard about Jesus, and I have to say honestly that up until then, Jesus was really something you said when you stubbed your toe or slammed your thumb with a hammer. [chuckle] I mean, that was about it. And I encountered the man of the Sermon on the Mount, which had a very profound effect on me. And in another way, it was sort of a family that had a deeper bond than I had with my own natural family.

02:13 Rob Schenck: So the welcome in that community was very strong and it was all very appealing to me. And when I gave consideration to the message that I was hearing there, I found it irresistible. And so when the invitation was given, in a very… If listeners know kind of what Billy Graham used to do, extend the invitation to come and receive Christ as Savior and Lord, I responded to that invitation, it became a life long journey for me.

02:45 Aaron Ross Powell: And you pretty quickly decided this is what you were gonna dedicate your life to, including your… Build a career out of this. And so, you eventually ended up in politics and working on that side of things, but before that political turn, what kind of work were you doing?

03:06 Rob Schenck: Well, and even in my engagement with politics, it was from the position of being a minister, and I knew very early on that that’s what I would do, really within months of my conversion, I had…

03:18 Aaron Ross Powell: How old were you when you converted?

03:20 Rob Schenck: 17. So by the time I was 18, I knew firmly I was going to give my life in every way to the service of God. And I pursued training for ministry, was ordained, I was the youngest member of my ordination class at age 21, and so my career was lodged in the church world, and service to the church. And it would only be roughly five, six years later that I had my first really political experience, and that would lead to a different dimension of ministry.

04:06 Trevor Burrus: In that relationship between the church, I guess broadly speaking maybe specifically Christian churches and evangelicals in particular, and politics, it’s kinda had a interesting relationship, since… And you brought up Billy Graham, I don’t know what time zero might be. That could be for modern American life, kind of the Billy Graham evangelical movement. How did you see that happening when you were in it? What in that flow of politics did you find yourself becoming a minister and then getting involved politically?

04:38 Rob Schenck: Well, it was 1984 when I attended a convention of the National Association of Evangelicals, by that time I had found myself into various leadership positions within the evangelical world. So I had a front row seat when Ronald Reagan addressed the convention. And that was very affirming to evangelicals, because he was the first sitting president to seriously address and engage evangelicals as a religious community and body. He took the leadership among evangelicals very seriously, and of course some of our own were in his inner circle, and I was very aware of that. But Reagan had an aura, he was a magical personality, and he brought that full force to that convention, and I was really awash in presidential glow [chuckle] at that point. And I had never really taken religious political engagement seriously until then, but I did after that. And I would go on to work to advance his agenda, and later others who would take prominent roles including Pat Robertson, whose campaign I worked for and helped raise money for. So that was kind of the start of that, and I call that my second conversion to Reagan Republican religion, which I would argue as distinctly different than evangelicalism, I say with a smile.

[chuckle]

06:20 Aaron Ross Powell: Yeah.

06:21 Trevor Burrus: It is a little bit different, I agree.

06:24 Aaron Ross Powell: And how related was that too then to the work you did with anti-abortion?

06:28 Trevor Burrus: Or if I could even follow up on that, how much from your experience did the Roe decision, was that the galvanizing force in politicizing evangelicals, would you say?

06:39 Rob Schenck: Very definitely.

06:39 Trevor Burrus: Very definitely?

06:41 Rob Schenck: Very definitely. In fact, in those days, especially, you couldn’t speak of abortion without speaking of Roe. They were tied together inseparably. So every conversation included the words Roe and abortion. And so yes, it was the driving force, certainly for evangelicals at that stage in the mid-80s, really the only reason we were involved in anti-abortion causes was because of Roe. That’s what brought us in. That’s what’s animated us completely in those days. Of course, there were other factors, and a genuine respect for the sanctity of human life, the value of human life, which I still consider to be terribly important, even though I’ve changed my disposition on the political engagement with the question of abortion. But I think you asked about anti-abortion, where it fit in all of this? That was really my entry point and the entry point into politics for virtually everybody I knew in the church world. Anyone I knew who was full throttle involved with political issues came in on the tales of the pro-life movement.

