The Centre Cannot Hold: The Blurry Future of American Evangelicalism

“And what rough beast, its hour come round at last, Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?” W.B. Yeats, The Second Coming

***update 9/29/16: The New York Times recently published a very good article that explores this topic more in depth and personally, and I highly recommend reading it (link in the text). I still beat it by a few days though!***

This election year has been a tumultuous one for too many reasons to mention. It has definitely been the most polarizing  of any in recent memory. It’s impact will be felt long past the tenure of whichever candidate wins in November in our country as a whole, but specifically among those who call themselves Evangelical Christians.

Previously, at least in conservative Evangelical circles, the choice for president was fairly clear and rote: you could only vote Republican. The Democratic party was basically equated with everything that Evangelicalism was not. It was pro-choice, supported by the ACLU, sought to keep the bible, prayer and creationism out of our schools, pushed agendas such as gay rights and “big government”, and was generally seen as the party of left-leaning atheists, elites, and mainline pseudo-Christians. Republicans were the voice of “real” Christians at the political level. It valued proper moral and ethical behavior grounded by Judeo-Christian fundamentals not only in our country but in its leadership.

2016 is changing all that. Drastically.

For the first time the Republican party has nominated someone who is seen by many Evangelical and Republican leaders to be completely counter to what Evangelicalism – heck, even Christianity – stands for. Before he was even nominated Donald Trump’s name was associated with excess, greed, lavishness, boorish behavior and self-aggrandizement. He was characterized as a “liberal’s liberal“, supporting the right to abortion and drug legalization. He’s had multiple failed marriages and publicised affairs. He hardly mentioned his faith until his presidential run (he is a Presbyterian).

Balance that with Hillary Clinton’s presentation of herself as a person of faith. Her identification as a Methodist has been well known for some time. She responded to a question about how she balances her Christian faith and her left-leaning politics in a remarkably candid and thoughtful way:

“Thank you for asking that. I am a person of faith. I am a Christian. I am a Methodist,” Clinton responded. “My study of the Bible … has led me to believe the most important commandment is to love the Lord with all your might and to love your neighbor as yourself, and that is what I think we are commanded by Christ to do. And there is so much more in the Bible about taking care of the poor, visiting the prisoners, taking in the stranger, creating opportunities for others to be lifted up … I think there are many different ways of exercising your faith. I do believe that in many areas judgment should be left to God, that being more open, tolerant and respectful is part of what makes me humble about my faith,” she added. “I am in awe of people who truly turn the other cheek all the time, who can go that extra mile that we are called to go, who keep finding ways to forgive and move on.”

This has put many “Democrats-are-the-devils-party” Evangelicals into a quandry. Yes, Trump is pro-life (today) and says that he’ll “protect Christians” from everything from ISIS to Starbucks red cups (“I’m a good Christian…If I become president, we’re gonna be saying Merry Christmas at every store … You can leave happy holidays at the corner”). But many Christians would consider him morally bankrupt due to his past behavior and unrepentant stance towards it and everything else. Clinton, on the other hand, touches on many of the issues that modern Evangelicals are currently turning towards, including racism, sexism, homophobia and care of the “least of these”: refugees, the poor, the disenfranchised. This is all while still being pro-life, pro-gun control and basically everything the party has typically stood for in the past. Her husband’s affairs and scandals do trail her doggedly, but perhaps now many are more willing to at least understand her situation as part of a rocky – but still intact – marriage. One writer even said that “she, a Democrat, is now the most overtly religious candidate running for president in 2016”.

What may be happening is that American Evangelicalism is splitting as it once split away from the more mainline, progressive Protestant denominations so many decades ago. Even though Evangelicalism in the States as well as England was originally associated with not only fiery preaching but social activism (John Wesley as a primary example), it became more focused on orthodoxy through the influence of Christian Fundamentalists in the 1920’s. It then started to take on more of a political bent, seminally in the famous Scopes Trial and later through the rise of Falwell and other Christian right-wing political aspirants. To those Evangelicals who remember the “culture wars” of the ’90s the war never ended, even though it appears to have been all but lost today. Abortion is still around. Homosexuals are now not only not stigmatized but have marriage rights. Marijuana is becoming legal in more and more states. America is becoming more and more secular. For these voters the choice seems to be to hold back the gagging and endorse Trump for fear of things getting worse, or to concede what were once core issues in order to support a candidate who at least bears the marks of authentic faith. Some conservative Evangelical leaders and figures including Russell Moore, Max Lucado, Thabiti Anyabwile (a member of The Gospel Coalition), Eric Teetsel  and most recently Philip Yancey have all come out against Trump and have especially been critical of Trump as well as his faith-based supporters, however it’s difficult to see if their words are having any impact on anyone who is a Trump supporter.

Younger millennial voters may have a completely different take from the previous generations of Evangelicals, as they grew up in a time where Evangelicalism was more ridiculed than revered. And rightly so, perhaps. The leaders of the political Christian right now, including Jerry Falwell and James Dobson for example, come off as self-absorbed, backward, narrow-minded charlatans to many younger Christians. And as some Evangelicals claim to feel marginalized or “persecuted” for their faith, many millennials and other Christians look on these claims, made mostly by white men and women living in comfort and security, as nonsensical in the face of global persecution of Christians overseas and the real plight of minorities here.

So it will be interesting to see where the chips fall come November. How will American Evangelicals see themselves in an era of Trump, or an era of Clinton? Will Evangelicals unite or further split off into factions, each at war with the other politically and philosophically? Will the center hold? And will anyone care?


3 thoughts on “The Centre Cannot Hold: The Blurry Future of American Evangelicalism

  1. Really! This opinion article is so unbalanced and historically inaccurate. It paints anyone who is conservative Christian as an unthinking dimwit who opines for the good ole days of the Salem Witch trials. Give me a break! The rise of Trump is what you get when you have a culture that creates a dwindling middle class, politicians who get rich from their office, wars that make no sense, promote white guilt and black victim hood, turn a blind eye to the slaughter of Christians in the Middle East, make illegal immigration a badge of nobility and make Americans feel less safe in their native country- which the left feels is not our native country?? ….. This article has nothing to do with the work of being a Chaplain.

    • Not everything I write about is specifically about Chaplaincy. I write about a lot of other things as well, if you look through my posts. And I’m not trying to be unbalanced, but I am presenting my opinion and not writing a news article (which are rarely balanced as well to be honest). As I think this is affecting the culture in which we all live and breathe I wanted to put my two cents in. Plus as Chaplains I think this election is having a dramatic impact on the spiritual lives of many people. I think you’re overstating things a bit, but trust me from the people I talk to who came from an Evangelical background like myself that is exactly the picture that is painted. And none of your criticisms have anything to do with faith at all.

    • I’ll add that there are many good, honest and faithful Christians who are seriously concerned about the place of Christianity in our country should Clinton be elected. Her hands are not clean, and there are many who feel that her progressivism is counter to their idea of what America was, is and could be. However I’m writing mainly to highlight the conundrum that many Evangelicals find themselves in this election, and how it may reflect the national divide that is currently evident.

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