I still have my very first Bible. I was five years old when it first overwhelmed my small hands – a heavy, black hardcover edition of the King James Version with “Holy Bible” stamped in golden, old English lettering on the front.
I still remember the first verse I ever learned using that Bible. My teacher at the fundamentalist Baptist school I attended underlined it with a red felt pen, as she did for all the students in our first grade class. In what we’d now call an eight point serif font, that verse spoke these words in black and white: “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth” (Genesis 1.1).
I don’t use that Bible anymore; I haven’t since junior high in the early 1980s. Even during my twelve-plus years as a church minister, I favored modern translations, meaning King James either gathered dust on my office shelf or slumbered with other religious tomes in a storage box.
But I can’t bring myself to just give it away. That Bible represents the first baby waddles of almost my entire lifetime following in the path of Jesus Christ. It also reminds me that the white Southerners who ran my Baptist school, in a working-class part of oil-boom Houston, were the first to teach me what Christians call the gospel. That’s the “good news” about a God who loved us so much that he sent Jesus, the faultless One, to willingly endure enhanced interrogation, skin-shredding torture, and an unjust, grisly execution – all so we wouldn’t have to.
Tragically, I also absorbed from these fundamentalists a plethora of self-righteous and judgmental teachings, massive errors of biblical interpretation which sounded perfectly legit to my young mind and faith at the time. The toxicity consumed me from within as I became a harsh judge not only of others, but also of myself. Emotional and spiritual anguish came to dominate my waking hours, and did so for years.
Over the last decade, deep personal archaeology guided by a skilled and caring therapist, supported by my wife and a small circle of friends to whom I can tell anything, has been vital in my still-ongoing recovery from fundamentalism.
But though my first Bible teachers saddled me with a ton of theological and psychological baggage, I am still thankful that they introduced me to Jesus. That much they got right, these Southern, white evangelical Christians who distrusted government and universities; looked with suspicion upon any scientific theory that measured time in millions of years; abstained from profanity, pop music, drinking, and dancing; and cherished both Robert E. Lee and conspiracy theories about the end of the world.
Though many of those teachers have passed on, I recognize them in today’s Religious Right. That’s the millions of evangelicals, overwhelmingly white, who intensely support very conservative politicians and causes, believing that doing so returns America to its Christian roots. Such a spiritual revival, they say, spares the nation from God’s judgment for its immorality and brings economic blessings and security. Their words and actions make them seem descended from my Baptist school teachers, and not in a good way.
Nothing grieves me more right now. It both shatters my heart and infuriates me that so many politically conservative white evangelicals, who were first to tell me about Jesus, have made his “good news” look, to a watching world, like anything but. Not since the televangelist scandals of the 1980s have I witnessed so many people who aren’t Christians express their shock at the actions of those who profess to be.
Most of this, of course, has come in reaction to white evangelical support for Donald Trump; 81 percent of white evangelicals casting ballots in the last election voted for him. Even now, 66 percent of them still believe he’s been a good president.
Particularly galling have been the defenses of Trump and his policies from some of their most prominent leaders, including Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell, Jr., Robert Jeffress, and Pat Robertson. (This follows their rape culture-promoting comments on Trump’s behalf after his sexually violent history became a major campaign issue.) Their enthusiasm seems undiminished, notwithstanding the strong public consensus, expressed in historically low approval ratings, that he’s been ineffective, dishonest, reckless, and indifferent to the needs of regular people.
More troubling, their unwavering support seems terribly hypocritical, in view of the numerous ways Trump and his actions as president have opposed basic Christian principles of love and compassion, especially toward people who are already suffering.
By supporting him so strongly, these and other evangelical Trump enthusiasts, ranging from those with prominent pulpits to the average Joe and Jane in the pews, have effectively tied many Americans’ perception of Christianity to Trump’s behavior. And again, not in a good way.
Don’t believe me? Check out this small sampling of op-ed titles:
“White Evangelicals Are Why America Can’t Have Nice Things” (HuffPost, June 13, 2017)
“Trump’s Pious and Dangerous Enablers” (The New York Times, July 14, 2017)
“Does God Believe in Trump? White Evangelicals Are Sticking with Their ‘Prince of Lies’” (Newsweek, Oct. 5, 2017)
This is only the tip of the iceberg. I’ve heard so many comments that reflect our current reality – that evangelical Trump enthusiasts have made Christianity look terrible, unrecognizable to many who aren’t Christians, as well as to some of us who are.
And what, then, of the gospel? The gospel, the good news about Jesus that these evangelicals would claim is the most important message in human history, gets completely lost.
To be perfectly clear: I truly believe that white evangelical support for Trump has seriously damaged the cause of the gospel. The Religious Right is alienating far more people – “causing them to stumble,” to use Jesus’ language – than it is attracting, all in pursuit of political goals.
A number of us Christian public commentators said that this would happen if Trump were elected with a high level of white evangelical support. One of the most prominent was Andy Crouch, longtime executive editor of Christianity Today. One month before the election, he wrote:
Enthusiasm for a candidate like Trump gives our neighbors ample reason to doubt that we believe Jesus is Lord. They see that some of us are so self-interested, and so self-protective, that we will ally ourselves with someone who violates all that is sacred to us—in hope, almost certainly a vain hope given his mendacity and record of betrayal, that his rule will save us.
