It will not surprise regular readers of this blog that I believe racism is one of the core dysfunctions gutting American society. It also won’t shock the world that I’m convinced American racism is directly tied to the inability of Christians, our nation’s largest religious group by far, to deal with their history of, and their ongoing participation in, forms of racial oppression.
Such forms have sometimes been overt. For example:
Forced conversions of indigenous peoples to Christianity by European invaders
Enslavement of indigenous peoples and Africans
Ethnic cleansing of Native nations from their homelands
The founding of the Southern Baptist Convention to preserve slavery
Genocides of Native tribes
Ban on Chinese travel to the U.S.
Native boarding schools
Jim Crow laws
Japanese American incarceration
Government-imposed sterilizations and experiments on people of color
At other times, the forms are masked by institutions or by rule-of-law rhetoric. For instance:
Excessive force disproportionately used against African American men
Excessive minimum prison sentences for nonviolent drug offenders
Neglect of the health and environmental concerns of people of color
Propagation of the “welfare queen” myth
Cruel immigration “enforcement” actions
Mass deportations of previously protected refugees
The admitted Muslim ban
A refusal to condemn the alt-right and white nationalism
Millions of Christians through our nation’s history have been complicit in these horrible deeds, whether by active means or by silent shrugs. And until modern American Christians find a way to resolve the massive racial rifts among themselves, America as a whole will not.
I say this not out of a sense of American Christian exceptionalism. Rather, it’s because of the sheer numbers of American Christians and their influence on American society, both for better and worse. America continues to struggle with its original sin, racism, in large part because American Christians do.
“Something of a generational gap seemed to emerge among the attendees over the question of whether the Church should seek to rise above contentious political questions or address them head on. With a few exceptions, the older, white cohort stressed civility and unity. What the movement needed, they said, was a gentler evangelicalism that reached across partisan aisles for the common good. Others, especially the leaders of color, stressed repentance; there could be no real unity without white evangelicals explicitly confronting the ways they had participated in the degradation of persons of color and women. They contended that white evangelical churches and organizations had for decades supported a political agenda that deemed unborn lives more sacred than living black lives.”
It doesn’t appear that any consensus was forged on race, though it is encouraging that a handful of Christian leaders have begun talking about it across racial, gender, and generational lines. But what happens from here is unclear.
What is clear is that what ails American Christians is much bigger than Donald Trump, though it cannot be fully discussed without addressing his highly influential role in the current situation. He has frequently denigrated people of color, particularly those born in another country, and has bent over backwards to not criticize white supremacists. He often has stoked Americans’ fears of foreigners with weapons of mass destruction and said very little about angry white men who have taken dozens of lives with their own legally purchased weapons of mass destruction. His policies have uplifted the wealthy at the expense of the poor, disproportionately impacting minorities. And few white evangelical leaders have boldly called him out on these.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
Hi friends! I’m grateful that the terrific Christian ministry Sojourners has given me a chance to submit a column for their website. In a way, it’s a sequel to a post I wrote on this blog a couple of months ago about evangelical rape culture. My post for Sojourners is a post-election look at what many evangelical women are feeling about the Church these days. It’s called “Evangelical Divison Problems,” and you can read it here: https://sojo.net/articles/evangelical-division-problems
You would be completely justified in asking, “Where are the moderate Christians?”
And what an irony that the faux-Islamic terrorists, those whom you would not even consider Muslims, are celebrating this Trump victory. His rhetoric plays right into their hands for recruiting more fighters to carry out attacks in Mosul and on Main Street.
And in the meantime, you live in greater fear than ever, some of you not even leaving your homes for days last week, because of those he has inspired to harass, terrorize, and assault you.
You would be completely justified in feeling like a bullied child, who looked to a friend for protection from the bully’s threats, only to find that the friend gave the bully the exact thing he needed to carry out his threats.
To my LGBTQ friends, I am also truly, deeply sorry. I was so wrong. I really thought older, hard-nosed evangelicals like Pat Robertson were waning in influence. I thought you wouldn’t need to fear that their rhetoric would continue to threaten your families or inspire violence against you. After all, as I said to some of you, there were many of us younger evangelicals calling out Robertson and those like him that have demonized you, using their large Christian media platforms.
Yet here we sit, a week after the election. And Robertson, Ralph Reed, James Dobson, and the old Religious Right have again become kingmakers. Exhibit A: during the campaign, Trump appeared on Robertson’s network nine times.
For all the important discussions about the votes of struggling white families in rural America, he still would not have won were it not for evangelical leaders pushing their flocks to vote for him.
To My Friends Who Have Survived Gender-Based Violence
To my many friends who are survivors of abuse, rape, sexual assault, domestic violence, and other forms of gender-based violence, please know that even though I no longer work for an anti-violence organization, I still think of you every day. I am sick that I and other allies did not keep Trump from winning. I know that many of you have hardly slept in these days since he won, and that when you do sleep, your attackers appear, or even Trump appears, in your nightmares.
He re-traumatizes you and re-triggers your PTSD by so many of the things he does. And so do prominent evangelicals like Vice President-elect Mike Pence and Jerry Falwell, Jr., when they support him and label as liars the nearly 20 women who have come forward, saying he violated them in some way.
You would be completely justified in saying that evangelicals have helped a man who loves to take power from women, whether by calling them “pig” or by “grab(bing) them by the pussy,” to attain more power than any other person on Earth.
I will not cease to advocate for you and for justice. I will not stop educating others about the devastating effects of rape, sexual assault, abuse, and harassment in its many evil forms. I will work all my days with you and with other allies to change our culture and society so that a generation from now, behavior like his will become unthinkable for any man, much less someone running for the highest office in our land.
