The 2016 election was a doozy in terms of bringing strange bedfellows together into voting blocs for both presidential candidates. But one of the most confounding and in some aspects a disturbing conundrums was why a group of faith-oriented believers seemed so drawn to the likes of Donald Trump.
Here was a womanizing, money-worshipping television reality star who never met an insult he did not like. Yet Christian voters were flocking to support him.
What did the so-called “evangelical” community find so appealing about Donald Trump?
To answer that question, we can turn to a variety of sources. But one must first consider a definition of the term “Evangelical Christian” and where it comes from. So here’s a nice little description from a site titled GotAnswers.org, a Christian website.
Here’s how they answer the question: “What is an Evangelical Christian?”
Answer: To begin, let’s break down the two words. The term Christian essentially means “follower of Christ.” Christian is the term given to followers of Jesus Christ in the first century A.D. (Acts 11:26). The term evangelical comes from the Greek word that means “good news.” Evangelism is sharing the good news of the salvation that is available through Jesus Christ. An evangelical, then, is a person dedicated to promoting the good news about Jesus Christ. Combined, the description “evangelical Christian” is intended to indicate a believer in Jesus Christ who is faithful in sharing and promoting the good news.
In Western culture today, there are many caricatures of evangelical Christians. For some, the term evangelical Christian is equivalent to “right-wing, fundamentalist Republican.” For others, “evangelical Christian” is a title used to differentiate an individual from a Catholic Christian or an Orthodox Christian. Others use the term to indicate adherence to the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. In this sense, an evangelical Christian is a believer who holds to the inspiration, inerrancy, and authority of Scripture, the Trinity, the deity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith alone. However, none of these definitions are inherent in the description “evangelical Christian.”
In reality, all Christians should be evangelical Christians. The Bible is consistently instructing us to be witnesses of the good news (Matthew 28:18-20; Acts 1:8; 1 Corinthians 16:1-4; 1 Peter 3:15). There is no better news than Jesus! There is no higher calling than evangelist. There is no doubt that holding to the fundamentals of the Bible will result in a certain worldview and, yes, political belief. However, there is nothing about being an evangelical that demands a certain political party or affiliation. An evangelical Christian is called to share the good news, to preach God’s Word, and to set an example of purity and integrity. If these callings require political action, so be it. At the same time, evangelical Christians should not be sidetracked into abandoning our highest calling—sharing the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Putting faith to work
There are several things I found fascinating about that description. For one thing, I am a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA.) Our particular congregation contains both highly liberal and highly conservative Christians whose issues of concern are often addressed from the pulpit. But the central goal of the church the last few years has been to encourage discipleship, which among other things, means putting faith to work through action.
This is a most effective way to distil issues of theology. When people are called together to work in service to others, as the bible calls us to do, fine points of theology do not matter that much.
Yet there are times when theology matters a whole bunch. Throughout the history of the Judeo-Christian religion, sorting out the meaning of scripture and the right relationship of God has taken on highly controversial tones. One could argue that the entire ministry of St. Paul, for example, was spent helping people confront misunderstanding of this new religion that would come to call itself Christianity.
But before that, a long series of *prophets stood on the outskirts of civilization calling people to repentance. When John the Baptist started dunking people in the Jordan river, the rumor mill about his activities got all the way back to the chief priests. John had no patience for their prurient curiosity.
And neither did Jesus. When it came down to it, the Son of God was a sonofabitch to the people in charge of religion. He set out to make them feel the wrath of God.
This proves that it is sometimes the unfortunate work of true evangelicals to say things and do things that are not popular with the proponents of mainstream religion. True to this tradition, Pope Francis has been acting like a prophet for the Catholic Church. His claim that “all scripture that does not lead to the love of Christ” is a highly evangelical statement.
He is not a popular man in conservative quarters because more conservative Christians, both Catholic and Evangelical, are accustomed to enforcing the rules of faith and driving a confessional brand of involvement. In order to belong, one must speak and choose to reflect the words of God in a certain way. In other words, “talk the talk,” or get out. You obviously don’t belong.
The sad thing is that this brand of faith can also come to constitute a certain “dog-whistle” cliqueishness. The confessional brand of religion is like joining a club. And when a club is formed, it can be leveraged to political as well as religious purposes. This is the exact form of social construct to which Jesus most objected. He branded those d0g-whistle priests a “brood of vipers” for huddling together and lashing out at anyone that stood up to their supposed religious authority.
