At its best, evangelicalism as a theological and cultural movement in the United States offers a moral framework that transcends the country’s two-party political system. We are at our best when we are not blue or red, but purple—when we confound ideologies of both the left and the right with a full biblical kingdom ethic. We are strongest when we look odd to our neighbors, and winsomely so.
The 2016 presidential election suggests that evangelicalism today is not quite purple. Evangelicals—at least white, voting ones—acted as a near monolith, with eighty-one percent supporting the Republican Party candidate. Despite many Christian leaders’ warnings about Donald Trump’s character, evangelical support for him was higher than for George W. Bush in 2004 and for Mitt Romney in 2012.
Just over 100 days into Trump’s presidency, many evangelical leaders are so far satisfied with their choice. Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. summed it up recently when he stated, “I think evangelicals have found their dream president.” Last week, the White House hosted a private gathering of evangelical leaders on the eve of the National Day of Prayer. Afterward, Museum of the Bible spokesperson Johnnie Moore observed that “evangelicals feel right at home in the White House.”
The question for evangelicals at this odd moment in US history is whether we should ever feel right at home in the White House.
Too Close for Comfort with Secular Liberalism
In the twentieth century, evangelicalism offered a prophetic correction to the liberalism that characterized mainline Protestant traditions. Evangelicalism now needs to revisit its own movement in order to make sure our allegiances rest with the gospel of Christ and neither party’s ideology.
It was a century during which the mainline church was powerful. Episcopal, Methodist, and Presbyterian denominations enjoyed strong attendance, figureheads with national influence, and institutional coherence expressed in publications like The Christian Century.
In the wars between fundamentalism and modernism earlier in the century, liberal mainline Protestantism had by all accounts won.
Liberal mainline Protestantism also drew inspiration—we might say too heavily—from secular liberalism. Though it doesn’t operate as a unified movement, secular liberalism has core tenets. It is confident in human rationality and science, often relegating the supernatural and divine to the realm of myth. It highly values individual choice, especially in matters of sex, and is critical of authority that would limit personal freedom. It tends to explain systemic social problems by pointing not to enduring human sinfulness but to unjust economic structures that lead to oppression.
To be sure, secular liberalism wasn’t completely at odds with mainline Christianity. There were meaningful touchpoints with progressive movements of the 1960s. This is why mainline pastors could question the wisdom of the Vietnam War on biblical grounds. It’s also why civil rights leaders made their most powerful arguments from the Christian tradition. The biblical teaching on imago dei grounds any calls to honor the dignity of women, ethnic minorities, the poor, and persons with disabilities—things championed by secular movements.
Of course, historical vision is 20/20. Much has been said to explain the mainline’s decline. In the second half of the twentieth century, Americans grew generally distrustful of institutions, and also had more spiritual alternatives to explore.
But from a theological perspective, mainline churches lost their vibrancy in part because they started to look like the secular, liberal society. In doing so, they asked Christians to give up core aspects of gospel teaching in order to accommodate broader cultural shifts.
Evangelicalism’s Prophetic Correction
The church is weakened when it starts to sound like a rallying cry for any political party, as mainline congregations often have since the 1960s.
Against this backdrop, evangelical institutions emerged in the mid-twentieth century to offer a more faithful vision of Christian witness. Carl F. H. Henry, in The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism, provided a theological framework for Christians to be actively engaged in the world (unlike fundamentalists) yet still be “odd,” in the best way.
Christianity Today (where Henry served as first editor and where I was managing editor for several years) was founded to help pastors engage contemporary issues with a “return to truly biblical preaching.” Billy Graham preached to millions that the social problems of the world are at root not about economics but about human wickedness. And the National Association of Evangelicals has since 1943 upheld a social ethic that promotes, for example, compassionate care for refugees and unborn children alike.
Over time, however, evangelicals have erred in equal proportion to the mainliners of the mid-twentieth century.
Since the 1970s, legalized abortion in particular has animated an alignment with the Republican Party. The Religious Right emerged in the 1980s as a powerful coalition that upheld traditional sexual ethics, family stability, and the sanctity of life. All of these issues are grounded in scripture. But so is racial justice, and compassion for immigrants, and corporate responsibility for the poor. Yet because these issues don’t neatly align with Republican talking points, many evangelicals have at the very least minimized these issues in their politics.
Flirting with Secular Conservatism
Much has been said of the “death of the Religious Right.” But if the Religious Right is a body dead and buried, the 2016 election suggests that it wasn’t buried very deep and is in fact emanating a stench.
