An Open Letter to white Evangelical America
By the Rev. Dr. Harold Dean Trulear
Dear white Evangelical America,
You’ve lost your moral voice, or, at least, you’ve forfeited the pretense of having one in the political sphere. For years, you claimed to “vote your values.” You turned the 2004 presidential election into a referendum on morality, with same-sex marriage and abortion as the litmus tests of fidelity.
You eschewed political visibility as part of Richard Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” then crawled from beneath the shadow of “separation of church and state” rhetoric when one of your own, Jimmy Carter, was elected president in 1976 — only to be told by leadership “that’s not what we meant,” as the Silent Majority gained theological infrastructure in the Moral Majority of the 1980s.
Since then, you’ve claimed to “vote your values,” while criticizing other Christians whose voting records did not match your own. You accused progressive Evangelicals, black Christians and others of a political pragmatism that resisted your litmus tests in favor of a broader understanding of morality, including social, economic and racial justice.
If people voted Democratic, they were asked, “How can you vote for a pro-abortion candidate?” If they responded, as did I, that, although they believe life begins inside the womb, they also hold a commitment to people throughout their lifespans and find anti-abortion candidates who do not support educational, economic and social programs for the poor not to be “completely pro-life,” to borrow Ronald J. Sider’s term, they risked being labeled anything from an infidel to a churchgoer whose votes are guided solely by self-interest.
While you were true Christians voting your values, we, on the other hand, were pragmatists, out of step with God’s agenda.
Four out of five of you voters merely voted sheer pragmatism. Welcome to the club. You did what you accused the rest of us of doing for decades: ignoring “essential” parts of a candidate’s person and platform in favor of your own self-interest.
I understand it can be disappointing to realize you are just like everyone else. Perhaps you feel real grief with the loss of the narrative of a Christian nation, God’s “City Set on a Hill,” a New Israel through which democracy and the gospel would spread, laying the groundwork for the Second Coming.
And yet, recognizing your pragmatism could help you, in the long run, could help all of us. Acknowledging that we stand on common ground will prepare us to respond if a Trump administration denies rights to clean air and water in your town, appoints judicial and law- enforcement personnel who imprison and abuse your addicted grandchildren, or fans fires of hate that consume your neighbors.
I suspect it’s coming. Not that I am bragging on having voted for the Democratic nominee. I voted for what I saw as the “lesser of two evils,” just as I imagine you did. Yet I didn’t claim to vote my values, nor did I question the salvation of those who voted differently. I confess my pragmatism, and I invite you to do the same. Confession is, after all, good for the soul.
Jerry Falwell opened one of his broadcasts with “Martin Luther King Jr. was right. and I was wrong!”
He clarified by saying that, when King was alive, he thought ministers should stay out of politics; however, by the early 1980s, he had come to believe the challenges facing the United States proved King right in regard to political participation. Falwell proceeded to lay out an agenda for moral politics that was as far from King’s agenda as the east from the west.
What many fail to recall about King was that he was not a pragmatist. In voicing his values, he often took stands that broke ranks with allies. His was a politics of vision that eschewed partisan and racial politics for a higher morality. His stance on Vietnam did not sit well with African Americans who pointed to military service as a badge of belonging in this country. He rankled both parties with stances on economic justice. And, for the record, he lived in the pre-southern strategy era before the 1968 elections, in which no one would be surprised to know that he, like many southern blacks, was a Republican.
Welcome home, white Evangelical America. Your pragmatism is showing.
The Rev. Harold Dean Trulear, Ph.D., is associate professor of Applied Theology at Howard University School of Divinity, Washington, D.C.