A Member of the White Evangelical Community Speaks

Evangelical minister Rob Schenck

I am quoting a June 16, 2020, PBS video from Amanpour & Company in its entirety in which the interviewer, Michel Martin, asked questions of Reverend Robert Schenck, a white evangelical Christian. Rather than offering commentary, I’m letting him speak for himself. The article is very lightly edited for clarity and readability.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR: A key source of support for President Trump comes from the white evangelical community of Christians. Reverend Robert Schenck is a clergyman from that very group. And after some deep self reflection he changed his mind on some of the so-called culture war issues and regrets his often divisive rhetoric at the time. He now leads an educational nonprofit, which takes inspiration from the anti-Nazi dissident Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was executed for plotting against Hitler. He had some strong words for President Trump in the wake of his walk across Lafayette Park from the White House to St. John’s Church after the military and various police agencies were used to clear the protest there.

MICHEL MARTIN: Why is it that this struck me so profoundly?

ROBERT SCHENCK: Well, a few reasons. You know my history as a street level activist once upon a time, on the right on the ultra conservative side of the equation. And I know what street theater is. I know how to use props, I have used them. I regret that. I’d even used the Bible a time or two. And it’s meant to send a signal.

And I think the President was doing exactly the same thing. He was using the Bible as a prop to send a signal to a subset of people who are very important to this re-election. But he did that by seizing control of the church, by using military grade force, even against the clergy that were present there – evicting essentially an entire sector of the city for what amounted to a political stunt meant to reinforce the devotion of certain voters. And I thought that was a sacrilege. I thought it was profane.

I agree with the Bishop of Washington, the Episcopal Bishop, who’s the proper steward of that property, who thought it was an act of religious profanation. And I think it was a very, very serious and egregious violation.

MICHEL MARTIN: You are one of the very few white evangelicals to criticize the president for this at a time when there was obviously great unhappiness and anxiety raised in the country. Why do you think that is?

ROBERT SCHENCK: I think, first, that it points to the moral collapse in my own religious community among my fellows. There was a Faustian deal made with Donald Trump, which went something like this: Donald Trump promised, “I will give you everything you’ve ever wanted on your laundry list of political deliverables if you give me what I want, and demand, and that is religious cover. I need you to say that I’m blessed of God and that everything I’ve done is good.”

He defended the photo in front of St. John’s Church with the Bible by saying a lot of Christians think it’s a great photo. And that’s what he needs in the deal, and we made that deal with him.

MICHEL MARTIN: I do wonder what kinds of conversations that you have with fellow evangelicals because in public the support is as strong as ever. I mean you know Ralph Reed, who’s kind of taken over the mantle of the Moral Majority, as it were, sort of the politically most active evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals, social conservatives, you know, very strongly defending him. I’m just sort of curious that their support has been as strong publicly as ever. Are the conversations privately different?

ROBERT SCHENCK: Well, you know, a year, two years ago, I used to hear my colleagues – they would whisper, “You know, I know the guy’s way over the top. I know he’s terribly offensive. I know it’s way too visceral. He’s too impulsive. He doesn’t know us. He’s not religious. Look, we know who he is. He’s a secularist. He’s not a believer, but he’s good for us. And who else is going to get this done, and it’s gonna take a fighter like him to get it done.”

Now I don’t hear that much anymore. And that’s, that’s even more distressing to me, because what it seems to suggest is that a kind of final conversion has taken place, at least in their thinking, if not in their hearts. And if it is in their hearts, then I, I fear for them. I mean in one sense, just in terms of reclaiming their moral integrity, regaining a sense of ethics, and what is right and wrong.

And if they have lost the ability to discern that, then they are indeed in very grave danger, personally – certainly, as a community. I mean we know what the history of demoralized churches are. They quickly become relics of history and not good ones. And then, of course, there’s… I’m still a believer in salvation, I think we have to have a certain standing before God. And if we lose that, we’ve lost everything. The Bible even reminds us of that. It says, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world but lose his soul.”

PBS Video Interview