Witness

American Evangelicals, Come Home

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One of my seminary professors once said something along the lines of, “Many years ago, I was on the right side of the spectrum. Over the years, my position didn’t change, but now I’m on the left.” He was talking about theology, but something similar has happened to me with evangelicalism.

When I was a younger man, the term “evangelical” used to signify (at least to me) devotion and discipleship, faithfulness to the authoritative teaching of Scriptures, belief in Christ’s finished work of salvation, and a commitment to his good news of redemption (“evangel”). But over the ensuing years, I perceived that this simple definition was bending, if not breaking, under the weight of the increasingly loaded term. Now, many of us who self-identified as “evangelicals” aren’t so sure what it means anymore.

When Did Evangelicalism Change?

I saw the bending of the definition in the American public discourse during the Clinton and Bush years, when by and large “evangelicals” could reliably be counted on to fall in line and support the Republican party, led by “Moral Majority” leaders like Ralph Reed and James Dobson (whose radio program “Focus on the Family” I was introduced to in the early 90s as a newcomer to USA; this was one of the shows we were supposed to rely on, as “evangelicals”).

Was an “evangelical” synonymous with a “GOP supporter”? It was confusing. I believed in prayer as a central practice of a Christian, but we were also supposed to make it the law of the land to “bring prayer back into our schools.” I believed the Ten Commandments occupy a central place in a Christian ethic, but we were also supposed to fight to place them on the nation’s courthouses. In these and other ways, we “evangelicals” were going to “take the country back for God.”

I saw it as a minister in Philadelphia, working alongside African American Christians, who did not self-identify as “evangelicals” but as “Bible-believing” though their statements of faith appeared mostly identical. Ron Sider said this in a 2013 speech:

The long racist history of many white evangelicals makes it perfectly clear why African-American Christians proudly call themselves “Bible-believing” but hardly ever describe themselves as evangelical.

I saw it when I witnessed many “evangelicals” passing around birther untruths as though they were the gospel truth during the Obama years. “Post-truth” was named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries, but evangelicals had entered and been living in a post-truth world for a while.

I not only saw it in the political realm, but also in the inner workings of evangelical churches and institutions. By and large, American evangelicals (and those around the world following their lead) were smitten with worldly power and success. They were impressed with big buildings, big budgets, big crowds, and big personalities. They craved leaders who were celebrities (who all too often were encouraged to be narcissists) and who “will get things [successful projects that will further our tribe’s influence and power and reputation] done.” Prosperity gospel, even if disavowed doctrinally, was espoused in practice.

Strange practices for a people who believe in a Bible that preaches a crucified Messiah.

By and large, American evangelicals have been smitten with worldly power and success. Click To Tweet

Election Fallout

This article can’t be about all that ails American evangelicalism, which may require several tomes, so let me stop there. Let me instead talk about the fallout from the presidential election of 2016. The scene has long been set for an evangelical welcome of a candidate like Donald Trump.

No doubt you’ve already seen the numbers. 81% of white voters who self-identified as evangelicals voted for Trump as president. Non-white evangelicals who voted went mostly the other way. There is a yawning racial divide in evangelicalism, to state the glaringly obvious, as well as an urban-rural divide, a generational divide, and a nativism-globalism divide.

That Trump won was a surprise, but for me (and many others) the bigger news was that the vast majority of white evangelicals who voted came out in support of an historically unqualified candidate who openly campaigned on a rhetoric of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and sense of grievance among white, middle America. His campaign rallies encouraged, even whipped up, the basest instincts among his supporters. Anger and fear directed at Muslims, immigrants, minorities, women, and even the disabled were standard fare. But no blatantly uncivil, immoral, outright fabricated thing he said or did could deal a death blow to his candidacy for the people who once styled themselves as the “Moral Majority.”

It seems incredible that only a few short years ago evangelicals were leading the charge for immigration reform. Now, they will be known as one of the most solid groups of Trump supporters.

Only a few short years ago evangelicals were leading the charge for immigration reform. Click To Tweet

In order to justify a Trump vote, I heard puzzling rationalizations from evangelicals. “He’s a flawed candidate whose policies are moral, and, Supreme Court.” (An “ends justify the means” argument and an over-reliance on legislative power to influence the nation. It seems to me that sacrificial love and humble servanthood is the Jesus way to influence the world, not fighting to gain worldly power.) “He’s a baby Christian.” “God used an ungodly nation like Assyria and a sinner like David to accomplish his purposes; he can do the same with Trump.” (Why can’t God use Hillary Clinton if he can use DJT?) “As evangelical Christians, we believe in forgiveness; I forgive him.” (We need some serious work on our theology of sin.) All this because the Trump ticket was seen as a pro-life vote, a morality vote, an anti-Clinton vote.

