An Assembly of God church in Phoenix. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Are You a Political Moderate? Then American Christianity Does Not Want You

Elizabeth P. voted her conscience — and got punished

by MATTHEW GAULT

Elizabeth P. looks so nervous when she sits down that I ask her if everything is okay. She tells me she’s fine, but keeps looking left and right during our conversation. It’s as if she’s worried someone from her church might show up and see her talking to a journalist.

Our coffee comes and I ask her who she voted for.

“I actually voted for [Gary] Johnson because I wasn’t happy with anybody,” she says with a laugh. “I consider myself very much a moderate and I’ve been accused, by both sides on the extremes, that being a moderate means I’m against the political process.

“I have a lot of friends in my church … who were highly, highly in favor of Trump. I look at someone like Trump and I go, how can you — as a Christian — say he represents your values. Because he absolutely doesn’t represent mine.”

The South is a weird place and Texas doubly so. The rest of the country often see us as backward, poor, rural and politically conservative. The truth is far more complicated and nuanced.

Evangelical Christians voted for Trump in massive numbers, but the church isn’t a monolith and many of its members don’t appreciate the new president’s rhetoric and actions. As part of my job here at DEFIANT, I’ve spent time reaching out to Christian voters of every political persuasion. Elizabeth P. agreed to speak with me on condition of anonymity.

She’s a vibrant, middle-age Christian woman who attends an Assembly of God church somewhere in the South. “The vast majority of our members are politically very right wing,” she says.

Elizabeth isn’t. She’s a moderate, a political stance that often puts her at odds with both her conservative fellow parishioners and her progressive husband. We sat down just a week after the election, when tensions were high and no one knew what would happen.

Elizabeth did press her church friends on the issue of Trump’s morality. “The most common answers I got were that it’s about the abortion issue,” she says. It didn’t go over well with Elizabeth’s friends when she told them she voted for Johnson, a pro-choice candidate. “If you vote for someone that’s pro-choice, you’re a murderer. So I guess I’m a murderer.”

“The other issue that people brought up is the Supreme Court. I understand both those issues and I understand people’s concern. For me, the abortion issue, that’s a ship that has sailed. We’re not going to change anybody’s opinion by changing laws. I think it’s a lot more important, as a Christian, to love people where they’re at and to try and connect. Find out why are people doing it. Why are people still having abortions? What can you do to change the culture?”

“We have a lot of single-issue voters,” she says of her church. “We have very few Democrats. We have a couple of people who post things on Facebook that make me wanna tear my hair out because they are clearly just reposting talking points and they don’t understand the issues. Just today I saw something from a very lovely woman who posted something about, ‘We need to stop trying to recount the vote because it’s over. Get past it.’”

When Elizabeth and I spoke, Jill Stein was pushing recounts in several states. Every day brought strange news from the incoming administration.

“The [voting process] isn’t finished and she doesn’t understand,” Elizabeth says of her church friend. “I think [Trump will] get in without incident, but I don’t have a problem with the process playing out because that’s the way our laws are written.”

I ask her if politics ever spills out from social media and happens in the church. Does it ever come from the pulpit? “It happens occasionally,” she admits. “Our pastor does his best not to get too far. He is very much more conservative than I am politically. He will say things like, ‘Vote the way the Holy Spirit tells you.’ But the unspoken subtext there is if the Holy Spirit is telling you something other than what he’s telling me, then you’re wrong.”

That attitude grates on Elizabeth. She goes to church to learn about God, not to talk politics.

“It can be frustrating,” she says. “The Bible and politics are not the same thing. It’s frustrating to me when people talk about the Second Amendment in the same language they use for Biblical freedoms. Your right to own guns is not a biblical right. It’s a political issue.”

“The Bible doesn’t talk about abortion at all. It talks about sanctity of life.” Elizabeth tells me she doesn’t like it when her fellow Christians don’t treat the life of young women in bad circumstances with the same respect they treat an unborn fetus.

“Did she make bad choices? Who knows,” she says. “But if you’re not valuing her and … in the same way you’re valuing her unborn child, how are you ever going to convince her? You’re not. Because you’re only valuing the fetus and you’re not valuing the woman. That’s not what I see in the Bible.”

“People express their values verbally,” Elizabeth says. “But they don’t do a lot to express their values through actions in a way that makes a difference in the culture.”

