You know it’s a strange year when the bear in your garage is not the year’s strangest occurrence. COVID-19 gets the nod for the year’s biggest disruption, hands down. But this week there is another oddity demanding my attention.
I’m reeling from the reality that seventy-six percent of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump. They saw four years of egregiously anti-Christian behavior and said, “Yeah, I’ll take four more years of that.” About 150 million people voted in the election. The Pew Research Center says about twenty-five percent of Americans are evangelicals, which means approximately thirty-seven million evangelicals voted. Twenty-eight million of them voted for Donald Trump, a total of thirty-nine percent of his total number of votes.
I worked in the evangelical world for almost half a century. Evangelicalism embraces a transactional form of Christianity. You give Jesus your allegiance, and he tells his father not to send you to hell. You can’t get more transactional than that. So, why should we be surprised when evangelical politics is transactional. “You deliver on our pet social issues and we’ll turn a blind eye to your behavior.”
My non-evangelical friends ask what is driving this decidedly unchristlike alliance. There is no question that abortion is the largest social issue of importance to evangelicals, though I believe there is something else that lies beneath their support of Donald Trump. But first, let’s consider abortion. Two social issues have dominated evangelicalism – abortion and LGBTQ+ rights. When the Supreme Court upheld marriage equality, evangelicalism quickly turned its attention to abortion. It is not that their theology shifted on LGBTQ+ issues, only that they began to realize America has moved on. Two-thirds of Americans now support marriage equality. Evangelicals know when they’ve lost a war and adjust accordingly. It is hard to find a megachurch outside of the south that will publicly admit it is not supportive of LGBTQ+ people. None of them are supportive, mind you, they just won’t admit it.
Not so with abortion. It’s been a long time since Roe v. Wade kindled the ire of the religious right. Catholics and evangelicals have been trying to undo it ever since. Two-thirds of Americans support marriage equality, but we remain split 50/50 on abortion. Only twenty-seven percent of Americans want Roe v. Wade completely overturned, but a much larger percentage wants restrictions on abortion.
By the late 1970s evangelicals realized they had lost the American culture wars. Abortion became the issue that rallied them, beginning with the Moral Majority in the 80s and building to today’s Republican party, in which evangelicals have an outsize influence. Politically, evangelicals have worked hard. They started by running for school boards and state houses, then moved up to the national stage.
When I look at how many evangelicals say they voted for Donald Trump primarily because they believe Trump will keep a conservative Supreme Court, I am suspicious. This is only my opinion, but I believe their passion is indicative of something else. I believe they are terrified of the loss of White evangelical power.
Evangelical power started with the First Great Awakening from 1734 to 1760. It produced evangelists like Jonathan Edwards, well known for his sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” It continued through the Great Revival, from 1792 to 1860. But by 1950, White Evangelical Christianity was losing influence to Black churches and mainline Protestant churches, both of which were very active in the Civil Rights movement. When the Roe v. Wade decision was handed down in 1973, White evangelicals realized their influence was virtually gone. When they realized that by 2045 Whites will be a minority, they became even more frightened, and set out to do something about it.
Whatever the genesis of the current evangelical drive toward political power, its effect is frightening. It has caused White evangelicals to stand firmly with a president who refuses to denounce White supremacy.
Power corrupts. It just does. I’ve been corrupted by power. We are all tempted to succumb to its allure. It takes extraordinary energy and accountability to not be corrupted by power. But while power corrupts individuals, it more significantly corrupts groups of people. We behave in groups in ways in which we would never dream of behaving as individuals. In the book of Romans, Paul calls that sin.
Most of the time Paul talks about sin, he is not talking about personal sin. He is talking about corporate sin. It is sin as a cosmic malevolent force. You saw it in Sodom and Gomorrah, when two angels were sent to visit Lot, the nephew of Abraham, and were set upon by a frenzied crowd of out-of-control citizens. You saw it at the crucifixion of Jesus, when the crowds around Pilate cried, “Crucify him!” You saw it in the first century, as Jews persecuted Christians and Romans persecuted both Jews and Christians. And it has been a constant presence since that time, from the Crusades to the Protestant church’s persecution of Anabaptists, to today’s evangelical vilification of LGBTQ+ people.
This cosmic malevolent behavior is such a part of the fabric of humanity that it shows up in our fairy tales. Out of control citizens are minions of the antagonist in Disney films like Beauty and the Beast and the Hunchback of Notre Dame, where unruly crowds want to “kill the beast.”
So how do we tame this group-think that has brought so much polarization to our nation. As I have said before, I believe the solution is not massive rallies or siloed social media. I believe it is one-on-one conversations in close proximity to one another. If you and I sit in a room together and talk about life, we will regain our grounding.
Most of the conversations I have had with seatmates on an airplane have been around subjects that connect our humanity. If we start there, we can work our way to deeper conversations. And if we keep the conversations one-on-one, we can avoid the mob mentality that appeals to the worst part of our humanity. I believe that is our only path forward.
I don’t know if Joe Biden can pull our nation together, but I know his spirit is exactly what our country needs – an irenic man with a good heart who wants nothing more than to bridge the divide that threatens our democracy. His victory speech (written with the help of the brilliant Jon Meacham) was one of the finest speeches I have ever heard. I don’t know about you, but I will be praying for him with everything in me. Our country’s future is hanging in the balance.