On my Facebook page today there was an article by a well known US Evangelical preacher, Jim Wallis, whose preaching on the whole I like. It had the intriguing title: “It’s Embarrassing to Be an Evangelical This Election – The So-Called ‘Evangelical Vote’ Has Some Explaining to Do”. He is referring to the Donald Trump campaign to become the Republican nominee for November’s US Presidential election. Not only is it emerging that Trump is now the clear front runner to secure the nomination, but a significant factor in his popularity is that a significant number who are supporting his candidature would describe themselves as Evangelical. As an Evangelical myself and as a student of the US culture wars and of the current Presidential campaign, I was naturally interested in what Wallis wrote and feel it helpful to share my own perspectives.
As I have often gone at pains to point out, while labels can be misleading, they can be helpful if defined. As far as mainstream Christianity is concerned, it is generally recognized there are three main camps: Catholic (and Orthodox), Liberal and (of course) Evangelical, although some might seem themselves as being in more than one camp or none at all. As far as definitions are concerned (which are always in my view important) I would use as a starting point David Bebbington’s attributes of an Evangelical:
- Biblicism: Devotion to the Bible as God’s word
- Crucicentrism: The centrality of the cross of Christ in evangelical teaching and preaching;
- Activism: Cooperating in the mission of God through evangelism and charitable works;
- Conversionism: The conviction that each person must turn from their sin, believe in the saving work of Christ, and commit themselves to a life of discipleship and service.
In Wallis’s article, he states: “So I have to define the word evangelical. I find it’s best to use the words of Jesus himself, words white evangelicals need to listen to if they are, as they claim, believers in Jesus. Jesus announced his mission in the little town of Nazareth, as recorded in Luke chapter 4, verse 18. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free. Does that sound like anything you have heard from the “evangelicals” the media is covering in this election?” He makes a point that I had not thought of, and I suspect may be more to do with the US Evangelical scene than the UK one, that there is a white supremacist element in why some Evangelicals support Trump compared with other candidates, including those who are Evangelically leaning.
He ends his article with the rather challenging statement: “White evangelicals should have to explain, on the basis of their biblical faith, how they find themselves among these statistics, how they can feel comfortable with Trump’s proposed policies of rounding up, deporting, and destroying the families of 11 million immigrants; killing the families of terrorists; restricting the religious liberty of Muslim citizens; banning Muslim refugees; and appealing to the worst and most dangerous instincts of white Americans. It’s time to put “evangelical” ahead of “white” and to revisit Galatians 3:28, “There is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male or female; for we are all one in Christ Jesus.”” I am no fan of Trump although my gut feel is that Wallis is overstating his case. While I get (I think) what he says, I believe there is an aspect that I feel he and many others don’t get. While I have never visited the USA, I have met US Christians of all flavours and followed the culture wars taking place there, which appear to me to give rise to a lot more polarization than we see in the UK, and this is an important factor for those who identify as Evangelical for supporting Trump.
As a community activist, many of Wallis’s concerns resonate with me. It was interesting when recently I took one of those online quizzes that seem to be popular these days – this one being about which of the US Presidential candidate whose views are closest to my own, and the one that came top was Marco Rubio, with Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders not far behind. I concluded that while I agree with Bernie on a number of social justice issues, I agree with the likes of Rubio and Trump on other issues that I also regard as important. Many of these are encapsulated in the Manhattan Declaration, which I regret that many Christians who dislike Trump and his politics have ignored to our detriment, and is why we have the confusion we do. There are three main issues: freedom of religious conscience, the right to life of the unborn and mixed sex one man one woman marriage. The reason I would find it hard to support Rubio is that he is an intellectual lightweight and his leadership skills are questionable. And therein lies a dilemma.
When I survey the field of US Presidential candidates, none of them fill me with much confidence, and certainly not Hillary Clinton, who I reckon is the bookies favorite to nail the top job come November. If what Wallis argues is true, it is regrettable that many of Trump’s Evangelical supporters are informed more by narrow minded bigotry rather than well thought theological reflection, but I can’t help feeling their sense of anguish that those things they hold dear, such as laid out in the Manhattan Declaration, have come under attack and have been undermined, particularly under the Obama administration. While I disagree with the Washington Post’s articles that see some sort of parallel with Trump coming to power and Charlemagne and Hitler coming to power (see here and here), I believe the desire to reverse these changes in the culture that is leading America from the true way is what has motivated many US Evangelicals to support Trump. I regret that Wallis and his supporters seem not to recognize this. The good thing and is where I take comfort is that come November, whether it is Donald, Hillary or Bernie that secures the top job, it is God who is in control and He is speaking to a nation on a slippery slope, but before that He speaks to the Church, which needs to take on board Trump’s concerns and Sanders’ social justice ones, and be salt and light to the culture.