The late literary critic, Rene Girard, claimed that when two parties compete for something they both desire, they begin to imitate one another more and more, even as they try to distinguish themselves from one another, being rivals. This phenomenon is called “mimesis” and the two rivals who end up acting the same way are referred to as “mimetic doubles.”
The progressive wing of evangelicalism today, which largely emerged as a response to the dominance of the religious right in the 1980’s and ’90’s, sought to distinguish itself as having a better, more faithfully Christian vision for evangelical witness in the United States. As the religious right coalesced around leaders such as James Dobson and Franklin Graham, progressive evangelicals rallied around leaders such as Tony Campolo and Jim Wallis.
What both of these groups desired was cultural relevancy for evangelicals; both were seeking to speak prophetically to culture and hopefully shape it to be more just, according to their vision. Though they try to distinguish themselves from one another in their quest for the object of their desire, both have ended up as mimetic doubles. The mirroring reactions of both sides to the elections of Obama and Trump prove this.
Remembering the election of former President Obama
I remember the night President Obama won the election for his second term in 2012. My Facebook feed was, predictably, blowing up with statuses from my Christian friends on the right expressing their intense displeasure at the election’s results. This ranged from the relatively benign quips about, “no matter who is President, Jesus is King,” to the slightly more ominous murmurings about a nation turning further away from God, to the half-serious urging that now was the time to stock up on canned food, guns, and ammunition.
I was living in my rural, northern California hometown and serving in a Baptist church that was primarily made up of very politically conservative evangelicals.
For many in that crowd, the first election of Obama was a huge defeat for “Christian America,” and his re-election seemed to seal our country’s status as an apostatized nation. Obama was the great enemy of all that was good, true, American, and Christian. He would unravel our democracy, take away our rights, and economically ruin us. His references to his own Christian faith was received with great skepticism, doing little to persuade some of them that he was not a closet Muslim.
President Trump’s election
Fast forward four years and Donald Trump wins the election, much to the surprise of nearly everyone . I am working at an evangelical church in the San Francisco Bay Area, arguably the bluest region of the United States, and my circle of evangelical friends who identify as more politically progressive has expanded a great deal.
Once again, I am hearing about the moral and spiritual decay of American society that this election has demonstrated. Once again, I hear talk about Americans losing rights, the unraveling of our democracy, and am being urged to find ways to resist this latest onslaught on all that is good, true, and Christian.
Like Obama with the religious right, any of Trump’s appeals to Christian faith are received with utter skepticism from the progressive evangelicals who love to share Pope Francis’ declaration, “That man is not a Christian.” Now, I am by no means denying that President Trump holds some ideological positions that Jesus-followers should find morally problematic, at best.
But, it is significant that the reactions of disgust, outrage, and apocalyptic horror toward President Trump from much of the evangelical left is identical to the strong reactions the religious right felt toward President Obama. I argue that these mirroring reactions demonstrates that neither the religious right nor progressive evangelicals have truly grasped what it means to live in a post-Christendom context.
As evangelicals, we will do well to take the Trump presidency as an opportunity to regroup across ideological divisions and re-orient ourselves as a people who are “aliens and exiles” in our land.
Living in a post-Christian nation
Progressive evangelicals often are the ones who like to talk about the significance of living in a post-Christendom context. Whereas, the religious right clings to the idea that specifically Christian values and ideas can be imposed on the rest of society with the help of government, progressive evangelicals point out that that quest is misguided, at best, and damaging to the church, at worst.
Progressive evangelicals have given up on trying to change the nation’s mind about issues such as abortion or the legality of gay marriage, the hallmark causes of the religious right. Those are issues the church can deal with on its own; we don’t need to legislate them from the top down, the argument goes, because we are living in a post-Christian society.
It was easy for progressive evangelicals to talk down to the religious right about a post-Christian context when Obama won the presidency, but now that Trump won the election, progressive evangelicals are experiencing a similar state of disillusionment as they realize their vision for a just America has not resonated as well with voters as they had hoped.
As Trump’s presidency begins, it is looking unlikely that our country’s political polarization is likely to lessen anytime soon; if anything, it looks like it is getting worse. As evangelicals, however, we have an opportunity to use this time to try to heal the divide that has occurred within our ranks.Christians have an opportunity to try to heal the divide that has occurred within our ranks. Click To Tweet
Those of us who associate with the more progressive side of evangelicalism can understand the Trump presidency as part of the reality of living in the post-Christian context we have grown so used to pontificating about. If we have been telling our brothers and sisters on the religious right that the Kingdom of God is not identical with America or her interests, then a Trump presidency is, actually, a good reminder to us about that fact.
We do well to remember that many conservative evangelicals voted for Trump, not because they thought he was a man of character, but because he was the lesser of two evils. We cannot fall prey to the trap of simply dismissing those portions of the church who voted for him as racists, uncaring, or Islamophobic.
That will not help the church be a faithful witness to our culture because it will only further the mimetic doubling already at work. The culture will simply see a church divided by politics, just like everyone else.The Kingdom of God is not identical with America or her interests. Click To Tweet
A solution to the polarizing problem
We must instead work to call a divided church back to the cross and the table. 1 Peter addresses a church living in a hostile culture as “exiles and aliens” (1 Peter 2:11), that is, people who are not at home in the culture they live in. Peter urged those exiles and aliens to a unified witness by accepting the authority of the government (2:13-14), though it was not friendly toward a gospel-centered vision for the world, by any means.
God’s will for the church in such a world is to keep doing what is right and thereby, “silence the ignorance of the foolish” (2:15). In order to live this calling faithfully, we must commit ourselves to speaking truthfully at all costs.We must commit ourselves to speaking truthfully at all costs. Click To Tweet
If we truly do worship the One who is “the Truth” (John 14:6), we must renounce any caricature of our brothers and sisters based on their political affiliation, but must assume the best of them and listen to why they voted the way they did, or why they are afraid. We must both come to the Lord’s table in humility and repentance, because it is the body and blood of Christ that heals the world, not a conservative Supreme Court or our own efforts for just social change.
As I think about my friends on both sides of the evangelical spectrum, I recognize that our church in America has fractured. It has allowed the desire for cultural relevancy and power to turn it into a set of mimetic doubles. The last eight years, especially, taught the religious right that their vision for a Christian America was not to be realized.
Now, the election of Trump is creating a similar sense of disillusionment among progressive evangelicals. In both cases, I have to believe God is calling the church to remember its status in the world as exiles and aliens. We can use these next four years as an opportunity for healing and unified witness, or we can continue to polarize with everyone else.