|Photos like this one, by Mark Wallheiser for Getty Images, make evangelicals like me cringe|
Through all the bluster, hyperbole, and inaccuracies of Donald Trump's presidential campaign, America's theological conservatives are learning one sobering fact:
What the term "evangelical" means to many evangelicals isn't what many evangelicals think it means.
America's mainstream media claims to have exposed a significant portion of Trump's fan base as evangelical Christians, and a number of theological conservatives who find Trump intolerable have begun howling in dismay. Not only does Trump mock their faith, but these theological conservatives consider most people supporting his presidential quest to be hateful, bigoted, and Biblically illiterate.
Like the candidate for whom they cheer.
"Those right-wingers cheering Trump aren't typical of the evangelicals I know," many theological conservatives argue.
"Here goes the left-wing media again, making unfounded accusations against Christianity by misrepresenting evangelicalism."
It's as if a core group of evangelical evangelicals is trying to protect our brand. After all, it's distressing for us to see so many people claiming to be "one of us" while professing allegiance to somebody who defies so much of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
Not that Trump's main Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, hasn't elicited similar angst among theological conservatives. Officially, both Hillary and her husband claim to be Christians, but neither they, nor the media, nor many evangelicals define the power couple as evangelical. Yet right now, if not an angel, Hillary comes off as at least a gargoyle compared with Trump's spirited malevolence. Sure, she's a liberal's liberal in every sense of the word, but for all the political reasons conservative Republicans find her hard to stomach, she's never gleefully insulted a handicapped person. Or gloated about lusting after her own daughter. Or professed a willingness to defy the Constitution when it comes to religious freedom.
In fact, that last thing alone should be enough to make anybody who professes to be a churchy sort of person decide against Trump.
Of all the presidential contenders who've ever tried to pass themselves off as an evangelical, to many Christians who claim the evangelical mantle the deepest, Trump is the most non-evangelical of them all. Which, by extension, should mean that his supporters should be non-evangelicals, too.
Meanwhile, I guess my view of "evangelical" has been broader than it's been for other theological conservatives. For years, I've presumed that "evangelical" has been the term for a religious-type Christian who isn't a papist Roman Catholic, Mormon, or Jehovah's Witness. Not necessarily a church-going Christian, but a Protestant who is politically and theologically conservative. Or maybe a teeny bit moderately progressive. It would exclude many (but not all) liberal Methodists, Episcopalians, Lutherans, Presbyterians, and conventional black churchgoers, for example. And it would include most Southern Baptists, conservative Presbyterians, conservative black churchgoers, and non-denominational Bible church congregants.
Don't ask me where Pentecostals fit in here. I'm not sure they know either.
Apparently, these are similar metrics by which the mainstream media views the more conservative side of Christianity. But nobody ever clued-in the "evangelical media," which upon hearing that Trump is polling high with evangelicals, has dug into the characteristics of the typical Trump supporter. Who are these people, and why is the mainstream media describing them as evangelicals?
Turns out, as we're learning about the religious proclivities of self-described religious Trump supporters, they're not the type of evangelicals most die-hard evangelicals want representing us. They're folks who are politically conservative, but they rarely attend church. They may know some key Bible verses and religious catch-phrases, but they lack a legitimate familiarity with Biblical content and orthodox Protestant theology. And even if they do attend church with any regularity, it's hard to tell if their church attendance means anything beyond a social veneer, or habit, or religious duty.
Frankly, with my generic view of what "evangelical" means, I haven't been surprised that the "evangelical media" is finding many self-professing evangelicals who don't go to church, or don't have a God-honoring grasp of Biblical theology. Why should we be surprised, anyway, since blowhards like Jerry Falwell Jr. and First Baptist Dallas' Robert Jeffress - long-time celebrities within our vast evangelical industrial complex - are fawning over Trump?
Even some folks who are supposed to know the Truth professionally for their jobs are for Trump instead.
I know of a self-professing evangelical Southern Baptist in my neighborhood who is big on Trump. At least two elders and a deacon at my conservative Presbyterian church are rooting for The Donald. In most any other context, nobody would question the evangelical credibility of these voters. So it's not hard for me to imagine that many other so-called evangelicals - even the kind of evangelicals that ordinarily would pass muster with theological conservatives - are eager to see Trump as president.
Part of it, I suspect, is similar to how so many evangelical blacks can reliably vote for pro-choice Democrats, even though our black brothers and sisters in Christ join their white co-heirs in abhorring abortion. Many religious people - not even Republican ones - simply aren't the one-issue voters some analysts and pundits have presumed them to be.
Part of it, too, has to do with the awful employment scenario faced by many blue-collar voters, particularly in the non-union South, who still see America hemorrhaging manufacturing jobs to Mexico, Asia, and South America. People see the American standard of living slipping right in front of their eyes, and so far, only Trump has spoken their language, even if it is gibberish based on unrealistic economics and patriotic bluster.
Many Americans, too, are downright petrified by ISIS, especially with the attacks in Brussels this morning that have further stoked nationalist xenophobia against Muslims. Trump freely parrots the bigoted narrative of the simple-minded, which sounds comforting to the anxious, but directly contradicts the faith in God evangelicals are supposed to cherish.
Last year, America's evangelical media seemed to enjoy viewing the broader spectrum of evangelicalism as reason for dismay when it came to decrying the Supreme Court's establishment of gay marriage. With so many evangelicals in the US, these media types asked in disbelief, how could the tide of public opinion be so liberally skewed in the United States?
Well, now you know. But - and not to toot my own horn - in this blog, I've been questioning the legitimacy of our vast evangelical industrial complex for years. How genuine are its adherents, anyway? How committed to the cause of Christ? How many read the books, attend the seminars, and celebrate their favorite preachers - all without worshiping Jesus Christ? Just in my own church, I can see how it's likely that a significant portion of its membership isn't truly evangelical - or maybe even saved.
After all, here in the Bible Belt, evangelicalism is a social condition, not a heart/soul condition like it is in, say, New England.
Not that a Trump supporter can't also be seeking to honor the Son of God with their heart, mind, and soul, despite their choice for president. But neither do I have a problem with suspecting that a vote for Trump is not a God-honoring vote. In other words, we all fail to honor God with everything we do, and everything we want. We all sin and fall short of God's glory. That means a vote for Trump by an evangelical simply points to the fallen nature of man, our preoccupation with wealth and comfort, and our ambivalence towards the thoughts and feelings of others.
Hey - it's probably a safe assumption that Trump supporters don't have a loved one who is handicapped. See what I mean?
If there's any good to be found in the Trump phenomenon, it may be that now, many other true Christ-followers can see the reasons why Biblical morality and its political expediency have been so elusive lately in our country.
It's not all the fault of liberals, as many conservatives have presumed.
Indeed, has society at large turned its back on evangelicalism? Or have many "evangelicals" turned their backs on what was supposed to define them?