08:11 Aaron Ross Powell: A good chunk of the book is dedicated to that movement and your involvement in it, and then eventually leaving it. And one of the striking things reading it from the perspective of, from the circles that I run in, the libertarian circles, which tend to be more pro-choice.

08:30 Trevor Burrus: Or at least agnostic, maybe.

08:31 Aaron Ross Powell: Or agnostic, but it pushed against the narrative, like the narrative, the outsiders’ narrative of why evangelicals, why people like you, were so gung-ho about ending abortion, about overturning Roe v. Wade, was that it was a social conservatism attempt to control women’s bodies or something along those lines, but that never comes up. And so, what’s the response to that view of it? Is there any truth to that concern that gets raised by the other side?

09:08 Rob Schenck: I think it was incidental to our thinking and our strategy, and I say that with a tone of criticism because we didn’t give that its due attention, we should have. Because I would argue now that that’s in fact the outcome, is that you end up using government coercion to control decisions people are making with their own health, their own bodies, their destinies, and so forth. It’s more government control, not less. Maybe we didn’t want to entertain that because it stood to contradict our otherwise conservative sensibilities. And no one really wanted to admit to that, that what we’re asking for here is more government control not less, even though everything else we said was about less, not more, but not in this instance or a few others. So we didn’t explore it and maybe we treated it as a sort of collateral damage, it’s kind of like a necessary evil. Well, in this instance it has to be, but I can’t say we did a lot of reflection or philosophical exploration of that question.

10:33 Trevor Burrus: Do you have an idea before Roe, how much the evangelical crowd, the National Association of Evangelicals, which I’m not sure when that came into being but…

10:46 Rob Schenck: 42.

10:46 Trevor Burrus: Okay. So it’s been around for a while. But before Roe, there were different states that had different laws about abortion, was that a galvanizing force before Roe? Or did Roe just sort of make everyone stand up against…

11:00 Rob Schenck: It was Roe. It was Roe.

11:01 Trevor Burrus: Okay, yeah ‘cause it’s interesting where I’m just thinking about… Because I have a constitutional… That’s one of the things I do, is constitutional law, and in the Casey opinion, Scalia’s dissent, he says, “We created this problem, by coming in here and saying we figured this out and that it’s in the constitution.” Like, “Whatever you believe about abortion, we created this schism, we created this group that is pro-life, this is all our doing.” And it’s a very interesting opinion, and that it sounds like that’s true.

11:25 Rob Schenck: Yes, exactly. And can I do a little side bar on Justice Scalia?

11:30 Trevor Burrus: Please, please.

11:30 Rob Schenck: Because one of the more poignant moments I had late into my quasi-political career, if you will, was sitting with him, with a small collection of pro-life activist leaders from around the country. And we were in a closed door session, and the only reason I feel permission to tell this is because others have, and he’s now gone. I would never have done this without his permission, but I can’t gain it now, so I’ll presume it. But he warned us, he said… Someone in our group asked him, “When do you think this court will overturn Roe?” And he snapped with anger. I can see his face, I can hear his voice now, and he said, “Don’t you think that this body,” meaning the court, “is going to do your work? We’re not gonna solve this problem, we’re only gonna make it worse. You’re gonna solve it by changing hearts and minds, that’s your task. You go out and you change hearts and minds, and that’s the way we’re gonna cure this problem. But don’t you give it to this bunch of people because we’re like the monster in the basement, you keep feeding us, we’ll come out and eat you alive.” And I’ll never forget that, seeing his face, hearing his tone of voice, he was very agitated by the question.

12:49 Trevor Burrus: Wow.

12:51 Aaron Ross Powell: You mentioned, answering your early question, that the evangelical movement, the kind of less government versus more, that said that they were opposed to government intervention, but then here was an instance of asking for more government intervention, but that less versus more government, how contingent was that? To clarify the question, it doesn’t seem to me, it would be hard to find that Jesus is saying you ought to be a Republican, in the text, right?

[chuckle]

13:23 Trevor Burrus: It’s somewhere in the back.