Meanwhile, dark ideologies have gained alarming traction in the halls of political power. Like secular liberalism, these are not a unified movement, but they are identifiable as aspects of secular conservatism. It’s hard for those of us who grew up hearing warnings of “the liberals” with political power to see that “the conservatives” are also a threat when their values and policies are anti-gospel.
But even though it’s uncomfortable, it’s necessary to acknowledge that secular conservatism is deeply out of step with a full biblical kingdom ethic in at least three areas.
Nationalism. In his inaugural address, President Trump announced, “From this moment on, it’s going to be America first.” This kind of rhetoric appeals in a time when many Americans fear for their economic security. And taking pride in a nation’s history and heritage is certainly scriptural. But we don’t have to look far back in history to see how nationalism easily breeds contempt for people from other countries—in many cases in the West, people who are not white.
By contrast, the gospel binds together people from radically different ethnicities and social standings into a common family (Ephesians 2:14; Galatians 3:28; Revelation 7:9). Insofar as “America first” conflicts with the Christian responsibility to “kingdom first,” we must live counter-culturally—especially in advocating, for example, for refugees fleeing persecution and for starving populations worldwide who rely on US foreign aid.
White supremacy. White supremacy has gained a foothold in some conservative circles, thanks to a young and active online movement known as the “alt right.” At its root, this ideology maintains the ethnic superiority of people of European descent. Its leaders use everything from “scientific” findings on the supposed genetic weakness of non-whites to strands of Christianity to promote racial purity. Some alt-right leaders go so far as to support abortion as a form of population control. The alt-right is not synonymous with the Republican Party by a long shot; many Republicans have criticized its patent racism and hateful speech. But it should alarm most Americans, let alone Christians, that alt-right leaders like Richard Spencer claim President Trump as one of them.
White supremacy can never nestle up to a religion that believes God came to earth as a Jew. Surely if whites are superior, the perfect God-man would have come as a Danish babe. Yet Jesus came to earth as a dark-skinned man who challenged Jewish purity itself by hanging out with Samaritans (John 4; Luke 17). His mission of salvation starts with Israel yet reaches out to the ends of the earth, through the apostles. Any white supremacists who join him in heaven will be sorely disappointed to realize they will be worshiping for eternity next to brown-skinned people.
Civic religion. One of Trump’s campaign promises was to “totally destroy the Johnson Amendment.” It’s the 1954 tax code that prohibits pastors from endorsing political candidates from the pulpit. A majority of evangelicals (73%) support the amendment, saying it keeps partisan politics out of the sanctuary. But the Trump administration says it hampers free speech, and that lifting it could be the president’s “greatest gift to Christianity.”
It’s striking to hear a man who rarely attends church, doesn’t seek God’s forgiveness, and speaks clumsily about faith suddenly concern himself with the affairs of local churches. On the National Day of Prayer, Trump said that with his religious freedom executive order, “we are giving our churches their voices back.” Yet it doesn’t seem all religious leaders are being ensured a voice; in the past, Trump has called for US mosques to be shut down or put under surveillance.
To be sure, church leaders should be free to express views with political implications. In fact, you might say everything a pastor says from the pulpit has political implications. Religious freedom is core to a thriving democracy and also to a thriving church. Yet when the state tries to make the church its handmaiden—on either political end—the church’s prophetic witness is muzzled. Only the Triune God can give or take away the church’s voice. Relying on the state to give us our voice is idolatry.
Heeding Our Own Warnings
Our evangelical forebears rightly corrected the church’s overalignment with secular liberalism. Now we must correct our own overalignment with secular conservatism.
This correction has already begun with the emergence of “new evangelicals” who retain a prophetic purple. And, thanks be to God, many evangelicals today are leading with a prophetic edge. Some of them risk losing their constituents and even their jobs.
Following their lead will require us to articulate and promote a full biblical kingdom ethic that confounds the orthodoxies of both political parties. We must do so not just by saying what we are for, but also by saying what we are against. A prophetic witness means saying “no” to anti-gospel ideologies—to racism, to white supremacy, to civic religion—for our silence can so often seem like complicity to a watching world.
Justin Giboney—an attorney and member of the wonderful And Campaign—recently noted, “Christians shouldn’t see the ideological right or left as our enemy, but we should recognize the enemy’s influence on the right and left.” The Enemy, that is, Satan, will use whatever means necessary to capsize the church’s beautiful witness to the gospel. And he’s willing to dress up in either blue, or red, to do it.
Cover image by Fabian Fauth.