Last week I wrote “The Most Disheartening Survey of Voters,” chronicling, from empirical, detailed survey data of voters, how white evangelicals hold more extreme, negative views regarding immigrants, refugees, and the prospect of the nation’s racially diverse future, than any other group in the country. It is a devastating indictment of the failure of white evangelicals to live as faithful disciples of Jesus in these crucial areas. Further, it confirms how this group, comprising about 25 percent of those who vote, is a core component of President Donald Trump’s political support, with his angry, racially laden appeals to an exclusive ethno-nationalism.
But now what? If this is true, how do I personally relate to white evangelicals? This, after all, is part of my identity; I was raised in this heritage. More than half of my extended family, whom I love, are white and evangelical. My white evangelical pastor at South Park Church, “Pat” Patterson, who later became chaplain at Wheaton College, was a childhood example of being a Christian. My white, evangelical Young Life leader, Bill Starr, saved and preserved my faith. Later my mentor and boss, Sen. Mark O. Hatfield, never hesitated to claim his evangelical identity. Working to form Christian Churches Together in the USA, white evangelicals were among those embracing a wider ecumenical fellowship. And where would my faith be without lifelong friends like Jim Wallis, Ron Sider, and Tony Campolo? How could I ever write off white evangelicals?
Yet, some Democratic political strategists propose just that. From them, demographics is electoral destiny. The white, non-metropolitan vote in small towns, rural areas, and declining “post-industrial” communities can be written off, and if that includes white evangelicals, so much the better. Visions of the common good grounded in a worldview imbued with religious values are regarded with self-righteous condescension by some secular progressives. Demographic diversity will equal Democratic victory, period.
While a lot a data from the midterms bolsters their confidence, I believe they are strategically mistaken. You can’t put your faith in the demographic growth of people of color and ignore religious faith. As I explore in my book Future Faith: Ten Challenges Reshaping Christianity in the 21 st Century , religious vitality in the U.S. increasingly is being driven by people of color. Moreover, dismissing the white world that doesn’t live on the coasts or in major cities only hardens the nation’s intense polarization, and prohibits a political vision that holds the hope of a national unity that embraces diversity as a gift.
Which brings us back to white evangelicals: We must remember that this group also is diverse. The poll numbers in Robert Jones’ Public Religion Research Institute survey cast a heavy cloud of depression on any who have hoped that the evangelical world would read their Bibles seriously enough to embrace its call to racial, social, and economic justice. But majority opinions in the white evangelical world, as elsewhere, hide significant minorities with dissenting views.
Theologically there’s a deeper truth at stake: God doesn’t write anyone off.
So who am I to do so? Moreover, I’ve become deeply conscious of my own racism, regardless of whether I quibble with the National Association of Evangelical’s Statement of Faith.
In the end, I still have this foolish hope in the power of the gospel. Dems proclaim demographics. Trump galvanizes bigotry. But I trust in the ridiculous demonstration of transforming love seen on the cross and experienced on the road to Emmaus.
This happens not through abstract persuasion but through incarnate relationships. John Perkins, for instance, is the black evangelical who began a mission to change white evangelicals’ views of race a half century ago. Whenever he came through Chicago, he’d stay at my parents’ home. John impacted thousands like them through patient, long-suffering witness and relationship.
Today, multi-cultural congregations, with at least 20 percent of membership racially different from the majority, are laboratories of social transformation. As I discovered in researching Future Faith, such congregations are places of statistical growth; but importantly, in careful congregational surveys, they report higher levels of spiritual vitality than racially homogeneous churches.
Globally there are grounds for practical hope: People of color, driving the future world Christianity, are breaking the stranglehold of modern Christianity by Western white cultural power. Whenever I travel globally, I witness how this is happening.
So my foolish hope rests in power of the gospel, which broke the boundaries of race, gender, and class in establishing the church through a process of “non-assimilation” where a Greek did not need to become a Jew to become Christian. That began to create a new humanity, with unity in diversity. Today those of every tongue and race need not, and must not, conform to the dominance of white evangelicalism, or Catholic, mainline, Pentecostal, and Orthodox tradition, whenever “white” means more than faith.
In the age of Trump, that may seem truly foolish. But this is a power that tears down walls and empires.