13:24 Rob Schenck: I tell you I’ve looked for that verse for the longest time, and I just couldn’t find it.

13:25 Aaron Ross Powell: And economic theory is not a big part of… And government theory. These just aren’t a big part of the gospel messages. And so, is there something to Christianity, to evangelical Christianity, that connected it, that made it a natural fit for the kind of small government free market conservatism that say Reagan represented? Or was it that the left had also had alienated because of social issues, and the right had embraced? And so, then the economic and the small government conservatism just naturally fell into line ‘cause that’s what these guys believed.

14:10 Rob Schenck: I think all of those are factors, parenthetical equations within the big formula that brought a certain outcome. So we’re all kind of bracketed sub-equations in there, but I know for many, of course, many evangelicals were formed in a sort of apolitical or even anti-political, spiritual and religious and philosophical world view. You take for example, a very large segment of evangelicalism is informed by pacifist communities. The Anabaptists, the Mennonites, and the Brethren, and the Germanic Protestants and so forth, and they came over. I think there was a general suspicion about government, that was certainly an element, because we have only one Lord, and He’s not Caesar. So there is a kind of general disposition of suspicion about government and particularly, the most powerful forms of government, federal being, of course, in our case, the consummate.

15:37 Rob Schenck: Even now, among so-called conservatives, I’m not even sure who is a conservative anymore, I don’t even know what that term means anymore. But there’s quite a bit of suspicion. And yet for us, there was still a feeling that in this case, it was the federal government that had the control, not that it had to control all forms of murder, but this form. And that was tied of course to the idea that the founders identified the right to life as a constitutionally protected right or inferred anyway through the Declaration. So it wasn’t necessarily coherent, but it worked.

16:34 Trevor Burrus: So you’re at the mid-80s, and now you’re working with the administration. What was your actual position in the Reagan administration to Bush? What were your main political things?

16:43 Rob Schenck: I was always an informal advisor, I was helping to craft language, certainly orchestrating events where pieces of legislation would either be promoted or signed. My real serious involvement awaited George W. Bush. That’s when I really got fully, fully engaged. Well, it started with Congress before that in ‘94, with the revolution, when Republicans came to the fore, then that was an open invitation. So I started really in the legislative branch, and then later became involved with the executive, and finally, spent 10 years at the Supreme Court.

17:30 Aaron Ross Powell: You’ve mentioned in the book, you said that you always were drawn to missionary work, and then you decided that Capitol Hill was going to be your mission.

17:44 Rob Schenck: Yes.

17:44 Aaron Ross Powell: That you were gonna minister on Cap. What was it like playing that role on Capitol Hill?

17:51 Rob Schenck: Yeah, well, it was exhilarating. I mean, you can hardly find a more interesting mission field on planet Earth. Of course, it’s terribly stimulating. In spite of all of the disparaging remarks made about the people in Washington, I think that government attracts some very smart people. And so it’s a very intelligent, informed, interesting bunch of people. More than a few had the gospel I was preaching fairly well memorized, because they’ve visited many churches around election day. [chuckle] May knew the script very well and could repeat it to me, and did. I must say, I thoroughly enjoyed the work. I found it very challenging but I also saw the hypocrisy, the cynicism. I saw my fellows and I played more than once. We were played very well and very effectively. And the more cynical part of my nature, and I have a little bit of New York blood in me, so it comes out every so often, those genes awaken and I think, “Well, we’re pretty clever characters.” [chuckle] We really know how to do this. And sometimes we were willing partners in that. And I think to this day, I see many of my colleagues and long-time friends who are perfectly willing, as I was, to play that game.

19:43 Trevor Burrus: So things start changing. Some of your beliefs start changing. We’re not exactly on a total narrative thing here, but when did some of you start viewing things in a different way, at least in some of your views on whether abortion or the kind of Christianity you’re practicing, when does that start to enter your mind?

