Evangelicals are divided over the movement’s support for Donald Trump
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Mar 6th 2021
NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE AND KELLER, TEXAS
SET IN THE bucolic countryside on the edge of Nashville, Christ Presbyterian Church is a stately building where, in normal times, hundreds of evangelical Christians gather to worship. On a recent Sunday a smaller, socially distanced congregation assembled to hear the preacher speak on the eighth chapter of the gospel of Mark, in which Jesus asks his disciples: “Who do people say I am?” Such questions of identity are troubling many in the congregation, too. Chatting after the service, Samantha Fisher, a mother of two who works in public relations, sums up the current moment: “I don’t know any more what it means to be a Christian and an American.”
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White evangelicals like Ms Fisher are undergoing an identity crisis that has been a long time in the making, but has crystallised during four years of Donald Trump’s presidency and, especially, with the violent uprising at the Capitol on January 6th. Images of activists waving flags with Christian messages, praying in the name of Jesus inside the Senate chamber and claiming to defend America as “a Christian nation”, have left many evangelicals angry and confused. About 80% of white evangelicals supported Mr Trump in 2016 and at least 75% did so in 2020. The Pew Research Centre found last year that 59% of evangelicals felt the Trump administration had helped not hurt their interests. But conversations with a wide range of believers suggest that many churches are divided, and that support is not as overwhelming as the 80-20 split might suggest.
“For every evangelical I meet who supports what happened on January 6th, I meet 5,000 who do not,” says Scott Sauls, senior pastor at Christ Presbyterian. Leaders like him are trying to shift the focus of their churches, warning that putting too much faith in politics is not only spiritually misguided, but also self-defeating. “The culture wars are the greatest distraction from the mission of the church,” he says.
Evangelicalism is traditionally defined by four theological beliefs: the need for a spiritual rebirth (being “born again”); the centrality of Christ’s death on the cross to bring about that rebirth; the spiritual authority of the Bible; and an outworking of faith in missionary and social-reform efforts. The current reckoning centres on how to carry out that fourth belief and how much to stress political activism. “I think to some degree, there is an understanding in popular culture of ‘evangelical’ as referring to a personal relationship with Donald Trump rather than a personal relationship with Jesus Christ,” says Russell Moore, head of the public-policy arm of the conservative Southern Baptist Convention (SBC), who opposed Mr Trump.
A growing number of people are differentiating between the two. Ten days after January 6th Hunter Baker, the dean of arts and sciences at Union University, a Southern Baptist college in the town of Jackson, 130 miles west of Nashville, published an apology in which he declared that, though he had voted for him twice, he had “severely underestimated the threat posed by a Donald Trump presidency.” In an interview, he added: “I have been pouring myself into politics most of my adult life. I think now we need to focus back on the church and less on politics.” He says he will not vote for Mr Trump again. “I am not prepared to put the whole American order up for grabs. It is time to walk away.”
Some evangelical institutions, though remaining conservative, are also readjusting. Before the November election, the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE), one of the largest umbrella groups for the movement, representing millions of people in 45,000 churches from 40 denominations, released a statement resolving to “seek racial justice and reconciliation” and to “resist being co-opted by political agendas”. Many within the NAE are trying to represent a new type of evangelical, more intellectual, less white and less confrontational. Its new head, Walter Kim, holds a Harvard doctorate and is its first non-white leader. The chairman of its board, John Jenkins, is African-American.
Demography is having an impact, too. Robert P. Jones of PRRI, a think-tank, and author of “The End of White Christian America”, says that 22% of American pensioners are white evangelicals but only 8% of millennials are. Between a quarter and a third of evangelicals are not white, and many vote Democrat. Some of these shifts could start to influence politics.
The current moment is in some ways a replay of an earlier crisis. In the baking summer of 1925, outside a courthouse in Dayton, 150 miles east of Nashville, a teacher called John Scopes was charged with illegally teaching evolution in school. Scopes was found guilty by the court, though he was acquitted on a technicality and in the court of public opinion. The fundamentalism that underpinned the law was ridiculed, and the “monkey trial” became a turning point for American Christianity. Many strict fundamentalists withdrew from national life (though they remained strong in the South) while modernists, who questioned the literal truth of the Bible, became the mainstream.
Some theological conservatives, however, did not retreat. Intent on engaging with society, they created a third way after the second world war. It initially called itself evangelicalism, a word with roots in the Reformation, and it split into two strands. Divisions were messy but, broadly speaking, outside the South it sought to combine “deep, biblical reflection with social engagement, careful academic scholarship and a trust in science and reason,” says Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena. It tried to steer away from literalist interpretations of the Bible, to support civic engagement and free itself from the more fundamentalist and overtly racist tendencies of its Southern cousins. One figure who became the face of the movement, and held sway in both strands, was Billy Graham.
After a period of political dormancy, however, the southern branch re-emerged in the late 1970s and 1980s with a social and political agenda. “A tsunami of fundamentalism washed over evangelicalism,” says Mr Labberton. This more tribal form of faith became synonymous with the word evangelical. Its leaders, such as Jerry Falwell senior and Pat Robertson, he says, claimed to be most faithful to the Bible, but were in fact “the ones with the loudest media voices” on issues such as abortion and homosexuality. Politics became its priority and, crucially, it was still infused with the racism and sexism of the old South.
