Every now and then an article comes along which is so good that it has to be shared in full – without comment. Last weekend I read this article by Greg Sheridan in The Australian. I mentioned the article in The Open Mind of the Sydney Morning Herald
It’s so worth reading – it takes a balanced and informed look at the good, the bad and the ugly in US evangelicalism….and my colleague Steve McAlpine even gets a mention….
Here it is in full….Enjoy.
Did Trump destroy evangelical Christianity?
In a tragic and bitter irony, American Christians are deeply divided in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency.
“The last decade saw a particularly significant decline within one subgroup: white evangelicals. While the ranks of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics have been shrinking for decades, white evangelical Protestants had seemed immune from the forces eroding membership among other white Christian groups. But since 2010, the number of white evangelical Protestants has dropped from 21 per cent of the population to 15 per cent.”
– Robert P. Jones, author of White Too Long
Have the tumultuous years of Donald Trump’s presidency destroyed or undermined the coherence and religious authority of American evangelical Christians?
This would be a tragic and bitter irony. It should never be necessary to categorise a Christian group by race. Christianity is universal and blind to race, or it is not Christianity. But in the US, while white evangelicals and black evangelicals share many religious beliefs, their politics are radically different. White evangelicals, in the wake of the Trump experience, are now deeply divided and in something approaching disarray.
Consider two startling statistics. According to the Pew Research Centre, white evangelical Christians are the single religious group most resistant to Covid-19 vaccination. Some 45 per cent of white evangelicals say they definitely or probably will not get vaccinated. This is astonishing, for the modern, commonsense, responsible America was in significant measure made by evangelicals.
Northern evangelicals powered temperance and anti-slavery movements. Across the US evangelicals are the most generous givers to charity. They have sent missionaries and aid workers across Africa and Asia. They have been generous, steady, sober. Opposing vaccination lies in the realm of nuttiness.
But there’s much worse. According to conservative Christian writer Peter Wehner in a long survey piece in The Atlantic, 31 per cent of white evangelical Christian Republicans believe: “Donald Trump has been secretly fighting a group of child sex traffickers that include prominent Democrats and Hollywood elites.”
No doubt some Hollywood types engage in every depravity, but the idea that there is a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping child abusers at the top of the Democratic Party and Hollywood is a lunatic conspiracy theory promoted by QAnon. This crazy outfit grew up online. Its precursor claimed that Hillary Clinton was part of this satanic network, with a group of children enslaved in the basement of a Washington DC pizza restaurant, which turned out not even to have a basement.
How did such insanity ever penetrate into the consciousness of a sizeable number of white evangelicals when the tradition was famous for sober good sense? Its most characteristic modern figure was Billy Graham, a towering and almost universally loved figure in modern American history.
Graham was a social, political and religious conservative, but he was an intelligent, mainstream conservative whose religious convictions always came before his political ideology. He upset some southern churches by his insistence, right from the start of his ministry, that his audiences would never be racially segregated.
The QAnon insanity has a good deal of overlap with even more preposterous conspiracy theories around the Lizard Illuminati, the idea that alien lizards take the shape of humans and exert malign control.
From the start of his presidential campaign, Trump took the view that he would never denounce or even seriously criticise any group that strongly supported him. He never exerted an ounce of moral leadership against extremists who supported him. QAnon, whose multiple insanities led to significant real-world violence as the poor souls it duped took direct action against designated enemies, stridently supports Trump.
Trump never formally endorsed QAnon, but he wouldn’t denounce it and described QAnon’s adherents as “people who love America”.
Four years of this kind of wink-and-nod approval for extreme right-wing and conspiracy madness from Trump effectively authorised this stuff and helped it enter the bloodstream of evangelicals. Trump himself is neither racist nor anti-Semitic, but he authorised groups that did hold such repugnant views.
Conservative Christians were right to be sceptical of much news interpretation in The New York Times or on CNN. So they turned to internet sources. They had embraced Trump as their leader and the lack of any word of opposition to the extremist nuts from Trump greatly enhanced the fraudulent legitimacy of this madness.