20:02 Rob Schenck: Well, somewhere in the mid 2000s, by then I’m 20 years in Washington, and having played a number of roles in religion and government. And I started to see, first of all, and you may say, “Well gee, he’s got a keen sense of the obvious.” But politicians are not skilled at handling moral or ethical questions well. And I don’t say that in a totally pejorative sense. It’s not their task. That’s not their job. And when, generally speaking, if you give heart surgery to a good auto mechanic, the outcome’s not gonna be very good. [chuckle] You’re taking a big risk. And I think when we ask politicians, and I would argue that judges are more politicians, than we may at first wish to admit. When we ask them to take on transcendent, overarching questions of right and wrong, and the meaning of life and human dignity, we will get better answers on those things from other sources. And that’s where I’m now seeing the wisdom of our founders in their concept of the separation of church and state. Because the state quite naturally wishes to encroach on the business of the church, and the church often wants to do the same in return. And I think that’s a healthy tension, but when the two fail to respect their boundaries you end up with trouble on both sides, and that’s where I am now.

22:06 Aaron Ross Powell: How do you deal with… You said, politicians aren’t good at answering moral questions. And one of the issues is that moral questions are incredibly complex and difficult. And one of the hard things when talking about the relationship that we should have between religious belief and the policy, what government does is… We don’t want government to do things that are immoral. And a lot of the time a lot of them would say, “No. It would be absolutely wrong to engage in certain behavior if it’s immoral. Certain policies could be immoral so we shouldn’t enact them.” And if you’re getting your… If the code of morality that you have is from, say a revealed religion or religious faith, then that doesn’t change the fact that you think that if the government’s doing action A, or instituting policy A, that, that still is immoral, but the source of the morality doesn’t change the judgment of it. But at the same time, that source of morality is controversial, to say the least. It’s not necessarily widely shared or it’s based on metaphysical claims that might not be shared widely or whatever else. And so, How do you tell someone who firmly believes in a moral code, for religious reasons, that because of this notion of a wall of separation, they shouldn’t act out those religious principles in the policy sphere, in the way that someone who arrived at moral principles for other reasons is permitted to?

23:48 Rob Schenck: Well, of course, the state is not the church and the church is not the state. And you do things differently in and of the church than you do in and of the state, we do that all the time. Generally speaking, when people go to work on Monday morning, they don’t begin with a devotional thought prayer and a hymn, but we do do that on Sunday morning in church. So we’re used to doing things, engaging in different exercises within our sacred spaces, than in our secular spaces, and that’s important for believers to remember and to understand; that we do do this. We move between these two zones all the time in our lives, and that’s important to understand that. I do have to remind myself and others, that we… Our government structure is a republic. It’s not a democracy. It’s not something else; it’s a republic. We elect representatives and we expect them to act in our best interests, but as the people they are. So in some cases some people will be more informed by their religious convictions than others will, but there are limitations. Generally speaking, we don’t ask Baptists to sing Catholic hymns, and we shouldn’t demand of secular people that they pray in the way that a particular belief system might indicate or dictate.

25:34 Rob Schenck: We can do that in the country that we’ve created, that our founders gave us and that we’ve improved on over time. I would say, there are of course fundamentals and one of those is the acknowledgment of a creator. It’s in our birth instrument, the declaration of independence. But it’s a funny thing, because the declaration states that we are endowed by our creator with certain inalienable rights, among them, meaning of course it’s not an exhaustive list; our life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. But it doesn’t define what happiness is in that instance. And I think sometimes religious believers, we have a kind of inclination to impose our concept of happiness on others and say, “No. This is the only way you can achieve happiness.” When in fact that just doesn’t comport with reality. It just simply doesn’t.

26:45 Rob Schenck: I can tell you that in my world of evangelicals, a Pentecostal will generally not be fully happy in a Baptist church, and a Baptist ain’t gonna be fully happy in a Pentecostal church. They find their own space to inhabit, and we do that generally very affably and understandably, “You gotta come to my church ‘cause we run the pews and we jump up and down and we have a great time and we shout and sing, and you froze and chose and you sit in your seats and you’re quiet and hold your hands at your laps.” And we laugh with each other and we appreciate that about each other, but we often don’t bring that same disposition into the public sphere, and we need to, much broader and much wider, help an atheist to be a happy atheist.