Trump talking about forgiveness, or the lack thereof

As a moderate, Elizabeth is often an outsider during political discussions at her church. “I’m in the minority,” she says. “I’m a moderate and so I see value on both sides. My husband is a self-proclaimed liberal progressive. He gets along with everybody. He’s not militant. He posts a lot of stuff on Facebook and I ask him, ‘Why do you do this? Because then you get angry because people challenge you.’ But he’s probably more frustrated than I am.”

Elizabeth tells me she takes things as they come. “It is what it is,” she says. “I’m pretty good at rolling with it. I try and do what I think is right in my life and walk it out in that way.” Her husband, who attends church with her, is a different story.

“He gets more vocal about things,” she says. “There have been some times where he’s been called out a little bit. In a joking way, perhaps, from the pulpit. Somebody says something about ‘oh those liberals’ and everybody chuckles because everybody knows it’s [my husband.] He’s not offended by that, but there’s very little understanding of his viewpoint.”

I ask her if the church of the pastor ever single him out for his views. “He’ll single himself out,” she says. “There are times when he’ll put himself in the line of fire. In private, he’ll challenge the pastor, push back. They do not see eye to eye on political issues at all. But in every other possible way, they think the same. They walk the same. They believe the same. But on political issues their on opposite sides of the spectrum. It’s weird.”

I ask her why she thinks people who share such a strong foundation in belief hold such different political views. She tells me if she knew the answer to that she’d be a millionaire. “I think some of it is the way certain issues get focused on,” she says. “It’s easy to go back to the abortion issue because that’s been a political football for my entire life. I was born in ’67 and Roe v. Wade was 1973. It’s become a checkbox issue.”

Elizabeth explains how people she knows vote only on that one issue, to the exclusion of all others. “It’s a dividing line that really has very little to do with everyday life,” she says. I ask her if she thinks those checkbox issues cause people to vote against their interests.

“In this particular election it certainly did,” she says. “We’re looking at a man who’s had multiple wives and has probably cheated on all of them. We’re looking at a man who has devalued the entire female sex. We’re looking at a man who has insanely shady business dealings. And then people are more mad at Hillary because she has done politics than they are at Trump because of things that … really speak to his moral character. I don’t understand it.”

“I don’t understand how she got the nomination,” Elizabeth says, her voice filling with an intensity that borders on anger. “I take that back, I do understand.” She confesses that she didn’t vote in the Republican primary, so she could vote in the Democratic primary to make sure Clinton didn’t get on the ballot.

“I think there might be a lot of disenfranchised moderate Republicans who didn’t like anyone they were seeing in the Republican spectrum,” she says. “People jumped ship or they jumped parties or they voted libertarian like I did in the general election.”

As a moderate, Elizabeth has voted for third party candidates several times in the past, though she admits that choice was far more significant in 2016 than it had been in past elections. “I’m not a fan of Hillary. “I don’t think she’s the anti-Christ,” she says. “There are people who would like to paint her that way.”

It also frustrated her that people didn’t realize Trump is so obviously not a Christian while Clinton so obviously is. “She’s the one who … carries a Bible and reads it,” she says. It’s all marked up because she makes notes to herself. You can argue with her interpretation, but she has claimed to be a Christian and do I have the right to say she’s not?”

“I’ve heard a lost of Christians say she’s lying, she doesn’t really believe what she says. You don’t get to make that judgement. You don’t get to decide that. On the flip side of things, Trump has said, ‘I don’t need to ask forgiveness. I don’t need salvation. I question whether he’s read [the Bible].”

Trump and a Bible. CNN capture

That doesn’t mean Elizabeth thinks good Christians automatically make good leaders. She says Vice Pres. Mike Pence scares her more than Trump does. “I didn’t know a lot about Pence before the election because I didn’t really believed Trump was going to win,” she says. “Since Nov. 8, I’ve looked more at things he’s said and done and what he believes in and I’m more nervous about the prospect of a Pence presidency than I am about a Trump presidency.”

“[Pence] understand the process,” she explains. “Trump, if he does anything, he’ll be a puppet. I don’t think he understand politics. I don’t think he’ll be able to get anything done. Pence is part of the machine. He’ll know how to broker the deals, play the game and do the things. His real stance is a little more concerning to me than Trump’s bluster.”

She’s not wrong. Trump’s first few weeks in office have been a disaster in terms of public relations and government procedure. Worse still, many observers feel he’s a puppet of advisor Stephen Bannon.

