The Leader of the Evangelical Movement

By Bill Mefford

A lot has been made about the support of donald trump by white evangelical “Christians,” whom I will refer to in this post, for the sake of brevity, simply as evangelicals. They, in fact, are probably the most solid part of trump’s base and that has shown little erosion.

There is shock among a lot of political pundits as to his popularity among evangelicals. They wonder aloud how a thrice married, incredibly affluent, self-centered playboy who has bragged about sexual assault - quite the opposite of the biblical Jesus - could have the support of evangelicals, who themselves have long been credited (falsely) by the media as being the religious demographic most committed to their faith. 

But as someone who came out of evangelicalism – an experience in my history that I still cherish in many ways – I can say that when it comes to religious issues, the media has once again missed the mark. Not only does it make sense that trump is popular among evangelicals; trump is actually the perfect example of who evangelicals are. trump is the new leader of the evangelical movement. 

Sociologist Christian Smith came up with the best definition (Christian America, 2000) of who evangelicals are when he first said that evangelicals were defined as:

  • Reading and understanding the Bible in a (mostly) literal way,
  • Engaging in evangelism towards unbelievers, and
  • Identifying an experience of having been born again by the Holy Spirit.

I am not nullifying Smith’s definition here as much as I am adding to it. Evangelicalism has become much more of a public and political movement, which is not a bad thing. In fact, Jesus calls all who follow him to engage in political advocacy and organizing. However, the kind of political advocacy and organizing trump and his evangelical movement engage in can hardly be described as redemptive.  

Now, before I proceed any further I will go ahead and say that there are exceptions to the points I am making below. Hell, I know and love many of the exceptions myself (which is why I love them!). But that does not mean that what I am pointing out below is without basis. Quite the opposite, if we can point out exceptions then we are stating that there is some kind of a standard in place. Further, the more they differentiate themselves from what evangelicalism is and has become, the less evangelical they truly are. And that is the point. Sometimes we must ignore the trees to better see the forest. And that is what I am doing here.

The overriding distinguishing characteristic for evangelicals is their individualism. It is an individualism born out of the Enlightenment that evangelicals originally fought against, but have since embraced, and that now shapes every aspect of belief and practice for evangelicals: their Christology, their theology, their biblical exegesis, their missiological engagement (the world will be "won" one soul at a time), and their entire ecclesiology. Everything is shaped by their individualism. 

Evangelicals have been so formed by their emphasis on individualism that their theology has been greatly skewed as a result. Several years ago Rodney Clapp (A Peculiar People, 1996) pointed out that making individual salvation the focus of Jesus' mission on earth has forced evangelicals to ignore enormous portions of Scripture. 

This is evident when evangelical pastor, Bill Hybels, said in a recent interview that though he began his ministry in the mid-70s, it wan't until just a few years ago that he discovered the Bible's focus on caring for immigrants. Can someone tell me exactly what Bible was he reading the first 40 years of his ministry? Welcoming the sojourner and loving people who are vulnerable and are being mistreated are not isolated or obscure verses in Scripture; they are themes that run throughout the entirety of the Bible. Yet somehow, for 40 years Rev. Hybels did not pick up on these themes until the last few years, when, it just so happens, funders made the mobilization of evangelicals for immigration reform of great importance.

When the reading of Scripture is done through the prism of individualism, then we are driven to find messages that focus on the welfare of the individual. This can and does often result in a message that avoids repentance or a missional call to sacrificially care for the rest of society, particularly the vulnerable. Instead, the gospel is something that is reduced to "good news," a message that seeks to comfort and soothe the individual listener. Gone are the prophetic calls to repent from deeply entrenched sins of racism, misogyny, consumerism, militarism, or greed. Gone is the call to work for the general good, to challenge the systems and structures that oppress and marginalize the poor. And in its place comes the gospel of therapy; making you a better you. 

The two salvific stories from the four gospels that should be most appropriate for predominantly white, middle-class, evangelical audiences in the most powerful nation in the history of the world are:

  • the Rich Young Ruler who declined his invitation to follow Jesus out of his love for his possessions and social position, (found in all four gospels) and
  • Zacchaeus who did accept Jesus invitation for discipleship and repaid all the people he stole from twice as much as what he was required by law (found in Luke's gospel).

