Evangelical Division Problems | Sojourners

Evangelical Division Problems

A Washington, D.C.-based activist friend, slightly older and much wiser than I, stunned me back in January 2016 with a comment about the political rise of Donald Trump: It portended a split within American evangelicalism. Closing out the year, that statement seems to be proving true.

While it remains to be seen whether a new evangelical movement will arise or whether churches will begin splitting off from their denominations because of Trump support, there are two ways in which the rise of Trump appears to have significantly divided evangelicals. The one that's been most discussed has to do with race. This is exemplified by the statistics that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, while non-white evangelicals preferred Hillary Clinton by 47 points, according to a pre-election survey by LifeWay. Sojourners has documented the many ways in which racism was at the core of Trump’s message — and how overwhelming white evangelical support exemplifies the clear racial divide within the body of Christ.

But the other way the campaign and election have driven a wedge between evangelicals has to do with gender. Considering that nearly two thirds of white Protestant women voted for Trump, it would be a stretch to consider this an even split. But it doesn't take much scanning of social media and the blogosphere — or simply talking to evangelical women — to see that many of them who did not support Trump feel deeply wounded by their fellow evangelicals who did.

All the President-elect's Men

This alienation began to come prominently to the fore after Trump’s Access Hollywood recording went public. In the first several days after Americans heard Trump boast of taking advantage of women sexually, several prominent male evangelicals strongly reaffirmed their support for him. With one notable exception, that of theologian Wayne Grudem, their support for the Republican nominee did not waver. It held firm when several similar recordings of Trump on The Howard Stern Show were brought to the public’s attention, and it remained strong even when nearly 20 women came forward, saying Trump had sexually violated them in the past.

Well-known evangelicals like James Dobson, Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr., Ralph Reed, and Robert Jeffress all condemned Trump’s words, yet each also seemed to deny that Trump had done anything more than use coarse language. Pat Robertson went further, shrugging off the Access Hollywood recording as simply Trump’s attempt to “look like he’s macho.”

Trump’s evangelical running mate Mike Pence, now vice president-elect of the United States, went even further. On Oct. 14, he went on multiple national morning news shows to defend Trump and to say that there would be proof before the day’s end that each of the women accusing Trump was lying. No proof was ever offered.

Trump’s boasts of sexual violence led to an outcry from many evangelical women. They included prominent ones like Kay Warren, who spoke of being an assault survivor, and Jen Hatmaker. Beth Moore and Nichole Nordeman went further, tweeting their dismay at their male evangelical counterparts who shrugged off Trump’s behavior. Christianity Today editor-at-large Katelyn Beaty said the comments by Dobson, Graham, and the others were a “re-traumatization” to sexual assault survivors.

Then, the majority of evangelicals gave Trump the votes he needed to win the presidency.

Are We Even Worshiping the Same God?

A couple of weeks after the election, I asked several evangelical women, all friends of mine, to share some of their thoughts on the prominent male evangelicals who supported Trump, and on evangelicalism as a whole. Their responses broke my heart. (Their words have been slightly edited for clarity.)

One of these women, an attorney who grew up in church circles, said, “It has been a long time since I felt that these men represented anything that I believe is Christ-like. Only God knows our hearts, but their words and behavior make me question whether we are worshiping the same God.”

An artist said, “The affirmation of a sexual predator was logically consistent with the consequences of their theology,” pointing out their belief in male authority over women was very much the foundation of their unyielding support for Trump.

Another friend, a college student and newlywed, expressed her fears for victims of violence in the institutions these men lead. “It scares me that church leaders can back a man who openly degrades women. If they won’t stand for victims publicly, why would they do so privately?”

A sister in Christ who is a seminary student pointed out how opponents of trans women’s access to women’s restrooms often cite the safety of cisgender women. These male leaders’ support for Trump showed her that “women's safety has never been [their] priority, only a prop to be used or discarded on the path to political gain.”

A professor at a Christian college pretty much summed up everyone’s feelings: “Once again, mistreatment of women takes a back seat to ‘more important’ things.”

And while these women all expressed pro-life convictions, none felt the single issue of Supreme Court appointments was an excuse to overlook everything else Trump has said and done.

My friend in seminary put it well: “If Trump's racism and sexism did not stop you from voting for him, it is now your responsibility — more than anyone else's — to fight against policies and attitudes that harm women and people of color.”

I also wanted to hear from my friends what, if anything, they thought could be done to heal the divide between evangelical women like them and the rest of the church and its leadership. Some offered glimmers of hope, but they were generally pessimistic.

My artist friend felt the least hopeful, saying, “The maturity of evangelical leaders is in no place to contribute to healing between the leaders and evangelical women.”

My seminary friend said actions would be vital. “At this point, nothing short of repentance — that is, a confession of wrongdoing paired with tangible actions to deconstruct rape culture” would begin to heal the rift.

Dear Colleagues

These friends may not constitute a majority of evangelical women. But there are many of them, and they feel truly alienated from the rest of evangelicalism. As a licensed Baptist minister, I appeal to evangelicals who voted for Trump, and especially to the male leaders among them, to heed the words of their sisters in Christ.

You owe it to them to at least hear them out. Don’t be defensive, and don’t try to persuade them that they are wrong.

And don’t stop there. Commit yourself publicly, particularly if you are a male evangelical leader, to standing against the sins of sexism and misogyny in all their forms, overt and subtle. Believe sexual assault survivors when they come to you. Boldly call out comments by other male evangelicals that trivialize sexual violence. And when President Trump again demeans women, don’t just call him out; call the White House to register your disapproval. You voted for him; you are particularly responsible for what happens over the next four years.

The next move is yours.