Is It Time to Admit the 'Grotesque Caricature' of White Evangelicals Is the Reality?

There’s no doubt that evangelicalism seems to have an image problem, especially since its overwhelming alliance with Trump.

This week dozens of prominent evangelical leaders gathered at conservative Wheaton College, in Wheaton, IL, to address the “grotesque caricature” of their faith in the Trump era. The organizer of the gathering, Doug Birdsall, told the Washington Post that under Trump’s leadership, the term “evangelical” has taken on too many negative associations, especially when it comes to racism and nationalism. The goal of the gathering, then, was to address these concerns while returning the word “evangelical” to its core meaning. Rather than a political pariah, an “evangelical” is simply “a person who believes in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus’ work on the cross, personal conversion and the need for evangelism.”

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There’s no doubt that evangelicalism seems to have an image problem, especially since its overwhelming alliance with Trump. In the minds of many outside the fold, evangelicalism no longer represents a specific religious position centered on sin and the need for individual salvation but rather a self-serving, power-hungry political movement that will side with the devil himself for the sake of political pragmatism.

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“When people say what does it mean to be an evangelical, people don’t say evangelism or the gospel,” Birdsall told the Washington Post. But this image problem isn’t new. Although polling showsthat overall feelings toward evangelicals as a religious group have remained relatively stable since 2014, the perception of evangelicals as “agents of intolerance,” to quote John McCain back in 2008, well predates the Trump era.

And besides, we shouldn’t chalk it all up to image. The fact remains that over 80% of self-identified white evangelical voters cast their lot with Trump. Moreover, despite a host of missteps and scandals, overall evangelical support for Trump as president hasn’t declined but grown.

It would be wrong to paint all evangelicals with the same brush. Evangelicalism is and will remain a complex socio-political movement propped up by a religious rhetoric that emphasizes individual piety, but its adherents aren’t all the same. Indeed, some of Trump’s most vocal critics come out of evangelicalism.

That said, given the consistency with which white evangelicals as a whole have lent their support to Trump—and right-wing candidates and policies more generally—it’s far past time to own up to the fact that the image is, in many respects, the reality.

Well-intentioned evangelical leaders may not like to hear that, but it remains the case that an overwhelming majority of evangelicals continue to support Trump and his policies. Sure, they may have issues with his moral center, or lack thereof, but they’re willing to overlook all this for the sake of political expediency, for promises of “religious freedom,” and the hope of a judiciary stacked with conservative judges.

This is because, at the end of the day, evangelicalism isn’t really about personal values but, rather, social and political conversion and control. Little has changed, in this sense, since the days of Jerry Falwell and his Moral Majority (as Daniel Schultz rightly pointed out recently on RD).

The Trump era, then, does not create a new problem for evangelicals and their image; it’s simply casting a very bright light on what has always been there, at least for the past forty years or so.

If evangelical support for Trump sounds more calculated than sincere because of this, that’s because it is. But while critics charge evangelicals with hypocrisy, with undercutting their own assumed moral authority for the sake of political success, it’s important to emphasize, contra John Fea, that this more pragmatic approach to social change isn’t completely outside their own religious traditions, and it’s questionable the extent to which evangelicals ever held much moral authority in the first place.

Evangelicals put great stock in the Bible, but as others have noted in the Trump context, the Bible is full of stories of God choosing morally ambiguous and even repulsive individuals to lead the so-called faithful. Indeed, that narrative line, repeated over again in numerous ways, makes up a significant portion of what most Christians refer to as the Old Testament.

Another way to put the matter is to say that the Bible isn’t all about love and how you relate to your neighbor, as Christians of a more liberal bent seem to assume privately and when they enter the public sphere. Love’s certainly part of the story too, but it’s not the whole story: sure, the Bible tells us to love each other, to care for poor, the outcast, and the oppressed; but it also tells us many stories of cold calculation, self-preservation, and ideological success—and many of the “heroes” of the Bible play just these games.

It would be wrong, however, to understand the distinction between these two impulses according to the tired—and ultimately anti-Semitic-distinction—between an Old Testament God of wrath and a New Testament God of love. There’s plenty of the latter in the so-called Old Testament, but there’s also pieces of the former in the New Testament. Indeed, someone like Paul could not have become an apostle if the narrative of the morally ambiguous, repulsive individual weren’t in place there as well. Even after Paul’s conversion, he’s not exactly the nicest guy on the block; indeed, if one reads Galatians, Paul can even sound a little Trumpish: certain of his own position while dismissive of others, all the while touting his accomplishments as a way to gain favor (Gal. 1-2).

In pointing this out, I’m not saying that I agree with the particular narrative arc of the morally suspect individual and the way it’s deployed by evangelicals in our current political landscape. I don’t, and if I had to throw my hat into the “culture wars” I’d throw it on the side of the more liberal Christians every time. Nevertheless, it’s wrongheaded to reduce evangelical involvement in politics to a simple hypocrisy that lies completely outside the purview of biblical faith. In this respect I part ways with John Fea, who believes that prominent evangelical leaders have “sacrificed their moral vision” to become “court evangelicals.”

While emphasizing only this aspect of the Bible is horribly simplistic, to assume it’s not there is to ignore the book’s complexity and ambiguities, some far from ideal, that mark the history of Christianity. But covering over the “darker” aspects of the faith for the sake of love, as more liberal Christians tend to do, reads Christianity just as simplistically, even if it’s a reading that is, in many ways, more palatable.

I applaud those evangelicals who want to think honestly about the movement’s current image in the Trump age. But appealing to some “pure” form of the faith beyond its supposed political corruption—beyond the racism, xenophobia, nationalism, and the like that even critics of paper over—isn’t the way to go.

Not only do such appeals represent little more than nostalgia-laden theological desires that have little to do with what goes on on the ground, but they also ignore the fact that the line between religion and politics is flimsy at best, if not entirely non-existent. Evangelicalism, in its current manifestation, isn’t a religion that has been corrupted by its entry into politics but is, rather, a social movement that works through a specific type of politics. The substance of that politics has been clearly on display for some time now. Trump and his evangelical allies didn’t invent it; they only exacerbated it.

If evangelicalism ever wants to play a more positive role in social and political life, perhaps it’s time its leaders acknowledge that its public image isn’t a “grotesque caricature,” but the thing itself. There’s a weighty theological term and disposition for taking an approach that comes to terms with such hard truths but attempts to chart a new path beyond them: repentance. If that doesn’t happen, then Daniel Schultz is probably right: the meeting at Wheaton will not have accomplished much of anything.

 

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Hollis Phelps is a professor and writer.