These biblical stories tell of the transformative power of Jesus and the calling on Jesus' followers - especially those from the upper echelons of society - to join the mission of changing the world as an essential part, not only of our discipleship, but of our very salvation.

But I challenge you to find evangelical churches that appropriately exegete these passages on any kind of regular basis for their congregants. Instead, the biblical messages that characterize most evangelical churches come from Paul's letters, especially his letter to the people in Rome. This is striking because it is this letter - different from all of his other letters - that Paul writes to people he does not know. He wants to come and visit them, but he does not yet have a relationship with them. Therefore, this is Paul's most theoretical and detached letter. This letter, more than any other, is far less relational. It is, in a word, the most individualistic. Therefore, it is a favorite for evangelical audiences. 

I go in-depth in this part of the discussion to lay the groundwork that individualism is what is most meaningful for evangelicals. It is far more characteristic of who evangelicals are than their professions of fidelity to Scripture, which they like to mention often. Indeed, individualism is something rarely mentioned because it is like the air we breathe - hardly ever talked about, but always there, shaping every thought, belief, action, and statement. But yet individualism is what connects trump with evangelicals when trump takes his brand of individualism to an extreme. 

When individualism is taken to its farthest end, as trump does, it becomes self-consumption, and even narcissism. trump is virtually incapable of recognizing or appreciating how something impacts someone else; only how it impacts him. Yet, this resonates with the skewed individualism that pervades evangelical biblical interpretation as pointed out above.

When trump visited Puerto Rico just days after a hurricane had devastated the island, they still had not found the hundreds of bodies of those who were missing so the "body count" was still relatively low. For trump, the low number of people killed was something to brag about. There was no concern for the families of those who were killed. There was little concern, if any at all, for the fact that 95% of the island had no electricity (and one third of the island to this day still has no power). trump decides what is most needed - after he practices his jump shot with rolls of towels to amazed Puerto Ricans - is to host his own trump love-in. He convened all the officials (first stopping them from doing the more necessary work of serving their fellow Puerto Ticans) around a table in front of the news cameras and then called on each of those gathered - except for the Mayor of San Juan who was the only person to stand up to him - on how good a job trump was doing. 

This was an obscene picture of a man so craved for attention that he insists on making himself the focus all the while island residents are struggling to find drinking water as well as their loved ones who likely have perished. 

Now, many will say that they cannot fathom evangelicals so morosely self-consumed that they would make themselves the center of attention in the midst of such need. I disagree. Let me share one example that is all too often emblematic when it comes to evangelical missiological engagement. 

Back in the late 1990s I worked in an urban ministry in Texas and one of my responsibilities was to schedule visiting church groups - all from evangelical churches - for short-term mission trips to our low-income neighborhood. Though I started this job with the hope of seeing people who came on these trips experience a transformational rebirth towards social responsibility and political engagement, it took all of one summer for those hopes to be dashed in the reality that short-term mission trips were more trip than mission. The highest concern for every group I dealt with in my over three years of working there - without exception - was the welfare of the visiting groups rather than the welfare of our neighborhood residents.

I remember after one week where the group spent their time doing some repair work as well as Vacation Bible schools for neighborhood kids, I talked with a youth pastor who was feeling down. When I asked him if he had a good week he said it was alright, but he had been hoping for more "decisions." When I asked him what he meant he said he wished more of his kids could have led more neighborhood kids to believe in Christ. He hoped for this because of the experience his kids could have had.

Now get this, he was sad not because more neighborhood kids did not come to know Jesus (though I had some major reservations about some of the "decisions" visiting groups claimed our neighborhood kids made); instead, he was sad because he felt his kids were deprived of an experience he'd hoped they would have had. We were sitting in one of the poorest and most under-resourced neighborhoods in the state of Texas and he was calling his kids "deprived." 

For trump and his evangelical movement, the poor are merely objects to be used for their own benefit and self-actualization. 

