Trump and his dissidents in the evangelical movement
In October 2000, Jimmy Carter publicly bid farewell to the Southern Baptist Convention. He said he had become “increasingly uncomfortable” with the beliefs of the Baptist body for years, but the denomination then adopted a “rigid” and conservative statement of faith that called on women to submit to their husbands and prohibited women from serving as pastors. It was a bridge too far for the former president.
“My grandfather, my father and I have always been Southern Baptists, and for 21 years since the first political division of the Southern Baptist Convention, I have maintained that relationship,” Carter said. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I feel like I can’t do this anymore in good conscience.”
The announcement was shocking – it’s not every day that a former US president publicly renounces a Christian denomination. But there was one glaring problem with his decision: The Southern Baptist Convention is a voluntary collection of congregations, not congregants. Because Carter continued to attend and teach Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia—which was a member of the Protestant group—he was still a Southern Baptist, despite his gesture.
I remember this announcement well because my father, James Merritt, was president of the denomination at the time. Like he said Christianity today, “No individual can disassociate themselves from the SBC. He is still a member. He will remain Southern Baptist until he moves out [membership] letter or departures from the Maranatha Baptist Church.
Sixteen years later, other prominent evangelicals are now behaving as Carter once did. Sickened by the support of so many evangelicals for President-elect Donald Trump, many leaders are threatening to leave their movement or pretending they have already done so. But as with Carter, these moves are less about substance and more about statement. These leaders and pastors are still very evangelical – and thank goodness. Their dissenting voices can act as a drag on those who have used their faith to justify supporting Trump.
It’s hard to trace the origin of the evangelical ‘exodus’, but one of the earliest defections came from Russell Moore, chairman of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. . In a month of February Washington Post article, he announced that he had stopped describing himself as an “evangelical”, opting instead for “gospel Christian”.
The impetus for Moore’s departure was, in part, the way his comrades had backed Trump for president: “I’ve seen some [evangelicals] who gave endless speeches about ‘character’ in power under the Clinton administration is now downplaying profanity in campaign speeches, racial baiting and white supremacists, bragging about adulterous affairs, debauching public morals and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”
For decades, evangelicals have overwhelmingly voted Republican, but Trump’s flaws have made him an unlikely choice for the group. Trump garnered evangelical support at the start of the primaries, which continued through the July nominating convention and into the election, despite several high-profile scandals, including his 2005 comments about women during a Go to Hollywood duct tape, which would ostensibly offend conservative believers. In November, 81% of white evangelicals voted for the Trump ticket, a higher percentage than those who voted for George W. Bush, John McCain or Mitt Romney.
Moore’s fiery spine distinguished him when he wrote it. But after the general election, he was followed by many other evangelicals disappointed by Trump’s landslide victory.
On election night, as the results were in, evangelical author Preston Yancey tweeted, “So I guess I’m not evangelical. Because I am not what it is. Her post received more than 1,000 likes and retweets.
The following day, prominent evangelical activist Shane Claiborne lamented how evangelical patriarchs such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham and Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr., had “ignored Trump’s anti-Christian values.” This, he said, left many people feeling like religious orphans. “Trying to mix Christianity with a political party can be a bit like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It might not harm the manure, but it sure will spoil the ice cream,” Claiborne said in a post. blog post “For evangelical Christians in this election, manure and ice cream have mixed together in a disastrous way. As a result, many evangelical Christians will need a new home.”
On November 10, evangelical scholar John Fea began a post-election article for Religious News Service identifying himself “as someone who once called himself evangelical”. The night before he tweeted“If it’s evangelism, I’m out.”
Evangelical blogger Skye Jethani followed a day later, posting an open letter “to the term ‘evangelical'” himself who claimed he would no longer accept the label as his own: “What was wonderful in your name was buried, crushed under the weight of 60 million voices…. I can no longer be called an evangelical.
And on November 14, another shoe fell. Katelyn Beatty, former editor of Christianity todaywrote in The Washington Post that she could no longer defend her fellow evangelicals, describing how “the faith that has been my home for 20 years seems foreign, even hostile”.
A recent survey of evangelical church leaders by Christianity today showed that these negative sentiments might not be limited to these prominent leaders. While 70% of respondents felt comfortable describing themselves as “evangelical” to other Christians, only 52% felt comfortable using the label with non-Christians. More remarkably, almost a quarter of respondents feel less comfortable using the term with non-Christians since Trump was elected.
Many Christians, myself included, can relate to the unease that evangelicals are feeling right now. Some of the movement’s conservative leaders have given overwhelming moral support to the campaign of an arrogant, sexist, thrice-married casino magnate who, until about half a second ago, was pro-choice. And Trump won, in part, thanks to the millions of evangelicals who voted for him. So it’s not hard to see why anti-Trump evangelicals want to steal the cage. But as with Carter, their actions are largely symbolic.
The root of the word “evangelical” is evangelize, which was transmitted from Greek to Latin through Middle English. This translates to “good news,” a phrase Christians use to represent the belief that the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus offer people a way to commune with God. Given that anti-Trump evangelicals presumably still hold this belief — some leaders have even reaffirmed it as part of their protests — then, at the most fundamental level, nothing has changed.
But in American religious life, the meaning of “evangelical” goes beyond its etymology. Since 1989, most scholars have accepted that the word refers to anyone who holds four beliefs: a high regard for the Bible, an emphasis on the crucifixion of Jesus, the need for people to be converted, and a connection between the faith and public life. There has never been a political test for the term.
Again, defecting evangelicals still hold these views, so nothing has changed. In fact, these leaders claim to be leaving because of these views, not in spite of them. So the evangelicals who claim Trump’s victory drove them away are, in fact, still evangelicals. A tiger may pretend to be a lion, but its stripes are a dead giveaway.
Carter’s renunciation of the Southern Baptist Convention illustrates what could happen next with evangelicals who reject the movement. In 2007, Carter founded the New Baptist Covenant, an effort to bring together diverse Baptist groups to work toward unity and bridge theological and political divides. The former president convinced 30 Baptist organizations representing more than 20 million Americans to join his collective. The glaring exception was the Southern Baptist Convention. Whatever influence Carter had on his fellow Southern Baptists was significantly undermined the moment he declared he was no longer part of the group. The same fate faces anti-Trump evangelicals who pretend to leave.
Even if there was a National Department of Evangelism allowing individuals to revoke their membership, there is a very good reason for them to stay put. By pretending to leave evangelicalism, these leaders are creating a vacuum of blind republicanism within the movement and compromising its ability to bring about the change they wish to see. As with most movements, evangelism is more easily changed by internal pressure than by external protest.
Trump keeps his friends close, so it’s likely that his evangelical base will have some influence on his policies and behavior. This important religious group needs as many principled dissidents as it can muster to hold the Trump administration’s feet to the fire on protecting minorities, immigrants and the poor as the Bible commands.
If evangelicals give in to their frustration and disassociate themselves from their religious community, countless people could suffer the consequences of their absence. Instead, anti-Trump evangelicals should stay put. Their community needs them. And America too.