Trump and the Practical Apostasy of Evangelicalism

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I am saddened and angered by a sense of betrayal. Betrayal on a number of fronts, but especially from conservative Evangelicals.

Before going on with some of the hard things I’m going to say here, let me qualify myself some. There are Evangelicals I love and respect. I know not all Evangelicals fall prey to the chronic problems in Evangelicalism I will be criticizing. Further, every camp has its own blind spots, including my own. Yet Evangelicalism at large is riddled with problems, and their support of President Trump has exposed many of them like nothing I have seen before.

My background is Evangelical, so I have a long and close connection to these people. I grew up under the influence of Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Rush Limbaugh, and Billy Graham. I know that world intimately. As a homeschooler and then Bible college graduate, my whole life and identity was once wrapped up in that subculture.

But for some time now and for a variety of reasons I have moved away from Evangelicalism. I came to disagree with a lot of its common stances: for example, its rejection of critical Biblical scholarship, suspicion of mainstream science, misrepresentation of history, opposition to LGBTQ rights and identities, complicity with racism, promotion of patriarchy, glorification of violence, unbridled capitalism, antipathy toward pluralism, denialism over climate change, anti-intellectualism, legalism, cultish acquiescence to authority figures, tendency to conflate the gospel with American civil religion, and so on.

But beyond disagreements with specific claims, I also came to oppose what I see as Evangelicalism’s pervasively wrongheaded spirit and priorities. As a rule, I find it anti-intellectual and narrow in loving; emphasizing dogma over evidence, power over love, exclusion over inclusion, security over justice, and entrepreneurship over authenticity.

I’ve had a lot of flashpoints of pain as Evangelicalism and I have gone more and more our separate ways. I remember when 19,000 Evangelicals would literally rather children starve then for World Vision to let married gay people work in their offices. I remember when a swath of Moody students and even a Moody professor attacked a black student group for speaking what should have been an obvious truth about racism in America. I remember these things and more.

But this election cycle and in particular the way white Evangelicals have largely supported Donald Trump has been the most painful unmasking to me of hypocrisy and moral corruption within Evangelicalism.

There is overwhelming evidence that the Bible is fallible (for example, see Sparks or Stark). This does not necessarily undercut it serving as an authority for Christians alongside others such as reason, experience, science, or the fresh leading of the Spirit. My study of both the Bible itself and religion more generally indicates to me that love is at the center of authentic spirituality.

Love is God’s primary attribute and, redeemed and empowered by His love, our primary duty is to love God and love others. This is the central message of Jesus and the Bible. The world religions disagree on many things, but most agree that the Highest Ultimate is primarily loving, good, or blissful and that we are to treat others as we would want to be treated. Such notions are backed up by the phenomenology of religious experience, miracles, and our ethical intuitions.

But because Evangelicals refuse to accept this, they make the Bible into an idol and act in ways that are profoundly unloving.

For example, because of a handful of texts that condemn homosexuality, they treat LGBTQ people in ways that can only be described as hateful.

They mock them and condemn them. They compare their most intimate relationships to pedophiles, sex with animals, pollution, rape, and murder. They isolate them, suspect them, and treat them with revulsion (even those who are trying to follow their rules). They claim natural disasters, terrorist attacks, or AIDS are God’s judgment for our “wicked” acceptance them.

Many Evangelicals insist that not only is their love wrong, but even their unchosen attractions and indeed their sexual or gender identities are as well. Contrary to science and experience, they insist they chose this and can change it. Some of them force their children to go through the torture of “conversion therapy.” Others literally try to cast out the “demon” of homosexuality. Some kick their children out of their homes to the streets, or speak from their bully pulpits about the necessity of doing so -“turning their children over to Satan,” as it were.

They buy into debunked theories about what causes gayness: a distant father or overbearing mother, for example. They offer quack “treatments” to “fix” it, such as exercises to find their supposedly suppressed “inner” masculinity or femininity. As indicated above, other “treatments” such as shock therapy are not so mild.

They do this in spite of crystal-clear evidence of how important relationships are to our well-being – how fundamentally we are wired for that – and how unaccepting environments drastically elevate LGBTQ persons’ susceptibility to depression and suicide. They do it in spite of evidence that these people largely do not choose these identities and  in most cases cannot choose to be otherwise (though they can choose to act in non-conformity with them). They simply refuse to listen to LGBTQ folk when they try to explain these things or share about their experiences.