That became the most important consideration for most white evangelicals, and that is precisely the reason why many non-white evangelicals once again feel that they don’t matter to white evangelicals. Remember, this occurs after more than two years of protests against police brutality against people of color, especially African American men, when many white evangelicals ended up turning a deaf ear to calls for police and criminal justice reform. Non-white evangelicals’ concerns, their voices, what they could see that many of their white brothers and sisters could not or would not—these once again didn’t seem to matter.

Non-white evangelicals often see what many of our white brothers & sisters can't or won't. Click To Tweet

Unintended Consequences

What could we see? That Trump’s campaign rhetoric spelled danger for people of color living in USA. Not simply disenfranchisement, not simply marginalization, but an existential threat. Many had heard this kind of talk before, during darker times, like Jim Crow and the lynching years, like the time of Japanese American internment camps during World War 2.

“Make America Great Again” was not inspiring or comforting–it was a grim reminder that the good old days were in fact nightmarish for people of color.

That racists and hate groups heard the same message was borne out in the days following the election. Hate crimes and racial harassments spiked across the nation as they celebrated Trump’s win. Stories include:

I don’t need to keep going; these kinds of incidents are already well documented.

The mood among these groups seems to be: non-whites and liberals tried to take over America; they experienced defeat in this election; whites are ascendant and will be empowered to remake America the way it was meant to be, a white nation. But people of color already saw this coming from the Trump campaign rhetoric. Why couldn’t their white evangelical brothers and sisters?

After the Trump victory, an “alt-right”/”identitarian”/white nationalist group celebrated only blocks away from the White House by giving each other the Nazi salute and calling out, “Hail Trump!” They talked about their dream of America as “a new society, an ethno-state that would be a gathering point for all Europeans.” They would achieve this vision through a “peaceful ethnic cleansing.” If you want to be disturbed, go ahead and watch the video.

Groups like this are celebrating in anticipation that they will have a voice in the new White House, in Stephen K. Bannon, Trump’s pick for chief White House strategist and senior counselor.

Meanwhile, evangelicals who have been working on behalf of refugees and undocumented residents, compelled by the biblical injunction to compassionately care for the alien and stranger, have seen the misery of those they’re seeking to care for increase dramatically. After the election, there was a massive spike of anxiety among children of undocumented immigrants over fears that their parents would face mass deportation. As though they didn’t have enough of it, despair among refugees fleeing death and devastation grew even heavier—they saw another escape hatch closing, in the midst of the greatest refugee crisis this world has seen since World War 2.

Evangelicals who have been working to battle misogyny and sexual assaults in churches have been dismayed that in effect evangelicals voted to normalize or overlook “locker room talk” and dismiss the allegations of women who, in spite of their fears they may be demonized, came forward to tell their stories of victimization.

I don’t believe most white evangelicals intentionally voted for a racist, xenophobic, misogynistic agenda. They voted pro-life and against a liberal agenda. They voted conservative ideology, against abortion, against an overreaching government. I believe that many of them agonized over their decision. The unintended consequence of their vote, however, has been all of this, and now that we are here, we all need to take responsibility to love our neighbor, work towards a more humane and just society, and together be a witness to the kingdom of God—in other words, to be the church of Christ.

Invitation to Work Together for Shalom

I’ve been rather heavy-handed. If you voted for Trump, I hope I haven’t caused you to tune out, because this is a direct appeal to you. It is also an indirect appeal to evangelicals who opposed Trump, to consider with me how we move forward with our brothers and sisters. We have a problem on our hands, and I hope I’ve at least somewhat helped you to see that it is urgent that we address it, not only because of our political or economic ideas, but because the mission of the church is greatly affected.

I propose that evangelicalism return to its ideal self, to a renewal according to its original mission, back to a vision of evangelicalism that I originally fell in love with—the kind of evangelicalism that loves, worships, trusts, and obeys Jesus above all. It has far too long become enmeshed in the culture war, which, instead of helping us follow Jesus more faithfully, turned us into tribal religions serving tribal interests; into chaplains in a warfare for our tribe’s power and influence in this world—whether we realized it or not. Evangelicalism has too often become a pawn for individuals ambitious for power. We’ve gotten sidetracked from (or have gravely misunderstood?!) the missio dei, our reason for being in this world. We have forgotten that according to Ephesians, the gospel is the news that in Christ the dividing wall of hostility between Jew and Gentile has been abolished, and Christ is forming a new ethnos out of many.

