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7 Theses on Evangelicalism After Donald Trump and 2016

October 19th, 2016 | 28 min read

By Jake Meador

In the aftermath of the many scandals of the past week and a half, which began with the Trump tapes, and the consequent loss of endorsements for Trump (and the increasingly appalling support for the man), now is a good time to take stock of where evangelicalism is as a social movement in America and what our post-Trump future will be.

Toward that end, here are seven theses for American evangelicalism after Trump.

1: We are seeing a generational split that suggests deeper issues that exist between boomer evangelicals and gen x and millennial evangelicals.

Architectonic narratives that supposedly Explain All The Things are tricky and often simplistic. So we should be careful about deploying them too readily. That said, in this case the generational divide between the pro-Trump crowd and the Never Trump crowd is… well, stark.

The most prominent pro-Trump evangelicals have been people like Eric Metaxas, James Dobson, Mike Huckabee, Jerry Falwell Jr., Ralph Reed, Tony Perkins, and Wayne Grudem. Of the lot, Metaxas and Perkins, both 53, are the youngest.

The most prominently Never Trump evangelicals have been people like Russ Moore, Ben Sasse, Eric Erickson, Joe Carter, and Alan Noble. Of that group, Moore and Sasse are the oldest, age 45 and 44 respectively.

To be sure, there have been exceptions to this rule. The more fundamentalist fringes of the SBC have given us some younger Trump supporters. (And boy howdy do I have some stories about the emails I’ve received.)

Meanwhile, many of the older leaders at the roots of the Young Restless Reformed movement have been reliably Never Trump as well. John Piper, Al Mohler, and Doug Wilson have all publicly condemned Trump in no uncertain terms and of the three, Mohler is the youngest at age 56.

But the generational gap still seems to exist broadly speaking, though I sadly have not been able to find any polling that confirms this, even if both media coverage and social media (as well as many anecdotal experiences I’ve had) all suggest that this is the case.

The roots of this split are multiple, I suspect. Here are several that come to mind:

  • First, boomer evangelicals still remember a time when evangelicals were close to the halls of power and Christianity was seen as a basic, almost assumed aspect of American public life. It is thus much harder for them to let go of that than it is for gen x and millennial evangelicals.
  • For younger evangelicals, our earliest memories of church life are often closely tied to either attractional mega churches or more fundamentalistic congregations. But both of those church experiences in different ways hint at a more marginal role for the church in America’s public life. The attractional model suggests that something has been lost and must be regained (via this new church growth technique cribbed from bad business books). The fundamentalist move suggests a kind of self-imposed exile from a decadent, godless public square, often bundled together with really bad eschatology. But both assume on a foundational level that America is no longer a de facto Christian nation.
  • Gen x and millennial Christians are often more conscious of America’s ugly history of racism and so are less inclined to be nationalistic than boomer evangelicals, many of whom are the children of parents who stood by and watched the Civil Rights Movement  happen and who pulled their kids out of public schools in response to Brown v. Board. This causes younger Christians to be more suspicious of the American project as a whole and much less comfortable with the kind of god-and-country nationalism that has been a signature quality of the old religious right.
  • Many of the institutions built by boomer evangelicals are deeply dependent upon a de facto Christian order to maintain their existence. They are not set up to survive in a world where federal loan money is not available to Christian colleges or where non-ecclesial ministry organizations are subjected to laws about hiring discrimination as it pertains to LGBT individuals or gay and lesbian couples. This quite understandably makes them more keen to protect the status quo. If Liberty University lost access to federal loan funds, Liberty University may well cease to exist. Even the (entirely illusory) hope of Trump appointing SCOTUS justices that can prevent that from happening is a powerful bargaining chip with the current president of Liberty who is also the son of its founder. Younger evangelicals, in a sense, have the luxury of saying “we don’t care if we lose some institutions,” because they are not nearly so invested in those institutions to begin with.
  • As we have discussed before, the quality of evangelical theological reflection is rising rapidly. This naturally causes people to begin to ask more careful questions about the role of the church in public life, the role of Christianity in the founding of America, and so on.

For all these reasons, boomer evangelicals and gen x and millennial evangelicals might best be thought of as fairly separate groups as far as polling and sociological analysis is concerned.

2: In many ways, the younger generation is actually being faithful to the call given to us by the boomer evangelicals.

