Some of it is being around Christians who leave no room to wrestle with questions and doubts. Some of it is being publicly shamed by Christians on social media over standard disagreements that should never have escalated like they did. Some of it involves private confrontations characterized by harsh judgment rather than grace and truth. Some of it is the unequivocal support by Christians of President Trump, who for them is a deeply confusing champion for evangelicals.
A lot of it is that, actually. President Trump seems to represent for virtually all of them the separation between what they thought Christians were supposed to support and applaud vs. what they apparently do. This is the new tension in the American evangelical church, particularly for those under the age of 30. This is not a mere reflection of my musings; this reflects what I have learned through numerous personal conversations and plenty of surveys.
If you argue that it's not there, you're wrong. If you argue that it's not fair, you may be right. The Trump-supporting evangelicals I know – at least the vast majority of them – are undeserving of most of the vitriol aimed at them. They are about as far from ‘deplorable’ as they can get. They constitute many people in my family, my church family, and my friends who love Jesus and love others, and I wouldn't trade them for the world.
Yet, fair or unfair, the reality is that the public witness of the church in general has suffered a huge blow, and this is a matter that must be considered. There is a confusion in a watching world brought on by the perception of an unflinching embrace of a man whose history and many of his ongoing actions stand in sharp contrast to both the ethics and the people whom Christians have historically supported.
Don’t get me wrong: everybody understands that conservative Christians want a President who is pro-life, defends religious liberty and traditional family structures, and positions himself as a friend of Israel. There is no confusion about those particular polices. If a Christian said, “This is my only choice for President because of these issues,” others might not like it, but this kind of Torn Evangelical Voter makes sense in both political and worldview scenarios.
The Torn Evangelical Voter is the one who can publicly say, “Dear God, that’s not good,” when necessary; the voter who says, “I don’t know if I feel good about that particular policy as a Christian – but I do about that one, and here are my reasons in both cases”; the voter who writes a letter pleading for a pro-life cause, and who writes a letter begging for the President to stop calling people names; the voter who can say, "The Supreme Court and lot of judge appointments were why I voted for President Trump, but, wow, some of this other stuff...”
I have yet to have a conversation with someone who was surrounded by Torn Evangelical Voters and who still left the church because of political disillusionment. What’s devastating the reputation of the church is the current tendency in too many evangelical Christians to circle the wagons around every issue and every tweet when there are some things that ought not be defended or protected.
To my fellow Christian evangelicals, I think there is a way to take a principled stand on a problematic candidate (I'm sure there will be plenty more in our lifetime) if we are careful to do at least two things: draw clear lines between what we do and don’t like, and demand accountability and growth from our candidate. President Trump keeps his ear in the evangelical wind. This is leverage that can and ought to be used, especially as the next election looms.
Here is a list of ideas that I hope will provide a way of thinking about how Christians caught in the carnal complexities of politics and candidates can think and speak about issues in a way that balances truth and compassion. My fear is that if we don't think missionally even as we are thinking politically, we may learn very quickly what it looks like to live in a country where our spiritual salt has lost its savor.
- If we are going to call for truth and respect in our nation, we must model it and demand leaders who model it, or people will have no reason to think we are serious.
- If we are going to emphasize the importance of personal character, we must model it and demand leaders who model it, or people will have no reason think we are serious about character.
- If we are going to lobby for laws that support strong traditional families, we must model it and demand leaders who model it, or people will have no reason to think we are serious about the importance of stable families.
- If we are going to focus on sexual honor and purity, we must model it and demand leaders who model it, or people will have no reason to think we are serious about either of these things.
- If we are going to demand that all people be treated with the value, worth and dignity due them as image bearers of God, we must model it and demand leaders who model it, or people won’t think this applies to all people. If we are going to complain when SNL mocks the President, we should be the last people to post mocking memes of AOC, and the first to demand the President stops calling people Pocahontas.
- If we are going to demand “guilty in a court of law” as a standard of establishing what someone like Kavanaugh did or didn’t do, we should not chant “lock her up” or insist Obama was born in Kenya or that Hillary leads a group of pedophiles in the non-existent basement of an innocent pizza joint, lest no one think we are serious about our own standard.
- If we are going to reject the Black Lives Matter and the #metoo movement because there are problems within the movement, please, for the love of God, we should also demand that we find even better ways to address the very real sins of racism and sexual harassment that have haunted our nation, lest people think we are either ignorant or heartless.
- If we are going to demand a wall, we should also demand lots of doors, so that our desire for order and safety is clearly matched by our desire to show compassion and generosity.
- If we are going to value the economy more than anything else (which, according to polls, we do), we should commit to being radically generous with our money, lest people think we are trying to serve both God and mammon.
- If we are going to value life, let us do it from womb to tomb, and let us show it by supporting parents and children with our money, time, friendship and things, and by supporting private and public systems that make the choice for life easier rather than harder, lest people think we only care about the lives of children when the weight of the support is on the mother, and costs us nothing.
- If we are going to support America First, we should explain what that looks like for someone whose allegiance is first and foremost to the global kingdom of God rather than to the local empire of the United States. And if we don't know what that means, maybe we should figure that out.