2016 is obviously shaping up to be a year of seismic change in America’s political and religious landscapes. The Republican Party, which was already buckling under the pressures and demands of the Tea Party and the religious right, and the Party’s closest and historically most dependable ally, the evangelical church (see David Gushee’s statement about the seismic breakup that is underway in the evangelical community), are both now facing the possibility of deeply damaging and destabilizing schisms that will render all of our established assumptions and accepted conventional wisdom about both to be meaningless and obsolete.
Donald Trump has not created the fault lines along which Republicans and their evangelical partners are now dividing. His hostile takeover of the Republican Party certainly has exacerbated these divisions even as he has ingeniously and adroitly exploited them for personal political gain. Trump is deftly riding a multi-factional wave of angry white working class Americans, many of whom are evangelicals who are fearful that they will soon be written off as just another marginalized and disenfranchised minority.
It is fascinating to watch commentators, political scientists, and evangelical religious leaders grapple with the question, “Why have so many self-proclaimed white evangelicals wholeheartedly embraced the pompous, hedonistic, vitriolic, narcissistic, bigoted, vulgar, and barely religious Donald Trump as their candidate for the Presidency?” Many are also puzzling over why these self-identifying evangelicals are paying remarkably little attention to the guidance of prominent evangelical leaders who have expressed their preference for Ted Cruz. Just as we can say that this is no longer your father’s Republican party we can also say this is no longer your father’s evangelical church.
The roots of the current calamity that has befallen the Republican Party can be traced back to the Party’s fateful embrace of Nixon’s Southern Strategy. But the most pivotal event that sealed the collective fate of Republicanism and evangelicalism in America took place in the summer of 1980. In August of that year another anti-establishment/entertainer, Ronald Reagan. Who had four years earlier risked spliting a divided Republican Party, arranged and presided over the marriage of the Party with ulta-conservative evangelicals who were already instigating and overseeing a bloody and ruthless schism within mainline American Protestantism. At that very public wedding ceremony evangelicals were instructed by their leaders to use every resource at their disposal to get Reagan elected and to “take control of the country.”
Many old-guard white evangelicals, long-since frustrated that the full and final accomplishment of the goal of completely taking over the country has not yet been fully realized, have flocked to Trump, who has resurrected their hopes and reclaimed Reagan’s campaign slogan, “Let’s Make America Great Again.” These white evangelicals, who believe that they have been betrayed, besieged, and marginalized, even by the Party they have fully embraced, hope that Trump will roll back the progressive achievements of the Obama years and that he will enable them to once again become the “moral majority.” Many of these evangelicals have decided that Trump, warts and all, offers the best hope for making their regressive social agenda an irreversible reality.
Evangelicals, some will fairly and correctly point out, are not a monolithic entity that can be reduced to stereotypes. A significant percentage (28%) of evangelicals are Democrats. Some are African American. Many evangelicals are not pleased about where this dysfunctional marriage of church and state has taken them. Russell Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention, says that he is deeply troubled by the evangelical contribution to and association with Trump’s rise to power. Even the staunchly a-political Max Lucado has expressed his grave concern over the Trump phenomenon. In addition, a rising new generation of unpredictable and sometimes progressive young evangelicals is now making decisions based a multitude of complex political, economic, and societal priorities. However, the damage to the brand has been done and the devil, like the syndicated loan shark who has run out of patience, is now demanding his due and with exorbitantly escalating interest.
Once upon a time in America, influential and sensible mainstream evangelical Protestant voices warned of the danger of breaking down the wall of separation between church and state. In my particular Baptist tradition many like James Dunn, Paul Simmons, and a host of other theologians/ethicists built upon the seminal ideals of Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and the proto-Baptist Roger Williams . They argued that to breach the wall would not only corrupt and cause irreparable damage to both the church and the state. To do so, they warned, would inevitably endanger this democracy by undermining basic human freedoms and rights that can only be maintained in a free state not dominated by or beholden to the church.
When conservative white evangelicals agreed in the last century to be wedded to the Republican Party they were promised that they would be taught how take complete control of their religious institutions by using conservative political methods that need give no thought to ethical standards or behaviors. Those evangelicals were also promised that the resources of the state would be employed to legislate the moral agenda of the evangelical church (in matters such as abortion, homosexuality, and school sponsored prayer). What evangelicals brought to the union was a promise to help Republicans get elected as God’s rightfully chosen representatives and a promise to legitimize Republican economic, social, and political agendas by proclaiming them to be blessed by the church and, by implication, God.
What many thought to be a marriage made in heaven was really a bargain with the devil. These promises fulfilled, have come at a high price.
And just what is the price that is now due? Both the evangelical church and Republican Party have been hopelessly radicalized and have succumbed to an inquisitional mentality that is obsessed with the rooting out the enemies that they perceive are within and without. Even more disastrous, neither the Republican Party nor American evangelicalism will be ever be able to shake the impression about them that is now being seared into our minds – that these Evangelicals/Republicans are determined to eradicate every vestige of fairness, equality, and diversity in this society and that they are motivated by a ruthless white supremacist quest for power that aims to establish their absolute dominance over all aspects of every citizen’s life. The Republican Party and the evangelical church will now be hard-pressed to prove that Trump, with all of his racist, sexist, and xenophobic rhetoric, is not the true face of their Party and their church.
To be fair, hard-right evangelicalism and the radicalized Republican Party may not be the only forces that forward a destructively regressive agenda in 21st Century America. However, evangelicalism and the Republican party, even in their most progressive forms, will henceforth be associated with those most ignominious and embarrassing so-called “American values” that the Republican presidential candidates are now espousing. Both the Republican Party and the evangelical church are reaping the whirlwinds they have sown, and because of their intentionally intimate association, they have both contributed to and enabled the other’s dysfunctional descent into the quagmire of a radically destructive and anti-democratic paleoconservativism.
The Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore says that he plans to forego any personal or public association with the word evangelical until after the Presidential election, but any redemption of that moniker now seems impossible. The evangelical church will from now on be hopelessly connected to the quest for raw political power. No doubt many of our fellow citizens will continue to leave the church and to eschew political party affiliation out of disgust. The devil has come calling and demands his due and the price is high indeed.