As is my rule with these things, I’ve taken a few days to hold off on publishing anything on Charlottesville. That said, it’s been a couple days now and for several reasons I think it’s a good time to post the following on white nationalism, evangelicalism, and Charlottesville.
Here is the simple, disturbing, and depressing fact that we must lead with: Evangelicals aided and abetted in the election of a man whose sympathies with neo-Nazis can no longer be in doubt—and, honestly, should not have been in doubt prior to last weekend anyway.
We need to be clear that what the neo-Nazis at this rally were promoting is very near to the heart of Trumpism and that point has always been very clear to anyone with the eyes to see it. The entire Trump campaign was filled with dog whistles that signaled his support for white nationalist groups and leaned heavily on well-established racist tropes. Let’s review:
He launched his campaign with a tirade that included calling Mexican immigrants rapists.
He spent years arguing that our nation’s first black president wasn’t a real American.
At the GOP convention and in his inaugural address, he revived racist language from the Nixon administration to stir up fear amongst his base despite crime levels being relatively low.
These are just the things he has done in recent memory. But he has a long history of racism—housing discrimination, calling for the execution of the Central Park 5 who have since been exonerated by DNA evidence (not that that matters to Trump), saying “blacks are lazy,” and so on.
Here we should pause and note that the only thing potentially more disturbing than Trump’s history on race issues is his history of misogyny. It is remarkable and disturbing that I had forgotten until earlier this week that just last October he had been caught on a hot mic bragging about sexually assaulting women. This is the depth we have sunk to: the fact that the president is, by is own admission, a serial sexual assaulter has become backpage news in the midst of potential nuclear war with North Korea, obstruction of justice in the Russia investigation, and now this clear public alignment with neo-Nazis.
All of these things are matters of public record. They are not secret. And yet many prominent evangelicals supported him. Here’s a list to start on:
Jerry Falwell Jr
To the best of my knowledge, none of these men have repudiated Trump after all that has happened in the past seven months. Several of them, including Falwell and Metaxas, have in fact dug their heels in. At this point the only difference between them and someone as farcical as Dinesh D’Souza is a prison term.
We should linger on this point, in fact, particularly as it concerns Trump’s support of neo-Nazis: As best I can tell there are three possibilities in play here for why these men would support someone like Trump despite his obvious racism.
They didn’t see his racism.
They saw it, but did not care.
They support it.
If it is the first option, then we’re talking about the insularity of white evangelicalism and how oblivious we are to the sufferings of our neighbors. This is something to be lamented and repented of—and the repentance cannot be an empty public apology. It must be marked with behavior consistent with this repentance. Here they could do worse than starting by reading a book like Aliens in the Promised Land and searching out non-white evangelicals to discuss these issues with privately. (Here in Lincoln a group of white evangelical pastors now meet semi-often with local black pastors. I pray that such meetings will become more frequent in other cities as well.)
If it is the second possibility, then we’re talking about the seared consciences of many evangelicals who can continue to participate in political parties and movements that create enormous human suffering and who seem to be capable of justifying it by telling themselves that somehow the Democrats would be worse. Again, this is something to be lamented and repented of.
But here we need to turn the screws a bit more: The pastoral epistles speak plainly about the qualifications for Christian leadership. In 1 Tim. 3, Paul says, amongst other things, that leaders of God’s people must be both blameless and vigilant. Blameless, of course, does not mean wholly without sin. If it meant that then no one could serve as a shepherd of God’s people. It does mean, however, that a man must be above reproach, such that no one could bring a serious accusation of unrepentant sin against him.
Here is my question: If “supporting a man who publicly supports neo-Nazis and then refusing to renounce and repent of this decision after the fact is not a serious form of sin… what is?” I dare say that if a prominent evangelical leader expressed support for Planned Parenthood many would be raising this very question about him—and they would be right in doing so. But, then, why are we not equally disturbed by men who give their support to someone like Donald Trump?
Likewise, if a man cannot see something as plain as Trump’s white nationalism, how can he be trusted to be vigilant enough to lead God’s people? His judgment is plainly faulty. Why should he be entrusted with a position for which good judgment and vigilance is an essential characteristic?
Finally, if it is the third option, then we are in range of church discipline, defrocking, removal from jobs in full-time ministry, and so on. I sincerely hope I do not have to explain why on this point.
Whichever option we’re talking about here, we’re dealing with something extremely serious and something that exists at the highest levels of many evangelical ministries and churches.
This is, admittedly, a rough and exceedingly aggressive post. I understand that many will find my aggression off-putting and perhaps inappropriate for someone who is far younger than many of the men named above. There are two things I would say in response to this:
First, in Job we find Elihu, the youngest of the five men who speak in the book, making some severe criticisms of the friends and of Job himself. At the end of the book, Elihu is the only speaker not condemned by God. God reprimands Job and severely condemns Job’s friends. He says nothing against Elihu.
Likewise, in Psalm 119 the author speaks of having more insight than his teachers because he is committed to God’s word. Finally, in 1 Timothy Paul tells Timothy to let no one look down on him because of his youth.
Though it is not the normal pattern in Scripture, there are ample examples from the text of times when the young are given room to correct their elders who are in serious error. Again, in this situation we are dealing with leaders within evangelicalism who have supported a man who supports neo-Nazis. If this situation does not qualify as a unique situation where the young are given license to correct their elders, I do not know what would qualify.
Second, the deeper issue here is that this year has been something of a moral apocalypse not only for evangelicals, but for our republic. The absence of moral foundations is at this point undeniable and the results are devastating. If we would have credibility when witnessing to those to both our right and our left, we must have the courage to speak plainly when we see serious sin happening before our eyes. As I have considered this year and how to make sense of it I have found myself returning regularly to the example of one of my heroes, Francis Schaeffer.
Schaeffer, when confronted with the hippies, beatniks, and student radicals of the 1960s, routinely would say that these dissident groups were right to rebel against the world they grew up in. Schaeffer saw the safe, bourgeois 1950s in America as a time of deep spiritual darkness, a time in which people were governed by selfish concerns with personal peace and affluence and which produced a plastic, lifeless culture. Here he is in Pollution and the Death of Man:
The hippies of the 1960s did understand something. They were right in fighting the plastic culture, and the church should have been fighting it too… More than this, they were right in the fact that the plastic culture – modern man, the mechanistic worldview in university textbooks and in practice, the total threat of the machine, the establishment technology, the bourgeois upper middle class – is poor in its sensitivity to nature… As a utopian group, the counterculture understands something very real, both as to the culture as a culture, but also as to the poverty of modern man’s concept of nature and the way the machine is eating up nature on every side.”
It is precisely because he spoke so clearly on this point that he was able to be heard by the young people who washed up at Swiss L’Abri throughout the 1960s and 70s. We should learn something from that. If we would preach the Gospel and see the lost come to faith, if we would see our non-Christian neighbor come to saving faith, we must live lives of courage and beauty and fidelity, such that the non-Christians watching us would see something compelling, something they cannot explain but that they know they are drawn to.
This is what I want to say next: Supporting a man who supports neo-Nazis is incompatible with such a lofty goal. Yet even as I write that sentence I feel the force of its absurdity. This is what a segment of America’s evangelical movement has come to: We would attempt to convert our neighbors while also supporting a man who supports neo-Nazis.
As the saying goes, if it were not so sad it would be funny.
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).