By William J. Barber, Liz Theoharis, Yvette Flunder & Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove
As President Trump nominates Brett Kavanaugh to replace Justice Kennedy on the Supreme Court, many self-appointed spokesmen for evangelicalism are excitedly anticipating a conservative majority that will roll back decisions on marriage equality, women’s rights, civil rights and equal protection under the law. These enthusiasts confess they had to give Trump a mulligan or even “hold their nose” to vote for him, but this is their reward. Since the Brown decision of 1954, little has been more important to religious extremists among white evangelicals than winning control of the Supreme Court.
But their imagined victory lays bare a reality that has long gone unquestioned in America’s public square: that the heirs of the John Birch Society and the Southern Strategy — the 20th century’s Redemption movement — speak for “evangelicalism.” They do not.
As preachers and scholars from America’s evangelical, Mainline and Pentecostal traditions, we refuse to let Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, Paula White and Franklin Graham speak for our faith. In the long story of American religion, they and their fellow Trumpvangelicals represent a form of public faith that has long been with us. But it is far from the only form of Christianity. In fact, Trump’s presidency is revealing the extent to which their Christian nationalism represents a hijacking of the evangelical tradition.
When we go back to the Bible that all Christians share in common, the word “evangel” shows up on the lips of Jesus when he reads from the prophet Isaiah at the occasion of his first sermon in Luke. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me,” Jesus declares, “to proclaim good news [that is, in the Greek, evangel] to the poor.” The root of evangelicalism in Scripture is Jesus’ message of liberation to the poor and marginalized people of the Galilee, who were suffering under Roman occupation.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Greek “evangel” only occurs in connection to justice for the poor, righteousness, healing society, and treating each other well. ”Jesus went throughout Galilee, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and sickness among the people” (Matthew 4:23); “Jesus went through all the towns and villages, teaching in their synagogues, proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and healing every disease and sickness” (Matthew 9:35); “The blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and good news is proclaimed to the poor” (Matthew 11:5).
In the United States, this message of liberation from poverty and oppression spread through the evangelical revivals of the 18th and 19th centuries — events that notably interrupted race and class divisions from upstate New York to the Deep South. (When revival first spread among Baptists in colonial Virginia, they briefly decided it was inappropriate for a Baptist to own a slave.) Theologian William C. Turner of Duke University has rightly noted that, in this evangelical tradition, any relationship with Jesus that does not also entail a quarrel with the status quo is deeply suspect. 19th century evangelicals were abolitionists, women’s suffragists, and social reformers.
But such religion was unpopular among slaveholders and the emerging industrialists. When every major denomination split mid-19th century over the question of slavery, plantation owners paid preachers and theologians to write defenses of slaveholder religion. These slaveholders produced a Bible without the Exodus, the prophets, and Jesus’ central teachings, of his “good news”. During Reconstruction, the same preachers decried the “immorality” of Reconstruction, winning allies in the North who eventually compromised in the name of unity. Slaveholder religion became faith in a free market that would bring good news to the whole world — or at least to those with the wealth and power who were willing to ignore the bad news of poverty, racism that so many millions were suffering. This is the myth of “One Nation Under God” that today’s spokesmen for evangelicalism preach, over and against the roots of our tradition.
But if you pay attention to their words, these preachers who claim to represent Jesus do not quote Jesus to defend their positions. They do not try to claim that Jesus, who started free health clinics everywhere he went, would want to take healthcare away from millions of Americans. They do not say Jesus would pit Americans against immigrants. They never quote the One who said “the last shall be first” to defend the policies of “America First.” For all of their appeal to people who claim to love Jesus, they tend to shy away from what Jesus actually said.
Real evangelical Christians should be holding a fusion and Biblical critique of judge Kavanaugh asking how he will seek justice for historically marginalized people (those whom the Bible calls the least of these) — women, the millions of sick people in our nation, workers, LGBTQ people and their families, communities of color and the poor who are threatened by voter suppression.
This is why we are compelled to question the media’s assumption that Trumpvangelicals speak for evangelicalism. If there have always been both evangelicals who challenge the status quo and forces that have invested in hijacking our tradition to serve corporate interests, then we can expect that the distinction we are making might not be clear to the wider public. But our nation’s present moral crisis is laying bare the deep hypocrisy of many who’ve claimed to speak for “morality” and “family values.” In this moment of reckoning, the lie of slaveholder religion’s enduring presence in Christian nationalism must be made clear. We do not aim to silence Trump’s evangelicals. We simply challenge them to answer fellow preachers in public: how does hurting your neighbor, trampling on the immigrant, cutting housing, food and health care for the poor line up with the teachings of Jesus?