Madeleine Davies explains why she isn’t giving up on the movement despite its support for the president.
When I tweeted last month about interviewing a particularly inspiring Christian, within minutes a woman replied: “ After Trump, anything to do with God leaves a bad taste in my heart. There will need to be a good deal of soul-searching to find ways to assure the population you all aren’t just propping up evil.”
Around 80 per cent of white evangelicals backed Donald Trump in the 2016 election, according to exit polls. In the two years since, the question of how Christians could get behind a man who boasted about sexual assault and whipped up hatred against minorities has prompted rumination among church leaders across the political and theological spectrum.
Justin Welby, the archbishop of Canterbury, confessed in a television interview that he “really, genuinely” didn’t understand it. In Still Evangelical?, a book of essays published this year, Mark Labberton, president of the Fuller Theological Seminary in California — where many of today’s evangelical leaders trained — described the movement as “cracked”, having “split on the shoals” of the election.
Before starting work as a journalist at the Church Times, I had little sense of the different wings or tribes of Christianity. Growing up as a church-going Christian — a promise from the Book of Isaiah framed on the mantelpiece, the words to praise songs (“Lord the light of your love is shining!”) flowing between my ears — already marked me out as unusual. Further dividing into still smaller groups felt unwise. And yet I am certain that evangelicalism is the one that best defines my theology. It is, as one American writer I interviewed put it, my religious mother tongue.
If I consider how it’s perceived by others, I imagine it might conjure a certain smiling fervour. Maybe someone like The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders, popping up in a cheerful sweater to extol the benefits of a “daily dose of vitamin church”. To be “evangelical” about something is to seek to convert others to its benefits — something destined to cause unease in Britain, where the belief that religion should remain one’s private affair is deeply embedded.
For some, the associations will be darker. “Evangelical” comes from the classical Greek euangelion, meaning “the good news”, yet there are those for whom it has been anything but. Some now define as “post-evangelical”, explicitly distancing themselves from the tradition. They recoil from the “mother tongue”, wary of its potential to snap and lacerate.
After evensong last month, a priest from a different wing of the Church asked me why I considered myself evangelical and I found myself talking about my childhood. After my mother died when I was 12, it was people in an evangelical church that rallied round and, significantly, helped me to reconcile what had happened with my faith.
They never attempted to explain away this horrifying event, but they offered practical help to my family and, drawing on scripture, affirmed my belief in resurrection and heaven. Certainty can constrict, but it can also feel like blessed assurance, like standing on very solid earth. As a teenager, the God I learnt about was both infinitely powerful and as close as a friend you could call on in the middle of the night when you were terrified by the thought that everyone else you loved would die. My small heart heard God say, “Come and talk with me”, as the psalm puts it.
My experience of the evangelicalism of the 1980s and 1990s might have been very different had I grown up in the US. Harvard professor Robert Putnam attributes the absence of young Americans from church today to having grown up in a period where “being religious meant being politically conservative”.
As detailed in Frances FitzGerald’s 2017 book The Evangelicals: The Struggle to Shape America, this was a time when white evangelicalism became intimately bound up with Republican politics. Jim Wallis, a “new evangelical” leader and veteran civil rights activist, has written that the 1980s was a time of “political assault”, in which white evangelicals were courted by a “far-right movement steeped in racism” and “deliberately politicised”.
An equivalent religious right does not exist in the UK and I sense that, to many evangelicals here, Trump’s attempts to court the Christian vote seemed laughably inauthentic. He refused to cite a favourite Bible verse, despite having claimed that it was his favourite book and, when asked about forgiveness and repentance, gave answers that suggested he wasn’t even familiar with what this constituency might want to hear. There were shades of Alan Partridge’s response to being asked about his favourite Beatles album (answer: “The Best of the Beatles”).
But there is a danger that, in emphasising our different contexts, we fail to engage in one of the defining religious stories of our age. In a 2016 survey, 72 per cent of white evangelicals polled by the Public Religion Research Institute believed that personal immorality was consistent with an ethical performance of official duties — up from 30 per cent five years earlier. They were once the least likely of any group to be this accommodating; they are now the most. How did this happen?
Negative partisanship surely played a large role, as did a determination to change the make-up of the US Supreme Court. The president of the Susan B Anthony List, a religious grassroots anti-abortion lobby, has marked President Trump’s record as “simply an A-plus”.
Some have singled out anxiety as the driving emotion. In Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump (2018), historian John Fea suggests that the evangelical candidates running for office in 2016 “stoked fears of a world they seemed unfit to tame. Desperate times called for a strongman — and if a strongman was needed, only Trump fit the bill.” What role does fear — of marginalisation, declining influence, waning respect — play in our churches?