To My Evangelical Brothers and Sisters
To be clear, dear evangelicals, I am not labeling as racists or misogynists any of the evangelicals I know who supported Trump. There are certainly racists and misogynists among his supporters, but I highly doubt that is true of any evangelicals that I know.
For so many of these evangelicals, the election was an agonizing choice. They prayed and even fasted as they sought God’s wisdom. In the end, they felt like there were no good choices at all, only one that was “bad” (Trump) and another that was “worse” (Secretary Clinton). Further, they hated a lot of the things that he said and did; their vote for him was not a vote to condone those things. They felt like they were trying to make the best of a sucky situation.
Also to be clear, those of us evangelicals who voted for Secretary Clinton are not baby killers. We are not okay with conflicts of interest, or even the appearance thereof, in government. We also grieve when police officers lose their lives. And we hate it when protests turn violent.
All in all, I think the time for calling ourselves “evangelicals” is done. I, for one, feel like I have reached the breaking point of identifying myself as an evangelical. It’s a moniker that has grown in negative connotations over the last twenty years or so, especially because of its political associations. Now, because of this recently concluded campaign and election, “evangelical” has become strongly linked for many non-evangelicals with:
The enabling of racist harassment and violence
The emboldening of anti-Muslim terrorists in the U.S.
Discrimination against the LGBTQ community
The abuse of women and the reinforcement of rape culture
The permission to blatantly lie in civic discourse
Ironically, “evangelical” comes from the Greek euangelion, meaning “good message.”
Of course, I know “evangelical” is just a label, and it’s not even in the Bible. So maybe I shouldn’t feel so sad about laying it down. After all, early Christians in the biblical book of Acts were called followers of The Way, and later, simply Christians.
And leaving behind “evangelical” doesn’t mean I’ve changed what I believe, or that I will abandon my relationships.
But still, for a long time, it really meant something to me to be an evangelical Christian. Evangelicals were the Christians who decided in the middle of the last century that they were going to be different from fundamentalist Christians, who seemed to freak out over science, social justice, movies, and pop music. Evangelicals were supposed to be more thoughtful and less judgmental, more neighborly than suspicious of their neighbors. They would be in the world, but not taken in by the world’s temptations – power, wealth, and indulgence.
Yet IMO, the evangelical movement has become much like the fundamentalism of old, with many denying climate science, for instance. And as evangelicalism has morphed into a new fundamentalism, our reputation has suffered accordingly.
Two years ago, when I attended a breakout session at a conference on bringing peace to zones of violent conflict, evangelical Christianity was brought up in a discussion about religious extremism. That was an eye-opener for me about what “evangelical” has come to mean for many people.
But you know that we evangelicals truly have a bad reputation when pro sports coaches call us out by name.
Just days ago, Stan Van Gundy, the head coachof the National Basketball Association’s Detroit Pistons, said: “And then you read how [Trump] was embraced by conservative Christians. Evangelical Christians. I’m not a religious guy, but what the hell Bible are they reading? I’m dead serious. What Bible are you reading? And you’re supposed to be — it’s different. There are a lot of different groups we can be upset at. But you’re Christians. You’re supposed to be — at least you pride yourself on being the moral compass of our society. And you said, ‘Yeah, the guy can talk about women like that. I’m fine with that.’ He can disparage every ethnic group, and I’m fine with that. It’s embarrassing. I have been ashamed of a lot of things that have happened in this country, but I can’t say I’ve ever been ashamed of our country until today.”
Gregg Popovich, the legendary head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, deep in the heart of Texas and the Bible Belt, had this to say: “We live in a country that ignored all those values that we would hold our kids accountable for. They’d be grounded for years if they acted and said the things that have been said in that campaign by Donald Trump. I look at the evangelicals and I wonder, ‘Those values don’t mean anything to them?’”
Couple their reactions with the following disturbing ones, from Trump supporters that are current or former clergymen. There was Rev. Franklin Graham, two mornings after the election. He seemed to be in quite a judgmental mood:
I believe God’s hand intervened Tuesday night to stop the godless, atheistic progressive agenda from taking control #Godfactor#Election2016
Dr. Robert Jeffress, senior pastor of First Baptist Church of Dallas, talked with Fox News after two evenings of protests outside his church. (The protests have since then continued unabated.) He threw some Mount Everest-sized self-righteous shade: “Look, these people, these protesters, aren’t opposing me or our church. When I see these protesters, it kind of reminds me of a flea striking its hind leg against Mount Everest, saying I’m going to topple you over. Ultimately, they’re protesting the eternal Word of God, and guess what, they’re not going to be successful in toppling the Word of God.”
There’s also this from Ralph Reed, who wasn’t ever a minister but who founded the old Christian Coalition. The day before the election, he said:
Talk about pushing the boundaries of IRS rules for churches on political endorsements!
I really don’t recognize this evangelical movement any more.
To think that there was a time, about twenty years ago, that evangelical churches seemed to be making strides in one of the great struggles in American (and human) history: race relations. The Southern Baptist Convention declared in 1995 that its historic support of slavery (one of the reasons the SBC was formed in the 1840s) was wrong; it asked forgiveness for its grievous sins in that regard.
In the late 1990s, the evangelical men’s organization Promise Keepers brought thousands of men of all different races to American football stadiums. It stunned many observers when it put racial reconciliation front and center as one of its highest priorities. Yes, Promise Keepers had its problems and shortcomings, particularly regarding gender roles. But the programming at these conferences was always led by multi-ethnic music teams, and the slates of speakers were always intentionally multiracial. Confession of even the hidden prejudices (what we might now call “implicit biases”) within the heart was modeled by speakers and encouraged among the attendees.
Ironically, one year the Promise Keepers theme was “Break Down the Walls.”