Ordinarily, I trust and appreciate Jonathan Merritt’s work. He is generally a reliable guide to the world of white Evangelicals. However, his recent piece in The Atlantic on whether anti-Trump Evangelicals should leave the movement suffers from a couple of big problems.
Merritt begins by pointing to the case of Jimmy Carter, who has not-really disassociated himself from the Southern Baptist Convention over its positions on women in ministry, acceptance of gays and lesbians, and other issues. “Not-really” because SBC has a congregational polity, which means that if you belong to a congregation that’s affiliated, so are you. Since Carter hasn’t given up membership in his home church, he’s a Southern Baptist, despite anything he might say to the contrary.
The point here is less technical than it might seem. If Carter—and other leaders like him, both lay and clergy—aren’t willing to take formal steps to leave their churches, Merritt argues, they’re really making a statement rather than doing anything of substance. It would be much weightier of them to stay and criticize from within.
I kind of think having a former president speak out against a church is substantial, but then it is true that Carter did all this in the age before Twitter. If a living saint jumps ship without committing it to 140 characters, will anyone notice?
Merritt rather tendentiously links Carter’s case to other Evangelicals disavowing the label or trying to distance themselves from a movement that would embrace a unrepentant knuckle-dragger like our current President-Elect. Again, he thinks it would be more effective for them to stay and fight rather than walk away. He cites Carter’s attempt to build the New Baptist Covenant, which brought everyone except the Southern Baptists to the table to discuss social and theological divisions. Wouldn’t anti-Trump leaders have more moral sway working from within their churches?
But this is transparently self-contradictory. If Carter is still part of the SBC, then he is working from within, and he’s still ignored by his own denomination. The same is true of the other leaders Merritt cites. Russell Moore may not like being called an Evangelical anymore, but he’s hardly hung up his study Bible and moved on to the Episcopal church. Likewise Preston Yancey, Shane Claiborne, or any of the other leading critics mentioned, at least to my knowledge.
Merritt fears that the “Evangelical exodus” could lead to an unchallenged Republicanism in the movement. It’s hard to see how that would be any worse than the challenged Republicanism that currently exists. For that matter, it’s just as easy to argue that moderate or liberal Evangelicals should walk away. There are more than a few gay-friendly Baptist congregations who have found their way into affiliation with the UCC, for example. They remain happily Evangelical on their own terms. There’s really no reason other communities disgusted by Evangelical support for Trump shouldn’t do the same.
The biggest problem, though, is what’s just barely mentioned in Merritt’s calculation. He lays out the Evangelical case against Trump like so:
The impetus for Moore’s departure was, in part, the manner in which his comrades had supported Trump for president: “I have watched as some [evangelicals] who gave stem-winding speeches about ‘character’ in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”
For decades, evangelicals have overwhelmingly voted Republican, but Trump’s flaws made him an unlikely choice for the group. Trump gathered evangelical support early in the primaries, which continued through July’s nominating convention and through the election—despite multiple high-profile scandals, including his 2005 comments about women on an Access Hollywood tape, that would ostensibly offend conservative people of faith.
So Trump is a foul-mouthed serial abuser of women, divorcé, and gambling magnate. Fair enough. But he’s also a psychotic racist, xenophobe, bigot, and anti-Semite. I mean, why else do you think James Dobson, Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jr. supported him? It’s not because they give a shit about his supposed defense of “Christian moral values.” It’s because he promised to Make America Great Again, meaning, put straight white patriarchs back in charge.
This is the whole problem with the Evangelical movement in a nutshell. Nobody has figured out how to deal with the core reality that for many people, to be an Evangelical is a metonym for a defender of white male privilege. Like “real American,” it’s a racially-constructed ideological identity, not a theological position.
More to the point, the Evangelical critics within the movement either haven’t found an effective way to issue a challenge to their fellow-believers on that score, or they’re too chickenshit to raise it in the first place. (In fairness, the same could be said of the Mainline church, though to a lesser extent.) You’ll notice the only one of the Trump critics Merritt mentions accorded any kind of moral gravitas on the issue was Russell Moore, who is not coincidentally a champion of racial reconciliation within the Southern Baptist Convention.
Inside, outside, who cares? Wear the Evangelical label, don’t wear it, it doesn’t really matter. To be an effective witness against Trump and trumpism requires a commitment to naming the actual sins the man capitalized on to win the White House: racism, sexism, and hate. There are a lot of good reasons for Evangelical leaders to be reluctant to get in people’s faces on that score, chief among them being rejection and potentially splintering the movement yet again. But then as somebody once said, what good is it to win the world and lose your soul?
Edit 12/13: Brantley Grassley on Twitter challenges my definition of Evangelical as over-simplified. Indeed there are non-white Evangelicals, and Evangelicals opposed to white male patriarchy. That’s worth clarifying, and I’m grateful for the reminder. I do think my point stands. When we talk about [white] Evangelicals as a political force, we’re talking about a group 80% of whom voted for Trump. That’s the solid bloc that has to be called to examine their own commitment to white male privilege, if trumpism is to be rejected. It’s the other 20% that has to decide if it’s going to remain in the movement or leave.