That said, the links between the two groups still exist. One of the many ironies of Trump’s ascent is how it has cast a dark shadow over many of the things that boomer evangelicals wished to teach and pass on to their children.

How many millennial evangelicals heard our boomer pastors and youth leaders talk about the importance of “absolute truth” in our adolescence only to see many of the leaders of that generation embrace a man whose acquaintance with the truth is basically non-existent?

How many of us heard so frequently about the dangers of relativism and are now watching the very people who taught us about those things hem and haw over the appalling failures of their preferred candidate?

The rude way of spinning all this, of course, is to say that the boomers didn’t actually believe what they were saying and we’re better off without them. The far more charitable (and, I hope, accurate) way of understanding it is to say that many boomers really do believe in those things they taught us but, when faced with a threat to one of their greatest idols, they flinched rather than following through on their core principles.

Younger evangelicals are in a dramatically different position because the idol of political power has relatively little appeal to us (we’re far more interested in cultural approval from social and media elites, which is another topic for another day). So when it comes to Trump, we do not have the same kind of draw toward ignoring our principles in this arena that older Trump-supporting evangelicals do.

Rather, we look at the current landscape and many of the things we were taught growing up are precisely what make us so aggressively anti-Trump. If we believe that truth is eternal, objective, unchanging… well, we shouldn’t elect a man who lies more before breakfast than the typical American does in a week.

If Christianity really is pro-women, as so many of us were told throughout the 80s and 90s and early 2000s, well, maybe we shouldn’t support a candidate for president who brags about his ability to sexually assault women without consequence and whose supporters do things like this:

If character matters, then we probably should, you know, talk about the character of our candidate in our 15-minute explanation of why we endorsed him instead of offering carefully, decadently wrong explanations based on the media and cultural landscape.

The problem here isn’t that the boomers lacked principles or were, en masse, some uniquely bad group of Christians; it’s that the boomers who have embraced Trump have forgotten their principles.

If there is a charitable way of looking at boomer-era evangelicalism in 2016, it is to say that their principles were sound, they have just generally failed to abide by them.

This, of course, squares with what we have been saying for years here at Mere O: We don’t need a full repudiation of American evangelicalism or the Religious Right; we need a better version of them. (And we’re not the only ones saying it.) But the foundations for such a thing are there and, this is key, were provided for us by the same generation that is now embracing Trump.

3: We must resist the pull toward false equivocation.

One of the primary things we have heard from dissident evangelicals this campaign is that we cannot vote for either Trump or Hillary because both are equally bad. But this is the wrong way to approach the problem.

In Hillary Clinton we have a more corrupt version of a standard Democratic politician with a slightly more hawkish streak than President Obama. That’s obviously bad—the Democratic commitment to abortion is a horror, their approach to religious liberty is awful, and their disregard for any social body between the individual and the magistrate is quite possibly enough in itself to disqualify them from receiving evangelical support in normal national elections.

That said, the critiques one could make of Hillary can, in most cases, be made just as easily of her fellow prominent Democrats. The same is not true of Donald Trump. His campaign has been fueled by white nationalism from its earliest days. His misogyny has been known since before he even announced plans to run. In the time since he has run, these things we already knew about (most of which disqualify him) have become more apparent.

But more needs to be said: The man has announced in debates that he would order our military to kill families of suspected terrorists. That is a war crime by any reasonable definition of the term. Moreover, suppose Trump were the commander-in-chief and he gave that command—what comes next? Do our military personnel submit to the orders of the commander-in-chief and commit war crimes? Or do they ignore them? But if they ignore them… what does that mean? If the president gives a command and our military disregards it, who is actually in charge? Did we just have a coup? These are the questions that a Trump presidency will raise—and we haven’t even considered the fact that there is a non-zero chance of Trump using nuclear weapons.

This is what makes the kind of equivocating of a Rusty Reno or Mark Bauerlein so infuriating. In the First Things podcast where they explained their appalling lapse in judgment, Reno said the following:

I was very frustrated by the taboo against any positive reason to support Trump. There’s plenty to criticize about Trump but to me it becomes an exercise in virtue signaling. But I knew I was going to vote for him, so why not step forward and be public about it?

More reflective Christians have become accustomed, for some time, to dismissing politicians of either stripe with some variation of this line. The GOP is bad on and the Democrats are bad on so I’m going to just go with the least bad option. We have done this for so long that we have apparently lost all sense of proportion in assessing political evils. And if there has ever been an election where this sort of both-sides-are-bad-ism causes otherwise smart people to say appallingly stupid things, it is this one.

