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
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
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:
- “Trump Nation. Whites Only” was scrawled on a Latino church sign.
- An Asian American woman was harassed and intimidated by two white men who followed her and yelled at her to go back to China.
- Black UPenn students received messages celebrating the Trump win with threats of lynching.
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.