Our witness amid social polarization

Jan 29, 2018 by

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By now, we’re probably all tired of one-year analyses of U.S. President Donald Trump. But I’d like to look at his first year from a more spiritual perspective and ask what effect Trump’s presidency may have on the white evangelical church in the U.S.

Eighty percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump to become president. That’s an astonishingly high level of support, but that doesn’t mean they all liked Trump. Many had to hold their noses at his behavior and rhetoric as they voted for him. He got their votes because they could not bring themselves to vote for Clinton, and because they thought he would do a better job of supporting evangelical political concerns.

At the top of the list is opposition to abortion. Evangelicals and Catholics share a deep concern that our society has lost a sense of sanctity for human life. The word “sanctity” is crucial to understand. In other words, there is something sacred about human life. We cannot make moral decisions about human life simply on the basis of pragmatism or “the greatest good for the greatest number.” If human life is sacred, then there are moral absolutes that not only affect how we decide issues like abortion, but also human embryo research, euthanasia, etc. (However, evangelicals are not necessarily consistent on this point; compared to the average American, they more strongly favor the death penalty, torture and the use of warfare.)

Evangelicals and Catholics also share a strong concern that religious practice and religious conscience are being driven out of the public square (and the marketplace). They vigorously advocate for the right of individuals to refuse to participate in actions that go against their own religious teachings or consciences. This has been most visibly on display regarding whether to issue marriage licenses or make wedding cakes expressing congratulations to gay couples. By a narrow margin, our society now supports gay marriage, and it is now legal; but will religious people and institutions be allowed not to participate? What looks like bigotry to one side of the debate is about religious freedom and conscience on the other side. Evangelicals and Catholics do not want to see the U.S. become so secularized that we become like France — where it is illegal to publicly display one’s faith. (Evangelicals are not always consistent on religious freedom and conscience; they favor it for Christians and Jews, but have often been hostile toward giving the same rights to Muslims. The argument offered is that America is built on a Judeo-Christian foundation, without which it will fall apart.)

White evangelicals have also been strong supporters of other ideals such as personal responsibility, an orderly society, free-market capitalism, small government, and the importance of strong marriages and intact families.

Given these moral and political concerns, Trump looked a lot better than Clinton to the vast majority of white evangelical voters. And over the course of the past year, Trump has delivered: appointing a conservative anti-abortion Supreme Court judge (and many other conservative federal judges), stripping federal regulations, beefing up border security, lowering taxes and presiding over a soaring stock market.

But the question which white evangelicals must ask themselves is whether they made a deal with the devil. To get what they wanted, have they compromised some moral principles?

To enthusiastically support Trump, white evangelicals have had to downplay or ignore what is obvious: Donald Trump is a narcissistic child whose ambitions are so great that he is willing to destroy even good things that stand in his way. He treats women with vulgarity. He plays on white racial fears. He speaks contemptuously of Latino and African immigrants (even legal ones) — even though those immigrants commit fewer crimes and are harder workers than the average American. He calls our most important and respected newspapers the enemy of the people and labels anything he doesn’t like as “fake news.” He lies constantly with a total disregard for facts. He cozies up to Vladimir Putin — the ruthless dictator of an authoritarian regime that poisons opponents, invades a neighboring state, interferes in our presidential election, and constantly spreads false and divisive news in the American media for the purpose of dividing us and weakening our faith in our own institutions.

Whatever policies of President Trump evangelicals may support, it should also be acknowledged that this presidency has polarized the American public even more greatly than it was before, making us more fearful of one another, and some of his statements have been toxic to our democratic institutions. Our president has deep character flaws that could potentially lead to catastrophe.

In light of this, I think white evangelicals must be more willing to publicly confront Trump when he engages in egregious behavior. If they do not, they will lose spiritual and moral credibility — the only credibility that matters in a faith community.

Both political parties stink if you get too close to them, which is why the faith community should not endorse either party or their candidates. On the other hand, we, like the Jewish exiles in Babylon 2,600 years ago, must work for the welfare of the city we are in. We must be involved in both (all) political parties, bringing our perspectives and our conscience.

Ryan Ahlgrim is pastor of First Mennonite Church in Richmond, Va. He previously served for 19 years as pastor of First Mennonite Church in Indianapolis and 11 years at Peoria-North Mennonite Church in Illinois. He blogs at fmcbiblestudy.wordpress.com, where this post first appeared.


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