[laughter]

27:37 Rob Schenck: There’s nothing wrong with that.

27:39 Trevor Burrus: You alluded that your views on abortion also changed or at least to some degree, or at least the political status of abortion. How did that change? And around when? Was it when you were in the administration? Were you in the administration with Bush or?

27:56 Rob Schenck: No. I was always around it.

27:58 Trevor Burrus: Around it. Okay.

28:00 Rob Schenck: Tightly.

28:00 Trevor Burrus: Tightly. So when you were in Bush… Yeah.

28:02 Rob Schenck: I guess as an outsider being invited inside. There’s only really one answer to that. When I was in therapy [chuckle] with a very good therapist, who helped me to really come to terms with a number of things, but one was my inability really to listen deeply to the other person. And I generally approached all of these questions with answers; not with more questions. And I’m married to a psychotherapist, so I got a lot of help there. That’s both a blessing and a curse because you…

[laughter]

28:52 Trevor Burrus: There’s two sides to that one.

[chuckle]

28:54 Rob Schenck: I have to remind, “Honey, I’m your lover and not your client.”

[laughter]

28:58 Rob Schenck: But anyway, that’s inside stuff. But at the same time, my wife, Cheryl, 41 years, has been very, very helpful, and she’s really a hero in my telling of my story in ‘Costly Grace.’ And she and another professional, really helped me to start listening effectively to others, including those who had had abortion experiences themselves. And in one case, after I got involved in a documentary film project, looking critically at the evangelical embrace of popular gun culture. The director of that film Abigail Disney, who is a self-identified, leftist, political activist. She uses those terms about herself. She made the film, and we struck up a very unlikely friendship over that project. And we laughed and said, you know, up until then we probably only would have ever met each other across the police tape, somewhere on a sidewalk in America. And maybe we had.

30:12 Rob Schenck: But in one instance, and I write about this in the book, I chose to listen to Abby, and truly listen to her, as she narrated her own personal experience with abortion, and with other women who had experienced a similar course in their lives. And I just saw it differently. Up until then I was certain that women chose abortion to get out of an uncomfortable situation, for their own convenience, and whether that was a well-informed decision or not, they needed to be challenged on that. But when I listened to her, I heard another kind of human experience, and it was very painful and very frightening one. And when I heard that I realized, had I been in her circumstance at that age, 22, frightened of her own family, I would have made the same decision she made, and that was for me a life changing revelation.

31:28 Aaron Ross Powell: And this then led to the documentary, and the decisions that you made after it led to a… The title of the book, ‘Costly Grace’, a fairly costly change in your beliefs, how you… The beliefs you articulated in public and in the kind of work that you did. Part of that, I guess, was the rediscovery of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who then lends his name to your new organization. Can you tell us, I’m sure most of our audience has never heard of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Who was this guy, and what role did he play in this, this change of heart that you had?

32:14 Rob Schenck: Well, I have an elevator speech on that, and that is; he was a brilliant World War II era, young Lutheran pastor, who was courageous enough to speak out publicly against Adolf Hitler, and the rise of National Socialism in Germany. He was one of the first strongly dissenting voices within the religious community, which was very significant. Much more than in this country, because they had a state church, and he was actually an employee of the state as a pastor. In those days, you were paid by the federal government to do your work in Germany. So it was quite a courageous thing for him to do as a young man, and he would suffer terribly. In fact, he would eventually be executed by the Nazis at Flossenburg concentration camp at age 39. So not only was he courageous, he was a brilliant, intellectual academic. All I have to do is tell people that he completed his second doctoral dissertation at age 23. [chuckle] Yeah, okay, that says enough right there. And it was Berlin, you know, we’re talking about the 1930s, one of the most rigorous, intellectual environments in the world at that time.

