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Trump and Evangelicals

Peter Wehner's recent article "The Cost of the Evangelical Betrayal" (The Atlantic) has the following subtitle: "White, conservative Christians who set aside the tenets of their faith to support Donald Trump are now left with little to show for it."

The usual way of reading this 'betrayal' is that white Evangelicals set aside their religious convictions to vote for Trump because he was the guy who was going to support their political agenda. Trump, so it would seem, embodies virtually everything that Evangelicals say they are against. But the real question is: "who has betrayed whom?"

I think Trump is exactly like so many Evangelicals I know. He will do anything necessary to get and to keep power. So will they. The idea that Evangelicals support Trump despite his continual lying, support of dictators, racism, and willingness to pay off anyone who has 'dirt' on him is misleading. These are qualities that Evangelicals admire.

Wehner, a self-described Evangelical, writes: "Much of the evangelical movement, in aligning itself with Donald Trump, has shown itself to be graceless and joyless, seized by fear, hypocritical, censorious, and filled with grievances." He goes on to give some qualifiers to that statement, such as "it's not true of all evangelicals who are Trump supporters." But I think it's much truer than Wehner himself wants to admit. I realize that such an admission is painful. But this is the reality.

Toward the end of his article, Wehner quotes an unnamed pastor of a large church on the 'Pacific Coast'. That pastor says that "for decades Hollywood has portrayed conservative Christians as cruel, ignorant, greedy, and hypocritical. For 20 years I have worked, led, and have sacrificed to put the lie to that stereotype."

What he says next, though, sums it all up. "Sadly, I now realize that stereotype is more true than I ever knew. It breaks my heart. . .  . [Trump's] everything that I've been trying to say isn't what the church is all about. But, sadly, maybe it is." I would simply remove the term 'maybe'.

The reality is that Evangelicals have shown their true colours. I grew up in the Evangelical world and my own experience is that the Evangelical institutions are largely motivated by fear. They are petty, hypocritical, and suspicious of any actual difference. They may talk about being open, diverse, and welcoming. But the pressures of conformity for anyone who is 'different' are enormous.

Wehner writes "Trump has engaged in a bromance with North Korea's Kim Jong Un, the worst persecutor of Christians in the world." Were American Evangelicals really concerned about Christians being persecuted in some other part of the world--except, perhaps, as an instance of the kind of persecution that they are convinced they receive in the United States--that might mean something. 

But Evangelicals admire dictators and their institutions tend to be run as quasi-dictatorships. They are highly top-down organizations which have various kinds of standards those in the institution are expected to follow. At almost all Evangelical schools, there are doctrinal statements. But, at some point, you begin to understand that there are many other things outside the doctrinal statements that are forbidden to believe.

Unfortunately, you often discover these precisely when it is too late--you have already something that is not allowed. Years ago, the philosophy department at Wheaton had invited someone to speak in chapel. But, once the president of the school heard about the invitation, the department had to 'uninvite' him because his views--in no way contrary to the official doctrinal statement--were contrary to the unofficial doctrinal statement.

That was during an era in which the president of the school officially said--I am the person who defines what the doctrinal statement means. I believe he said--a little more exactly--the board of trustees and I define what it means. But, given that the board of trustees was largely composed of people whose experience and training is in the business world, the president was really the person who 'decided'.

I think I may have previously mentioned that the provost, Stan Jones, who had absolutely zero formal theological training, assumed that he knew much more about the Bible and theology than any of the people who had PhDs in such subjects. I also discovered that he assumed he knew far more about philosophy than did I. How does one argue with someone who both thinks he knows more than you do but in reality knows very little? When I say 'argue' I don't mean 'disagree', I mean debate something that each of you is competent to debate.

It is no surprise that younger people find very little attractive in many of the kinds of Christianity they see on display. That is certainly true of the Evangelical world, which is rife with scandals. But Roman Catholics have had to deal with continuing scandals regarding abuse of children. As a Belgian friend of mine put it, "we trusted the church to provide a moral example for our childen and they betrayed us." No surprise that Catholic churches in Belgium are largely empty.

White Evangelicals in the United States do not support Trump despite him being racist but because of it. Did you notice any black faces in the photo? Of course not. Evangelicals were among those who attacked Obama for being a 'foreigner' or a Muslim. But their racism goes much deeper. I wish there were some way to say that "it's not really so bad." But it is.

One way of seeing that reality is by trying to imagine the phrase "Black Evangelicals." It sounds very strange. I can still remember a black woman theologian saying to me "I didn't realize that Evangelicals largely believe what we believe regarding Christianity."

But that wasn't quite true. Aside from agreeing that Jesus is Lord and Saviour, white Evangelicals also believe that black people need to know their place. And stay there. Gay people need to know their place too, though the reality is that, as a white male, my place is not nearly as precarious.

In the Evangelical world, everything is fine as long as you talk like a white, cis-gendered male. The moment you start talking like a Puerto Rican or African-American, or Asian-American, you are suspect. If you are one of those combined with being trans or gay, you are utterly excluded from the conversation.

Let me be quite precise. There is a certain way of thinking and acting expected in the Evangelical world. You can be accepted as a black woman, as long as you talk like a white Evangelical man. The moment you deviate from the script is the moment that you come under suspicion.

That is how racism in the white, American Evangelical world works. Evangelical colleges love to boast about the number of 'minority' faculty members they have. But those faculty members need to know their place. And stay there.


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