“No finite point has meaning without an infinite reference point.” – Jean Paul Sartre
The Sartre quote above served as a premise for a book written more than a generation ago by one of evangelicalism’s most revered scholars. In He Is There and He Is Not Silent, the second book in a trilogy, Francis Schaeffer wrote of the need for an infinite reference point in each of the following realms: metaphysics, morality, and epistemology.
As the renowned French philosopher Sartre understood—but never embraced—apart from some kind of infinite reference point, everything within our finite existence lacks measurable significance. Apart from such an infinite measuring rod, all becomes relative, contingent.
For religious folks, the infinite reference point has historically been God. While perceptions of God varied widely, His—or Its—existence and revelation were accepted—though not commonly understood—as the touchstone for comprehending metaphysics, morality, and epistemology.
End of An Era
For the majority of America’s white evangelicals, that millennia-long era is over. While the gradual decline began long before, the rapid move toward absolute abandonment began with evangelicals’ enthusiastic embrace of Donald J. Trump, first as presidential candidate and then as replacement deity.
The assault on the nation’s Capitol on January 6, 2021, by a violent, riotous mob—many of them carrying signs proclaiming both their “Christian” identity and their worshipful loyalty to Donald Trump—made clear the collapse of American evangelicalism as the tipping point in the impending collapse of the United States as a democratic republic. White evangelicals’ willingness to exchange The Infinite Reference Point for a finite reference point was bound to result in the kind of chaos and violence recently seen in our nation’s Capitol.
White evangelicals’ willingness to exchange The Infinite Reference Point for a finite reference point was bound to result in the kind of chaos and violence recently seen in our nation’s Capitol.
Donald Trump As Evangelicals’ New Reference Point
While few white evangelicals would admit it—to others or even to themselves—most have chosen Donald Trump over the God of the Bible as their ultimate reference point. That hundreds of them would attack the nation’s seat of government and seek to murder many high-level officials, including Vice President Mike Pence, at the behest of their new messiah—and that nearly half of all Republicans approve of such behavior, reveals their new allegiance to their new reference point: Donald Trump.
Trump as Reference Point for Metaphysics
Nailing down a concise definition for metaphysics is no simple task, and the one I’ll provide is no doubt imperfect, but for the sake of simplicity, here it is: The study of the nature of reality.
Millions of Americans—a large percentage of them white evangelicals—have accepted Donald Trump’s obvious lie that he won the November 3 election, despite the fact that 59 court cases ruled that Trump’s legal team failed to produce any credible evidence to prove their claim. Even the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court—with three Trump appointees—rejected the President’s claim of voter fraud. No one—on the president’s legal time or anyone else—has provided any credible evidence of widespread voter fraud.
President Trump’s own Justice Department, led by his loyal Attorney General William Barr, found no evidence of voter fraud. The established reality is that the November 3, 2020, election was fair and unequivocal. Yet millions of Americans have chosen an unproven, unreal “reality.” They’ve chosen, as former administration adviser Kellyanne Conway famously stated, “alternative facts.” For millions of Americans—including white evangelicals—the metaphysical reality is whatever Donald J. Trump declares it to be.
Trump as Reference Point for Morality
· “My whole life I’ve been greedy, greedy, greedy,” Trump said. “I’ve grabbed all the money I could get. I’m so greedy. But now I want to be greedy for the United States.” And in the blink of a lost bet, millions of white evangelicals accepted greed as a virtue.
· “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. Grab ‘em by the pu***,” Trump was heard saying in the infamous “Access Hollywood” tape. So now, sexual harassment is morally acceptable.
· “Uh, I don’t know what I said, uh, I don’t remember,” Trump stammered while imitating the movements of a disabled journalist in front of an adoring crowd. And with that, mocking the disabled became morally acceptable.
· Defending his harsh immigration policy that separated migrant families, Trump declared, “They’re coming here illegally, so you have to take the children away.” And now, for millions of Americans, separating children from their parents is morally acceptable.
Those are just a few examples of the transformation of morality in America as millions of Americans chose Donald Trump as their new ultimate reference point.
Trump as Reference Point for Epistemology
The term epistemology refers to the ability to know, to discern true knowledge. It’s tied closely to metaphysics. For many Americans, Donald Trump redefined epistemology.
In “Against Interpretation,” an article I wrote for The Culture Crush, I concluded,
White evangelicals’ willingness to sacrifice objective, verifiable facts and incontrovertible truths in favor of a demagogue’s deceptions could point to an even broader long-term crisis— the potential loss of our culture’s epistemological base. There was a time when evangelical leaders such as Francis Schaeffer ... issued compelling warnings about the impending degradation of our epistemological base by a culture willing to embrace pretense over facts and situational ethics over transcendent principles. But in the Trump era, those warnings appear to be falling on deaf evangelical ears.
Can a culture willing to accept obvious deceptions over unambiguous, verifiable facts continue to function properly? Perhaps not for long. As bad as would be the loss of the nation’s constitutional and cultural norms, even more frightening, if this trend continues, might be the loss of our individual and collective ability to know anything for certain, religious or otherwise.
The Trump-inspired January 6 mob invasion of the Capitol building—in which five people died and more would have had the mob achieved their goals—is clear evidence that a huge percentage of Americans have chosen a new reference point for metaphysics, morality, and epistemology. The implications of that choice should frighten the other Americans who simply want to live in a world where reality reigns.