Like it or not, Trump supporting evangelical Christians are becoming the public face of Christianity in America. The result of this phenomenon is not positive for those who want the faith to survive: one third of Millenials have walked away from religion (for those under 30, the figure is 36%), the number of so-called "Nones" now is the larges religious group, if you will, in the nation. Meanwhile, all Christian denominations are losing membership overall. And "liberal" denominations all too often fail and refuse to challenge the ugliness of the message of the Trump supporting evangelical Christians or, if they do, do it in an ineffectual manner. In sum, hatred of others, hypocrisy and dishonesty (think James Dobson, Tony Perkins, and Sarah Huckabee Sanders, daughter of Baptist pastor Mike Huckabee) are increasing what many Americans associate with Christianity. As a piece in Religion Dispatches notes, some "respectable" evangelicals are trying to distance themselves from their Trump supporting brethren. Will the damage control effort work? Probably not. Here are article highlights:
The defenders of “respectable” evangelicalism were out in force in 2017. In newspapers, magazines, and National Public Radio programs, they delivered a consistent message. That group of Trump-loving, Roy-Moore-supporting evangelicals? “It’s not us.”Respectable evangelicals have been defining away their embarrassing spiritual kin for a century, at least.
When working-class evangelicals began speaking in tongues in the 1900s, respectable evangelicals declared the movement a delusion of Satan. It’s not us, they insisted.
When the Scopes Monkey Trial made William Jennings Bryan a laughingstock, respectable evangelicals disclaimed leadership in the fundamentalist movement they helped create. It’s not us.
In the 1940s and 50s, respectable evangelicals perfected the “not us” technique. Abandoning the fundamentalist label (though holding nearly identical beliefs), they created a “neo-evangelical” identity to distance themselves from the red-baiters and conspiratorialists. Ever since, the toxic byproducts of their movement have been shunted outside the evangelical camp. Whether tele-evangelist scandals, or hurricanes-are-God’s-judgment-jeremiads, or homophobic protests at military funerals: it’s not us.
In a recent Vox editorial, historian Thomas Kidd, a never-Trump evangelical, continues the refrain. The statistic that 80% of white evangelicals supported Trump is wrong, he argues, because it’s based on self-identification. They are evangelicals in name only; it’s not us.
Consider the definition at work. To be evangelical, we are told, is to believe in “conversion.” But is conversion a uniquely evangelical idea? It’s not even uniquely Christian; Muslims convert too. Rather, they are appealing to a particular experience of conversion. And how is an evangelical conversion measured? That’s the rub. It’s been the cause of evangelical consternation for two centuries.
But conversion’s unmeasurable quality is what makes it useful for insiders. It allows them to state (or strongly infer) that only unconverted, ‘nominal,’ evangelicals supported Trump. Apparently, a vote for Trump is evidence enough? Meanwhile, evangelical Trump voters declare that by withholding support, never-Trump evangelicals have demonstrated their faithlessness.
“Biblicism” functions similarly. Imagine a political scientist defining Republicans as “those who take the Constitution seriously.” Who would accept this transparently partisan statement? And yet many people today accept that evangelicals are “biblical,” while everyone else…isn’t? This is how former megachurch pastor Rob Bell and popular author Rachel Held Evans ceased to be evangelical: not because they quit the Bible, but because they came up with “wrong,” (thus “unbiblical”) answers about hell and being gay. “Biblicism” is evangelical gerrymandering.
[A] definition must function independent of public relations. If an abusive priest is still Catholic, then J. Dennis Hastert must remain an evangelical despite his sordid past.
Few conservative white evangelicals will question their overheated rhetoric about healthcare and wedding cakes and “religious liberty.” Few liberal white evangelicals will question how their cherished theological categories might contribute to the systemic racism and patriarchy they claim to oppose. Moore supporters will not consider whether there are lines that shouldn’t be crossed.
Because being evangelical means never having to say you’re sorry. Being evangelical means “it’s not us.”