Many Americans remain discouraged or angry about the presidential election. Those gathering around the tree this holiday season with evangelical family may feel particularly bewildered. No demographic played a more central role in in the election outcome, with over 80 percent of self-described white evangelicals having voted for Donald Trump.
I grew up in the 1970s, and attended the Southern evangelical churches that gave birth to the Moral Majority. I had a front row seat as Christian conservatives, initially agitating from outside mainstream politics, eventually reshaped and emboldened the Republican Party.
I have some advice. And even some good news.
Those of us interacting with evangelicals at Christmas no longer have to play defense. The script has flipped. The candidate who hung the “loser” label on seemingly every group not white or Christian, turned out to be correct. With a firmer grip on both houses of Congress than any party since 1928 and nearly unprecedented influence in state legislatures and governor’s mansions, Trump’s Republican Party has secured a national safe space for the voters who make up this long emergent winning coalition.
Fortunately, those of us deeply troubled by this right wing ascendency are no longer obligated, post-election, to defend any particular alternative to Trump. We can now focus exclusively on Trumpism and dismantling the narratives that made this political trend possible. These efforts begin by treating Trump voters, not as outsiders, but as winners who owe us an explanation for what happens next. And we can go a step further with evangelicals: requiring explanations that are grounded in actual Christian religious belief and in the sacred texts they say guide their decisions.
This expectation will put many pro-democracy activists in an unusual position. Atheists, agnostics, Jews, liberal Catholics, mainstream protestants, and many thoughtful people with other beliefs aren’t exactly well practiced at proselytizing. Those who typically view religious faith as a personal and private endeavor, will find it difficult to do what I suggest here.
Yet many of us have family and friends who, within the chosen safety of their evangelical enclaves, are never held accountable or asked to explain the many ugly national sins that made their candidate’s rise possible — the mendacity, bigotry, xenophobia, misogyny, and language of violence that so clearly energized the Trump phenomenon. These unconfessed sins, as well as ongoing support from evangelicals, are precisely what will keep Trump in power or drive him from it. Given the circumstances, it’s appropriate to expect, if not demand, religious answers to questions we ourselves may not find particularly religious.
Our conscience, and the weight of this historical moment, should serve as a reminder that this strategy is more than an exercise in irony. We can now refuse the inevitable attempts by Trump evangelicals to revert to arguments no longer relevant under new dynamics of governance. We can also ask them to explain the connection they make between their chosen president and their own heartfelt religious convictions.
Both of these tacks and the simple strategy outlined below can ease our own holiday conversation frustrations and, more importantly, serve as small necessary acts of political resistance. As Trump himself proved, one does not need any theological expertise to talk religion with evangelicals. But a few basic rules for discussion can help:
1. Don’t discuss Hillary. There’s nothing that Trump evangelicals would rather do than talk about Hillary Clinton, a nemesis they’ve relied on for 30 years. She is gone. Don’t be baited. Hilary-talk is often an evasion tactic for persons who fear your questions about what Christianity requires of them in a post-Clinton era.
2. Don’t discuss Obama. This may be more difficult. You may feel nostalgia and a moral impulse to defend an unfairly maligned minority president. Don’t go there. It serves no productive purpose.
3. Don’t discuss Trump the man. Accept the fact Trump supporters were inspired by how he made them feel. His persona, full of flip-flopping and exaggeration, ensures you won’t get far pinning down “the real Donald Trump” at post-truth holiday gatherings.
4. Don’t discuss Trump voters. Some readers will object that I put too many evangelicals in the same basket of deplorables. If so, they have a valid point. Voters cast ballots for a wide variety of reasons, including frustrations about economic fairness and national belonging that deserve compassion. You should concede this point too and move on.
5. Do discuss Jesus. What you believe about Jesus is not the point. You aren’t on trial. But a group of people charged by their holy book to share the good news of Christ is now the most potent voting bloc for the most dominant, powerful political majority of your lifetime. You can indignantly expect answers. You can ask what this “good news” actually entails. You can ask why the kinds of people Jesus ministered to, the poor and dispossessed, aren’t viewing this news as particularly good right now.
Talking about Jesus reveals a faith that originated, not in support of Empire, but in its resistance. The Biblical Jesus gave up power willingly, lived in poverty, and suffered unfairly. Christmas exposes the hypocrisy of voters who cling to incompatible claims, embracing the humble story of Christ’s birth while donning the mantle of empire.
Empire offers context for a New Testament story about a poor, pregnant, unwed woman, lacking documentation, health care, or affordable housing, who crossed borders on her way to a post-war occupied Palestinian village called Bethlehem. Empire explains why foreigners and seasonal laborers were among the first to share the joy in her son’s humble and homeless birth. Empire explains a judicial system 33 years later that arrested, convicted, incarcerated, and brutalized an innocent man of color. Empire explains Christ, not as a ruler, but as one who was ruled. This context of empire, in short, confronts the Trump evangelical with images of Jesus as a targeted minority, a refugee, a prisoner, and a torture victim.
Unfortunately, exposing these contradictions of faith and empire won’t guarantee the Trump evangelical’s conversion. Post-election polls reveal a demographic with inflated optimism, feeling emboldened by this electoral triumph. From this position of power, Trump stalwarts are still likely to interrupt or ignore your efforts to avoid their favorite topics at Christmas dinner. Don’t expect evangelical fragility to disappear overnight. Despite extensive and unprecedented political power, most Trump evangelicals remain comforted by their mythical status as persecuted and mocked minorities. You can expect some evangelicals to perceive your questions about Jesus as a grave microaggression: a war on their Christmas.
Nonetheless, your strategic agitation can provoke a necessary conversation — one that evangelicals know they are obligated to engage. Regardless of immediate outcome, this approach gives you necessary strength for your own path of resistance. It picks away at a narrative of evangelicals as patriotic outsiders bravely seeking to redeem American politics. It gradually removes Trump evangelicals from the margins and positions them appropriately at the center of U.S. political power. Most importantly, it reminds us that Trump evangelicals are no longer simply justifying a “prayerful choice” they made in November, they are defending a regime that requires their loyalty each and every day to maintain power.
Speaking truth to evangelical power matters now more than ever. Given how this power is already being used and exploited, silence is not an option. But we can still discover the effectiveness of remaining quiet as Trump evangelicals stammer through the most basic questions about their religious commitments in this new age of empire. Indeed we should consider the possibility that our own resistance to power can be most active when listening passively, with or without compassion, as this power is explained, however awkwardly, back to us.