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|
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.