Evangelical—When a Good Word Goes Bad

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Anyone who has a finger on the pulse of American evangelicalism has to be wondering if the patient will survive.

During the current presidential election cycle, American evangelicalism has suffered what may prove to be a potentially lethal setback at the hands of a few evangelical leaders. Prominent evangelical figures that include such notables as Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Richard Land, James Dobson, and Eric Metaxas have drawn national attention by publicly endorsing Donald Trump, a man whose actions, values, lifestyle, and rhetoric run counter to the life and teachings of Jesus.

How can American evangelicalism survive when, like an immune system gone awry, it begins to turn on itself? Yet, despite Trump’s racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, and xenophobic rhetoric, they have rushed to the Republican nominee’s side, pledged their support, and seem intent on influencing the rest of us to join them in violating our evangelical convictions.

More Evangelical Defections

In the aftermath, and despite an online outcry of resistance from appalled fellow evangelicals, things have only gotten worse.

In late July, Professor Wayne Grudem released his lengthy diatribe for endorsing Trump—“Why Voting for Donald Trump is a Morally Good Choice.” In it, Grudem glossed over the long list of Trump’s offenses, calling him a “flawed” candidate and affirming him as “a morally good choice.” His essay caused another dumbfounded evangelical to retort,“ How “Trump” and “morally” can meet in the same sentence defies the imagination.”[1]

If the shock waves created by Professor Wayne Grudem’s lengthy rationalization of his endorsement of Donald Trump weren’t enough, last Friday Dr. James Dobson doubled-down on his earlier support of Trump with a video endorsement of the real estate mogul. Dobson, founder and former president of Focus on the Family, stated he is “deeply concerned about the direction our country is headed.”

In our republic, there is maximal freedom to express political preferences. But it is a good deal more troubling when an evangelical leader plays off their identity as an evangelical with the clear intent of influencing others to follow their lead.

With so many offensive statements radiating from the nightly news, evangelicals are right to protest these endorsements and to call these evangelical leaders to account.

But there is one dimension of all this that doesn’t get as much attention as I think it should in Christian circles. Namely, what this phenomenon reflects about issues of gender. As a woman, I find it especially troubling that not only are both Grudem and Dobson, as staunch defenders of complementarianism, willing to dismiss those offenses, they are sabotaging core values of their respective lifelong ministries.

Here’s what I mean.

Family Values and Biblical Manhood?

As the evangelical guru of family values, Dr. Dobson’s endorsement strikes a double blow to the fight against some of the most serious issues facing American families—battles he has historically engaged. Significant efforts are underway to combat the destructive plague of bullying.

Bullying has lead to suicides even of adolescents and has been a factor in some mass shootings. Dobson himself expressed alarm over what is happening. “Kids are regularly committing suicide because of the horrible bullying they endure.” Likewise, many are working vigorously to prevent young girls from hating, cutting, and starving themselves because they don’t conform to some culturally embraced ideal of the female body. Yet James Dobson would have us cast our votes for an unapologetic bully who routinely belittles his opponents, ridicules a disabled man, and objectifies women (including both of his daughters).

Dobson would have us vote for a bully who belittles, ridicules, and objectifies. Click To Tweet

What possible explanation can we give our children and grandchildren if we follow his lead and vote for Trump?

Grudem—a founder, formulator, and relentless defender of complementarian manhood has written tomes advocating the view that real men protect women. Finding any alignment between Grudem’s diehard complementarian stance and his advocacy for Trump is difficult to imagine. For goodness sake, Trump is a strip club owner. But there is more. Trump openly boasts of his sexual conquests and adulterous escapades and he degrades women with misogynist remarks. Grudem’s logic for supporting Trump escapes me.

You would think that if protecting women and girls truly mattered to complementarian Grudem, he’d at least be willing to acknowledge the efforts of Hillary Clinton as a candidate who has sought to lift up, protect, and defend the rights of women and girls globally. Instead, Grudem wants to defeat her.

Better Trump than a woman president, I guess.

These endorsements reflect a fundamental failure of complementarianism. The commitment to protect women and children—a central tenant of evangelical family values and the complementarian manifesto—is all too easily abandoned.

These 'evangelical' endorsements reflect a fundamental failure of complementarianism. Click To Tweet

The rise of Donald Trump and the abandonment by evangelical leaders of their own core convictions should compel American evangelicals to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. In a very real sense, Trump and his evangelical advocates provide an opportunity for the rest of us to rethink where our true loyalties lie and to ponder how following Jesus defines our values and shapes our engagement in the public square. That same standard applies to how we as Christians evaluate every other candidate.

Reclaiming our Christian Identity

In his NYTimes article, “Why Values Voters Value Donald Trump,” Daniel K. Williams raised the obvious question facing Christians.

“If conservative evangelical support for Mr. Trump requires [evangelicals] to retract their convictions about the values of decency, marital fidelity and Christian virtue in public life, are they at risk of attempting to gain the Supreme Court at the cost of their movement’s soul?”

Perhaps instead, the current evangelical crisis signals the demise of the distorted American version of evangelicalism and compels us to reclaim our true allegiance to Jesus and to recommit to be bearers of the good news of his kingdom.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) which means “gospel” or “good news.” Historically for Christians the word evangelical identifies the followers of Jesus and connects them with the good news of his gospel—a gospel of God’s love and mercy for the world he loves through Jesus and the kingdom Jesus brings. Tragically, in America the word “evangelical” has been politicized to reflect white, right wing Republican values. The current election cycle has brought the misuse of that good word to a head where Christians must rethink what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For many evangelicals it means (at least for the moment) abandoning that label.