Jim Wallis tells me by phone from Washington DC that the word to pay attention to when analysing the 80 per cent statistic is the descriptor that comes before it — white. “He [Trump] has no support among Christians of colour, virtually none,” he says. “When the operative word in the phrase ‘white Christian’ is not ‘Christian’ but ‘white’, we have a serious problem . . . We are white evangelicals, are white people first, before evangelical.” He diagnoses a constituency “overtaken by other false identities, cultural, ethnic, racial identities, national identities”, a phenomenon that is, he warns, “a threat to the core of our faith”.
Our history is different in the UK, but our own churches testify to the sin of racism. Searching through the Church Times’s archive recently for accounts of the Windrush generation, I found an account of a Jamaican man visiting a church in 1968: “The reception he gets as a stranger is not unlike the weather on a cold and bleak February day.” He had friends “to whom it has been suggested that they may be happier if they attended another church — their faces did not fit”.
To look across the Atlantic to American evangelicalism is to witness a great reckoning under way powered, in part, by demographic change. Between 2006 and 2017, white evangelicals fell from 23 per cent to 15 per cent of the population; at least a quarter of evangelicals today are from racial and ethnic minorities.
Anguished conversations about how to save evangelicalism and talk of a “corrupted brand” trouble me because they sound self-serving. But what if abandoning a significant political, religious force is a faithless, selfish act? Over the past year, I have often returned to something written on Twitter by Ekemini Uwan, an African-American theologian: “To all the well-meaning white evangelicals who say they are done with evangelicalism. Nope. Remain and get your people. This is your work.”
The Bible is central to evangelicalism, and if its core tenets aren’t being upheld, that needs to be spoken out about, and loudly. “I’m often ashamed and angered by my evangelical family . . . but it doesn’t cause me to leave — it causes me to speak up and speak out,” writes Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a Latina pastor, in Still Evangelical?
Bishop Michael Curry, head of the Episcopal Church in the US, says: “The church is being called to be a community of people who live out and reflect and are witness to the teachings and values and way of Jesus of Nazareth. I do not care who the president is or who is in Congress. I believe it is important to love your neighbour as yourself and public policy must reflect that value at the deepest level. If it does not, then as a Christian I can’t support it.”
The separation of children from their parents at the US border is, he tells me by phone from Texas, “a stain on the soul of this country” and pointing this out has biblical precedence: “If you look at the Old Testament Hebrew prophets, they weren’t making up new stuff. They were actually calling the people to go back to the depths of the tradition, to the values.”
We speak two months after he and Wallis launched the “Reclaiming Jesus Declaration”, warning that “the soul of the nation and the integrity of faith are now at stake”. While Curry’s wedding sermon for Prince Harry and Meghan Markle secured front pages, much less attention was given to this intervention, which culminated in a candlelit procession to the White House. The document diagnoses “a dangerous crisis of moral and political leadership at the highest levels of our government and in our churches”.
Each of its sections begins with citation from scripture (“We believe each human being is made in God’s image and likeness” — Genesis 1:26) followed by a statement of rejection (“We reject the resurgence of white nationalism and racism”). Jesus is mentioned 22 times. “Our urgent need, in a time of moral and political crisis, is to recover the power of confessing our faith,” it concludes. “Lament, repent, and then repair.”
Wallis wrote the declaration after a three-hour conversation with the bishop last summer. “The danger is very real right now, the danger to immigrant families and their kids and refugees and young people of colour being policed; the danger is very perilous but there’s also an opportunity if this brings us back to Jesus, then we could make this a redemptive time,” Wallis tells me. “Jesus says how we treat the stranger is how we treat Him . . . If we could get Christians to actually talk about Jesus again, that would take us to the right place.”
Reading back over my notes, I was reminded of a Guardian article in which Giles Fraser, a Church of England priest, derided evangelicals for turning Jesus into “Cheesus . . . a form of Jesus-lite, a romantic infatuation, a Mills & Boon theology that makes you feel all warm inside”. It would be hard to apply such a dismissal to this declaration.
Its author certainly practises what he preaches. Finding time to speak to Wallis was tricky because he was busy marshalling opposition to the government’s border policies. “You can call it inhumane, cruel, that’s all true, but what would Jesus do here?” he tells me. “Would Jesus ever do something like that?”
Amid the evangelical crazes that crossed the Atlantic in the 1990s was WWJD: a slogan that stood for “what would Jesus do?” and could be found printed on bracelets sold at Christian festivals. But its roots lie in 19th-century Kansas and a series of sermons by Charles Sheldon, a champion of racial equality.
Reflecting on Wallis’s question, I’m reminded of a mother tongue that proclaimed the name of Jesus and demanded acts of love in his service. I’m still evangelical because I want to uphold and amplify this tradition. Uwan’s challenge, Curry’s definition of his friend Wallis (“a rock solid evangelical with a social justice conscience . . . a pretty good combination”), and the words proclaimed by candlelight outside Trump’s White House in May all speak to me, across a sea. I’m not ready to give up on being evangelical yet.