An Open Letter to My Evangelical Friends and Family

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This post is part of a larger one I wrote about a month ago on the threat President Trump poses to people I care about and to my country. In that post I also had some harsh words for Evangelicals, many of whom I see as compromising their faith by unilaterally supporting Trump.

While I do think those problems are serious and widespread, things are never that simple. People and movements are complex. I known many good people who are Evangelicals. I think of my mom, who is one of the best persons I know. She is wise, industrious, kind, and resiliently joyful. In many ways she is my hero.

Or I think of the Filipino pastor who married me and my wife. Belief-wise he’s an old-school Fundamentalist. But he is also warm and funny. He drove four hours to help pick up my mom from the airport. And when we found out that her flight had been delayed, he was willing to wait in Manila all night for her. He gave me and Jen a lot of good advice. Quite a worldly-wise man in spite of his beliefs.

I can think of many other examples. I wouldn’t want to downplay that. Here might also be a good place to acknowledge that progressives like myself have our own blind-spots and flaws.

But those problems I identified remain. And I fear that political power and alignment with an administration as immoral as Trump’s will only further compromise Evangelicals’ commitment to love and justice.

Evangelicals, I implore you: good intentions are not enough. They must be matched with knowledge. History is strewn with examples of people who did massive amounts of harm under the best of intentions. If God reveals truth in creation – if all truth is God’s truth – please don’t be afraid of science or the testimony of your neighbors. Be willing to engage others and the world in a fair and open-minded way. Please learn to be more discerning in the sources you trust.

Be willing to approach Trump’s claims critically, given his history of whoppers. Are you willing to call him out when he lies? Are you willing to defend our free press, even when you disagree with the perspectives some sources take? People of the truth should have nothing to fear from transparency, fact-checking, or an open exchange of ideas.

Please consider arguments from a number of different perspectives about if the Bible is truly infallible or if it must be for God to use it in a powerful way. Please prayerfully study the Scriptures to see if I am right about love being at the center of God’s character and what he calls us to. I believe the Bible itself will bear this out, but also consider what other sources in natural theology such as miracles or religious experience indicate about the Divine. How would making love the center of your hermeneutic change how you approach God and others?

Please reflect on why the Bible spends so much time focusing specifically on the needs of “the least of these” – widows, orphans, the poor, and strangers. Why not just say “love everyone” and leave it at that? All lives matter.

Of course, all lives do matter. We are suppose to love everyone. Some aspects of loving others are universal to all individuals and groups. For example, for all people, love means being honest to them, respecting them, listening to them with an open mind, treating them with kindness and compassion, and seeking their happiness and maturity.

But vulnerable people groups need more than the everyday kindness or curtesy we might extend to another. They have urgent needs that more well-to-do souls simply don’t struggle to have met. They face oppressive circumstances that sometimes are quite different than those of majority groups. The Biblical authors were wise enough to recognize that. What would it mean to apply that insight more broadly to today?

Please reconsider how you treat LGBTQ people. Does the Bible even condemn being trans? you might be surprised. Whether gay or bi people should act on their same-sex attractions; please, please recognize they don’t choose them and cannot change them. Conversion therapy needs to go the way of the dinosaur.

If you expect gay Christians to remain life-long celibates, make sure you are going out of your way to provide them with the fellowship and support they will need to walk down that lonely road. Please reconsider your very condemnation of their love. I have written on why I changed my mind on this matter here. But if you continue to personally believe acting on such an orientation is wrong, reconsider your crusade of legal opposition to the rights of LGBTQ people.

Please reconsider how you treat women. Reconsider if the Bible’s overall trajectory is truly patriarchal. Recognize that any social arrangement of “separate but equal” based on something intrinsic such as race or gender inevitably lends itself to abuse and dehumanization. This is just a fact of social systems and human nature.

Please recognize how consummately strong, intelligent, charismatic, and gifted women are for most of the same things men are. See how women too have a variety of dreams and callings. Don’t be threatened by that. See it as something to celebrate and nurture. Respect women’s ability to chart their own courses, pursue their own dreams, and chose to be with the person they love. Abortion is a legitimate thing to oppose (obviously), but please learn to embrace other forms of birth control as tools that can be used for good as well as ill.