The need to rethink what it means to be an evangelical prompted me to reread Walter Brueggemann’s book, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture. In it, he explains the fact that the kingdoms of this world are not nor ever will be the kingdom of God. He demonstrates in powerful ways how all through the Bible courageous individuals are confronting and speaking truth to the powerful and rich. Those voices belong to the ancient prophets and ultimately to Jesus who refused to play along with the powers that be, but instead confronted them with their responsibility to pursue justice and mercy for the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Most notably this meant widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners.

“‘Isn’t that what it means to know me?” says the LORD  (Jeremiah 22:16, NLT).

Grasping for power, as Brueggemann notes, “is never innocent or disinterested; it is always, to some important extent, a front for self-interest perpetrated through violence” [p.47]. That violence, as we well know, comes in many forms.

The evangelical church detours from its true mission by seeking alignment with the rich and powerful instead of calling them to account and speaking for those whose voices have been silenced. Self-interest and self-protection run counter to the gospel. So does silence in the face of injustice.

The evangelical church detours from its mission by seeking alignment w/ the rich & powerful. Click To Tweet

Every time we kneel to pray the words Jesus taught his disciples to pray, we affirm our pledge of allegiance to Jesus’ kingdom—an allegiance to which all other loyalties defer. Our commitment is to the reign of God, to the advance of his kingdom on earth, and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. As God’s image bearers, we are called to be agents of that kingdom first and foremost.

We have our work cut out for us. I would not presume to tell anyone how (or if) they should vote. That is a matter of conscience for all of us. But if we understand anything, it is that our starting point is not with evangelical leaders who are endorsing Trump or any other candidate, but by listening again to the ancient prophets and to Jesus . . . especially before we pull that lever in the voting booth.

Let’s make “evangelical” a good word again.

Let’s make “evangelical” a good word again. Click To Tweet

[1] “Is American Evangelical Christianity Sinking on the GOP Ship?”

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5 responses to “Evangelical—When a Good Word Goes Bad

  1. This is right on target. It is simply beyond my comprehension that evangelicals who should know better wind up endorsing someone whose words and actions run so counter to the faith that they claim. Donald Trump is unfit to be President or to hold any public office. The best thing that the RNC could do is to meet immediately and strip the nomination from Trump.

    Perhaps we’re at a point where American evangelicalism simply fragments and breaks apart, because there are many of us who under no circumstances will cast a vote for this man. And we will not stop speaking out against him because we trust in a sovereign, merciful God for the future and not Donald Trump!

  2. This is so helpful to me, Carolyn. I’m an Aussie living a hemisphere away but looking on, at first disbelieving and then horrified and appalled at the endorsements coming from men whom I have not admired, but certainly respected, despite their differing belief systems to mine. To see so many, including Dobson and Grudem, so palpably going agains their own moral stance in order to back Trump, has been outside of my capacity to grasp.

    In addition, people like Beni Johnson, and many American friends of mine, also support Trump. For me, that’s been one of the most difficult things to get my head around.

    A few months ago, it finally dawned on me. The evangelicals would rather ANYONE, ANYONE, than a woman. I don’t know Clinton any more than I know Trump… only what I read about them, but it seems to me that Clinton is probably your pretty average politician. Trump is a narcissistic school boy, a master of self aggrandisement as boys that age so often are, dressed up in old man’s clothes. That Christians could look past his obvious lying and bullying to say that he’s preferable is ludicrous.

    Beyond that, is that ugly thing which you have nailed, and that is that the trump/eting of the evangelicals of their care for woman is exposed as a total lie when you see that they’ll take anyone but a woman as their president.

    Watching on from another nation, knowing that the person who leads America leads the free world, I (who am not a person who is scared of anything much at all) am scared that Trump will get in. If Clinton gets in, she can be there a term and then there can be another vote and someone else can get in. If Trump gets in, he’s got enough time in four years to have a pissing competition with Kim Jong Un using nuclear warheads … shudder.

    My picture of the US evangelicals has suffered huge losses over this issue. It’s hard not to feel contempt for the lot of them.

    1. Thank you for your comment Bev and for voicing the concern of our global brothers and sisters over the state of evangelicalism in the U.S. Thankfully, there are many here who share these concerns, who aren’t compromising their Christianity to endorse Trump, and who are speaking out. Pray for us.

  3. Sure!! Reclaim our Christian identity by supporting a woman who advocates for the death of infants up until the time of birth, who dismisses the value of half of the population as deplorables, and attacks those women who dared to accuse her husband of sexually attacking them. That makes for an interesting moral argument.
    Demonstrates how tone deaf you all are to the reasons for Hilary being defeated and the reason Trump was elected. Also, how very tone deaf to why people are leaving the church. But then this is totally evident by the increasing number of those who are “done” with the church. You all attempt to affix blame for the churches issues upon those who voted for Trump, but the problems of the church did not start with this past election.
    So, did you pray for the election? Do you believe in the power of prayer? Does God answer prayer? If God is in charge and if he answers prayer and if you prayed as many did for His will to be done in the election where does that leave you with this result?
    The high moral ground that you claim as you accuse other brothers and sisters in Christ is insufficient.

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