In recent years, this hostility toward gay and trans people has become a hallmark of their identity and one of their top political priorities. This, apparently, is the line they are willing to die on. Not caring for strangers, widows, orphans, or the poor (even though the Bible has loads more to say about that.) Those things would be too costly and threatening. No, hatred toward gay and trans people is easier. That’s the name of the game.

They actively seek to bar gay and bisexual couples from being able to marry the person they love, with all the benefits that come with that. They seek to pass bills making it easier for LGBTQ folk to be fired or denied housing or medical care simply because they are gay, bisexual, or trans. Under the guise of religious freedom, they seek to pass bills that make it easier for businesses and colleges to discriminate against gay people. (I’ll admit some of the issues and specific cases related to this last point are more tricky and debatable than others.)

They seek to bar trans people from using the bathroom that marches their gender identity – which can endanger trans individuals and is a source of anxiety and shame. They spread statistically and scientifically misleading propaganda about LGBTQ people being sexual predators (or predators posing as such). They’ve done this for years.

Some on the fringes insist LGBTQ people ought to be castrated, imprisoned, or executed; something that was not so fringe until just recently (or even today in other countries like Uganda where Evangelicals have actively campaigned for such measures).

And to add insult to injury, they say they do all of these things because they love gay people. They’re just trying to save them from themselves. But as I’ve said, their only basis for saying this is their idolatry to a fallible human book.

Science and experience are unambiguous about what loving LGBTQ people as embodied creatures means. It means welcoming them, listening to them, celebrating them and their families, and standing up for their rights. Evangelical opposition to these things can only be called “love” if love is divorced from embodied flourishing – a sort of Gnosticism.

I have seen the Spirit working in powerful ways in my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans brothers and sisters. Many of them are quite evidently bearing the fruit of the Spirit. I can see the wholesomeness and goodness that comes from their partnerships and how they flourish in communities that treat them with respect.

Really this isn’t that difficult. And unlike other minority issues, granting LCBTQ rights doesn’t cost anything (outside of shedding an untenably ideology, which I realize can be painful). Evangelical hatred and willingness to sacrifice their LGBTQ sons and daughters to the idol of inerrancy is scandalous. It destroys lives and brings ill repute to the gospel.

And they voted for Trump precisely because of his promises to enact policies that would make life harder for gay, lesbian, bisexual, and trans individuals and families.

Based on idolatry to inerrancy, Evangelicals also often treat women in dehumanizing and unloving ways. In varying degrees, many of them accept the patriarchal norms of the Bible as God’s unalterable will.

I believe there is a minority thread within the Bible (particularly the New Testament) that is more egalitarian. Both men and women are said to be created in God’s image (Genesis  1:27). In places, women are celebrated as prophets, leaders, apostles, teachers, or deacons (Judges 4; 2 Kings 22:14; Romans 16:7; Acts 18:24; etc.). Jesus treated women with respect and let them learn and follow him alongside his male disciples (Luke 8:1-3; 10:38-42). This was radical for those times. Arguably Paul’s language of mutual submission and his command for husbands to love their wives (Ephesians 5:21-31 Colossians 3:18-19) in his version of the household codes  was meant to gently subvert Greco-Roman patriarchal norms.

Even just the logic of the New Testament’s pervasive love ethic would seem to imply egalitarianism when combined with what we know about history, sociology, and what women tell us about themselves.

But despite this minority thread, the Bible is predominately patriarchal. It teaches in many places that women are worth less than men and are essentially “owned” and controlled by them (see Coogan).

For example, fathers could sell their daughters as slaves ( Exodus 21:7) and were the ones to arrange their marriages . A woman’s vow could be nullified by her father or husband (Numbers 30:3-16). In the ten commandments, women are listed among other possessions men are told to not covet (Exodus 20:17). If a raped woman was not yet “given” to another man, her father might choose to give her to her rapist as a wife, provided they never divorced (Deuteronomy 22:28-29). Captive virgins could be forced to become wives (Numbers 31:15-18).

While the New Testament generally tries to soften and even arguably subvert this kind of patriarchal teaching, it doesn’t do away with it. It gives more explicit “proof texts” to Christians who take a hierarchical view of gender roles than ones who take an egalitarian one. Hierarchical views of women have been the norm throughout church history and they are the predominate ones today among conservative Christians.

