Growing up in evangelical Christianity, I was steeped in the alternative Christian media that included radio stations and eventually websites that peddled current events with a generally conservative spin.
I attended seminary, and I worked in a church affiliated with the Willow Creek Association, a large network of churches that receive resources and discounts at conferences hosted by Willow Creek, a Chicago megachurch. I was deeply embedded in the evangelical subculture for about ten years as a participant, and then, following seminary, I took a more critical stance while still writing within the evangelical world.
Seeing the unwavering (primarily white) evangelical support of Donald Trump has offended my commitment to the life and teachings of Jesus, but it also makes a measure of cultural sense. White evangelical culture has been prepared for a leader like Trump. Here’s why:
The Flaws of Evangelical Leaders Are Tolerated for Higher Goals
The goal of just about every evangelical pastor is to preach the Gospel and to grow the church. Evangelicals believe that failing to grow the church means that you’re not preaching the Gospel.
As long as a church is growing, then a leader is more or less safe. It takes a significant moral failure, typically an affair, for a church to get rid of a pastor. Mark Driscoll was emotionally abusing and bullying the leaders and members of his church, but it took a misuse of church finances on his book’s marketing campaign to prompt enough people to remove him. As long as his church was growing, he could lead as he saw fit.
In the evangelical world, if a leader can deliver something defined as a higher moral good, then that leader can use borderline, if not outright sinful means to accomplish it.
Dissent of Evangelical Leaders Is Considered Divisive
It doesn’t matter how mean, divisive, or problematic a leader may be in many cases. If a church member or outsider dares to challenge an evangelical leader, the dissenter will be criticized as divisive. I have heard this all of the time for years. The people who blow the whistle or support the whistle blower are ALWAYS considered trouble makers who rock the boat.
The anger many evangelicals feel about this is fully warranted.
I am sorry to be crass here, but I have zero fucks to give about this. ZERO. It’s an epidemic, and I’m done with it. I’ve read Christian news for one of my clients for over five years, and I’ve seen this play out enough that I have no problem being viewed as the “asshole” in a church if there’s a safety issue or a leader is abusing power. I will be kind and constructive, but I will not be silent about the heaping piles of bullshit that evangelical leaders pile on their church members who try to hold them accountable.
For too many evangelical leaders, accountability flows from the leaders down to the congregation, but God help anyone who dares to speak up about their hypocrisy or abuses. Sorry folks, zero fucks given here.
Bible Stories about Leadership Are Applied Loosely (Read: BADLY)
In college, I attended a church that challenged a leader’s plan to build a giant new facility. The pastor prepared a sermon the following Sunday where he equated himself with Moses and the congregation with the people of Israel who opposed their “God-given” leadership. When the people refused to obey Moses, the ground swallowed them up.
An evangelical pastor in a seemingly otherwise normal church of 300-400 people preached this sermon. We should have all gotten up and walked out then and there. It was a ghastly and manipulative interpretation of scripture. He turned a historical account in the nation of Israel into a kind of object lesson to impose onto his congregation.
Evangelical pastors tend to avoid the teachings of the prophets or the Pentateuch about justice or caring for the poor. You won’t hear much about the Year of Jubilee or the types of sacrifices that God finds acceptable in evangelical churches. You will hear plenty of stories about good kings and bad kings. That isn’t a mistake. Just like the people at the time of Samuel, evangelicals love having a “king” (i.e. CEO) like the other groups in America. They’ll bend over backwards to defend the authority of the American government by citing Romans 13.
Evangelicals Nurture a Persecution Complex
I’ve read many different explanations about this, tracing our persecution complex back to either a poor reading of scripture when Christians were actually persecuted (as in, killed) for their faith or a smoke screen perpetuated by Christian media outlets. Every slight, insult, or lawsuit that can in any way be twisted into a persecution narrative is exploited to the hilt.
For instance, I used to attend a church that met in a high school in Ohio. It wasn’t an issue at all for us to rent a public space, but in Hawaii and New York City there have been debates about the tax issues related to the rental of a public school by a nonprofit church. Both states had different nuances to the issue, but at the heart of the matter, no one was trying to keep Christians from gathering for church. The concerns were about special tax preferences for churches.
None of this mattered for Christian media, where each case was stirred up into a seething froth of fear and anger over the persecution of Christians. This story just reinforced a narrative that, for some evangelicals, has been part of a lifelong siege mentality.
Traitors Are Dehumanized and Dismissed by Evangelicals
For many evangelicals, there is a fine line between the truth that saves and the error that condemns. Those living in error who aren’t saved are condemned to hell. While many evangelicals will tell you, and demonstrate on paper, that they care very much for the people who are going to hell within their theological framework, the reality is much more complex.
Yes, there missionaries and evangelists who may have a very compassionate and personal approach to those viewed as outside their camp. However, for many evangelicals already living in fear of persecution and believing that their theology is under siege from liberal Christians and atheists, it’s very easy to begin dehumanizing or at least dismissing those who differ from them.
To dialogue with those outside the camp invites the danger of changing theology and falling into error. “Compromise” is a dirty word in evangelicalism. There is no room for tolerance and political correctness when you believe your religion could be outlawed or your movement’s beliefs could fall apart at any moment. This leads to a rigid dogmatism that refuses to see the thoughtfulness and, at times, humanity of those who disagree.
Connect the Dots Between Evangelicals and Trump Supporters
If you want to understand why 81% of white evangelicals supported Trump, this list provides some ways to connect the dots between a Trump supporter and an evangelical. The tolerance of flawed leaders alone explains why evangelicals, who have been obsessed with pro-life Supreme Court justices, will tolerate anything else Trump has done.
I wish I had a clear call to action for how to address this problem, but I don’t. I do have a few suggestions for evangelicals who see Trump and our movement for what they are:
- Practice quiet contemplation to center yourself in God’s love for you and compassion for others.
- Assure your evangelical friends who support Trump that you love them, but you disagree with their political views.
- Point your evangelical friends to news that is supported by multiple, credible sources.
- Remember that it’s not your job to change people, but it is your job to love them.
- Spend more time asking how you can love and serve those impacted by Trump’s destructive policies.