Listen to women when they tell you that something is offensive or even threatening. Respect consent and expect the same from others. Don’t tolerate assault or abuse. Ever. From anyone. Even respected authority figures. Become more aware of how thoroughly misogyny colors our history and still infects us in many ways. Be attentive to seeing it and confronting it in your own life and in your community.

Please reconsider how you treat people of color. Learn more about our racist history and about how much racism still pervades our lives today. Remember, racism is not necessarily about conscious hate; it is about systems of inequality and oppression. Become more aware of such systems.

Build relationships with black and brown people. Listen to them when they share with you about their fears and the dangers and indignities they face. Don’t assume they are wrong just because their experience is different then your own. Partner with them in opposing racism in all its forms. Not as a “savior,” but as an ally. This might mean stepping back sometimes and letting others lead. Some problems are not as easily solved as others, but at least recognize the problem and steadfastly pursue a just resolution.

Be intentional about watching yourself for stereotyping and kneejerk fears. Some people of all races really are bad news, but know that implicit bias is a thing. Take care to the sources you imbibe. Some will be more trustworthy than others. Some cater to prejudice (intentionally or not).

Learn to see the good in other cultures, not just the bad. Make room in your communities for leadership and representation by minorities. Be intentional about letting them bring their cultures and perspectives into the substance and not just the veneer of your teaching and worship. Don’t just expect them to take on your own culture. Don’t be afraid to “get it wrong” or apologize. This is messy work. Just keep trying and learning.

Please reconsider how you talk about and treat refugees and immigrants. Yes we have to take reasonable precautions for our safety and well-being. But there are ways to do that which are not xenophobic. Not everything is a zero-sum game. At least sometimes everyone can come out on top. Remember that “legal” is not necessarily the same thing as just; and “illegal” is not necessarily the same thing as criminal (in the moral sense).

Consider doing a study on what the Bible says about strangers and aliens. You may be surprised. Keep in mind that as Christians we are supposed to see others as, first and foremost, fellow image bearers of God. Our primary citizenship is in heaven, not the USA.

Be mindful of how racism and ethnocentrism can subtly creep into our reactions toward others, even when we are not intending to be hateful. Again, be mindful of the sources you gain info from. There are those that are intentionally trying to sow fear and animus; and not always for deserved, representative reasons.

If possible, built relationships with immigrants and/or refugees. Learn more about the challenges they face. Advocate for their rights and for immigration reform. Lobby the government to treat other countries in a fair rather than exploitive way. Resist unwarranted notions of American superiority or exceptionalism.

Please reconsider how you view and treat poor people. Build relationships with them. Treat them with dignity as equals. Don’t just give, be ready to be blessed in return. I know many of you are exceptionally charitable. Evangelicals are known for that. By all means, keep up the good work! Such work not only provides needed aid; when done well, it also builds up beloved communities.

But charity is no substitute for more thoroughgoing economic justice. Everyone has a responsibility to do the best they can with the hand they have been dealt. Of course we want to encourage people to work and take personal responsibility. Most people want to work. And we want to create jobs.

But the idea that people can normatively pull themselves up by their own bootstraps is not reality. Its very hard to escape poverty. Some people start out life with the deck stacked against them (or stacked for them, as the case may be). Sometimes circumstances happen that are outside their control. Injuries happen, plants move, industries change, stock markets crash, heads of households betray, and others act in a discriminatory way. And when they are able, those in power will engineer the laws and system to maximize profits at the least cost. No matter if this is sustainable for ordinary workers or the environment.

If that is the reality, why not work to ensure that peoples’ basic needs are met: needs like housing, clothing, food, education, and healthcare? Why not build coalitions of power from below – countervailing power to the power from above that tends toward exploitation?

The system is never neutral. Laws are crafted to benefit someone (see Reich). Please become more of a voice for the poor and working class. Don’t just give them charity, fight for their rights and for laws that reflect their interests. This isn’t just “bleeding heart,” it makes good economic sense.

