Reclaiming 'Evangelical' In A Trump Presidency

One of the most consequential statistics of the presidential election is that more than 80 percent of white, "evangelical" Christians supported Donald Trump. From Florida to the Rust Belt states of Ohio, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the votes of those who self-identify as evangelical formed the core of President-elect Trump's support.

Questions about this overwhelming endorsement reverberated during the campaign. How could self-described, "family-values" Christians support a thrice-married adulterer who bragged about his ability to engage in sexual harassment? When he talked about building a wall and referred to Mexicans as "rapists," where was the invocation of Leviticus 19:33-34, which commands the Israelites to welcome and even "love" the resident alien among them? The Apostle Paul was absolutely correct that "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Rom 3:2), but there was a striking shift in this election. Many polls indicated that a majority of "evangelicals" no longer attach much importance to personal morality as a prerequisite for effective and faithful public service.

The events of this nasty campaign and the election of Mr. Trump warrant a reevaluation of how we use "evangelical." The Greek word, euangelion, means "good news," as in Mark 1:1. "The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ." Within the New Testament, an "evangelist" is someone who announces a profound way of being in the world, built on love of God and neighbor, protection of the poor, and humility. Throughout the Gospels, Jesus requires believers through their faith and action to share this specific message of sticking up for the most vulnerable (e.g., Matthew 25).

It is time to reclaim the "evangelical" designation for a much broader swath of believers, to demand that pollsters and pundits quit asking whether someone self-identifies as an "evangelical" when finding out political preferences. Perhaps a satisfactory alternative and more accurate designation would be "politically conservative Christian."

Within the new landscape of a Trump presidency, "evangelical" could indicate someone who stands on the front lines against injustice. Might some Christians across the political spectrum bring "good news" to a divided country by repudiating racism, anti-Semitism, Islamophobic harassment, sexism, and bullying in all of their insidious forms? When any person, from the President or a college student, exhibits bigotry, the only Christian response is unequivocal condemnation. Already the Klu Klux Klan has announced that they will march in North Carolina to celebrate President-elect Trump's victory. The example of the Hebrew prophets and Jesus himself necessitates direct protest against this type of event. To allow such behavior to fester and infect our common life is the antithesis of what it means to be "evangelical."

Believers do not have to agree on every hot-button issue to find common ground. Progressives have often been snide and dismissive of politically conservative Christians, leading to divisions in communities and even families. Conversely, politically conservative Christians have acted like support for gay marriage and differing views on reproductive rights for women are indicative of immoral, perverse, and therefore un-Christian beliefs. Undoubtedly these tensions will persist, but one hope (I would even call it a necessity) is that at least some believers might bridge differences over hot-button issues and speak up together about the "good news" of Jesus's ministry of compassion and justice. Many younger believers are demonstrating their willingness to work across longstanding dividing lines.

Martin Luther King, Jr., in his "Letter from a Birmingham Jail," declared that inaction among his fellow Christians is contrary to the model of the first Christians: "If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century." Dr. King's warning and personal example are more timely than ever, as churches of all stripes struggle with dwindling numbers and a growing sense of irrelevance. The central reason for this slide into irrelevance is the frequent unwillingness to be passionate defenders of love of God and neighbor, which Jesus describes as the core of the faith (Matt 22:36-40). Jesus's call to radical discipleship necessitates direct action whenever bigotry and injustice occur. Such action is our best, most authentic hope for growing the church.

The secular drift of the "evangelical" movement in American public life has reached a breaking point with the election of Trump. From the perspective of this author, politically conservative Christians can no longer claim this term for themselves. A new chapter has to dawn, where "evangelical" means spreading the faith through love for God and neighbor, not capitalizing on a divided nation for political gain.