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.
[...] 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”.
[...] 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.