Please reconsider how you view and treat Muslims. If you can, seek out friendships with them. Let them know they are welcome and safe in your community. Even if they were your enemies, Jesus commands that we love them. And love means treating them the way we would want to be treated.

But in fact, most of them are not our enemies. As I argued earlier, despite our differences, Muslims are essentially just like everyone else. And Islam too can be interpreted in a number of ways. Be willing to read about Islam from sympathetic sources. Or as you share your faith with them, ask your Muslim friends about what they believe. Arguably there are objectionable things in Islam; but a lot of the stereotypes about it are either wrong or simplistic straw-men.

More controversially, I would say be open to the idea that God could be inclusively at work in the lives of Muslims. This doesn’t mean that Christianity isn’t uniquely true or that Christ isn’t the ultimate source and end of their salvation, but it means God can meet people where they are and transform them without perfect knowledge. When you meet saintly Muslims, as I have, its hard to deny the Spirit’s fruit.

Stand up for the rights and lives of Muslims. Both here and abroad. Lobby the government to pursue fairer Middle East policies – for example, in Israel. But be willing to face fierce pushback from those animated by fear and prejudice. As I will write about more shortly, how we navigate beating back terrorism while protecting ordinary Muslims will be one of the great tests of our time. The temptation will be to write off all Muslims as subhuman. But that is not an option for Christ-followers. Will we fear God or man?

Implicit in all of this, please consider expanding the meaning of “pro-life.” Pro-life should not just mean pro birth. It should encompass the entire life-span. And it should encompass everyone; whatever their race, nationality, gender, or creed. Do all lives really matter to you?

Pro-life should include not just punitive measures against those who wrongfully take life (as needed as those are), but also preventative and restorative measures that decrease abortions and help families thrive.

While I am not a pacifist, the message of Jesus calls us to strongly prefer peace and non-violence when possible (at the very least). Are we willing to sacrifice just as much for waging peace as we are for waging war? How might such an ethic play out in how we view guns, warfare, or the death penalty? Obviously, that’s debatable. But I’m asking you to prayerfully consider it and read about it from a variety of perspectives.

Please remember, love should be our governing impulse; not power.

Finally, Evangelicals I implore you: be thinking about what moral lines you will not cross, no matter what incentives or threats are proffered your way. Most of you who are honest and informed know that Trump is a morally compromised leader. Perhaps you thought he was the lesser of two evils. I obviously don’t agree, but we are past that now. Just because he was better on the most important things (in your view) doesn’t mean he isn’t wrong on others. Be willing to criticize him where he is wrong and pressure him to be better. We liberals need to do that as well with our favored representatives.

But Trump is not the only danger. The coalition that helped elect him includes other dark forces. Don’t be fooled by the “alt-right” moniker. Their stated goals are racist and even genocidal. Many of Trump’s cabinet and inner circle harbor other intense prejudices – for example, Islamophobia.

Another part of Trump’s coalition are rich businessmen; be they Wall Street executives, oil tycoons, or weapons developers. Read about what Trump’s new Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson did in Africa. It is chilling stuff. And we appear to be cozying up more to Putin’s brutal dictatorship in Russia.

There is a fascistic wing to the Religious Right that is very serious about making America into a Christian theocracy (see Hedges). Ruthlessness, greed, and power appear to be the common threads that hold all of these groups together.

Evangelicals, you are naïve if you think you can keep your seat for long at this table without intense pressures to compromise your faith. Be on your guard! In what ways might you have already started to go down that road?

And I warn you: Donald Trump has promised to do evil things, and I fear he will seek to do even worse before it is over. Be vigilant. What will you do when he calls for reinstating torture? How about targeting innocent civilians? Will you speak up against that? What if he seeks to violate Muslim Americans’ constitutional rights (or something even more sinister)? Are you willing to stand up for their religious freedom too? Even if that becomes unpopular or dangerous? What if he calls for deporting refugees who have been screened and are here lawfully? Would you stand up for them? Would you take them in and shelter them? Are you willing to protest unjustified police shootings (when that clearly is the case) and advocate for reform in our criminal justice system? How do you plan to address more subtle but just as deadly threats to poor people, Latinos, and others? We all have some soul searching to do in the days ahead.