A good portion of C.S. Lewis’ classic book of the Chronicles of Narnia series, “Prince Caspian,” is devoted to telling the story of how the land of Narnia is conquered by foreign invaders and the how the native inhabitants either assimilated into the new regime or were driven out of their former lands.
While all former Narnians longed for a return of the old days, some were so overcome by hatred they were willing to do anything to drive out the hated Telmarines.
One character named Nikabrik was even willing to go so far as to ally with the old vanquished evil ruler of Narnia and some of her exiled minions in order to set things back to the way they were.
“And anyway,” Nikabrik continued, “what came of the Kings and their reign? They faded too. But it’s very different with the Witch. They say she ruled for a hundred years of winter. There’s power, if you like. There’s something practical.”
“And so,” said Nikabrik, whose voice now rose to a scream, “if you can’t help my people, I’ll go to someone who can.”
Nikabrik was so desperate to regain what he and his people had lost that he was willing to make a deal with evil, so long as it damaged what to him was an even greater evil.
Since the capture by Donald Trump of the evangelical Christian soul in 2016, this is the story that continues to best explain the mindset that drove evangelicals to one of the most immoral people to ever occupy the Oval Office. It is the story of a people so traumatized by perceived persecution and loss of societal power that they were willing to cast aside all that they had ever professed to believe in. This willingness to sacrifice principles for power resulted in them putting their trust in the promises of an adulterous reality show host from New York City.
Ben Howe in his new book “The Immoral Majority” is the first person I’ve read since that dramatic night in 2016 when Donald Trump was elected to really get at the heart of what drove — and still yet today drives — the decisions evangelicals make in the political sphere.
One thing that really struck me at the beginning of the book was how similar mine and Howe’s backgrounds are. Howe was not raised in the secular stereotype of an evangelical home, that of Bible thumping parents who whip their kids with a belt at the smallest transgression of their legalistic code of behavior.
Instead he was raised by parents who admitted that sometimes the worst enemy of Christianity were Christians themselves. They devoted themselves and their house to taking in people who were on the wrong side of the law and tirelessly seeking to give them a community that cared for them and tried to rehabilitate them.
From this background, he developed a view of Christianity that was selfless, outwardly focused and confident in the power of its message to truly change lives and society for the better. My experience was much the same. I spent most of my teenage years in the lower socioeconomic areas around my hometown as my parents poured out their hearts into the people living there.
We were certainly conservative in both politics and theology but there was not a fear of the outside world that is stereotypical in the minds of the secular world when they think of evangelicals. No, rather it was an atmosphere that took on the mindset of missional Christianity and confidently went out into areas that the wider world would never set foot in and care for people who had no one else to care for them. Like Howe, this background has had a profound effect on not only how I express my deep Christian faith but also how I viewed politics.
I was born in 1988, which means I came of age politically in the George W. Bush years. I remember vividly the 2000 recount, 9/11, the 2004 election and of course the Iraq War.
I also remember how much my evangelical community loved W.
The year 2004 was the year when evangelical political power reached its zenith; powered by evangelical voters and outreach efforts, Bush turned back a challenge by John Kerry and all seemed right in the evangelical world. The Southern Baptist denomination had seen nothing but success in the preceding 25 years since the Conservative Resurgence had ensured that liberalism would never have any influence in the great evangelical denomination for the foreseeable future.
The president of the United States was a born-again Christian who spoke “Christianese” as well as any president had before and really has ever since. Reeling Democrats searched for ways to appeal to Christian voters or face permanent minority status. We seemed on top of the world in the fall of 2004, but little did we know how fleeting that moment of being at the top of the American political mountain would be.
We all know what happened next as the Bush presidency unraveled; between the war, scandals and the eventual economic downturn, the Bush era ended with a whimper as the Democrats took total control of the government in 2009.
Barack Obama represented a part of the country that was essentially alien to the community in which I grew up. A black, Ivy League-educated and resident of elite Blue America, Obama was a dramatic change from Bush. Along with the ascent of Obama, there came a rise of social liberalism that shocked all of us in its dramatic rise. This rise culminated in the Obergefell Supreme Court decision that legalized same-sex marriage across the United States. What was once a confident ascendant movement had by 2016 become a movement that was a shell of its former self: lacking confidence and terrified that persecution was right around the corner.
As Howe demonstrates in the chapter “Tired of Losing,” the post-Bush presidency brought about a change in the mentality of American conservative Christians. In the place of the optimism and confidence of the 2000s, by 2016 much of American Christianity had become defensive and angry at their perceived plight in the broader national culture. They had become insular and paranoid that cultural ostracization was coming as the cultural left moved on from their culture war victories of the preceding years and began shooting the wounded on the culture war battlefield.
The persecution complex that has always been pervasive in American Christian culture was fed by the fear of a resurgent cultural left. In 1998, Christian leaders like James Dobson had declared that President Bill Clinton was morally unfit for office due to his indiscretions during the Monica Lewinsky scandal. They had staked out the position that moral integrity was imperative in officials holding or running for public office.
But that moral high ground had been taken when the movement was seen to be ascendant. What would happen in the new unfamiliar territory of legal same-sex marriage and a media culture that was decidedly against them?
At this point, Howe does a great job of showing how this anger and fear came together to make the evangelical vote ripe for an amoral con man like Trump.
Of course, it didn’t happen easily at first. It can be hard to remember but at first Trump had a hard time winning over committed evangelical Christians. He had a relatively easy time picking off self-described evangelicals who rarely went to church, but the truly devout cohort had a much harder time at first. When Trump finally vanquished Ted Cruz after the Indiana primary in spring 2016, the wall that had stood firm against the onrush of resentment and fear tinged-tribalism had cracked and broken apart by the time November had come.