For example, the authors of Ephesians and Colossians command wives to submit to their husbands (Ephesians 5:22-24; Colossians 3:18). The author of 2 Timothy prohibits women from teaching men and says they must learn from their husbands (2:11-13). He also implies that the reason for this is that women – like Eve – are more gullible; but that they will be saved if they maintain a traditional docile role epitomized by bearing children (2:14-15). The author of 1 Peter says that wives must submit to their husbands and consider them masters even if they are treating them “harshly” (1 Peter 3:1-6 cf 2:18-25)

Between this and Jesus’ prohibition on divorce, many abused women have been pressured to simply “grin and bear it.” Other texts that encourage reconciliation and forgiveness have been used to pressure victims of all stripes (women, children, etc.) to get back together with their abusers after a simple “I’m sorry.” Religious abusers manipulate this masterfully.

And since women are excluded from leadership, men have the inside track in credibility and in setting the agenda of what issues are on the front burner. It’s no coincidence, for example, that spousal abuse and marital rape were not taken seriously until the second wave feminist revolution of the 60s and 70s, with women gaining more representation for the issues that concerned them.

I could spend a lot of time detailing how much damage these kinds of teachings have done: to women I know, to policies and social norms, in other societies with analogous views (such as traditional Islamic ones). This patriarchal mindset that sees women as objects to be possessed and controlled plays into rape culture, a paternalistic view of women as less intelligent or more fragile, and it plays into male entitlement in men’s dealings with women. It is straight up evil. It is NOT God’s eternal, perfect will. But many of the Biblical authors seemed to think it was. We have to be honest about that.

In contrast, many of the women in my life are strong leaders and gifted co-workers. Relationships I’ve seen characterized by mutual respect and egalitarian decision making seem more healthy and loving.

In voting for Trump, many Evangelicals downplayed the harm his words and actions have caused women. They again indicated how little they value women and how opposed or indifferent they are to many policies which are important to women.

On these things Evangelicals are often wrong, but at least they are consistent. On so many other things, they are not even willing to follow the Bible. Like the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, they emphasize purity culture and blind obedience but neglect more important matters of justice, mercy, and love.

For example, the Bible says in multiple places that God’s people are to care for the “stranger” or “alien” in their midst (Deuteronomy 10:19; Psalm 146:9; Matthew 25:35; Hebrews 13:2; etc.). This isn’t just supposed to be a personal impulse; many texts indicate that it is a matter of (political) justice (Exodus 12:49;  23:9; Leviticus 19:33-34; 22:21; 23:9; 24:22; 25:35 Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 24:19-21; 26:12; Jeremiah 7:5-7; 22:3; Ezekiel 22:4, 7; 47:22-23 Malachi 3:5; Zechariah 7:10; etc.).

The actual sin of Sodom (not the made up one of “being gay”) was greed and inhospitality toward strangers and the poor (Genesis 19; Ezekiel 16:49-50; Isaiah 1:10-17; Matthew 10:14; Hebrews 13:2). And honestly, this is as simple as following the Bible’s pervasive love ethic.

Yet many Evangelicals support policies and a candidate who threatens the lives of refugees and immigrants and often treats foreigners as less than.

In the same vein, one of the Bible’s most dominate themes is care for widows, orphans, poor people, and the vulnerable. This is mentioned repeatedly in the Mosaic law (Exodus 22:21-24; 23:6; Deuteronomy 10:17-19; 15:13-15; 24:19-21; 26:12; etc.).

Failure to insure such justice is one of the prophets’ major indictments on Israel that led to her judgment (Psalm 10:14, 17-18; 146:1, 5-9; Proverbs 14:31; 19:17;  Isaiah 1:10-17; 3:14-25; 10:1-3; 58:3-7; Jeremiah 5:26-29; 7:5-7; 22:3, 13-19; Ezekiel 22:4, 7; 16:49-50; Amos 2:7; 5:10-15, 21-24; 6:1-7; Micah 2:2; Zechariah 7:10 Malachi 3:5; etc.).

Such care is central to Jesus’ gospel (Luke 1:52-53; 3:10-14; 4:18-19; 6:20-26, 33-36; 7:22-23; 10:25-37; 11:39-42; 12:16-34; 14:12-14; 16:19-31; 18:18-30; 19:8-9; Mark 12:28-31, 40; Matthew 6:1-4, 19-24; 10:7-8; 15:32; 18:21-35; 25:35-40; etc.).

And it was distinctively characteristic of the early church (John 13:29; Acts 2:42-47; 4:32-37; 5:1-11; 6:1-7; Galatians 2:10; Romans 15:22-28;   1 Corinthians 11:20-22; 16:1-4; 2 Corinthians 8-9; Colossians 3:5; 1 Timothy 3:3; 6:8-10, 17-19; Hebrews 13:5; James 2:1-17 ; 5:1-5 1 John 2:15-17; 3:16-18; etc.).

