My last post, addressed to white, Christian Trump supporters and calling for dialogue about common ground, brought an overwhelming response, including emails from a number of conservative readers. As I read and responded to emails, I noticed some things that have led me to respond and continue the conversation.
Progressive readers described their own sense of sadness, frustration, anger, and fear. They clearly do not understand how so many conservative Christians have embraced a man like Donald Trump whose behaviors are often diametrically opposed to Christian values of love, humility, faithfulness, and justice. Many described decidedly unchristian behaviors toward them from their own conservative Christian families and friends.
Conservative readers explained their own reluctance to vote for Trump ― for most who emailed me, he was not their choice in the primary. They described their own feelings of hurt and frustration at often being labeled by progressives as ignorant, backwards, and hateful. They explained their vote as more consonant with platforms aligned with their beliefs ― such as those against abortion, illegal immigration, and marriage equality ― than with the candidate. Some said they support policies Trump has enacted but do wish he’d behave better.
Still this leaves me wondering. While the conservative folks who emailed me did not vote for Trump in the primaries, obviously a lot of conservative Christians did. How do conservative Christians explain Christian support for Trump in the primaries (particularly when there were many other candidates who demonstrated a much more authentic Christian identity)? And why aren’t more conservative Christians calling out Trump’s ongoing bad behavior?
I greatly appreciate the efforts of Russell Moore (with whom I would agree on very little) of the Southern Baptist Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission who has time and again pointed out the ways Donald Trump has violated core Christian principles of love, compassion, and morality. This is in great contrast to many conservative Christian leaders who have embraced Trump, to the extent that Franklin Graham has even suggested that immigration is not a biblical issue.
I was also disappointed that most of the conservative Christians who responded did not fully engage the problem of fake news. The most common response I got was, “Well, the Left has fake news too.” That’s true. And I deplore it as well. I don’t read it, and I certainly don’t share it on Facebook. The preponderance of fake news, however, came from the Right and supported Trump. I so wanted to hear a firm renunciation of fake news as ever an option for conservative Christians—no matter what the Left does—as a matter of Christian principle and commitment to truth.
I think I am most baffled by the difference I’ve seen and experienced in conservative Christian hospitality and support for some of Trump’s most harmful policies, such as the Muslim ban, the wall between the US and Mexico, the Dakota pipeline, and most recently the refusal to lend federal support to transgender students seeking to use the bathroom that corresponds to their gender identity.
You see, I’ve seen conservatives act out the best of Christian faith. I’ve watched them take food to homes where someone has died and show up to help a neighbor when a flood or tornado has caused devastation. I’ve seen them build wells and schools and hospitals in impoverished communities. I myself experienced amazing openness when I was conducting the research for my book on Southern Baptist women. I called up complete strangers and asked if they’d help me with a focus group. Without fail, they said, “Yes, and I’ll make us all dinner.” I was a stranger, and they took me in. I know conservative Christians who open their homes and hearts and welcome strangers, even one as different from them as I. What I don’t understand is why this happens so easily on a personal level but not so much in the political arena.
As I heard from both sides, I realized just how wide the gulf is ― after all, the conservatives who contacted me, on the whole, were genuinely respectful and thoughtful people who want to engage in dialogue. Other than a couple of emails, I did not at all hear from the angry people who shouted “Lock her up” and voted for Trump in the primary. Yet as I read through their responses ― and a few of them offered careful, point-by-point replies to my post ― I saw how far apart we are in what we believe and how we imagine Christian faith should look in the world.
My hope, however, was raised by their interest in having an authentic conversation and looking for common ground where we can work together. For example, I can point to wonderful ongoing exchanges I’m now having with two conservative people about our differences. We’re encountering each other openly and authentically, and I’m enjoying our email conversations.
And so, I wonder if we can stop stereotyping each other, insulting each other, and making assumptions about each other. We can’t talk if we’re calling each other names. We also have to agree that authentically faithful Christian people can truly disagree on important matters. A few emails I received gave me the sense that the writers thought that if I’d just get right with Jesus I’d surely see things their/the-one-right way. We cannot have real dialogue if people think they have the only right answers. God is bigger and the world more mysterious than any of us can understand. Our answers are always at best partial and incomplete, even when they are deeply felt and held. We must have the humility to hear and consider arguments others make, even, and perhaps especially, when they differ from our own.
We don’t have to agree on everything to work together for common goals. If we insist on ideological purity and agreement on every point of theology, we will probably find ourselves alone and unproductive. Instead, if we can focus on possible commonalities, we may be able to talk and to work together. When I interviewed more than 150 women for that book on Southern Baptist women, I found that, whether they were fundamentalist, moderate, or progressive, they agreed that domestic violence is a problem that needs to be addressed. Can we then imagine that we might work across our differences of biblical interpretation or views on predestination to encourage lawmakers to enact policies that help prevent domestic violence, provide services to survivors, and ensure safety for families?
Finally, even as we disagree and continue to stand firmly on our convictions, we must find a space for compassion toward one another. The Dalai Lama tells a story of meeting with a Tibetan monk who had spent 18 years in a Chinese prison. The Dalai Lama asked him what he thought was the biggest threat or danger he faced during that time in prison. The monk replied that what he feared most was losing his compassion for the Chinese. I fear we on the Left and Right are losing compassion for one another.
These are difficult times, and we are miles apart. Our differences matter and are life and death for some of us. Still, we cannot lose sight of the humanity of those we oppose. Particularly, those of us who call ourselves Christian must find a way to embody the Gospel’s call to love God and love one’s neighbor as oneself, to speak truth with love, and to do justice even when we disagree.