‘Destroyed’ is such a powerful word but it aptly describes what is and will happen to evangelicalism in post-Trump America. The brutal indictment against the movement will remain for generations, one where they’re unlikely to ever recover. Why? This is a long post, but there are important pieces within to grapple with. First, the context.
The scales tipped in favour of the Republicans in last night’s US Election, surprising almost everyone. The voting pattern is unfortunately unsurprising. The majority of white males voted for Trump (dominated by the rural vote; including over half of white females). However, an overwhelming majority of evangelicals stuffed the ballot box with their approval of the maligned candidate. How is this possible? The systematic dismantling (and usually self-inflicted) of Trump’s character left one single conclusion: he’s decidedly UN-Christian. But that didn’t stop the heavyweights of old-guard evangelicalism to lend eager approval to a man who regularly condoned white supremacist ideology, racism, misogyny, anti-environment rhetoric, lying, mockery, and lacked a concrete platform apart from fallacious trademarks sayings. None of this seemed to matter to evangelical voters who INCREASED their support.
Why? It has to do with the allure of recapturing power, prestige, and privilege presented at the election table.
This past Summer Britain voted in a referendum to step away from their ties with the European Union. The prevailing narrative that gave the exit voters a win wasn’t economics, rather, it was border control. Fear of the other spilt a nation, and you got the sense if it could happen in Britain it could happen in America.
Hours before the final results, when it seemed a Donald Trump presidency was possible, the CIC (Citizen & Immigration Canada) website went down under the duress of countless American searches thinking about an escape. When we thought US elections couldn’t become more polarized, the voting populous elected arguably the most polarizing (and inexperienced) President in its history. Even after media outlets, pollsters, and even his own party thought it was impossible, Trump’s message resonated with a fearful majority worried about the loss of an ideology–white privilege–coupled with the continued fear of economic uncertainty. Together you had the perfect storm to win an election.
Both Brexit and Trump’s campaign reveal the alarming, yet not sudden, shift in the growing sentiment for homegrown nationalism. Globalization, and its policies where borders and economies become more and more fluid, has been replaced with a push to close borders, return the jobs back home, and make ‘America Great Again’. But here’s a question: whose America?
Fear tactics are nothing new, but they haven’t been so overt in inflaming religious and racial tensions. The fear narrative out of the Trump campaign relied on exploiting deep-seated fear of those who looked different than white people. First it was a fear of Mexicans (build the wall, close the borders); then it was a fear of blacks (inner-city violence, BLM, crime rates); and of course the fear of Muslims (terrorism, stop Syrian refugees, terrorism, bomb ISIL off the map).
Deflecting Race for the Elitist Narrative
Then there is the other other that ultimately paved the way for white America to legitimize voting for Trump: the elite. There was and is a fear of the constant battle against elitist America and the power they hold (Hillary being regarded as among ‘them’). It almost makes sense save for the obvious: Republican supporters voted for a pot to call the kettles black. It IS the reason why so many voted for Trump, to make America Great Again, but this reasoning cannot be extricated from its bigger implications. It sounds woefully ignorant to pick a narrative that asserts Trump was the underdog for ‘marginalized’ white people because it ignores real marginalization visible minorities, et al., are facing as dangerous dormant ideologies gather steam under the new regime. And those helping, complicit in fact, to the renewal of oppressive ideologies into mainstream American culture, and revealed as easy prey, are Evangelicals.
Increased Evangelical Support Critical Contributor to Trump Win
The Pew Research data above highlights some startling facts around the voting pattern of white born-again Christians. Not only did they show up to vote (whereas over 6+ million Democrat voters failed to do so), they increased their support to the Republican nominee and were instrumental to his win. (Curiously, this wasn’t a clear conservative religious trend as Mormons overwhelming picked a third candidate, rather a clear evangelical and Catholic trend.) The internal messaging from pulpit to pew worked wonders. The underlying revelation is how much POWER evangelical leaders still hold over their flock, a power exercised to inherit the power of Caesar. Prayers were answered as Republicans now control the Presidency, Senate, and House, and will control the Supreme Court too.
The voting demographics are stunning simply because of the sheer cognitive dissonance needed to justify committing to Trump. Compartmentalizing decisions doesn’t work, you may grasp at the elitist narrative, but it’s inextricable from this kind of bad,
…a President whose disdain for women and minorities, civil liberties and scientific fact, to say nothing of simple decency, has been repeatedly demonstrated. Trump is vulgarity unbounded, a knowledge-free national leader who will not only set markets tumbling but will strike fear into the hearts of the vulnerable, the weak, and, above all, the many varieties of Other whom he has so deeply insulted. The African-American Other. The Hispanic Other. The female Other. The Jewish and Muslim Other. – “An American Tragedy – The New Yorker“
Character assassinations only go so far, ultimately individual voters are swayed by one thing: individualism, or who will protect MY interests? Those interest are assuaged in a shared package of white supremacy and a defiance to elitism cannot be separated and others have made a connection. The President-elect, a man whose character and actions are so egregious and odious, relied heavily on the fear mongering against the ‘other’ harkening back to times of systemic oppression, and the awakening of dormant destructive ideologies. Put it this way, racists have never felt so free and bold to triumphantly spew their racism in the past 50 years (for example, the KKK victory rally in N.C.). This is the critical problem and evangelicals are nodding in explicit or implicit approval, but nodding nonetheless.