Much like with foreigners, many of these texts imply that this care was not just charity, but was a matter of justice. This is implicit or explicit in most of the texts surveyed. But specific examples include the following: Farmers were commanded to leave the edges of their fields unharvested so the poor could eat (Deuteronomy 24:19-21). Usury was condemned so the rich could not prey on the vulnerable (Exodus 22:25; Deuteronomy 23:19-20; Leviticus 25:35-38). After seven years, debts were to be cancelled and slaves set free, and after fifty years land was to revert back to its original owner (Leviticus 25; Deuteronomy 15).

Yet, based on their misuse of a handful of texts (e.g. 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15), many Evangelicals see a special concern for the vulnerable and extra economic measures to ensure their well-being as negotiable or even as harmful “enabling.” They tend to support typical Republican policies that subsidize big business and the rich, cut funding for social safety nets for the poor, oppose health care for everyone, and glorify unbridled capitalism. Knowingly or unknowingly, they support economic exploitation of people here in the US and in other countries. They seem unconcerned about increased income inequality. Though they claim to be pro-life, they often oppose measures to help the poor that actually mitigate the reasons poor women often feel compelled to have abortions.

And now they have voted for a man who literally brags about his greed. In voting for Trump, they are supporting our increased move toward oligarchy and unfettered exploitation of the poor and marginalized.

Jesus said blessed are the peacemakers (Matthew 5:9). He told us to love our enemies and pray for them, forgive those who persecute us, and turn the other cheek  (Matthew 5:38-48; 6:14-15; 18:21-35; Mark 11:25; Luke 6:27-36; John 20:23; etc.). He condemned violence and retribution, instead calling us to leave vengeance in God’s hands. He demonstrated such radical enemy-love and forgiveness in his own example (Luke 22:49-51; 23:34) – an example the New Testament repeatedly call us to imitate (Philippians 2:4-11; 2 Corinthians 8:9; 1 Peter 2:21-25; 1 John 3:16; etc.).

Love saturates the New Testament’s moral vision. It is the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36-40), the “royal law” (James 2:8), the fulfillment of the law (Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14), and the most enduring virtue (1 Corinthians 13). The early church up until Constantine took this mandate of love and forgiveness seriously (Romans 12:9-21; 2 Corinthians 2:5-11; Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13; 1 Peter 3:9; etc. see Sider). The Bible’s ideal vision for God’s coming kingdom – a kingdom breaking into the world through Christ – is a pacific one, where swords are beaten into plow sheds (Isaiah 2:4).

While admittedly such values can never be fully transferred to a this-worldly government, it does seem that a preference for peace, magnanimity, fairness, and restraint with others (where possible) would be closer to the kingdom ideal. It seems like preventative and restorative measures would be more in keeping with this spirt then purely punitive ones (though obviously the latter are necessary sometimes).

But Evangelicals voted for a bully of a man who glories in brutality: wanting to bring back torture, “pound the hell” out of ISIS, kill innocent people, punch protesters and others he disagrees with, beef up our already bloated military even more, and exploit other countries under the threat of force. He is apparently unwilling to address systemic violence and racism in our law enforcement. In his view, more people need guns, not less. He and Evangelicals tend to favor the most harsh punishments, including bringing back the death penalty.

The Bible is clear that lying is wrong and truth is paramount (Leviticus 19:11; Colossians 3:9; etc.). Just logically, truth and trustworthiness are of bedrock importance in a leader.

But Evangelicals trusted and voted for one of the most dishonest persons to ever run for office. Their tendency to anti-intellectualism and  gullible faith apparently made them easy targets. As Valarie Tarico says, they have become a people of exploiters and exploited.

Relatedly, the Bible is clear that we should not gossip or slander others (Exodus 20:16; 23:1; Psalm 101:5; Proverbs 6:16-19; Romans 1:29; James 4:11; etc.). Common norms of decency and honesty also suggest this.

And yet Evangelicals lapped up the GOP’s slander of Obama, Clinton, and others. To be clear, there are legitimate areas to critique these figures; genuine faults and mistakes. But so much of the angry fervor that was whipped up was baseless (e.g. Obama being a Muslim and not really American, Benghazi, democrats wanting to take your guns, the election being rigged, Jade Helm being a secret plot to take over Texas, etc.).

The Bible and particularly the New Testament exalt humility, servanthood, and sacrifice in a leader (Luke 14:7-14; 22:25-30; Philippians 2:1-11; etc.). But Evangelicals have voted for a man that epitomizes arrogant boastfulness and who is transparently egotistical and self-serving.