Let’s review:

This is not an election for both-sides-are-badism. This is an election for recognizing the wildly abnormal failings of the Republican candidate and coming to some entirely warranted judgments about the political party that would support such a man. (One of which is almost certainly “The Republican party as it currently exists is an enemy of the common good.”)

Failing to understand how bad Trump is will lead us into a kind of foolish hope that the GOP is salvageable. It is not. Whether the whole thing needs to burn down or every person in a prominent position of leadership needs to lose their job, one way or another the GOP as we have known it is finished.

None of this is to say you are obliged to vote for Hillary. It is possible for both candidates to be bad in ways that one finds disqualifying and yet for one of those candidates to be significantly worse than the other.

Taking a more practical approach to the question, there are only a half dozen states that are of any consequence for the presidential election and so citizens outside of Ohio, Pennsylvania, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Colorado, and Nevada all have the luxury of approaching their vote as a statement of principle rather than an actual participation in the act of choosing our president. So they can write in Evan McMullin or vote for the American Solidarity party or write in someone like Ben Sasse. These are all fine options.

That said, it’s also entirely reasonable for evangelicals in those swing states to vote Hillary simply to stop Trump. We can continue to fight on abortion and religious liberty under a Hillary administration. (And we ought to.) Nuclear war or a constitutional crisis (both live possibilities with a Trump presidency) are far harder to deal with. So while I will not be voting for Hillary, an evangelical vote for Hillary is far more understandable than a vote for Trump.

4: We must reject the politics of disdain.

One of the stories of 2016 is that it marks the year many prominent people in American politics gave up on the possibilities of persuasion or change in their political opposites. Hillary Clinton has described half of her opponent’s supporters as fitting in a “basket of deplorables” and has said such people are “irredeemable.” Donald Trump has dismissed entire ethnic groups.

Kevin Williamson has dismissed basically the entire rural white under-class. A number of white politicians have made similarly dismissive comments about African Americans. The cultural left has dismissed religious conservatism as being hopelessly and irredeemably bigoted.

2016 has, so far, been the year when our political opposites stopped being human beings and became instead disembodied boxes of beliefs, prejudices, and policies that cannot be changed but can only be smashed, discarded, or otherwise locked away and forgotten.

This is an attitude that Christian people must reject in no uncertain terms. One of the glories of the Gospel is that it tells us no person is beyond redemption, no person is so lost that they cannot be found. Moses was a murderer. Rahab was a prostitute. David was an adulterer and probably a rapist. Manasseh was a blasphemer. In the New Testament we see more of the same—the apostle to the Gentiles was himself either a murder or an accessory to murder, depending on what you make of his involvement in the killing of Stephen.

Church history continues the same story. Augustine’s philandering is notorious, for example. John Newton, author of “Amazing Grace,” was a slave trader. CS Lewis likely slept with his dead best friend’s mother for a number of years after agreeing to care for her if his friend was killed in World War I.

We would do well to develop a habit of reminding ourselves that whoever our irredeemable, deplorable person or people might be, those are the people Christ died for. Those are the people we may, one day, live with in the New Heavens and New Earth. “You have never met a mere mortal,” to borrow from Lewis.

5: Resisting the politics of disdain does not mean we offer cheap grace or fail to make distinctions.

If Donald Trump turned up in a pastor’s office tomorrow and said he wanted to repent of his sin and embrace Christ, the first thing that pastor should tell him is that the Gospel is for him and he is welcome to come to Christ, to dine at the Lord’s Supper, and to be baptized, if he hasn’t been already.

The second thing he should tell him is some variation of “sell all you have and follow Christ.” In Trump’s case, this would almost certainly mean liquidating all his assets, giving most of the money to the poor, and then embracing some kind of personal rule of poverty and asceticism while living in an obscure town somewhere in Montana, refusing all interview requests, and attending a conservative quasi-fundamentalist Bible church that doesn’t have a single person who has even seen an episode of The Apprentice because no one in the congregation owns a TV.

I am entirely serious about this. If Christ could tell his listeners that it is not inappropriate to gouge out one’s eye in order to follow Christ, it’s not unreasonable to think that a man as lecherous, greedy, and narcissistic as Trump should do literally everything he can to give up his wealth, his womanizing, and lust for the limelight.