In its current incarnation, some of this has morphed into a form of “Christian nationalism”, which says that America has been and should always be distinctively Christian. In their book, “Taking America Back for God”, Andrew Whitehead and Samuel Perry claim roughly half of evangelicals, by some definitions, embrace Christian nationalism to some degree (and often subconsciously). This kind of nationalism, say the authors, believes that non-Christian Americans are unable ever to be “truly American”. It also presents fertile ground for conspiracies.
A poll for the American Enterprise Institute recently found that 28% of white evangelicals believe in QAnon, a conspiracy suggesting that Mr Trump is locked in a battle with a cabal of depraved deep-state actors who want to ruin America. Numerous evangelicals contacted by The Economist, none of whom would speak on the record, said their church had split as a result. A deacon left a church in New England because the pastor did not urge people to vote for Mr Trump (“you now have blood on your hands”, she told him in an email). At a church in Seattle, the pastor was driven out by anti-maskers. At another church in the north-west a leader was fired for writing online that “this is not the gospel”, when Mr Trump posed with a Bible last year.
Now, though, the successors of the “third-way” evangelicalism of the 1950s are trying to reform the movement once again. When Bob Roberts, a pastor at Northwood church in Keller, a suburb of Dallas, realised his church did not reflect the diversity of his message, he promoted black and Hispanic leaders and linked with the local Muslim community, some of whom visited his church. A quarter of the 2,000-strong congregation left. “We are Christians not Muslims,” wrote one. Mr Roberts is no closet liberal. Pro-life and a member of the SBC, he insists: “I do not view the church as a tribe for white evangelicals.”
Many agree, and deplore Mr Trump’s character, but worry that Christians who vote Democratic, or who do not vote at all, are ignoring an even greater danger from the left, which they believe is about to steamroller people of faith. “Those people will soon be experiencing buyer’s remorse as the emerging oligarchy of politics, media, academia, woke business and high-tech threaten to create one-party national politics that undermines religious freedom and true democracy,” says Os Guinness, a prominent evangelical author of more than 30 books, who is also critical of Mr Trump. Mr Labberton is concerned about the radical left, too, but says Trumpism is “too blunt an instrument” with which to fight it.
Meanwhile, America is changing rapidly. The percentage of Americans who say they are Christians declined between 2009 and 2019 from 77% to 65%. White evangelicals declined from 20% to 16% in that time, says Greg Smith of the Pew Research Centre, though the share of white Protestants identifying as evangelical is higher in 2020 (56%) than a decade ago (53%). Ryan Burge of Eastern Illinois University says this may reflect more non-observant conservatives identifying as evangelical. From 2008 to 2019, the share of evangelicals who said religion was very important fell from 81% to 74%. One in ten self-identified evangelicals is Catholic, says Mr Burge.
The slow death of a culture can, however, lead to resurrection. In Oregon a group of Christian NGOs has sprung up, whose founders are theologically evangelical and socially conservative but have no links to politically conservative evangelicalism. The left-leaning state government is working enthusiastically with them. Ben Sand runs a group called Every Child, which mobilises communities to work with Oregon’s Department for Human Services (DHS). Three-quarters of the 1,500 families who became certified for fostering children in 2020 have come through Every Child.
“Evangelicals look at Oregon and say this is where God goes to die,” says Mr Sand. But having no cultural power can be helpful to the spiritual message, he says. “The best thing for the evangelical movement is for it to lose its cultural influence, because only in that context of humility, of going back to what matters most in the ethics of Jesus, will the church find its soul again.” The detachment of faith from right-wing politics appeals to Fariborz Pakseresht, director of the state’s DHS: “Perhaps this is what true Christianity looks like.”
Mr Sand says evangelicals need a more biblical definition of Christian victory, one that is not political. He and many of his millennial friends voted Democrat and he says that does not define them. Millennial evangelicals are no less socially conservative but many are less political. They are more racially diverse, care more about racial justice, immigration and climate change. The old battlegrounds such as gay marriage interest them less. “We lost the culture wars. I’m not fighting for a power I never had,” says John Mark Comer, an influential young pastor in Portland.
Mr Jones of PRRI says there are few signs yet that these shifts are filtering through into voting patterns. White evangelical backing for Republican presidential candidates has hovered around 75-80% for decades, he says. Even conservatives who did not like Mr Trump still voted for him. But he points to one PRRI poll after January 6th that hints at change: it asked if Mr Trump was a true patriot. Among white evangelicals, 66% agreed and 32% disagreed. “What would it mean if the 20% of non-Trump white evangelicals became a third of them?” he muses. “That would be a game-changer.” He is not sure it can happen, however, because modern evangelical culture has become so entwined with Republican power. But after January 6th and Mr Trump’s attempts to overthrow a fair election, says Mr Jones, “If there ever was such an opening this is it.”
Meanwhile, moderate evangelicals across the country, unheard amid the cacophony of cable news, continue to talk about “the radical centre”. “What evangelicals should be doing is calling both Trump and the far left back to the best of the first principles of the American experiment that made America great in the first place,” says Mr Guinness. He points to George Washington’s letter in 1790 to the Hebrew congregation in Rhode Island, whose rabbi had written to ask if the Jewish faith would be protected in the New World. “All possess alike liberty of conscience and immunities of citizenship,” replied Washington, before quoting the Old Testament prophet, Micah, saying that “every one shall sit in safety under his own vine and fig tree, and there shall be none to make him afraid.” ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline "Two nations under God"