But there is great comfort to many people in a religion where the rules are clearly mapped out. Not having to think about what you believe or explain it to anyone else is a simple form of existence. And if by convenience it also simplifies the voting process, well that’s just dandy, isn’t it?
And so many evangelicals look to their religious authorities for direction. If those authorities communicate that the “greater good” will be served by supporting even as flawed a candidate as Donald Trump, then evangelicals will support the man through thick and through thin. And sure enough, many evangelical leaders and conservative political voices called for evangelical Christians to vote for the man because promises were made that he would work to ban abortion, or gay marriage, or any number of theo-political issues bandied about during an election cycle.
Anyone that challenges this central authoritarian call to loyalty can be branded an outsider and not worthy of attention. Traditionally, this is manifested in statements such as “you can only test scripture with scripture.” That is, the bible is the only source of truth.
The problem with this approach to authority is that it can fail miserably in the face of legitimate theological challenges. The preferred method is to simply deny the possibility that scripture could in any way be wrong. This is a convenient tautology.
It is also the practical method of those that used to stand on top of the walls or before the city gates shouting at the seemingly crazed prophets calling people to account for the true voice of God. So it is no coincidence that when a man such as Donald Trump puts forth a call to “build a wall,” the concept has great appeal to conservatives accustomed to blocking out that which they don’t want to consider. It is the perfect symbol for an insular faith.
A prophet in his home town
The problem with this approach to belief is that it is not biblical at all. It stung the Lord Jesus, for example, to be mocked and disavowed in his hometown. Mark 6:4: “Jesus said to them, “A prophet is not without honor except in his own town, among his relatives and in his own home.”
Thus it is not unexpected that even today, any evangelical willing challenge the cliquish or dog-whistle signals of Christian faith should be similarly despised and mocked. People take great offense in being questioned about their faith, especially when they sense a vulnerability in themselves that they might not like to admit.
As a writer who talks about religion quite a bit, and who is willing to challenge both the religion and politics of others based on what the Bible says, rather than what people say about it, I have bumped into plenty of anger and disappointment from friends, relatives and strangers. One confronted me with this interesting observation: “You make me feel shitty about things.”
And I suppose that is probably true. If one clings to beliefs that don’t stand up to rational or religious scrutiny, it surely can make you feel “shitty” about it.
Stiff-necked and hard-hearted
Being challenged on theological grounds can simply harden those beliefs even more. I can honestly attest to the fact that I have likely had that effect on more than one Christian believer. The risk of abandoning cherished beliefs is never easy. But neither does God appreciated stiff-necked or hard-hearted believers. Giving up the legalistic ways of hard-hearted faith has always frightened the shit out of people.
Some have accused me of having no heart at all, that I am more about the theoretical idea of faith than having a trust in God. But they have not walked a single step in my shoes, or faced the same deaths in my family that I have faced. I have trust that God will play a role in how those lives will end, and what happens to the spirit of that person in the long run.
Thus I feel empowered to speak as honestly as I can about the deceptions created on foundations of biblical literalism and the relativism that evangelicals too readily accept in trading approval for political power. It’s disgusting, and it produces ugly and false compromises in support for leaders such as Donald Trump. There have been many other abusive figures in history that claimed to be a Christian and turned out only to be selfishly murderous bastards.
And so, to not challenge those trading in politicized religious beliefs… when the Bible clearly maps out the call to speak truth to power… is to abandon the heart of all Christian belief.
That is what the Pope is talking about when he says that scripture that does not lead to the love of Christ is obsolete. That is the true and honest calling of all evangelicals. To trust that the love of God has meaning, significance and purpose in your life, and to feel the love of Christ and do your best to extend that grace and love to others. That is the mission of faith.
Yet the Evangelical Prophet must also suffer in the face of distrust when challenging others to consider how their authorities might be misleading them. Jesus set the example, it is for prophets of all levels and calling to follow that lead. His disciples did it, trusting that they would be greeted or else they dusted off their feet and left that town to the dog-whistle virtues it claimed for its own.
That’s what it means to be a Christian Evangelical.
*In religion, a prophet is an individual who is claimed to have been contacted by the supernatural or the divine, and to speak for them, serving as an intermediary with humanity, delivering this newfound knowledge from the supernatural entity to other people. The message that the prophet conveys is called a prophecy.