33:38 Rob Schenck: So he really was brilliant, and he left us roughly 10,000 pages of what I would say is some of the finest moral philosophy and ethical reflection of maybe the last 200 years. And we kind of miss that about him because we’re so taken up with his martyrdom, if you will, that we forget that he was an intellectual and he left us about a philosophical library. I mean really, really wonderful stuff. And at the core of that, was the intersection between faith and reality. What he said was God and reality, that God meets us in real situations and that many religious believers take flights of fancy to another world where everything is ideal, things don’t really have to be the way they are. But they are, because here we are in the real world, as real human beings, and Bonhoeffer had a way of treating that question of how faith meets people in the real, in the reality of their lives, and that proved very helpful to me.

34:58 Rob Schenck: And it gave me an appreciation, for example, for the atheist, who was a gift to the believer, because the atheist helps me as a believer to see my faith in a way I wouldn’t otherwise. So he really was a remarkable and kind of innovative thinker. He broke new ground and he gave us a way to deal with human evolution, both individually and social evolution. And gave me a way to deal with these new questions in my own life. So he’s a big hero in my story, and led to my third conversion which was really a conversion back to where I started with the Jesus of the Sermon on the Mount, which he did quite a bit of writing about.

35:51 Trevor Burrus: Well that, you have a quote in the book that connects these two, it’s very provocative, but the German Christians had traded Jesus Christ for Adolf Hitler, and the church for the Nazi party, we had done something similar with Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party.

36:07 Rob Schenck: Indeed. Indeed, and that was really for me what Bonhoeffer probably helped me to do more than anything, was to face the reality of our evangelical condition, which was our utter politicization. I did my doctoral work late in life. I matriculated in my program at age 50. So between 50 and 54, I did my doctoral work, I did it extensively on Bonhoeffer’s work. And he really helped me to see how utterly politicized we had become, and traded what he called “The Ultimate for the penultimate.” These wonderful transcendent concepts of God, and morality and right and wrong, for very temporal and political, short-term solutions, and really much to our detriment. We lost a lot in that transaction. And I would say we consummated that transaction much more recently with Donald Trump.

37:20 Trevor Burrus: And that was my next question. I was just gonna say the T word.

37:25 Aaron Ross Powell: To read another very strong statement from the book. You’ve gone and you’ve visited… You’re at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, when Trump was awarded the nomination. And so you talk about you’re coming back from, you’re driving back from that. I think you said you were so overwhelmed that you needed to drive to kinda clear your head.

37:48 Rob Schenck: Right. Right.

37:48 Aaron Ross Powell: And so you… And thinking of it, you said that you realized that, “What I have been witness to in Cleveland was the final moral collapse of the politicized religion that infected me and millions of others back in the ’80s, when American evangelicals entered into their Faustian pact with Ronald Reagan’s party.” So that’s an awfully strong statement and condemnation. And I guess the question is that, does Trump represent a cliff that evangelical America fell off of? Or does he represent just kind of another, just more of a progression? So this stuff got started, as you say, with the embrace of Reagan and the GOP. But did Trump all of a sudden make this a whole lot worse? Or is it more just Trump was a sign of how bad things had already gotten?

38:43 Rob Schenck: Yeah, I think he’s very much this symptom of the disease and not the disease itself. I would go with your first suggestion that he’s more of a cliff for us. We may not be at the bottom yet. We may be holding on for dear life by our finger nails on the edge, but we’re definitely dangling over and in risk of imminent demise. We may never recover our moral integrity, or at least our reputation as a religious community after this, after the Trump era. So really my words in the book, are really a critique of myself and my community, not really of Donald Trump. He is what he is and everyone knew that. So I’m not really criticizing him. I’m criticizing the deal we made with him. And the deal is very simply this. Donald Trump said to evangelicals, “Look, this is what you’ve wanted all along. I will give it to you, completely. You give me your laundry list, I will check off every part of it for you. But you’ll give me what I want, and what I want is religious cover. And what I want is your unqualified support, and by the way, no criticism. There will be no criticism from your community, and when there is, you’ll be banished.”

40:20 Rob Schenck: And that’s already happened to certain members of his evangelical Advisory Council. So this was a really bad deal made with a man, I believe, who morality and integrity and ethics does not factor in to Mr. Trump’s deal making. So, in a way, we sold our souls in that transaction. I would hope we can reclaim them. I’m not sure that we can.