Jesus’ teaching about neighbor love ideally universalizes the sphere of people we are supposed to care for (Luke 10:25-37). The teachings of the other great religions and even humanist ethics  have also tended toward expanding the circle of concern. Even so-called “identity politics” aims to do so. For example, feminists at their best aren’t against men or wanting to have a leg up on them; they just want equal rights and an equitable standing to them.

In a globalized and interconnected world that faces challenges such as climate change that will depend on us coming together, things like equality and mutuality are more important than ever.

Yet, in the face of this Evangelicals voted for a man who seeks an “America first” approach. And specifically, a white America, a “Christian” America, a rich, male, and non-disabled America. To the degradation of everyone else. Conservative Evangelicals often seem to buy into a rugged individualism that is neither true to reality nor to spiritual (Trinitarian) values of interconnectedness and loving care for one another.

The Bible’s teachings on love, compassion, and human equality as well as common decency indicate that racism is wrong.

Yet, Evangelicals have a troubling history of either actively supporting racism or not taking it very seriously. Many European Christians appealed to the “doctrine of discovery” and a sense of “manifest destiny” to justify stealing native peoples’ lands and  enslaving or killing them. Evangelical Protestants campaigned to bring slavery to the colonies. Since the Bible has more “proof texts” to support slavery and nothing that directly condemns it, conservative “Bible believing” Christians were among the fiercest defenders of the institution. They saw abolitionism as a liberal assault on the authority of God’s Word.

After the modernist controversy that birthed the Fundamentalist movement, conservatives tended to be suspicious of social justice movements in general. White Evangelicals were among the most resistant to the civil rights movement and this resistance played an integral role in the rise of the Religious Right. Since then they have made greater strides towards racial equality. But for a number of reasons including still segregated churches, unacknowledged privilege, and antipathy to social science and social justice, they are often less than fully engaged allies for racial equity.

But many Evangelicals rewrite this history to lesson their guilt and not have to face America’s “original sin” of racism and white supremacy. They wax eloquent about our “glorious” Christian past. They pretend like they were reformers when they were most often the lethargic or the actual oppressors. The pretend like racism no longer infects us. Or they at least downplay the (structural) complexity of it or the misery it inflicts, from Standing Rock to Ferguson. And now they have voted for the candidate endorsed by the KKK who ran on a barely concealed platform of white nationalism.

They claim they care about religious freedom, but vote for a man that has vowed to strip the rights from people who don’t think like they do. In reality, many only care about their Christian privilege, and for some, a literal Christian theocracy.

They say they care about the Constitution but voted for a man who threatens freedom of religion, free speech and the press, an impartial judiciarate, due process, and who evinces totalitarian impulses.

They say the want to “Focus on the Family” and are the party of “family values.” But what they really mean is white heterosexual middle-class families. They certainly don’t care about gay families. They seek to undermine their rights and family structures at every turn. They don’t care about minority families. They seek to see immigrant families torn apart by deportations. They support the devastation that the “war on drugs” and mass incarceration has caused to black families. They seek to cut off social safety net support for poor families. Until recently, they were disdainful of divorced or single-parent families.

They say they are pro-life, but in terms of policy are often pro-guns, pro-war, pro death penalty, anti police reform or accountability, anti-poor, anti-immigrant, anti-refugee, anti-minority, climate change deniers, anti-gay, against preventative community health measures, and so on.

They say when it suits them that “character counts,” but then elect a vulgar man who is a liar, an adulterer, a bully, a thief, a peeper and genital grabber, perhaps a rapist, a bigot, an arrogant and greedy person, an owner of strip clubs and casinos, a man who glories in power and celebrates violence.

Many people thought it ironic that when Jerry Falwell Jr. and his wife posed next to Trump for a photo, a prominent framed picture can be seen next to them of Trump with a playboy model. The hypocritical contrast to past Evangelical posturings was palpable. The world took notice.

As Robert P Jones notes,

In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement [that a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life]. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dyke between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office (emphasis mine).

Blogger Rachel Held Evans recently tweeted, “The culture that warned me against moral relativism is now the hardest to convince that character, truth, and compassion matter.” I agree.

At the root of so many of these problems is that too many Evangelicals hold to a theology that emphasizes power over love. I have written on that here.

While this post may seem harsh, I have elsewhere been more gentle in calling Evangelicals to live up to their own tradition’s high principles.

And whether through gentle exhortation or more searing prophetic critique, I will continue to stand up for the truth and call my Evangelical kin to repent of their practical apostasy from the way of Jesus.

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