Evangelicals Are Not A Political Monolith
The Journey Inward
Last updated 10/7/2020 at 4:44pm
On Nov. 8, 2016, eighty-one percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. Their enthusiasm for Trump has remained steady throughout his presidency. The data bears this out. In 2019 the approval rating for President Trump among white evangelical Protestants was 25 points higher than the national average. Evangelicals who attend church once a week, according to a Pew Research poll, approved of Trump by a 70 percent margin.
Ralph Reed, the Faith and Freedom Coalition founder, in the summer of 2019 told his group that no political figure have they loved more than Donald Trump. And he boldly proclaimed that evangelicals “have a moral obligation to enthusiastically back” President Trump in the upcoming election.
One of Trump’s most enthusiastic supporters, Robert Jeffress, pastor of a 14,000-member church in Dallas and Fox News contributor intoned: “We thank God every day that he gave us a leader like President Trump.”
However, a crack in the wall of support occurred when editor Mark Galli wrote in the Dec. 19, 2019, edition of conservative magazine “Christianity Today” that Trump should be impeached and removed from office. Galli’s rationale was that he engaged in impeachable offenses and that his conservative friends have been unwilling to voice complaint when our nation’s leader speaks with disdain and contempt about those with whom he disagrees; he is thus making America worse, not great. Galli believes that “he is modeling speech that not only puts his soul in danger, he’s putting the soul of the nation in peril.”
Galli questioned the integrity of Trump when in his tweets and comments he habitually ridicules, describing his opponents as “unhinged,” “crazy,” “lying,” “loser,” “suckers,” and “people of low I.Q.” His comments, “which rage every day of the year, are the epitome of contempt for other human beings,” notes Galli and adds that words are important: “it is not an accident that the Bible calls ‘Jesus the Word of God,’ a word that became flesh and dwelt among us.”
The reaction to Galli’s editorial was swift and condemning. Approximately 200 evangelical leaders wrote a letter challenging Galli’s assertions and again pronounced their unwavering support for Trump.
Bill Leonard, who edits Baptist News Global, warns critics of evangelical Christianity that the 200 leaders were not speaking for all of them: “American evangelicalism is certainly no monolith but involves a broad spectrum of participants proceeding from Appalachian Pentecostal serpent-handlers to Calvinist-oriented mega-churches; from Jim Wallis and Sojourners to James Dobson and Focus on the Family.”
Broadly, evangelicals believe that the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, the centrality of conversion, and the responsibility to evangelize.
So, within the circle of evangelicalism, Galli has been joined by others who question their peers’ commitment to Trump. Thirty have collaborated on a book entitled “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump: 30 Evangelical Christians on Justice, Truth, and Moral Integrity,” edited by Ronald J. Sider, distinguished professor emeritus of theology at Palmer Theological Seminary.
Their chief concerns center around the tortured witness of those who espouse their support of Trump and at the same time profess to be followers of Jesus Christ.
Conservative Repub-lican Peter Wehner, who held positions in the presidency of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, expresses this concern: “There’s a very high cost to our politics for celebrating the Trump style, but what is most personally painful to me as a person of the Christian faith is the cost to the Christian witness.”
Another broad concern is the possibility of idolatry when the tenets of Christianity are distorted in order to venerate a political leader. Again, Galli, who contributes to the book, said: “It is a sure sign of a church’s internal decay when the sum and substance of its religious activity becomes entwined with political partisanship, especially when loyalty to a political figure is equated with loyalty to God.”
George Yancey, professor in the Institute for Studies of Religions and Sociology at Baylor University offers sage advice: “I am not arguing that Christians should not be involved in politics……But when we become so loyal to a political party that we are afraid to correct the leaders of the party, then we are merely participating in politics.” In other words, supporting Trump should not be based on justifications derived from the Gospels; the way of Jesus contradicts the behavior of the president.
In addition to those broad considerations these evangelical leaders wrote about specific issues.
One of the writers Chris Thurman noted in Proverbs 6: 16-19 that the Lord hates a “lying tongue” and “a false witness who pours out lies, and a person who stirs up conflict in the community.” He cites that Trump on average lies about 22 times a day and consistently fosters civil discord.
Vicki Courtney, in a chapter entitled “Donald Trump’s Low View of Woman,” said that she is a mother who lives in the Bible Belt, considers herself an evangelical and writing about Donald Trump’s misogyny will not appeal to many of her neighbors. She could not remain silent, though, and is particularly upset when Trump makes suggestive comments about his daughter Ivanka.
Courtney implores Christians to speak up about the objectification of women, even if the president of the United States engages in such behavior. She adds: “No one will take Christianity seriously if we shout about the moral injustices of past presidents but are struck dumb when it comes to the moral injustices of the current one.”
Edward G. Simmons (retired employee of the State of Georgia), David C. Ludden (professor of psychology at Georgia Gwinett College) and J. Colin Harris (professor emeritus of Mercer University) attempt to understand the discrepancy between those who are devoutly Trump supporters and devoutly Christian at the same time.
They purport that when a person’s behavior contradicts their deeply held beliefs, the result is an uncomfortable mental health state called cognitive dissonance. “In the case of Trump-supporting evangelicals, the resolution of cognitive dissonance appears to occur through the adoption of a closed-ended approach to faith that resists factual in-put.”
Simmons, Ludden and Harris conclude: the “point is not to eliminate faith but to ground it in evidence when possible and, when not possible, to be flexible and be open to verifiable truth that may require adjustments.” One reward for this approach is freedom from cognitive dissonance that comes with trying to live in conflicting realities.
Wehner, writing a chapter of the book entitled “The Deepening Crisis in Evangelical Christianity,” ponders: “The enthusiastic, uncritical embrace of Trump by white evangelicals is among the most mind-blowing developments in the Trump era.” Part of the answer he believes is because they are engaged in an existential struggle against an enemy – not Russia, not North Korea, not Iran, but rather American liberals on the left.
Many evangelicals believe they have been mocked, scorned and dishonored by the “elite culture” over the years. Many have felt pushed aside by the liberal activism of mainline Protestant churches. They found a champion in Donald Trump who voices their grievances and resentments.
Wehner hopes Christians will desist from political warfare and become a “faithful, exilic” community where people will find a capacity to love in unexpected ways and rather than run from the stranger, move toward them.
Raising the question, “what are evangelicals to do?” editor Ronal J. Sider proposes: “But what they (leaders) must do……is publicly call their people to support the candidate who embraces an agenda that comes closer, on balance, than other candidates, to reflecting a ‘biblically based agenda.’”
The writers I cited in “The Spiritual Danger of Donald Trump” are representative of the 30 evangelicals who raise questions about the loyalty of white evangelicals toward President Trump and they do so from their Christian faith perspective.
You, the reader, can determine if their views align with yours, are contrary to your view or raise questions which may lead to further reflection.
Obviously, when I read the chapters I shared some of their sentiments about the impact on the church during the Trump era but also have a better appreciation of why evangelicals want a place at the political table.
(Dr. John Campbell is a psychotherapist and clergyperson living in Brevard.)