For the past two years, I’ve been troubled by how many white evangelicals love President Trump. I’ve read numerous conservative blogs to better understand how they can turn a blind eye to his questionable character and downright nastiness, focusing entirely on a particular political agenda. When Erick Erickson, a vocal evangelical who has been critical of Trump in the past and didn’t vote for him in 2016, declared that he was now seriously thinking about Trump in 2020, I challenged him on his Twitter feed. He didn’t respond, of course, But one of his followers did and said Trump is the most pro-life president we’ve ever had. Ok, so I get you there, but seriously? That’s the only lens by which you can view him? Fast forward a month and I’m watching Lifetime’s docuseries “Surviving R. Kelly,” hearing gut-wrenching stories about how R. Kelly has allegedly abused and mistreated many young women over decades. It hit me that the parallels between the lives of the two men and their devoted followers are striking and may offer insight as to why, given all we know, they are still so popular.
R. Kelly and Trump are bad boys and their disrespect of women is well documented — on tape. With Trump, the Access Hollywood video made us all cringe, but Tony Perkins, president of the conservative Family Research Council, gave him a mulligan. Trump knows his base and, although he may not live in a Godly way, he will protect what a number of evangelicals hold dear — fighting for the rights of the unborn, standing up for religious freedom when it feels like the world is turning against them, and resisting gender identity issues. And he tosses in a bit of white-identity politics for good measure. Black evangelicals — African Americans in general, really — are drawn to R. Kelly because, as is mentioned in the docuseries, songs by the self-professed Christian make us relive stepping in the name of love at our weddings and have us believing we can fly listening to stirring renditions of Kelly’s hit by church choirs everywhere. (And, yes, let’s just get it out there, maybe even a little bumping and grinding.) R. Kelly was found “not guilty” after the video that got him charged came to light. Yet, the rumors still persisted. When more recent allegations came to light in 2017 and gospel music singer and songwriter Bishop Marvin Sapp was asked about his new collaboration with the singer, Sapp told Billboard “the message is bigger than the messenger.” Yep. That’s how Trump’s white evangelical supporters feel. Are Christian values that blatantly transactional? Things may be changing as #MeToo revelations are finally coming to light in African American and mainstream churches. Times up.
Let’s be clear. Trump has not been convicted of any wrongdoing legally, although morally there’s a whole lotta yuck out there, courtesy of special counsel Robert Mueller. Trump’s popularity may have dipped slightly because of the government shutdown, but his approval numbers are still steady. R. Kelly was exonerated (sort of), but that doesn’t mean what he is accused of isn’t true — the women in the docuseries were beyond credible. He’s denied the allegations, and clearly, some folks don’t believe them as Spotify streams by R. Kelly have surged since it aired.
Maya Angelou famously said, “People will forget what you said. People will forget what you did. But people will never forget how you made them feel.” That’s why some Christians stand by Trump and others love R. Kelly. I would even argue that’s why it took so long for so many of us to believe the allegations against Bill Cosby, America’s favorite dad. We don’t want to let go. We’ll barter our emotions and values for a disturbingly imperfect vessel if it makes us feel good and gets us what we want. No matter who it hurts.