This, of course, is the point that many Trumpkin evangelicals miss in their assessment of Trump. Even if we grant that his claims of a conversion earlier this year are real (and we’d have to deny a Mount Everest-sized pile of evidence to do that), it does not remotely follow from that repentance that we should, therefore, hand over the nuclear codes to a man whose judgment, temperament, and character all make him a uniquely bad choice for the presidency, even in this uniquely bad election. And the reason here is not because we are electing a pastor-in-chief, but because we are electing a human being who will wield enormous over a tremendous number of people, born and unborn. Character matters for everyone, not just pastors.

Evangelicals can often embrace a kind of selective radicalism when we talk about the nature of grace and forgiveness. We love the idea of the philandering womanizer becoming the next Augustine (as long as we aren’t one of that womanizer’s victims prior to his conversion, of course) but we don’t really have any clue how that process happens after the womanizer says “I repent.” The default move, quite often, is to move toward a kind of default American normalcy in which the person is shoved into programs, told multiple times to start reading their Bible, and is magically expected to “get better.” We then expect them to resume life as it was before because… well, something about God’s forgiveness.

This, of course, ignores a great many important things:

  • Spiritual maturity is difficult and, for especially needy people (such as Trump), it requires a great deal of time, effort, and intention not only from the individual seeking maturity but from that individual’s fellow church members who ought to be supporting the person in their pursuit of godliness. This probably means things like praying every morning with his pastor or a trusted friend, attending Bible study weekly, partaking of the Lord’s Supper weekly, and embracing some voluntary rules, such as volunteering in a homeless shelter.
  • Though no sin is so great that it can separate us from the love of God, it does not follow from this that all sins should be treated as equal in the day-to-day functioning of the church. When we fail to understand the unique challenges with overcoming certain types of sin, often sexual in nature, we frequently create circumstances in which predators can thrive. They come into the church with a believable conversion story. We uncritically embrace it, fail to understand what spiritual growth (and temptation) will look like for them, and they are immediately welcomed into normal church life. Then 10 years later we’re shocked when a bunch of our kids come forward with stories of abuse.
  • Third, failing to recognize the consequences of sin can often lead to poor handling of the people who suffer as a result of the sins of a person who has since expressed penitence. It is especially worth noting how this tendency affects women in the church who are pressured to forgive men who were abusive to them in the past.

All of this is to say that evangelicals need to devote more thought to the dynamics of the Christian life, how Christian maturity happens, and how we can create communities, structures, and ways of living that support the work of maturing in Christ. We also need to remember that the problem with Trump’s character has nothing to do with electing a “pastor-in-chief” and everything to do with the fact that character matters with everyone, politicians very much included. (Or does that concern only apply to Hillary?)

6: We need to soberly assess the problems, both internal and external, facing the American church.

The above considerations naturally lead into a closer reflection on Christian community, spiritual formation, and the work of Christian institutions.

One of the heartening things in the past weeks has been the groundswell of popular opposition to Trump amongst evangelicals. At this point, many prominent young evangelical women have gone after Trump as have non-white evangelicals, and now the evangelical institutions are finally catching up. (The Gospel Coalition and ERLC deserve special credit for being solidly Never Trump since the beginning.) To Christianity Today and World, welcome to the Never Trump Club. We’re glad to have you.

That said, what we’re confronted with now is a series of very difficult problems, all of which will need to be addressed as we move past this wreck of an election. (As Wedgeworth noted on Twitter last week, much of what we and others in the Never Trump camp have been doing is about November 9 far more than it is about November 8.)