The worst moment, at which many evangelical Christian leaders turned decisively against Trump, was the January 6 invasion of Capitol Hill. There were signs that read “Jesus saves” next to signs calling for the hanging of vice-president Mike Pence, who had refused Trump’s unconstitutional demand that he not certify electoral college votes that ratified the election win of Joe Biden. Some demonstrators who stormed the Capitol stopped to say a prayer of thanks for the opportunity to smash their opponents.
Jeremiah Johnson, an extremely conservative evangelical who believed in the gift of prophecy, apologised for prophesying that Trump would be re-elected and denounced the Capitol Hill invasion. He was overwhelmed by swarms of abuse and online threats from Trump supporters.
A more substantial theological voice, Russell Moore, a thoroughgoing conservative who had been president of the Southern Baptist Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, wrote: “This week we watched an insurrection of domestic terrorists, incited and fomented by the President of the United States. If you can defend this, you can defend anything.”
Moore spoke of the trauma of the Trump years for evangelicals. He accepted the legitimacy of voting for Trump but rejected many of Trump’s specific actions and words. As a result he suffered “psychological terrorism”.
Trump did some good things for the Christian constituency, things that were very good in themselves. He tasked the State Department to campaign for religious freedom, he established a White House office to make sure religious groups were not excluded from government social-policy formation and implementation. He appointed Supreme Court judges who would not restrict religious freedom. He supported the pro-life movement. But he lied relentlessly, he never displayed any grace in public life. He was never kind to a critic. He wouldn’t de-authorise extremists, unlike previous Republican leaders. Wehner argues that Trump embodies a “Nietzschean morality rather than a Christian morality”.
This is evident in the truculent, verbal abuse Trump directed at all his critics and even former close colleagues he fell out with. So Rex Tillerson, whom Trump appointed as secretary of state but later sacked, went from being brilliant and great, in Trump’s words, to “dumb as a brick and lazy as hell”. Christianity teaches its followers to love their enemies. But in glorying in Trump’s defiance of the left, some evangelicals imbibed some of Trump’s sneering, contemptuous, destructive manner. Moore reported that he did not know a single evangelical family that had not been divided by Trump.
It is important to recognise that madness begets madness. The madness of some of the right is a long-delayed response to the growing madness on the left. Evangelicals first decided to support Trump in 2016 because they saw their society and its politics going crazy and they wanted to oppose this. One of Trump’s attractions was that he was a fighter. But being a no-holds-barred fighter is not sufficient to be an effective political leader, much less an effective agent of cultural change, still less the kind of cultural rebuilding most Christians think is necessary.
I have often written on the growing madness on the left. The thing is you expect madness and extremism on the progressive left, increasingly unmoored from reality and common sense. You don’t expect it from Christians.
Let me offer you two examples of left madness. A psychiatrist, Aruna Khilanani, lectured recently at Yale. Her speech was a racist diatribe of hatred of white people. She said in part: “I had fantasies of unloading a revolver into the head of any white person that got in my way, burying their body, and wiping my bloody hands as I walked away relatively guiltless with a bounce in my step. Like I did the world a f…ing favour.” And: “White people are out of their minds …” Whites are, she said, “demented violent predators”. Talking to white people was a waste of time because that “assumes that white people can see and process what we are talking about”.
It took a lot of conservative agitation for institutions even to distance themselves from these remarks. Naturally their author suffered no sanction. Similarly, last year a Cambridge academic tweeted that “white lives don’t matter”. She said she was making a point about race rather than urging murder. Nor is it likely that whites will be systematically persecuted in the US or Britain.
But this kind of talk from the left, which is extremely common though seldom to such an acute degree, is hateful, foul and vile. It is designed to cause racial hostility. Even if white evangelicals do not, as frequently alleged, feel racially threatened, they certainly think the indulgence of such statements indicates a culture and a polity going mad and bad. The problem is, the best response to madness is not madness; you can’t beat madness with more and angrier madness.
