By Bill Mefford
A recent post by Nate Silver’s group, 538, describes how young, white evangelicals are questioning their parents’ loyalty to donald trump since over 70% of older, white evangelicals approve of donald trump and who consider him to be the greatest defender of their faith. They are questioning the enmeshment of their faith in partisan politics and the article suggests that could weaken the very tight grip trump has on evangelicals.
Many people, myself included, are given hope from this study, if only for the sole reason that young, white evangelicals are seeing the sinfulness of their parents’ abdication of a biblically-formed concern for the poor and oppressed. But before we get too happy over some slight cracks in the base of the evangelical movement we would do well to remember that evangelicalism has proven itself a powerful and resilient political movement over the years. Indeed, it is a movement that must be confronted politically with greater power than they wield.
We should also realize that evangelicalism as a spiritual movement has completely detached itself from its biblical moorings and this has been generations in the making. The Abolitionists in the 1830s right up to the Civil War were mostly comprised of revivalistic evangelicals, rightfully emphasizing both individual and social holiness. I wholeheartedly concur with their assertion that one form of holiness is hollow and useless without the other. 19th Century evangelicals believed God loved the individual while at the same time believing that the systems and structures in society must be redeemed as well. Preserving the essential dignity of all people, especially the poor and oppressed, was core to their Christian praxis.
But after the Civil War, from 1865 to the 1920s, a metamorphosis happened. Many evangelicals increasingly embraced a one-sided gospel; a gospel powerful enough to save the individual, but weak enough to run away from redemptive social and political engagement. Evangelicals’ rejection of the Social Gospel and liberalism in general perverted their own theological understanding so that by the 1970s, when white evangelicals were becoming increasingly more politically engaged, they did so for their own benefit. This occurred because their theology had been so skewed by their rejection of liberalism. Ever since this time there has been little that has been redemptive regarding their political activism.
For example, many evangelicals like to talk about how the Roe v. Wade decision mobilized them to become politically involved, but that is simply inaccurate. There was outrage about Roe v. Wade at the time of the decision, but this was mostly from Catholics and members of the conservative fringe. Heck, the Southern Baptist Convention’s media outlet ran an op-ed shortly after the decision was handed down stating, “Religious liberty, human equality and justice are advanced by the Supreme Court abortion decision.”
No, abortion was not a political issue for white evangelicals until 1979. Their primary concern in the mid-1970s was protecting the tax-exempt status of their private schools, most of which started in the early 1970s. And why did so many white evangelical churches start private schools at that time? Desegregation. Yes, the roots of the modern evangelical movement are steeped in racism and social detachment. And yes, this is sinful.
Thus, it is not surprising that some younger, white evangelicals are seeing the full embrace of donald trump by their parents and opting to rethink their political loyalties. Evangelicalism’s willingness to ignore if not even welcome trump’s blatant racism, xenophobia, and misogyny has backfired and turned off their evangelical children (and most of everyone else!).
So, what are liberationists and progressives to do at this news? There will be some – mostly DC-based organizations – who will advise progressives and liberationists to soften our views so that they can appeal to the more middle-of-the-road evangelicals who are having second thoughts about supporting trump, but this is more DC stupidity. We should simply be who we are. An end to mass incarceration, a ban on assault weapons (“Hell yes, we are going to take your AR 15 and AK 47!”), the legalization of all undocumented immigrants, equal pay for women, full and equal rights for LGBTQ people, protection of transgender people, universal healthcare, etc. We should be who we are.
More than disliking the utter hypocrisy and inhumanity of the evangelicals and their love affair with trump, evangelicals and the public in general – young and old alike – love authenticity and passion. No need to water down what we believe. We should live out what we believe. Our movement will be best served if we don’t try and be popular, but if just be who we are.