Like many political scientists, I was surprised when Donald Trump emerged in 2016 as the Republican nominee. Once the nominee, however, I was not surprised that he easily won both my home state of Tennessee (61.1%) and the rural county where I live (78.9%). What I did find shocking, perhaps naively, was that exit polls showed President Trump was supported by 81% of white voters who self-identified as evangelical.
I was raised in a predominantly white evangelical church and educated at predominantly white evangelical schools. I teach at such an institution now. It seemed clear to me that Trump lacked the morality and competence to lead our country. Why did so many around me see matters differently? Some commentators argued that many white evangelicals took no pleasure in voting for Trump; they simply saw no alternative. Perhaps that is true. But why did such a majority of white evangelicals reach the conclusion that Trump was the best, or even only, option? Why do so many continue to support him even now?
I’m certain there are many complex answers. Here, I hope to outline one possibility—that churches have largely failed in their task of becoming communities of moral deliberation. Too many white evangelical churches are not preparing their members to think critically about what it means to live like Christ in the world.
Much of our failure stems from a dualism that draws arbitrary lines between what is “biblical” (and therefore appropriate for discussion within the church) and what is “political” (and therefore off-limits). This dualism has profound consequences.
First, it obscures the ways that culture affects our faith. For instance, our society is highly individualistic, often in ways that stand in conflict with Christianity. Yes, individuals are created in the image of God and are therefore valuable and worthy of dignity. Nonetheless, Scripture teaches that we do not belong to ourselves but to Christ (I Cor. 6:19-20; Rom. 14:7-8). We must humbly consider others more significant than ourselves (Phil. 2:3).
This countercultural stance should affect our behavior in concrete ways. Should we emphasize personal rights over the responsibilities we owe each another? Should we emphasize what the law permits over what the Gospel demands? Of course not, yet these attitudes are all too common among white evangelicals. Consider current debates on gun rights, mask mandates, and the Confederate flag, etc.
Furthermore, our individualistic culture makes it difficult for us to discuss systemic issues. So much focus on individual sin and salvation, along with an unhelpful belief in American exceptionalism, tends to cause Christians to miss the racial and economic injustice are woven into our social fabric. We might think, “I don’t hate people of color. I don’t cheat or steal. What’s the problem?” Can we acknowledge that we are rarely wholly responsible for our own successes just as others are rarely wholly responsible for their own difficulties? It is difficult to admit that we benefit from systems—past and present—that harm others. Personal accountability is essential, yet collective responsibility is also needed to address structural defects in our society.
Second, the false distinction between what is ‘biblical’ and what is ‘political’ limits many white evangelicals in the ability to say anything of practical value to the social issues of our day. We have too narrowly defined the moral questions worth considering as a community of believers. This constriction affects the choices we make as individual voters.
I’ve heard predominantly white evangelical congregations speak often about abortion and gay marriage. I remember such congregations vocally opposing the lottery when it was considered in Tennessee. They campaign against the seemingly perennial alcohol referendums that pop up in rural communities like mine. Yet those same congregations are often reluctant to discuss any number of other moral issues. Those who speak against racism are being “divisive and negative.” Those who express concern for environmental stewardship “lack faith in God’s sovereignty.” However, these are precisely the sorts of issues Christians ought to discuss. Racism perpetuates disparities in healthcare, criminal justice, wealth, etc.—issues of basic human dignity. Environmental degradation disproportionately harms the world’s most vulnerable populations, and it mars the power and divinity of God as revealed in Creation (Rom. 1:19-20).
The church is right to reject the subordination of faith to partisan agendas. Our identity ought to be, first and foremost, in Christ. Moreover, political questions are often polarizing, and it is right to desire preservation of the unity we have in Christ. Nonetheless, the church is being divided as Christians smile at one another in the pews but then mock one another on social media.
We must find a better way forward. The fear of unsettling a fragile veneer of unity must not prevent us from asking difficult questions or having difficult conversations. God cares about justice, and God’s people must as well. Some disagreement is inevitable, and it will be uncomfortable, but a church immobilized by fear will not form mature disciples (see Eph. 4:11-16). If the church is not the appropriate place to expand our ethical awareness and discuss faithful living, then where do we expect Christians should learn to do so?
Politics is about more than the exercise of governmental power. It is the art of humans associating to pursue the common good. Surely Christianity has much to say about this. Surely spiritual maturity should empower us to think critically and speak compassionately about a wide range of issues that impact human lives.
When God called us to be different from the world, God established a higher standard. The overwhelming and often uncritical support for President Trump among white evangelicals does not reflect this standard. A morally stunted conversation in our churches is partly to blame. The church ought to be a place where we labor together to discern how God’s will applies to the complexities of life. Living as communities of moral deliberation will not be easy. May God give us courage and grace in the endeavor!