For Elizabeth — even back in the days just after the election — Trump’s transition team and cabinet picks were far more frightening than Trump himself. “We’re talking about the extreme right wing, not even tea-party right wing but alt-right extremists,” she says.

She particularly worried about Trump’s picks for the secretary of education. Elizabeth thinks science is important and she sees both Jerry Falwell, Jr. — Trump’s original pick for the post — and Betsy DeVos as dangerous. She doesn’t want anyone pulling science out of textbooks to promote a religious agenda.

“I love people who are anti-evolution creationists,” she says. “I know some people who really really believe that. I look at it and I go, ‘I love you, but you’re crazy.’ There’s science here and there’s folklore here. And I don’t say that to minimize their faith because I think there’s a lot of truth … in the Bible.”

“I absolutely believe the Bible is true, but there’s a difference between truth and facts,” she says. “There can be truth in a Bible story you tell to help someone understand an issue. In the Old Testament, we’re looking at the stories and the folklore that were told to help people understand who God is. Now they’ve been taken as a historical account of what God did. I don’t see it. There are people who think that’s heretical on my part, but what can I do?”

Elizabeth gives me the example of the Biblical account of creation and explains that seven days to go may be seven eons. She acknowledges different translations and the oral tradition of the early Bible stories distort things over time and has a hard time thinking people take the book, especially the Old Testament, as the literal truth.

That stuff, she thinks, needs to stay out of science classrooms. “Unless you’re talking about a comparative religion textbook, I have a problem with that,” she says. “If it’s a science textbook, the conversation needs to be about science.”

Trump says he relies on God more than ever.

The election is causing more conversations and confrontations in her church. Trump’s win shook something loose. “There has been some exchange of ideas, but as far as changing someone’s mind, I haven’t seen it. There’s been some change in people’s attitudes about how they interact with people on the other end of the spectrum.”

She tells me that, because her husband is a kind and active member of the church so the other parishioners are much less likely to talk down to him and his progressive views. “There are people who have changed their language,” she says. “They haven’t changed their belief, but they have changed the way they talk about people with a liberal mindset because they don’t want to offend him.”

“The day after the election, that was a different world entirely,” she says. That Wednesday, her church meets for Bible study. He was having a hard time and his fellow church members realized it. They asked him if he was doing okay and he admitted he wasn’t.

And even though [they] probably voted for Trump, they saw him and their reaction was to stop and connect with him and give him a hug,” she says. “They asked if there was anything they could do and if there was anything he needed. He was surprised by that. He was moved by that. They were moved by his reaction and his emotional need, even though they weren’t upset over the same things. It’s like there’s this desire to connect.”

Moments like that give Elizabeth hope, which is in short supply just now. Long term, she’s less optimistic. She thinks that the extremists on both sides of the aisle will become more entrenched. “We are taking a step backwards in the realm of human rights,” she says. “In the ’70s … education was built around the concept of the great American melting pot. We haven’t melted. There is no connection, there is not unity. We are not one nation right now. It concerns me.”

She says worries that, within her lifetime, the nation she loves — and her whole way of life — won’t endure.

“The principles we’re founded on are that all people have certain rights and all people have value,” she says. “We want to do the most good for the most people most of the time. Those are the founding principles of this country and I see that eroding. In some respects, it’s already gone.”

Elizabeth is a writer and she recently spent time in California researching the Chinese immigrant experience at the turn of the century for a fiction project. “The most disturbing and shocking thing to me,” she says. “Was that the language we hear people using about Muslims, Mexicans and immigrants in general is exactly the same we used about the Chinese. ‘They’re too different from us, they’ll never assimilate and they’ll destroy our nation.’”

“I look at where we are now and it’s the exact same rhetoric. We’ve learned nothing. We’re a nation of immigrants. There’s not one white person who was not, within the last four or five generations, was an immigrant. We are all immigrants except for a handful of native Americans.

“To point at any particular group and say those immigrants are unacceptable, then we are never going to have the kind of unity we claim this nation was founded on. And I’m not entirely sure we ever did.

“You look at slavery, you look at Japanese internment in World War II, we’ve had these pockets of darkness. We go from one season to another. We’ve never changed. We’ve never fully assimilated. We’ve never, as a society, gotten over it and said, ‘People are people. We need to treat people fairly and the same.’

“Does this mean the American experiment is over? Is it coming to a close? Nothing is different. Two hundred years is a microsecond in terms of history. People who think the United States is too big to fail … well, it’s not. It might be that, 50 years from now, we will not be the same nation that we are today.”

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