Almost all white male evangelicals voted for someone so abjectly opposite of Christ, non-Christians (and non-evangelicals) NOTICED the disturbing association. This is where the church, with any shred of self-awareness, should pause to reflect. The pursuit of power, in an attempt to return to a bygone era of prestige, comes at the cost of associating evangelicalism with the things Trump has said, done, and will do. Ironically, the power evangelicals are hoping to inherit by cozying up to the empire to ultimately help their witness has BECOME the witness, a witness that not only worries, but disgusts non-Christians. (As an aside, you can’t lump all ‘evangelicals’ into one pile, although you could get close. Nonetheless, the term has become obfuscated and maligned by media to a point it may not be recoverable.)
Evangelicals minimized the outrage about rape, about racism, about fascism and ignorance, about marginalization, and condoned a space that bread Trump and his thinking. Many conservative evangelicals cling to bygone nationalist or dominion theologies, the excited opportunities to legislate ideology to maintain cultural morality. Attempting to control behaviour through rules and regulations (legalism) doesn’t increase discipleship. If you don’t believe me simply look at the ‘fruit‘: there are few, if any, churches in America (Canada too) that grow by evangelism. Rather a hemorrhaging, or a mass exodus, of churchgoers, is underway and doesn’t look like it’s going to stop. (It’s also going to get worse if immigration is controlled, evangelicalism, ironically, relies heavily on new Christian immigrants to survive.) Sadly, evangelicals are not very good at embodying a posture that inherits the character of Jesus, but they’re very good at backroom deals to prop up the guise of conservatism, which is ironically Pharisaic, ironic because those were the very people Jesus hated.
This phenomenon in evangelicalism isn’t unique to the US either. Lest Canadians think we’re immune, Albertans face stark reminders there are deep and disturbing divides within the province. After a shocking election win for the left-leaning NDP, the new female Premier has faced constant gender attacks. Even the opposition parties, undergoing a leadership search, are discovering deep problems of bullying that have forced the only two women to drop out of the race. Not to be outdone confederate flags are showing up at legislative buildings–albeit adorned with maple leafs in lieu of stars. Yes, racism, misogyny, and ignorance are alive and well across Alberta.
To Americans, you can’t escape. This is your election, this is now your President, and you are now complicit in bringing to power someone who is abjectly ill-equipped for the job and will make changes that will hurt a lot of people, namely those with a particular skin hue. In the meantime there are some things to do. Step one is to share stories. Polarization says, “I’m right and you’re an idiot”. Opt instead to see the world through another’s lens, for example, those that claim fear despite the Trump claims to fight and annihilate fear. Christians supposedly know perfect love (1 John 4:18) is the only remedy to fear. To go down the route of love you need empathy to see the world in a way you couldn’t see before. Enter the story of someone who doesn’t look like you.
While you’re in conversation rather than advocating a ‘blank slate’ and a ‘new day to start fresh’, be acutely attentive to the unfolding narrative. The alarming pieces that were ignored to justify the retention of power, come at a real cost. White Americans (evangelicals) are protecting privilege, and when you’re in a place of privilege, you’re not marginalized and although you look forward to the ‘sun rising in the morning’, many others can’t. For their part, mainstream evangelical media needs to tread carefully. A democracy needs the people to give the elect a chance, but it is unwise to become the blind moderate hope everyone can ‘just get along’, Rather, the response is to stop paying haphazard lip-service to though issues of race, intolerance, and fear (again), (and this includes the church) and instead act as critical reconcilers. Evangelicals are still a privileged people and largely cannot relate to the oppressed (again the irony here of so-called Jesus followers is thick, and yes I’m speaking in broad strokes) so be mindful of downplaying the incongruity of your vote with how to move forward.
Perhaps forward and hope rests in the next generation. I don’t know if this chart is accurate depicting how millennials voted (I don’t think it is given GA, AL, and LA are blue).
But the other stat, almost 50% of eligible voters DID NOT vote, is saddening and maddening. Senator Sanders had this to say (who many argue should’ve been the Democrat nominee), that offers some insight on moving forward,
Where will evangelicals, who predominantly view their role in the world through an ‘us vs. them’ lens go from here? Christianity is supposed to be all about hope, eternal hope that all the wrongs will one day be turned right. You can offer that hope wherever you sit and pray (and do). Parents can offer their voice since education is THE critical element to fight ideologies. Pick the way of Jesus as your foundation and not the way of Franklin Graham or Focus on the Family or Jerry Fallwell Jr., et al. Evangelical churches seem to be preoccupied implicitly ensuring their churches are filled with people who look and think the same (as evidenced by the election, which, once again, is decidedly NOT reflective of Christ-like character). When you cannot accept the ‘other’, aren’t growing, and reject teachings of Christ, these actions confirm what we already know—evangelicalism in America is growing irrelevant and dying, and now in its current posture is becoming reviled. It does a great job talking amongst itself, yet is increasingly incapable of communicating a Christian message to those seeking a transformation encounter with the restorative power of Christ. Evangelicalism has demonstrated it remains incapable of any communication apart from the cruel message of self-preservation announced via the throne of Caesar, to impose religious views into policy and law making, and garnering enough power to force people to act the way they think.
Evangelicalism is dead because you can’t force someone to love your version of God.
The hope is, evangelicals don’t own God, and something better will emerge in its place.
[With edits Sunday Novermber 13th.]