The culture wars have turned us into chaplains in a battle for tribal power and influence. Click To Tweet

Let us fill that term, “evangelicalism,” with the always-new meaning that is dictated by the coming kingdom of Christ, who is the Lord of American evangelicals as well as the Lord of every nation, tribe, and tongue. Christ is no tribal deity; he is Lord of all. May evangelicalism ever renew its allegiance to him.

Evangelicals who voted for Trump, we disagree on a lot of things. But it is my hope that our common love for Christ will prevail, and it can enable us to have honest but fruitful conversations about those disagreements in love, not resort to waging warfare with one another. I hope brothers and sisters who didn’t support Trump can call on you to stand with them when they see injustice—at least, listen instead of tuning them out or shouting them down, saying they’re parroting liberal media.

I hope this for the sake of Christ, his church and his mission. I hope for a real reconciliation that is based on truth-telling, not truth-suppressing, nor a cynical post-truth construction of ideological propaganda. I hope for a new relationship built on justice, not a reversion to a status quo that perpetuates injustice in the name of peace. I believe you want that too, because, in the end, you want to see Christ and him glorified, as do I. I believe, in the end, you see yourself as a part of Christ’s worldwide, intercultural church, not simply as a part of your tribe. In the end, your citizenship and mine are found in the New Jerusalem, not in your hometown or in my city.

In the end, our citizenship is found in New Jerusalem, not in our hometowns. Click To Tweet

Then maybe we can discuss how we could work together for the sake of Christ’s mission and his shalom. I know we will probably disagree about what that means, too, but I hope we can at least appreciate each other and keep an open mind. We may not see each other eye to eye now, but one day we will. So, please, let’s keep talking.

Someone who didn’t identify as an evangelical, Dorothy Day, might help us show the way forward. According to Cardinal Suhard, her life exemplified a Christian calling which “does not consist in engaging in propaganda, nor even in stirring people up, but in being a living mystery. It means to live in such a way that one’s life would not make sense if God did not exist.” (in Introduction to Dorothy Day: Selected Writings, ed. Robert Ellsberg) May God give us grace to help each other to live in such a way in this world.

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7 responses to “American Evangelicals, Come Home

  1. This is a good summary of what I think about all of this, although I don’t think that it goes far enough. I did not vote for Trump (I was cynical about both major party candidates and voted for Gary Johnson), but one thing that I have tried to do is pay attention to why many of his supporters did so. For many of those voters, Trump was seen as giving voice to the alienation that many working-class individuals feel in 2016, and has been articulated well in J.D. Vance’s important book, “Hillbilly Elegy.” I grew up in a working-class union home (and my parents were life-long Democrats). I could easily see my father were he still alive voting for Trump in the same way that he supported Richard Nixon. It wasn’t so much about the individual as it was giving voice to things that both Democrats and Republicans want to ignore. In a society where the gap between the wealthy and the poor continues to grow and the middle-class continues to be hallowed out, perhaps it is time for government to rethink policies that to a deficit that is 19 trillion and growing (and if it continues, a day of reckoning will come) and that lead to the United States being tied down in the Middle East as the result of a war we had no business fighting and where thousands of Americans and others living there have been killed. And perhaps it is time for evangelicals to return to a more Christ-centered biblical and theological understanding of our mission and purpose. When we allow partisan agendas to frame our thinking, we have ceased to be evangelical in the true sense of that word.

    1. Yes and Amen to all that you said. I have read Hillbilly Elegy, and I loved it. An especially eye opening statement was when JD read William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears, and he thought, “He’s describing my community!” Except Wilson was describing the black inner city. We are in this together.

      The inequality has gotten exponentially greater in the new century, and I’m afraid working class whites have all too easily bought into immigrants, minorities and Muslims as the boogeyman, when in fact those on top of the economic ladder have the responsibility to work towards a more just society.

      I tried to focus on the “moral” arguments pushed by evangelicals in this post, but the economic angle is huge. We definitely needed a change from neoliberalism, but this was not the change that we needed. The opposite, in fact. It’s time evangelicalism stopped aiding and abetting this.