The evangelicals are one of the most important buttresses of Christianity in the West. They are important even geo-strategically because they have been a force for stability and regeneration in US politics. They were the decisive vote for Ronald Reagan. Reagan didn’t stop the leftward drift of culture. But with Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II, he won the Cold War and liberated tens of millions of people from communism. He restored American self-confidence. His courtesy, geniality and civility in all circumstances were a byword of presidential behaviour.
American evangelicals have a distinctive history. You can trace their roots through American Protestantism from the earliest days. They believe in the absolute authority of the Bible, the need to be born again or experience personal conversion, the need to be an active Christian, both socially active and active in proclaiming Christianity, and at the centre of their theology is the crucified Christ.
Protestant America was divided in the early part of the 20th century by modernism in theology and biblical studies and the fundamentalist reaction it provoked. Evangelicals offered a middle way, which came together in the years after World War II. They believed in the inerrancy of the Bible, but they did not need to interpret the creation story of Genesis literally.
Indeed, in recent decades much of the most important and academically impressive scholarship reclaiming the historicity of the New Testament especially, has been carried out by sophisticated evangelical scholars.
Graham popularised the term evangelical. As well as being an early opponent of segregation, Graham was an early promoter of Christian unity. Northern Ireland’s fundamentalist leader Ian Paisley wrote a book denouncing Graham for his friendship with Catholic popes.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, American evangelicals became overtly political. Under Jerry Falwell, the Moral Majority, animated particularly by social issues, swung solidly into the Republican camp. But it may be that they did too much politics for the good of their core religious purposes.
Steve McAlpine, a Perth pastor who has written an absorbing book, Being the Bad Guys, on how popular culture has turned against Christians, argues that evangelicals fell for a characteristic falsehood of modern America – they put too much faith in politics: “Politics is the mechanism in which everything must occur, even transcendence.”
Over-interpreting politics can lead to theological problems. A minority of evangelicals go in for prophecy and the highly risky business of interpreting biblical prophecies as evident in current events. It’s presumptuous, to say the least, for any Christian to think they are so gifted that they can interpret the troubles of today, the troubles of Trump, to prove that we are in the last stages of “End Times”.
Christian historian John Dickson, author of Bullies and Saints, an examination of Christianity’s moral triumphs and moral failures, tells Inquirer: “I despise the tradition in America where pastors declare their support for one party or one candidate. It’s lovely we’ve avoided that in Australia.”
American evangelicals confront a lot of troubles at the moment, though it would be folly to count them out. A disturbing number of evangelical leaders have been recently caught up in sex scandals. Evangelicals, though they voted for Trump, are now bitterly divided over this. Young evangelicals, turned off by the style of Trump-era politics, are dropping out.
But evangelicals are inherently a reform movement. The most likely thing is that they will dust themselves off, sort themselves out, come back to a more sustainable balance between politics and spirituality, and emerge stronger.
But that prediction is based on the longest historical experience. Right now, the auguries are immensely troubling. Tim Keller, founder of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York and one of the most brilliant and important Christian writers, observed in 2017: “Evangelical used to denote people who claimed the moral high ground. Now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with hypocrite.”
Christians, in the US and the West generally, are confronted with a culture going mad and becoming more hostile to them. But they must answer the madness with calm conviction and even kindness. They need to fight some of the culture wars but should choose their battles carefully. They should be happy warriors, even kindly warriors.
There are three wrong ways for Christians to respond to a culture going mad: go to total war with it; surrender to it totally, thereby offering no ethical challenge; or retreat from it into a tight ghetto. The right path is different: continued engagement with the culture, insistence on proclaiming the truth, but taking victory and defeat both with good cheer. Politics is downstream of culture. Politics is important, but it can’t fix culture. Human example, creative institutions, sustained formation – these can change culture.
In all the circumstances, and given the available choices, voting for Trump was not unreasonable. Idealising him, seeing him as a cultural saviour, learning to hate all his enemies, letting something of his abusive, spiteful spirit seep into your being, that was a terrible mistake.
The world cannot afford to lose everything evangelicals contribute. The Acts of the Apostles describes how a Christian church should look: “… they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the goodwill of all the people”.