Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Why I'm Still An Evangelical In The Age Of Trump

Part of me thinks if you're a real evangelical you don't need to write about why you still are one. But my path has been winding. For the past decade, whether or not I was an evangelical might depend on the day you asked me, or what I had for dessert the night before. As I've grown older and begun to raise my children, I've grown into my identity. When your children begin to ask you questions, you find you have to answer them one way or another. It turns out that I am still an evangelical. 

It is through evangelicalism that I encountered Jesus and cast what little faith I have into the proposition that he will rescue me from myself. For me, "sinner saved by grace" is not an old-fashioned Sunday school tale. It is the basic claim that shapes every day of my life. Without it, I would live somewhere else, do different work, and have a different kind of family. Without it, I wouldn't know what to do.

There is something wonderful and hard to explain about the rootedness of believing in supernatural religion. I am a person of my time, of course, but I'm also of another time. I can read words written hundreds or thousands of years ago and feel an instant connection. They trusted in Jesus, too, I say to myself, and their experience seems so similar to mine because, after all, Jesus is alive. This foolishness rescues me from the soul-crushing materialism of this confused era. Evangelicalism is not the only place I might have discovered these things, it's just where I did discover them. And so I owe something to it.

But when as a young adult I found out that my faith tradition was broken, I wanted to push it away, reject it. Easier said than done.

Many of us have complicated but ultimately unbreakable bonds with the things that form us. Families, countries, religions, a landscape or a city. There are certain things that are a part of you and you love them with all the frustration and familiarity with which you love yourself. So when I tried to disown evangelicalism, it didn't take. I find that my very best and very worst qualities are tangled together in this evangelical inheritance.

I've found in evangelicalism the harshest judgments and most unexpected acts of grace. I've seen the worst kinds of complacency and the most life-giving zeal. I've found guilt and shame, and soul-restoring peace. I've found infuriating anti-intellectualism and humble scholarship of the first order. I've even found racism and anti-racism.

To many readers this may all sound vaguely strange, possibly even interesting, but disconnected from what they know of evangelicalism. The elephant in the room with us is the "Christian" Right. Many Americans know evangelicalism primarily as a political movement. So it may surprise some people to learn that evangelicals are spending far more time and money working on things like poverty, racism, health care, and education than they are in trying to elect Republicans. World Vision, for example, is an evangelical aid organization with a budget that by itself dwarfs all the activities of the "Christian" Right in the United States. And don't forget the thousands of organizations that are doing exceptional work in every city across the country. They're helping kids, rebuilding communities, fighting poverty, providing health care, and offering college scholarships to students of color.
John Perkins, founder of the CCDA. A hero within evangelicalism, virtually unknown without
From the outside, evangelicalism has looked like a political juggernaut. From the inside, it has looked like a religious movement that treats partisan politics as a sideshow. I don't know quite how to reconcile these competing visions. But communities are always more complicated than they appear from the outside.

An old friend and mentor of mine, himself an evangelical, recently told me that he believes many of the "evangelicals" showing up in polls supporting Donald Trump are cultural evangelicals in the South who are not actually committed Christians. There seemed to be an element of truth in this, especially in the primaries when the data showed regular church attendees were less likely to support Trump. And anecdotally, this seems right even now. It's hard to find Christians in my circles who support Trump. But I don't think that's the story the data is telling now. Though some of us are associated with evangelical communities in which voting for Trump is unthinkable, we have to face the fact that the large majority of church-going White evangelicals are going to vote for him.

This is the culminating act of political self-destruction in a 40 year campaign of harmful politics. When I think of the "Christian" Right, I'm inclined to repurpose a line from Frederick Douglass' first autobiography: "between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference..." Indeed. Despite all the good done by evangelicals in local communities, the dominant political expression of American evangelicalism is hateful and selfish, and unworthy to be called Christian.

This politics is very public. It's what people see, and it's what they associate with evangelicalism. So to all the readers who don't have any particular connection to evangelicalism but know it through its politics: you're right to be offended. I hope, in some small way, it might matter to you to know that millions of evangelicals are offended too.

And we're not just offended. We're bewildered. Evangelical support for Trump is a fascinating and confusing phenomenon because he is a living negation of the values we claim to hold. He embodies with eerie precision the opposite of the qualities we're taught to revere in our savior. Christ's servant's spirit, his humility, his boundary-crossing love, his wrath for oppressors--it's not just that Trump fails to live up to these qualities, as we all do. It's that he's unusually hostile to them.

Evangelicals should not be under the illusion that they will have any credibility to speak to my generation after vocally supporting Trump. I can understand an evangelical quietly and sorrowfully pulling the lever for Donald Trump. I really can. But open advocacy is something else. To this day, I still haven't seen an honest evangelical case for Trump. I'd like to see the case made.

I do not want to offend Trump supporters. But I do want them to be aware that their politics hurts real people, including my neighbors. These folks have names. They're flesh and blood. Supporting Trump hurts them, and I still can't see how it helps anybody else. It's all downside.

So how does a candidate running on an anti-Christian platform win over Christian voters? By appealing to their idols. In the end, Trump's allure cannot be understood apart from White evangelicals' investments in race and patriotism. What I wrote at the beginning of the summer still holds true:
Many White evangelicals are prepared to vote for Trump because they're heirs to a cultural and theological tradition that binds race and nation to faith. Trump may not offer a clean-cut portrait of Christian character, but he is surprisingly forthright in his White nationalism. It is a mistake to assume that Trump's irreligious persona doesn't carry a religious message. To make America great again, to restore America's racial hierarchy--these are religious goals of an idolatrous people.
This, too, is part of my inheritance. Part of what it means for me to be a follower of Jesus is not to run away from my community of faith. It would have been easier in a way to leave evangelicalism and cast stones from the outside. It is harder to stay, confront my own racism, and seek reformation of my community from the inside. But I think that's what I'm supposed to do.