  • Our own house is gravely disordered. The polling numbers for Trump support from evangelicals from about May (when he sealed the nomination) until quite recently have been appalling. Many of our oldest, most experienced leaders have caved in to this man. From here on out, we deserve whatever we get. We need to fix a great deal of things within our churches and other institutions.
    • We need to recover the idea of Christian wisdom as it informs our political life. Clearly many of our leaders have lost this important quality in recent years, abandoning it for a blind and amoral commitment to partisan politics.
    • We need to ask the hard and uncomfortable question of how a white nationalist rapist who could trigger a constitutional crisis or nuclear war could poll so extraordinarily well with so many evangelicals for so long.
    • We need to invest deeply in Christian education so that our families and their children will have the mental equipment required to resist frauds like Trump and make a credible case for the faith in the public square.
    • We need to practice the virtues of hospitality. This election has so badly compromised our witness with many that I fear the only way we will regain it is through the testimony of our lives and the places we create. The situation facing our church may be as simple as “we will create places where the faith is embodied and demonstrated in a day-to-day existential way or we will die.”
  • Even as we deal with the disorder in our own house, the enemies are at the gates:
    • A pending lawsuit in Massachusetts will determine if a new state law that requires churches to comply with state beliefs about gender fluidity is allowed to stand. If it does, we will be primed for a series of laws that not only destroy religious liberty in this country but also destroy First Amendment protections for free speech.
    • On a related note, it’s probable that our university system is not long for this world, if current trends are any indicator.
    • Taken together, this means that our rights to free speech, our churches’ independence, and our educational institutions could all be under direct assault in the very near future.
  • From this, I think we can say a few more things:
    • We need shelters not only to make our faith credible again in the eyes of our neighbors, but also to provide a place where the faith is actually taught and passed on as our institutions are assailed by a technocratic government.
    • We need to get serious quickly about the task of Christian education for our children. While we should not bind consciences and tell people that public schools are categorically bad, we should recognize that our nation’s schools have become radically hostile to orthodoxy and we should plan accordingly. (This will cost us money.)
    • Our churches need to be equipped by their pastors to see and understand what is happening and to read it rightly. This means that our pastors also need to be equipped

7: Christians should not be surprised by unexpected resurrection.

One of my favorite things about studying history is coming up against those great “what if?” moments in world affairs. When Ogedei Khan died from a heart attack in his 50s, the Mongol general Tsubotai was probably close to Vienna. He had already swept through Russia and there’s no credible reason to think the Germans or Franks would have been any more competent to resist him than the Russians.

If Ogedei had a normal heart, he likely would have lived longer and his generals would have been free to march to the Atlantic. Instead, the Khan died and his generals had to return home. The Mongols never marched that far west again as a single, unified force. The course of western history quite literally swung on the fact that Genghis Khan’s heir had a bad heart.

You come up against these things regularly if you spend any time reading history, which I think everyone ought to be doing. In writing a paper about Martin Bucer, I learned that he was only days away from having his request to be released from the Dominicans turned down by the pope. Cardinal Aleander had arrived in Germany and heard about the young Dominican with Lutheran sympathies and sent a sternly worded letter to the pope telling him not to release Bucer.

Unfortunately for Rome, by the time Aleander’s letter arrived, the pope had already approved Bucer’s request. The man who would play arguably the largest role in developing the modern Reformed doctrine of the Lord’s Supper and who would shape John Calvin’s pastoral theology over three years of mentoring him in Strasbourg could easily have been burned by the Dominicans as a heretic before he had the chance to do any of that. A significant part of the Reformation turned on the fact that Aleander’s letter took too long to get to the pope.

The lesson from both of these stories is that history routinely turns on seemingly small, insignificant things. An emperor has a weak heart. A cardinal can’t get a letter to Rome fast enough. Small things can change the world and we almost never know what those small things are at the time they happen. We who are living in the western world in 2016 do not know what the years to come will hold.

It is possible that we are in the same position as north African Christians in the 11th century, living in a formerly Christian culture that is rapidly fading. It’s possible that, as was the case in north Africa, our church will be dead within a century. Let me repeat myself: It is entirely possible (and maybe even probable!) that the western church will be dead by 2100.

But, then, it is entirely possible that we are on the brink of a revival that will sweep across the west. There have been other times in the western church’s history where our future looked bleak and we rebounded. As Christians, we should not be surprised by, to borrow a marvelous phrase from Ross Douthat, unexpected resurrection.

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Jake Meador

Jake Meador is the editor-in-chief of Mere Orthodoxy. He is a 2010 graduate of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where he studied English and History. He lives in Lincoln, NE with his wife Joie, their daughter Davy Joy, and sons Wendell, Austin, and Ambrose. Jake's writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Commonweal, Christianity Today, Fare Forward, the University Bookman, Books & Culture, First Things, National Review, Front Porch Republic, and The Run of Play and he has written or contributed to several books, including "In Search of the Common Good," "What Are Christians For?" (both with InterVarsity Press), "A Protestant Christendom?" (with Davenant Press), and "Telling the Stories Right" (with the Front Porch Republic Press).