Sadly, Crouch’s words are ringing more true by the day.
Along Came a Senator
And we haven’t even mentioned the harm done to the gospel endeavor by the strong white evangelical support for Senate candidate Roy Moore. That has come despite several credible, carefully vetted accounts of his sexual abuse and harassment of women as young as age 14. 60 percent of likely-to-vote evangelicals in Alabama say they still strongly support him. 67 percent still believe he’s a man of “strong moral character.”
Appallingly, Alabama Gov. Kay Ivey, an evangelical Christian, believes that Moore’s accusers are telling the truth – but will still vote for him.
But lest we think it’s just folks in Alabama, the Religious Right’s unofficial national spokesmen have also weighed in. Jerry Falwell, Jr. declared his belief that Moore is the one telling the truth. Longtime Christian radio host and author James Dobson has not withdrawn his endorsement. And then there’s Franklin Graham:
The hypocrisy of Washington has no bounds. So many denouncing Roy Moore when they are guilty of doing much worse than what he has been accused of supposedly doing. Shame on those hypocrites.
— Franklin Graham (@Franklin_Graham) November 17, 2017
Graham misses the fact that some of the most scathing denunciations of Moore’s candidacy have come from Alabamians. Also, at least 18 prominent Republicans, including House Speaker Paul Ryan, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, Sen. John McCain, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, and even Alabama’s own Sen. Richard Shelby have called on Moore to withdraw from the race. (And I don’t know what Graham thinks about child sexual abuse, but I submit that there’s nothing more evil than that.)
Many strong denunciations have also come from white evangelicals who opposed Trump last year, particularly among evangelical women. I know many such followers of Jesus, and I’m proud of them for continuing to speak out. But that doesn’t keep the Religious Right’s perverse backing of Moore from reinforcing the already grotesque image that many people have of the Christian faith.
To be honest, if I weren’t already a Christian, I would perceive Christianity that way, too.
Power to the (Wrong) People
Standing with Moore also gives a sense of power to sexual predators and child molesters. I highly doubt there are many evangelical Moore enthusiasts who have considered this.
It is a terrible fact of life that there’s no place on Earth where abusers and assaulters won’t go to carry out their evil acts, and that includes houses of worship. I have known a number of abuse survivors who were victimized by people they knew from their churches. I have heard countless other such stories; often, the perpetrators were trusted family friends and even church leaders.
Many a church has a predator in its midst. My friend Boz Tchividjian, a law professor and former prosecutor who heads an organization called Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment (GRACE), says that, for all the problems the Catholic Church has had with abuse, “More children are being abused within Protestant churches than in the Catholic Church.” That says to me that the presence of abusers is truly widespread.
And what are these sexual predators, sitting in churches where Roy Moore is being defended as a godly man, thinking? They’re feeling emboldened, seeing and hearing exactly what they’ll need to say and do to get people to support them, should their own abusive acts ever come to light.
And what are abuse victims, sitting in these same churches, thinking? If they have yet to come forward to talk about what’s happened to them, they are now even more frightened of doing so; it would be an added trauma to tell their story, only to find people believe their victimizer rather than them. Those who have already told others about their assaults will likely feel re-traumatized.
Further, when students are sexually assaulted at Liberty University, where Jerry Falwell, Jr. is president, what are they to think about coming forward? Between 2007 and 2016, 42 sexual assaults were reported at the school’s main campus. If Liberty’s incidents of collegiate sexual violence are under-reported at the rate of the national average (one out of five), it’s reasonable to assume that over 200 sexual assaults took place at Liberty during that 10-year period. Falwell’s support of Moore, on top of his vocal defense of Trump last year against charges of sexual misconduct by a number of women that grew to 22, can only serve to discourage more victims from coming forward and getting the help they need.
The Religious Right’s strong support for Trump and now Moore are hurting a ton of people.
Man of Constant Sorrow
Yes, I am grateful to politically conservative white evangelicals for introducing me to God and the gospel many years ago. Yet their descendants now weigh my heart down with great sadness for all the damage they are doing. Sometimes, it very much feels to me like I’m reading from a totally different Bible than they are. And their Jesus? Unrecognizable to me. I wish it were not so.
Andy Crouch also wrote last year (emphasis mine):
There is a point at which strategy becomes its own form of idolatry—an attempt to manipulate the levers of history in favor of the causes we support. Strategy becomes idolatry, for ancient Israel and for us today, when we make alliances with those who seem to offer strength—the chariots of Egypt, the vassal kings of Rome—at the expense of our dependence on God who judges all nations, and in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan, and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence. And because such strategy requires capitulating to idols and princes and denying the true God, it ultimately always fails.
Dear brothers and sisters in the Religious Right, in love I plead with you to turn away (in biblical language, repent) from depending on men like Trump and Moore. Repentance is the right thing to do, but I ask you to also do it for the sake of sexual abuse and assault survivors, and so that predators are not emboldened in committing their heinous acts. Do it, too, for the sake of the gospel, and so that you don’t continue to cause many to stumble.