    2. I tried to post this earlier, but encountered some technical difficulties… Here it is again:

      Yes and Amen to all that you said. I have read Hillbilly Elegy, and I loved it. An especially eye opening statement was when JD read William Julius Wilson’s When Work Disappears, and he thought, “He’s describing my community!” Except Wilson was describing the black inner city. We are in this together.

      The inequality has gotten exponentially greater in the new century, and I’m afraid working class whites have all too easily bought into immigrants, minorities and Muslims as the boogeyman, when in fact those on top of the economic ladder have the responsibility to work towards a more just society.

      I tried to focus on the “moral” arguments pushed by evangelicals in this post, but the economic angle is huge. We definitely needed a change from neoliberalism, but this was not the change that we needed. The opposite, in fact. It’s time evangelicalism stopped aiding and abetting this.

  2. “If you voted for Trump, I hope I haven’t caused you to tune out, because this is a direct appeal to you.”

    Well… can I share with you how and where your appeal is falling on deaf ears, then?

    “That Trump’s campaign rhetoric spelled danger for people of color living
    in USA. Not simply disenfranchisement, not simply marginalization, but
    an existential threat.”

    See, I think this is where I started to raise an eyebrow. This is the Vox sort of take on Trump’s campaign rhetoric. But I think if you review the actual words (as Slate Star Codex did; you should google that one, called “You Are Still Crying Wolf.” Essential understanding.) you’ll understand why people who voted for Trump probably learned to raise an eyebrow along the way at everyone who uses this kind of characterization.

    ““Make America Great Again” was not inspiring or comforting–it was a grim
    reminder that the good old days were in fact nightmarish for people of
    color.”

    Again, though, that’s the result of a media message that kept saying that, not because anyone actually believed it was code for “Make America WHITE again.” When your political enemies pretend every single thing is done for a covert agenda of white supremacy, you learn to be a little skeptical every time the charge comes around. So, when I heard (and continue to hear) this chorus, it’s perfectly justifiable to levy a charge of exaggeration and even hysteria. Shame on the media (and the Democrats, from harry Reid through Joe Biden through the rank and file) for constantly doing this. It marginalizes the actual historical suffering.

    “I don’t need to keep going; these kinds of incidents are already well documented.”

    You linked to the SPLC as evidence of things being “well documented.” I don’t know if you’re going to be very receptive to this, but it’s pretty well-established outside of any media bubble that includes the SPLC as a reference that the SPLC is simply not a credible determiner of this sort of stuff, for a wide range of reasons but mainly because they move the goalposts at will. At any rate, when you say “it is well documented” and then you list things that have been actually debunked – including charges for filing false reports – and also don’t seem to take into account the people paid to vandalize or shout racist slogans, etc. – and not by Trump’s people – it’s alienating. It just seems like another media bubble straw man that people create not to call attention to anything real but just to smear by association one’s political enemy with some widely-and-deservedly-contemptible behavior/ organization.

    That’s about where I tuned out, as the false premises were stacking up and false directions/ compass readings compounding.

    I was taking you at your word, there, as far as trying to reach me, as a non-racist Trump voter and media-literacy advocate. It just doesn’t seem like you’re taking into account the deliberately race-provocative narrative the media/ Dems so actively (and demonstrably) curate and maintain. I highly recommend that Slate Star Codex article aforementioned. It says it better than I can.

    I appreciate much of what you wrote and think we must all work to regain common ground. I just think part of that reclamation means the so-called left owning up to a lot of the above. Lord knows there’s enough to own up to on the right. We need to go beyond left and right and walk with God, always. As you say we can at least commit to trying to keep an open mind and to appreciating each other.

    Thanks for listening – Bryan

    1. I simply don’t know how you can dispute the fact that people of color (and other minority groups of different kinds) have felt a sort of existential threat from Trump. It’s a real feeling and common phenomenon, I assure you. Because I belong to a couple of minority groups myself, and I and my friends have felt truly threatened by Trump and his election. You can dispute all you want to whether we are being sincere or whether our feelings are valid, but it does nothing to dissuade us from feeling the threats we feel subject to.

      Disqus ate my initial comment so here goes again.

