The Atlantic has two great pieces out on US evangelical Christianity and Trump. Michael Gerson — former Bush speechwriter and Washington Post columnist — has a good long-read on where white evangelicalism went wrong and what should be done. And Emma Green reviews a new volume by evangelical thinkers concerned about their tradition in light of its support for Trump. Both are great for different reasons. Gerson has been consistently calling out evangelicals’ distressing support for Trump — which they often drape in Biblical language — and he expands his arguments here. And the broader debate in evangelical Christianity — as Green discusses — is reassuring.
Both, however, contain some troubling elements. Gerson makes some unnecessary jabs at mainline Protestants and progressive Christians, almost as if he couldn’t discuss evangelical Christians without critiquing other Christian traditions. And several evangelical thinkers in Green’s piece are oblivious — or disingenuous — about pro-Trump evangelicalism. These are not trivial points. Instead, they represent bigger issues in white evangelical Christianity that must be resolved before these thinkers can achieve their otherwise-noble goals for their faith community.
First, I do want to credit these evangelical thinkers. It takes a lot to criticize trends in one’s religious tradition. This is especially the case with support for Trump, which has become so closely connected to many issues evangelicals have been active on, from abortion to public displays of religiosity. It is because I admire what they’re trying to do that I felt compelled to say something.
First, Gerson’s piece. Some of the issues involved his discussion of progressive Christianity. He argues it is overly-focused on social justice. He also makes a kind of mean jab at attendance trends. There are some factual issues with these statements, as Jack Jenkins has discussed. But they point to a bigger issue with contemporary white evangelicalism.
Progressive Christianity and mainline Protestants — which often, but not always, overlap — are a kind of boogeyman for evangelicals. Evangelicalism started as a reaction to progressive trends in Christianity, which were picked up by mainline Protestantism. This founding myth still animates much of evangelical discourse. As a teenager I attended a conservative evangelical church for a time and constantly heard warnings of how the Lutherans (the dominant community in my town) had lost their way. Evangelicals would go on about how their churches were “Bible-focused,” even though mainline Protestants often read a greater volume and variety of Bible passages in their services. As an adult, I met progressive Christians who refused to leave their evangelical churches — despite issues with their political stances — because they were convinced this was the only option for them to live out their faith.
This dismissive, caricatured attitude towards mainline Protestantism has serious effects on American religion. Some of evangelicals’ sense of persecution likely comes from their belief that “even other Christians aren’t really Christian.” Evangelicals won’t reach out to progressives on culture war issues because they believe their choice is faith or “godless secularism;” they refuse to accept that there are sincere progressive Christian alternatives to their beliefs.
These attitudes are also affecting the vitality of Christianity in America. Different research organizations have picked up a decline in the number of evangelical Christians and a rise in the religiously-unaffiliated. Increasingly, younger Americans are turning away from the harsh and politicized religion of white evangelical Christianity. But, because they were told their whole lives that mainline Protestants are barely Christian, they are just abandoning their faith altogether.
There were similar, but distinct, issues with the evangelical debate Green covered. One was captured by this quote from the editor of the evangelical magazine Christianity Today:
“Most evangelical Christians like me exclaimed, ‘Who are these people?…I know hardly anyone, let alone any evangelical Christian[s], who voted for Trump.’”
He may have been exaggerating, but this is concerning. 81% of evangelical Christians voted for Trump. It is nearly impossible for an evangelical editor to not encounter any pro-Trump evangelicals. Either Trump voters are hiding their preferences, or anti-Trump evangelicals are willfully ignoring the many Trump supporters around then.
Another issue was this quote:
Many of us shake our heads at the ‘evangelical leaders’ that the news media anoints for us,” wrote Tom Lin, the president of InterVarsity Fellowship, in his essay.
It’s great if evangelicals are tiring of the voices twisting their religion to support Trump. But it’s disingenuous to claim the media chose these voices. They get a lot of attention because a lot of evangelical Christians support them. There’s no evidence to indicate otherwise, and the fact that so many evangelicals still follow their lead on Trump indicates their influence.
The issues with both of these articles are connected, and reveal bigger trends in white US evangelical Christianity. As I said, it’s great that so many prominent evangelicals are pushing back on concerning trends in their tradition. But they need to be honest about what these trends are. They also need to recognize they are not voices crying out in the wilderness. Mainline Protestant churches can convincingly demonstrate how Christians can be Biblical, inclusive and progressive. They may not want to go as far as have, but they can at least engage with us.
There are a few things they can do:
- Stop pretending there’s a widespread debate among white evangelicals over Trump and similar issues. Instead, deal directly with the fact that 81% of your co-religionists voted for Donald Trump.
- Stop pretending the Falwells and Jeffresses are fringe figures, and try and figure out how you can convince your neighbors to stop following them.
- Stop dismissing mainline Protestants. We are all Christians, and can learn from each other. There is a value to the energy of evangelical worship, just as there is value to the structure of liturgical worship. A good example of useful engagement is Zach Hoag’s The Light is Winning.
This work by Gerson and others is a good first step. But evangelical Christians will never recover from the impact of the 2016 election until they honestly deal with why it occurred.