40:51 Aaron Ross Powell: So there’s a difference between not criticizing the man and fully embracing the man.

41:00 Rob Schenck: Yes.

41:00 Aaron Ross Powell: And what we appear to… What it looks like from the outside, over the last couple of years, is more of an embrace, not just for the man, but of the values that he represents, which in a lot of ways are anathema to the values that Jesus looks to represent…

41:20 Rob Schenck: I would say that.

41:23 Aaron Ross Powell: In the Gospels. And then you see it, even to kind of a grosser degree in the… Say the embrace of, the continued embrace of Roy Moore after the allegations about him came out. So how much of that is this kind of cynical, transactional, like, “We’re gonna do this in order to get the laundry list of things that we want”? And how much of that is a genuine cultural and kind of value shift within Evangelicalism? And then does that answer differ if you’re talking about church leaders and politically connected members versus the base?

42:11 Rob Schenck: I think that’s exactly it. There’s two tiers here. There are leaders and luminaries and figure influencers at the top, if you will, who are fully aware of the deal that’s been made with this man. And when I speak with them privately, and I do, I have many friends who are part of that evangelical support group, if you will, around the President, and are assisting him. There are others who are literally serving in the administration, people I’ve known for years. And when I talk with them, they will qualify, they will say, “Look, I know who this guy is, and I know that we’ve got big problems here, but he’s getting done for us what nobody else could. And for me, that’s worth it.” But in a way they’re holding their nose or rolling their eyes, or I think some of them are probably losing some sleep over it. But when you get down to the folks in the pews, if you will, I’m afraid that what Donald Trump has been able to do is tap into their lesser angels, the parts of us that bear our grievances and fears, and even our envy and jealousy, and all of that. And appeals to the worst of us, not the better of us, and locks into that. So in a way, kind of fosters it, and gives it fertilizer to grow. But we’re not growing healthy grains here, we’re growing toxic weeds.

44:18 Aaron Ross Powell: Is there a difference on that kind of ground level between the evangelicals who are represented by say, the mega church side of things versus the small community churches spread throughout? Is it more concentrated in one versus the other?

44:35 Rob Schenck: Yeah, I do think, actually I think that the President has deliberately sort of specialized in the mega church market, because it tends to be prosperity-driven, and of course, he’s quite a prosperity-driven individual. And in an early encounter, and I wanna explore this more deeply, I just had a conversation with a mainline church leader, who was present in a very early campaign period conversation with Mr. Trump at Trump Tower Where there was a small collection of mainline protestant church leaders who met with him. And he asked them, point blank, “You know, what are your numbers? Give me your numbers. Your membership. Your dollars. How many media enterprises do you own and operate?” “Sorry, but the evangelicals have got you beat.” He looked at it as a market. And you’ve got a much bigger market that’s better organized, certainly better funded, and has some big media enterprises connected to it, on the evangelical side, and that would be why Mr. Trump chose to align with the evangelicals. It was a good business deal for him in his campaign.

45:57 Rob Schenck: Look, he was raised in a mainline liberal protestant denomination, what evangelicals would consider to be apostate and unfaithful and even maybe satanic.

[chuckle]

46:13 Rob Schenck: And that was his religious formation. But he made the deal, and he chose in his mind the better customer to do business with. And so many at the top are doing business with him on that basis, but in the lower levels, I think we’ve been terribly demoralized by it, and I feel for those folks and love them dearly. I had 225,000 of them in my network of supporters, for the organization I led for 30 years, and they would be overwhelmingly Trump supporters today, ardent Trump supporters, and many of them let me know that in no uncertain terms, and with very colorful language normally not attendant to Christian conversation.

[laughter]

47:08 Rob Schenck: But they let me have it, and I love them dearly and I feel badly about what has happened. And I hope I can give, frankly, the rest of my life to redeeming it to maybe bringing them to a better place.

[music]

47:38 Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Tess Terrible. If you enjoy Free Thoughts, please rate and review us on iTunes. To learn more, visit us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.