Evangelical—When a Good Word Goes Bad

Line of three apples including good, bad and completely rotten. Set on black background with reflection. Illustrates progression from health to decay, also can be metaphorical for change from good to evil.

photo by Digital21 / iStockphoto.com

by Carolyn Custis James

Anyone who has a finger on the pulse of American evangelicalism has to be wondering if the patient will survive.

During the current presidential election cycle, American evangelicalism has suffered what may prove to be a potentially lethal setback at the hands of a few evangelical leaders. Prominent evangelical figures that include such notables as Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Richard Land, James Dobson, and Eric Metaxas have drawn national attention by publicly endorsing Donald Trump, a man whose actions, values, lifestyle, and rhetoric run counter to the life and teachings of Jesus.

How can American evangelicalism survive when, like an immune system gone awry, it begins to turn on itself? Yet, despite Trump's racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, and xenophobic rhetoric, they have rushed to the Republican nominee's side, pledged their support, and seem intent on influencing the rest of us to join them in violating our evangelical convictions.

More evangelical defections

In the aftermath, and despite an online outcry of resistance from appalled fellow evangelicals, things have only gotten worse.

In late July, Professor Wayne Grudem released his lengthy diatribe for endorsing Trump—"Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice." In it, Grudem glossed over the long list of Trump's offenses, calling him a "flawed" candidate and affirming him as "a morally good choice." His essay caused another dumbfounded evangelical to retort, "How 'Trump' and 'morally' can meet in the same sentence defies the imagination."

If the shock waves created by Professor Wayne Grudem's lengthy rationalization of his endorsement of Donald Trump weren't enough, last Friday Dr. James Dobson doubled-down on his earlier support of Trump with a video endorsement of the real estate mogul. Dobson, founder and former president of Focus on the Family, stated he is "deeply concerned about the direction our country is headed."

In our republic, there is maximal freedom to express political preferences. But it is a good deal more troubling when an evangelical leader plays off their identity as an evangelical with the clear intent of influencing others to follow their lead.

With so many offensive statements radiating from the nightly news, evangelicals are right to protest these endorsements and to call these evangelical leaders to account.

But there is one dimension of all this that doesn't get as much attention as I think it should in Christian circles: namely, what this phenomenon reflects about issues of gender. As a woman, I find it especially troubling that not only are both Grudem and Dobson, as staunch defenders of complementarianism, willing to dismiss those offenses, but they are also sabotaging core values of their respective lifelong ministries.

Here's what I mean.

Family values and biblical manhood?

As the evangelical guru of family values, Dr. Dobson's endorsement strikes a double blow to the fight against some of the most serious issues facing American families—battles he has historically engaged. Significant efforts are underway to combat the destructive plague of bullying.

Bullying has lead to suicides even of adolescents and has been a factor in some mass shootings. Dobson himself expressed alarm over what is happening. "Kids are regularly committing suicide because of the horrible bullying they endure." Likewise, many are working vigorously to prevent young girls from hating, cutting, and starving themselves because they don't conform to some culturally embraced ideal of the female body. Yet James Dobson would have us cast our votes for an unapologetic bully who routinely belittles his opponents, ridicules a disabled man, and objectifies women (including both of his daughters).

James Dobson would have us cast our votes for an unapologetic bully who routinely belittles his opponents, ridicules a disabled man, and objectifies women (including both of his daughters).

What possible explanation can we give our children and grandchildren if we follow his lead and vote for Trump?

Grudem—a founder, formulator, and relentless defender of complementarian manhood—has written tomes advocating the view that real men protect women. Finding any alignment between Grudem's diehard complementarian stance and his advocacy for Trump is difficult to imagine. For goodness sake, Trump is a strip club owner. But there is more. Trump openly boasts of his sexual conquests and adulterous escapades, and he degrades women with misogynist remarks. Grudem's logic for supporting Trump escapes me.

You would think that if protecting women and girls truly mattered to complementarian Grudem, he'd at least be willing to acknowledge the efforts of Hillary Clinton as a candidate who has sought to lift up, protect, and defend the rights of women and girls globally. Instead, Grudem wants to defeat her.

Better Trump than a woman president, I guess.

These endorsements of Trump reflect a fundamental failure of complementarianism.

These endorsements reflect a fundamental failure of complementarianism. The commitment to protect women and children—a central tenant of evangelical family values and the complementarian manifesto—is all too easily abandoned.

The rise of Donald Trump and the abandonment by evangelical leaders of their own core convictions should compel American evangelicals to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. In a very real sense, Trump and his evangelical advocates provide an opportunity for the rest of us to rethink where our true loyalties lie and to ponder how following Jesus defines our values and shapes our engagement in the public square. That same standard applies to how we as Christians evaluate every other candidate.