  1. Great post! Would love to connect soon. Sent you an FB request.

    Jonny Rashid

  2. Jesse, I love your critique of Trump...but I have a question about how you respond to Hilary/the democrats... I'm genuinely curious, not trying to start any arguments. After recently learning more about neoliberlism and reading The New Jim Crow, I feel convinced that the democrats have been just as bad as the republicans for the poor people and people of color. I've read that Bill Clinton expanded mass incarceration by being even "tougher on crime" than Reagan. And of course Obama expanded the military/war in Afghanistan, which targets young black men for the most dangerous positions, right? It seems to me that war and mass incarceration or two of the greatest sins of our recent history and they are carried out in a very racist way. So what do you think? I know you've read and learned a lot more than me, so I would genuinely appreciate your input on this.

    1. Thanks for the question Jonathan! We should get together sometime soon. This calls for more sustained discussion! I’d like to hear more about your perspective.

      Let’s put your statement about the war to the side. That was certainly true of earlier wars in our history, but if it’s true now that’s not something I’ve been aware of, so I can’t speak to that.

      But, briefly, you’ve hit on one of the reasons I expend very little energy defending Democrats! I think these two posts, despite their titles, are relevant to what you’re saying and flesh out some of my thinking on the matter:


      I’m not invested in defending Democrats because I believe the problems of race and class oppression are bipartisan. And when we approach the question with a view toward our ideal of justice, then it is clear that both parties fall woefully short. As one of the posts above discusses, historians have really taken liberalism to task in recent years for its contributions to White supremacy.

      All that said, it does seem clear to me that the claim that both parties are just as bad is not supported by the evidence. This doesn’t mean that Democrats are particularly virtuous. It’s about how political coalitions work. Democrats are forced to respond to the large numbers of people of color in their coalition, while Republicans are not beholden to them at all. You see this in policy outcomes, from health insurance to tax rates to voting rights. Dems are not where they should be, but they are responsive to some degree.

      Contrary to our popular impressions, political scientists have shown that what presidential candidates say on the campaign trail is actually an excellent indicator of what they will try to do in office. So Clinton’s talk of “systemic racism” and “implicit bias” is actually really important. It’s not just rhetoric. I’m not making any claim about what is in in her heart. But I’m saying she’s been forced to respond to Black Lives Matter, and that’s going to affect how she governs. For Trump, there is no constraint. His constituency doesn’t care, so he is openly doubling down on the attitudes and policies that produced mass incarceration.

      I love Michelle Alexander and I’m thankful for her book, but I think she could have been more careful historically. My understanding is that most scholars of criminal justice believe the 94 crime bill has come to occupy a place in the public imagination far out of proportion to its actual effect on mass incarceration, which was quite modest. The era of mass incarceration was locked in during the 1970s and 1980s, and its roots go much deeper than that.

      There’s a too-simple story on the left about mass incarceration. I think it’s a story that tries to fit mass incarceration neatly into America’s long history of racial oppression. As Jim Crow died, a new form of social control emerged to take its place. While there’s something to that story, it’s way too neat, and tends not to deal with difficult realities. For one, crime really had increased dramatically, and people were scared. Second, many African Americans demanded tough on crime policies, as Michael Fortner shows in his new book, Black Silent Majority.

      Bottom line: when the candidates say stuff on the campaign trail, believe them! Regardless of what she really believes, Hillary has responded to the new demands of her electoral coalition. That means she is likely to govern very differently from the way Bill did in the very different crime/race environment of the 1990s. Trump, on the other hand, has no incentive to govern responsibly in this area, because those voters aren’t in his coalition anyway.

  3. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Your wisdom is impacting my thinking. I'm glad I asked for help on this. I hadn't thought much about actually believing what they're saying...I mostly think it is rhetoric, so that's a good point for me to consider. Your other posts are helpful too. At this point, I'm generally motivated to live out alternatives through the church and social action, not through electing the "lesser of two evils". But you've helped me take some pause and have some respect for that too. (and your response to my comment about war might be a perfect example of where I can gets my facts mixed up if I'm not careful...it's so easy to for opinions based on information that's not totally confirmed...and so hard to actually read enough to know history well!)

    1. Well thanks for such a nice reply Jonathan. To be clear, I wasn't claiming you were wrong about the war thing. It's just something I haven't really heard about so don't feel able to comment on.

      I too have a lot of respect for your posture toward these issues. It's not clear to me that my approach is correct. And maybe both are needed; I'm not sure. My sense is that what I'm doing could be done well, but I'm not doing it! I worry that as soon as you jump into the political fray you begin to lose something essential about what it means to follow Jesus. At the same time, I worry about the potential downsides to your approach. The only certainty I have is that my views and understanding will continue to evolve and I will no doubt look back on this period with an awareness of how much I got wrong!

    2. thanks. that make sense...I appreciate your humble perspective. I also wonder about how to follow Jesus and be engaged in politics. I've learned to try not to "dig in my heals" while still having some conviction about what I'm doing. because of the problems of the "conservative Christian right", I'm also wary of being a part of the "Christian left".