At this point Howe describes the different excuses made to justify the breaking of the Clinton precedent. Ultimately, all these excuses come back to the same base emotion that had been building as the influence that evangelicals had enjoyed in American culture had collapsed: fear. Whether it was using the excuse of the lesser of two evils, the idea that Trump was a modern King Cyrus sent to save American Christians or that God had sent “prophecies” that Trump would be elected, it all came back to fear of a future run by secular leftists. Rather than face a future like that, it was ultimately decided that instead of trusting in God and maintaining their principles, matters would be taken into their human hands and God would need help.
One of the common themes in the books of Kings and Chronicles is how even the righteous kings of Judah had a habit of abandoning hope in God and instead paying off various nations around them to help whenever bad situations arose. It is amazing that that lesson never seemed to influence the decision-making that went into allying with Trump.
When one looks at the history of Christianity throughout the past 2,000 years, one sees that it is at its strongest when it is counter cultural and far from the heights of political power. While American evangelicals were complaining about slight persecution at the hands of the American left, Chinese Christians were undergoing brutal persecution from an aggressively anti-Christian Chinese government. Instead of making a deal with the Devil, one Chinese pastor continued to emphasize how he would pray for his jailers and would pray for the president of China to come to the faith.
Does maintaining a mentality of fear and resentment lead to extraordinary mindsets like that? It is without question that the Chinese Christian church is among the most vibrant Christian communities in the world today. So, is there a chance that perhaps our attitude towards our enemies is part of what is contributing to the stagnation of the American church? Furthermore, Howe also suggests that selfishness has contributed to many of the actions that evangelicals have taken that have led to the alliance with Trump.
On the surface, there is nothing wrong with pursuing self-interest. However, what if that pursuit of self-interest leads to a prioritizing of preserving one’s place in society over preserving our moral credibility? What good is our place in society if we lack the moral credibility with the secular world thus making it impossible to share our faith with society?
Toward the end, Howe devotes a chapter to talking about the state of the evangelical church in the U.S. It is at this point where I have my one of my few disagreements with Howe. He observes the declining percentage of people in polls that declare themselves as evangelical and laments the direction that we are heading in.
On the contrary, I see this as an opportunity. One of the facts of life in the southern evangelical environment I grew up in was that there were many people who were supposedly members of the church, but never bothered to participate in the church community. Maybe they would come on Christmas or Easter but otherwise they lived life without any meaningful commitment to the church family.
My sense is that a portion of the decline is people like that are now not calling themselves evangelical. Much of the this can be attributed to losing what could best be described as “cultural Christians.” Although this is certainly not ideal and I think a case could be made that this has had bad effects on society at large, I do think that this culling along is not necessarily a bad thing.
Living in a society where it will be almost weird to be a Christian will actually benefit us in that it will decrease the complacency that has arisen, as well as produce a base from which to provide renewal of what it means to be a Christian and an evangelical. For too long, Christians have relied on the inertia and comfort of a heavily Christian-influenced culture to catechize our children and do much of our evangelistic work for us. With that crutch taken away, I think that there is a good chance it will allow for effective Christian witness and work done by churches across America.
If you look at the most vibrant churches in the world right now, they are all characterized by either being in a persecuted environment or having more material hardships. I am sure this is not a coincidence.
In closing, Howe devotes his final chapter to what the path forward for evangelicals is. In it, two themes emerge: first, that as Christians we are not guaranteed an easy path. It is made clear many times throughout scripture that contrary to the hope of many it is almost a guarantee that we will face trials and tribulations.
One can just look to the situation facing the early church from Acts to Constantine. Persecuted by Roman officials and perceived as a weird cult from a backwater province of the Roman Empire, a contemporary of 1st century Christianity would have been amazed to learn that a scant 300 years later, Christianity would be the major religion, ascendant throughout the Mediterranean world.
This did not happen through pursuit of political power at any price. Instead, it was done through the witness and efforts of the numerous local churches throughout the Roman world to be the vessels of God’s love for a debased society. When epidemics came and most Romans fled the centers of disease, Christians stayed behind to care for the sick and dying. Instead of taking up arms and resisting the Roman government persecution, Christians instead walked defiantly into the Colosseum and sacrificed themselves resisting only by praying for their captors.
This made an impact on the hearts and minds of the Roman people and led to a ground-breaking change in the beliefs and foundation of Roman society. We should be asking ourselves how we can emulate this example today instead of adopting an ends-justify-the-means mentality and pursuing political power at any cost.
All this really flows from the second point of the last chapter, that ultimately our trust should be on God and not the ebbs and flows of the politics of man. As the example from Kings shows, when the focus diverts from God to how we can best facilitate things here, compromises and mistakes are made. As history has shown time and again, men will always fall short of the standard that is expected of them. Trump will certainly fall short of the lofty expectations that evangelicals have of this presidency. And when we divert our focus it always leads to moral compromise and eventual discreditation of the church. This becomes a question of do we really have the trust in God’s provision that we sing about every Sunday?
In conclusion, what worries me the most about where evangelicalism has landed in the age of Trump is that we might be losing the very thing that gives us the label “evangelical.” Evangelicalism should be marked by a focus on evangelism that flows from a love of other humans.
There should be a worry that in this zeal to fight the Culture War we have changed from focusing on seeing liberals as people who are fallen men in need of the Gospel to seeing liberals as godless heathens on the way to justifiable damnation. This is completely contrary to the spirit of evangelicalism and completely contrary to the Scripture as well.
Instead we are on the way to becoming the prophet Jonah. That is, so happy at seeing the destruction of a hated enemy that we allow a rot to infect ourselves and miss what God has planned for our nation. There is still much to be hopeful for the future of evangelicalism, but we must be vigilant to ensure that as we work to heal our nation, we follow the lead of Jesus and not Jonah.