Reclaiming our Christian identity

In his NYTimes article, "Why Values Voters Value Donald Trump," Daniel K. Williams raised the obvious question facing Christians:

"If conservative evangelical support for Mr. Trump requires [evangelicals] to retract their convictions about the values of decency, marital fidelity and Christian virtue in public life, are they at risk of attempting to gain the Supreme Court at the cost of their movement's soul?"

Perhaps instead, the current evangelical crisis signals the demise of the distorted American version of evangelicalism and compels us to reclaim our true allegiance to Jesus and to recommit to be bearers of the good news of his kingdom.

The word "evangelical" comes from the Greek word euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) which means "gospel" or "good news." Historically for Christians the word evangelical identifies the followers of Jesus and connects them with the good news of his gospel—a gospel of God's love and mercy for the world he loves through Jesus and the kingdom Jesus brings. Tragically, in America the word "evangelical" has been politicized to reflect white, right-wing Republican values. The current election cycle has brought the misuse of that good word to a head where Christians must rethink what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For many evangelicals it means (at least for the moment) abandoning that label.

The need to rethink what it means to be an evangelical prompted me to reread Walter Brueggemann's book, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture. In it, he explains the fact that the kingdoms of this world are not and never will be the kingdom of God. He demonstrates in powerful ways how all through the Bible courageous individuals are confronting and speaking truth to the powerful and rich. Those voices belong to the ancient prophets and ultimately to Jesus who refused to play along with the powers that be, but instead confronted them with their responsibility to pursue justice and mercy for the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Most notably this meant widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners. "'Isn't that what it means to know me?' says the LORD"  (Jer. 22:16).

Grasping for power, as Brueggemann notes, "is never innocent or disinterested; it is always, to some important extent, a front for self-interest perpetrated through violence." That violence, as we well know, comes in many forms.

The evangelical church detours from its true mission by seeking alignment with the rich and powerful instead of calling them to account and speaking for those whose voices have been silenced. Self-interest and self-protection run counter to the gospel. So does silence in the face of injustice.

The evangelical church detours from its true mission by seeking alignment with the rich and powerful.

Every time we kneel to pray the words Jesus taught his disciples to pray, we affirm our pledge of allegiance to Jesus' kingdom—an allegiance to which all other loyalties defer. Our commitment is to the reign of God, to the advance of his kingdom on earth, and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. As God's image bearers, we are called to be agents of that kingdom first and foremost.

We have our work cut out for us. I would not presume to tell anyone how (or if) they should vote. That is a matter of conscience for each of us. But if we understand anything, it is that our starting point is not with evangelical leaders who are endorsing Trump or any other candidate, but by listening again to the ancient prophets and to Jesus . . . especially before we pull that lever in the voting booth.

Carolyn Custis James thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. She travels extensively both in the US and abroad as a speaker for churches, conferences, colleges, theological seminaries, and other Christian organizations. She is an adjunct professor at BTS in Pennsylvania and is a consulting editor for Zondervan's Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament. She blogs at her own site, at Missio Alliance, and at Huffington Post/Religion. In 2012, Christianity Today named Carolyn one of 50 evangelical women to watch. In 2016, she joined the Board of Advisors at the Institute of Bible Reading. An award-winning author, her books include Malestrom, Half the Church,The Gospel of Ruth, Lost Women of the Bible, and When Life & Beliefs Collide. This post originally appeared on Missio Alliance and is reproduced here by kind permission from the author.

Also of interest:

Why Donald Trump Is Good for Evangelicals by Carolyn Custis James

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8 Responses

  1. John Seel says:

    There is a fundamental flaw in assuming that evangelicals engage public life on the basis of their theology.

    The operative dispositions of American evangelicals stem from their history. The sociological term for this is "habitus." Donald Trump's message unconsciously resonates with the evangelical habitus. Trumps candidacy has only exposed this latent evangelical habitus and brought it to light.

    There are five periods of American history that have shaped this five-fold disposition, captured by these five words: reign, revival, resentment, retreat, and reassertion. The Puritans and the First Great Awaken put an emphasis on American exceptionalism, America as a "Christian" nation, a "city on a hill." The operative term is REIGN. The second period of history was the Second Great Awakening during the Jacksonian era which led to populism and revivalism. This is the period discussed in Nathan Hatch's "The Democratizing of American Christianity." The operative term is REVIVAL. The third period began after the Civil War when from 1880-1930 American evangelicalism lost most of the culture-shaping leading institutions. This led to attitudes of RESENTMENT. Beginning in 1930, in response to the Scopes Trial of 1925 and the Fundamentalist/Modernist controversy evangelicals created their own separate or parallel universe. Christianity Today moved from Washington to Wheaton. The operative word is RETREAT. Fifth, in the 1970-1980s evangelicalism began a nationwide reassertion, with the rise of the "Moral Majority." The operative word is REASSERTION.

    The native dispositions of American exceptionalism, anti-intellectual populism, cultural resentment, and political reassertion have unquestionably shaped evangelicalism through the new millennium. Trump speaks the language of REIGN, REVIVAL, RESENTMENT, AND REASSERTION. Why should we be surprised by evangelical leaders unquestioning alignment with this candidate? It is habitus not theology that is driving these alignments.