This kind of radical individualism leads to such feelings of self-pity and self-importance that critique or challenge is perceived as persecution. trump is constantly calling anyone who disagrees with him "fake news," a term he calls all media except for the propagandist Fox "News." Again, we are tempted to assert that trump's narcissistic belief that all people who disagree with him are in reality him being "treated badly" (which he has claimed since the earliest days of his campaign) is confined to just trump. Again, I disagree. 

I remember when I started working for a liberal agency of the United Methodist Church I tried to build bridges with evangelical United Methodists since I attended a conservative seminary and had at one time been very engaged in evangelicalism myself. I met with leaders of conservative evangelical groups like Good News (and others) to see if there were issues or projects that we could work on together.

I remember one conversation in particular with an evangelical leader who told me that the reason why he could not work with me or the liberal agency I worked for at the time was because many years before he and a group of other evangelical leaders had tried to find common ground and they were ignored by the liberals in charge of the institution. He literally told me that it really hurt his feelings. Thus, the chasm that exists in the United Methodist church and the hurt that has been done to so many people as a result of this chasm has not been mended because a long time ago some evangelical guys once got their feelings hurt. 

There is a false sense of victimization on the part of trump and his evangelical movement that believes they are being targeted by large, mostly unseen forces that are out to destroy them. Thus, when Starbucks comes out with a seasonal promotion for their coffee, it is read as a part of the "War on Christmas" rather than just some artwork they annually do for a coffee cup. This is delusional, but trump and his evangelical followers love to get a lot of mileage out of it.

And in the absolutist worldview of evangelicals, when trump tweets that he no longer will allow transgender people to serve in the military, it is a tweet without any power, as we have seen with the military's all but open refusal to implement it. But that wasn't the point. The point of trump's tweet was that trump wanted to score points by demonizing transgender people. And who takes delight when transgender people are dehumanized? Evangelicals. And they do so because they have identified LGBTQ people as the greatest persecutors to Christianity today.

Somehow, when people of the same gender marry it tears a part the institution of marriage. Never mind that the divorce rate of evangelicals matches the rate by the rest of society. It's gay people who are tearing marriage a part. 

The world is persecuting trump and the world is persecuting evangelicals because they are one and the same. 

This is why he is their leader. This is why evangelicals do not hold trump accountable for his obscene wealth, or his refusal to pay people who worked for him, or his profiteering from tax laws written to punish the poor and reward the rich, or the numerous and well-documented allegations of sexual assault made against him and of which he has bragged about, or his attacks on immigrants and Muslims, or his bullying of people who disagree with him, or his insecurity in the face of strong women. These actions have never been of much importance for evangelicals when it comes to issues of faithfulness (though they certainly were and are important to Jesus).

Instead, trump and evangelicals share the same lens through which they see life. They have the same worldview; a worldview that frames everything in absolutist terms (everyone and everything against me) and that intentionally ignores the complexity or nuance around social, economic, or political issues. He cares only about the world as it impacts him. 

All of this is what makes him evangelical.

Evangelizing for evangelicals is no longer about someone becoming infused by the Holy Spirit so that their most basic allegiances and loyalties - their worldviews - are transformed into the likeness of Jesus who himself was completely other-focused. Evangelizing someone to evangelicalism is making someone like me. I, as an evangelical, am at the center of my beliefs, my actions, my world. trump is not just an evangelical; trump is THE evangelical. It is his now his movement. 

Though it is hard to say this at the end of such a post, my aim here was not to bash evangelicals, though I do hope that given the undeserved political and public power ascribed to them that we are more successful in our aims than they are in theirs. We who follow the biblical Jesus and care for the poor and marginalized must do all we can to build grassroots movements of power that effectively defend the oppressed and care for the oppressed and neglected and in so doing this means we must demythologize evangelicals. Though evangelicals want to keep biblical promises for themselves we must work to see that Scriptural truths are manifest in our corporate life as a church established to exhibit exactly what evangelicalism is not: the Body of Christ in mission to and with the world. 

My aim here has been simply to point out that we can no longer equate "evangelical" with "Christian." Just as ":progressive" does not automatically mean "Christian," neither should evangelical. Indeed, evangelical is just another somewhat murky word that is as aligned with historical and biblical Christianity as trump is aligned with the teachings of Jesus.

Meaning, there is no relationship at all. 

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