      You simply can’t dispute that *actual* white nationalists and supremacists DID see Trump’s motto as meaning “Make America WHITE Again.” There is plenty of solid evidence that this is the case, including the example listed in the original article. Just because you hear accusations of racism so many times doesn’t mean that they become any less true, and it doesn’t make people “hysterical” when they point out where there is significant need for improvement. It doesn’t mean that we think that current racial dynamics are just as bad as they were in the past! Just because things aren’t as bad doesn’t mean we should just shut up when there’s a treasure trove of subtler forms of racism thriving just under the surface besides those still hovering above in plain sight. You do not get to tell people of color that they are exaggerating or being unreasonably “hysterical,” because you do not understand what life is like for them. It’s easy to tone police other people when you don’t have any, well, skin in the game. That includes me, as I’m white too.

      The SPLC is good at what they do. I know that many conservatives love to hate on them, snopes, and other fact-checking organizations, and unfortunately their instinct is to dismiss everything out of hand. That is a classic ad hominem attack and fallacy. Just because some of SPLC’s determinations are deemed controversial by some doesn’t mean that all of their work becomes invalidated. They’ve been at this a long time, and they do have actual methods whereby they reach their findings. As for the documentation of hate incidents following Trump’s election, you really can’t dismiss 10,000 other incidents just because a few turned out to be something else or were retracted. Besides, I’m fairly positive that SPLC has the intellectual integrity to remove those from their incident count when they become aware of them. Fact: most of the documented incidents DID indeed occur. Does that not bother you?

      If your claim about people supposedly being paid to vandalize or shout racist slogans is based on the heavily and misleadingly edited Project “Veritas” videos, you may not realize the significant history they have with bending and fabricating truth. They selectively edit the videos to fit their agenda and to make it look like people said or did things very different from what ACTUALLY happened (see: the demise of ACORN as an example in the vein of the notorious firing of Shirley Sherrod based on an incomplete Breitbart video). They consistently do this, and yet the lies they’ve sold get eaten up by eager conservatives and proclaimed as truth without even demanding that the full footage be released in order to verify whether it’s been significantly transformed. As far as I’m aware, there is absolutely NO evidence that Democrats were paid to vandalize or shout racist slogans. They may have had volunteers go to protest at the rallies, but there are abundant video clips that show that the instigators of violence in almost every single case were Trump supporters.

      So perhaps we can reconsider that claim about “false premises.” From where I’m sitting, your arguments amount to little more than distortion and significant misunderstanding on these issues.

    2. Bryan, thanks for engaging though we share differing viewpoints. You bring up an important aspect of the divide–it’s the information we get, and the different sources we go to and trust are saying some wildly different things, leading to different realities.

      But I need to pushback on what you portray as false premises of post-election racial harassment. If you haven’t experienced it yourself, and a few of the stories turn out to be false, you might feel justified in being suspicious of all of them and count off the entire lot as liberal propaganda. I get it. But I think you’re getting some bad information.

      Let me tell you why I believe that most of these stories are true. In a neighborhood close to me, a popular diner received a flurry of death threats from around the country because there was an altercation between a waitstaff and a Trump supporter (who went ahead and contacted a Trump supporter group) the day after the election. I was there at the diner the Saturday with my family after it all happened, and still was happening, and I spoke to the owner myself.

      At UPenn, that story actually happened. It wasn’t made up by the liberal media.

      That story with the Asian American woman, it actually happened.

      A friend witnessed firsthand an unhappy customer at CVS telling the cashier whom he thought wasn’t taking care of him adequately, and who also happened to be a person of color, “Trump is going to take care of people like you.”

      A friend witnessed in his otherwise quiet midwestern town firsthand multiple incidents of taunting, bullying and assaults in the town high school directed against Hispanics and other minorities in the name of Trump right after the election.

      So when I hear people have been racially harassed around the country after the election in the name of Trump, I believe them. Why? Because the same kinds of things happened, real close to home for me. Some of the stories out there are hoaxes. OK. But that doesn’t mean all of them are. Yes, some in the mainstream media overreach and exaggerate. But most of them are doing their jobs, some really well. In fact, I believe the majority of these stories aren’t hoaxes, and I think there are countless more that haven’t been reported and compiled by SPLC.

      What I’m saying might not fit the narrative you’ve come to believe, but I think you need to consider whether you’ve been conditioned to dismiss outright as “liberal therefore untrue” anything that goes contrary to that narrative. Consider that you’d be dismissing outright my own experience, which, I assure you, has not been made up by the liberal media. I hope you will take that into consideration as you think of how we can try to gain common ground. I agree we need to go beyond left and right, but we need to deal with reality if we’re going to get anywhere, and the reality of the people of color in US is no less real because you haven’t experienced it.

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