At Wheaton College last week, 50 diverse leaders of evangelical institutions gathered to discuss the future of a movement that has, in its own imagination, tried to hold a spacious middle ground in American public life.
Since an unprecedented 81 percent of Americans who self-identify as white evangelical voted for Donald Trump, that imagined middle has been called into question. A new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, also published last week, found 75 percent of white evangelicals maintain a favorable view of the President, even as Trump’s favorability among the general population hovers around 42 percent. So how did our imagined middle ground become an extreme right wing in America’s public life?
Katelyn Beaty, a Christianity Today editor who participated in the closed meetings, reported that prominent evangelical pastor and author from New York City, the Rev. Tim Keller, offered an answer that is commonplace among white evangelicals who worry that Donald Trump and Fox News have tarnished their image. “As the country has become more polarized, the church has become more polarized, and that’s because the church is not different enough from America or from modernity.” The trouble, this argument seems to say, is that evangelicals have not been evangelized enough. Tempted by the divisive culture out there, we have capitulated to the sins of the left or the right, depending on our social location.
But if this were true, you would expect to find evangelical extremists on both the left and the right in American politics. The numbers, however, do not lie: white evangelicalism has long been a reliable base for the extreme right in America. Trump knew this when he began giving interviews on Christian television while considering a 2012 presidential bid. Without white evangelicals, there would be no President Trump.
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Scholars like Brantley Gassaway and David Schwartz have long pointed out that dissenters from this alliance with conservative politics have long been a “moral minority” within white evangelicalism. Though organizations like Sojourners and Evangelicals for Social Action tried to hold together a personal relationship with Jesus, a pro-life ethic, and concern for public justice, their infrastructure was far out-sized by the network of radio stations, publications, Bible colleges and churches that framed Christian public witness as the struggle of an embattled faithful minority against secular liberal forces. Though many of these institutions were not explicitly political – and thus often did not seem to promote extreme political positions – they were widely supported by people who knew their politics would not challenge the established balance of power.
One thing, however, did challenge that balance: the election of Barack Obama. In 2008, the Southern Strategy that had locked up the South for Republican presidential candidates for four decades was cracked open in Virginia, North Carolina and Florida by a coalition of black, white and brown voters who did not simply vote for the candidate who claimed to oppose abortion. The backlash was immediate. From Tea Party activism to voter suppression measures in 23 states, a well-funded movement emerged to resist the demographic trends that threatened to end Republican control of the former Confederate states and, by virtue of Constitutional compromises in the 18th century, much of the federal government.
As a person who was raised and educated in the white evangelical movement, I know well how entrenched our conversation about politics has been in the story of left versus right, liberal versus conservative. Just last week, I was on Christian talk radio with a host who told me that we cannot trust polls of the American public on any issue because we are all subject to the bias of the “liberal media.” But I can no longer accept the evangelical rejection of “both sides” in favor of a “biblical perspective” that is supposedly untarnished by the world.
The sad reality is that we chose a side in the 19th century and our movement is still infected by the slaveholder religion that was funded by plantation owners. That faith did not go away after the Civil War; it doubled-down and prayed for “redemption” from Reconstruction. And it rejoiced when white supremacy campaigns across the South regained power and established Jim Crow segregation. Mid-20th century, when the balance of power was again challenged by America’s civil rights movement, slaveholder religion reasserted itself, criticizing Dr. King for “politicizing” the gospel and favoring “law and order” candidates over those who sought to use the power of government to change systems that perpetuated inequality. The Southern Strategy aimed to harness slaveholder religion by creating a Moral Majority that would feel righteous for their support of the status quo.
Donald Trump did not create the crisis we now face, but his presidency is exposing the truth about who we are as evangelicals – not a movement divided between left and right, but a people of faith who must now choose between slaveholder religion and the Christianity of Christ. While there is no place to go that is pure and free from slaveholder religion’s influence, we can begin by acknowledging that many of our black and brown sisters and brothers have long seen through the lies of power and so-called privilege to the liberating way of Jesus. If we are willing, we can follow their lead to freedom.
Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is the author of “Reconstructing the Gospel: Finding Freedom From Slaveholder Religion.” He directs the School for Conversion in Durham's Walltown neighborhood.