    Particularly with younger evangelicals, those who are largely "post-evangelical," there is emerging from this experience with Trump a complete REASSESSMENT. How this plays out following the election will write the script for both the Republican party and American evangelicalism. This long-established historical habitus needed to be rethought. Millennials are abandoning it, which is a good thing. It is time to listen to spiritually-oriented millennials for they will lead the church out of the morass.

    Evangelicalism has a notable history. But the cultural connotations of the word and movement will following this election cycle no longer be associated with this notable history. Nor will Republic Party be associated with Lincoln.

    See John Seel's "The Evangelical Forfeit: Can We Recover?" (Baker, 1993).

  2. Karsten says:

    What about a piece on the other major candidate and how her remarks and politics reflect certain sentiments within evangelicalism?
    What about military interventionism, cultural colonialism, russophobia, sinophobia and infanticide?

  3. Jim says:

    I have to agree with Karsten., concerning other candidates. The demonizing of Donald Trump automatically insinuates the idolatry of the other major candidate. At least that is the unspoken implication.

    We can all do better.

  4. Judy Johnson says:

    Carolyn, thank you so much for your message. I don't feel alone as I journey with my hand in the hand of the One who loves me more than I can comprehend, and never leaves me nor forsakes me.

  5. Stephen Mott says:

    Evangelicals doing doctoral work at Harvard Divinity School in the late '60's found the same low meaning of the label "Evangelical." We thought that Evangelical was progressive in contrast to Fundamentalist. That distinction wasn't present among students and faculty. We had many discussion re how to identify ourselves. I think that we decided just to go with the term Christian.

  6. J Whitmore says:

    Hello! Wake up! Hillary and Bill are the rich and powerful and they are liars and sexual perverts. Why not bash them as much as you do Trump. THe Clintons are bad. Stop the bashing of your brothers and sisters who know about the Clintons. We have been watching them for decades. We are not stupid. We have terrible options this election. We must make decisions that are distasteful and this is one of them. I feel that the author of this article is calling his/her fellow Christians idiots,evil ect. Please abide by your own rules.

  7. Alexander H says:

    I'm evangelical and very anti-Trump. I'm voting for Hillary even tho I don't want to. (My politics are moderate-right, closer to Kasich than anyone else) But there's another reason so many "evangelicals" blindly support any conservative including Trump: Liberals look down on us. I may be in the single most conservative demographic in the whole country. I'm a straight white man from Mississippi, lower-class, homeschooled, evangelical Christian, etc. Most people like me vote conservative/Republican because so many liberals/Democrats bash us. Trump bashes Mexicans and Muslims and most of the conservative movement hates them, forcing them to be liberal regardless of their views. A LOT of liberals hate Christians, especially evangelical Christians. It wouldn't surprise me if a liberal candidate bashed evangelicals someday. When I was in (community) college I was very left-wing, and I still have some left-wing friends, but I never fit in with the group. The left has gotten more and more anti-Christian since then. Most of my left-wing Christian friends quit the faith and most of the rest quit the politics like I did. Partly it was my views shifting and partly it's that I want to belong to my group. And I'll do a lot to fit in, but I sure won't vote for Trump. I don't want to be part of a group that hates me and everything I love. And while I'm not a Hillary fan, her fans seem to be way more tolerant of evangelicalism than the left in general is.

    Which brings me to another point. I think right-wingers quit believing in Jesus as much as left-wingers do. Right-wing ex-Christians just keep pretending to be Christian so they don't face the wrath of their tribe. And since they're still right-wing, the left won't take them. The country is divided into a conservative tribe and a liberal tribe. Each tribe has their groups they hate more than anyone else. For conservatives, it's a mix of terrorists, foreigners, and liberals. For liberals, it's only conservatives. End of sentence. A lot of the left thinks I am worse than ISIS. And that's scary. That's a lot of why I quit the left.

    That being said, I won't tell people to vote for Hillary, but if you're a Christian and you support Trump, you're a horrible Christian. Any of the other Republicans are fine. I would have voted for the more moderate ones over Hillary. But at least Hillary's way way way less scary than Trump. I'd rather have Kasich or even Rubio, but you gotta work with what you got. And we got the scariest major politician in American history vs. Hillary. So I'm voting Hillary. At least she doesn't hate evangelicals or Southerners.

  8. TB says:

    Truly this issue is not nearly as simple as this article asks one to believe it is. From my perspective the author left out the most important reason why "evangelicals" held their nose and voted for the Republican candidate, and that is to avoid further liberalisation of America under the Clinton agenda. The Republican vote this time around was a way for "evangelicals" to nail a stake in the ground and halt the continued forward marginalisation of the Christian worldview in a country that is increasingly anti-Christian. But clearly there was a very high price to pay for that stake.

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