First published on Christian Controverser
This blog has no desire to become a commentary on American politics in general and it is firmly intended to steer future posts away from this topic and concentrate mainly on theology; it is unavoidable, however, that the present political situation in the US is inextricably entangled within the evangelical church community there. Hopefully the current somewhat hysterical aspect of parts of the evangelical community in reaction to the recent election results will die down again soon. Here in NZ our church is strongly influenced by American Christianity which is piped into our living rooms daily through Shine TV and TBN Pacific and some level of discussions about the influence of the US Church upon our religious landscape and theology is completely unavoidable.
America has long had attention focused on its slaveholding background and this issue remains sharply divisive in society as well as the church. In particular, the Southern Baptist Convention was formed to enable their members’ slaveholdings to be preserved when the rest of the conservative Baptist movements in the US were seeking to distance themselves from the country’s racist past. Although SBC has in the latter half of the 20th century largely caught up to the rest of the US church, they remain theologically conservative in many respects and find it somewhat difficult to distance themselves from the deeper core of conservatist thought in American society that is more closely aligned with past racial division.
Veteran CNN political journalist Ronald Brownstein, writing this week on his employer’s website, has delved into the background of white electoral angst over the presidential campaign results, in particular the strident and persistent allegations of voter fraud which happened not coincidentally to involve large populations of Democrat voters in major US cities. These concerns have essentially informed and propelled the Trump Campaign’s many lawsuits seeking to overturn their electoral loss and the overall thrust of continued agitation and discontent over Trump’s impending departure from the White House and the inauguration of his successor. In a recent post this blog noted the strong language being used by Trump’s evangelical church supporters about the dire consequences they predicted would result if Trump’s political opponents succeeded in impeaching him or if he failed to win re-election. The suggestion made then was that they felt this way because they had considered Trump to be divinely appointed to his role. However in view of the overall situation highlighted by Brownstein, there is room to reinterpret the context of those comments to suggest they may actually prove somewhat prophetic in light of wider conservative political malcontent, and should possibly be interpreted as being partly prophetic rather than political.
Brownstein makes the assertion that the US Republican party is heavily focused on voter suppression and that this is essentially an extension of historically significant efforts to deny the Black vote in US society dating back to slaveholding times. This is, in a nutshell, further exacerbated by the growing Black population proportions in America with the consequential realisation that whites could find themselves a minority in the future. One of the political challenges brought to the US Supreme Court in the past week (and firmly rejected by them) gave weight to a common refrain of widespread voter fraud in large Democrat-controlled cities which just happen to have majority African-American populations. And the widespread White House condemnation of mail-in voting was certainly driven by the knowledge that Democrats would primarily be favoured by its use, and in particular that it would enable increased Black voter turnout by neatly circumventing other physical voter suppression efforts such as limiting the number of polling places.
It became abundantly clear over Trump’s first term that he sought to curry political favour by overtly courting the white supremacist (or at least white dominance) vote in the US in a way that has not been seen in US presidential politics in many decades and that led for some uncomfortable conversations for members of his evangelical support community. Certainly there has been strong and enduring political division between white and black evangelical communities over these matters which has not been helped by white evangelicals politically aligning themselves with the Republicans. The degree to which white evangelical Trumpists have invoked the same types of arguments as their secular counterparts in campaigning to challenge the election results is deeply concerning, not only if it implies that this taps into the same vein of voter angst as the wider Republican Party, but for the overall focus and mission of the American evangelical church as a whole.
Voter suppression in the US has become a much more pressing issue since 2013 when a US Supreme Court decision overturned law that mandated federal supervision of states’ voting systems. These laws had been enacted in the mid-1960s to mandate Black electoral emancipation on the well founded understanding that some States had been maintaining segregationalist policies despite the strongly held desire of the federal government in that era. The biggest problem of course for the federal government is that federalism as a basic principle of governance in the US holds that states have the right to govern their own affairs without interference from Congress and the President. The Supreme Court decision overturned the mandated supervision of voting systems by the federal government and has thereby enabled renewal of voter suppression intentions. The current heavily conservative dominance of the SCOTUS will make it difficult for even a Democratic president or Democratic-controlled House to enact new legislation to address states’ voter suppression policies in the future.
The question for the American evangelical church, as must be properly the focus for this blog overall, is whether they are helping or hindering the Gospel of Jesus Christ by tacitly enabling Republican-led voter suppression efforts (a new wave of racism in America) through supporting the Republicans and aligning with them electorally. The Church has recently been conflicted over an appropriate response to the issues raised in the Black Lives Matter movement, a situation that created some awkward situations for Trumps’ evangelical advisory board when some of its members attempted to reinterpret Trump’s public responses to the 2017 Charlottesville protests. Evangelicals protesting (theologically accurately) that the Black Lives Matters movement is led by Marxist New Agers and woke activists cannot detract from the wider concerns over entrenched racism in US society. SBC has recently been tying itself in knots by denouncing critical race theory whilst failing to understand the wider issue of structural racism.
It’s important for evangelicals in the US and worldwide to ensure that the Gospel message which is freely available to all without prejudice to race or any other form of difference in society, is not compromised by cultural accommodation, and in this matter as in many other issues in American society, the Church faces a considerable risk of becoming irrelevant in its quest for political power and the compromises that must ensue from this. The most recent strident tide of denunciations coming from conservative evangelicals supporting claims of voter fraud in a similar way to the Trump campaign represents a grave risk for the work and witness of the church in America. It is something in which it is imperative that evangelical leadership realises its mistakes and pulls back as rapidly as possible from what will undoubtedly be an ongoing campaign by Trumpists over the next four years especially if their leader campaigns again in 2024. Christianity Today’s columnist Timothy Dalrymple highlighted the divisions between pro and anti-Trump factions of evangelicalism in a recent editorial which is recommended to readers of this blog for further personal research. CT’s former editor Mark Galli himself evoked considerable controversy and strident antagonism from other Christian media one year ago when he called for Trump to be removed from office for his moral failings. A tide of supposed prophetic utterances from leading evangelicals prophesied Trump’s re-inauguration in 2020 and demanded Christians march seven times around state and federal capitols when the desired electoral outcome wasn’t achieved. A lone voice of dissent suggested that God’s overriding focus is not who is elected to office but whether His people have maintained a faithful witness to Him in these challenging times. And that is always the most important thing for God’s people to focus on. Many Christian believers worldwide live in much less privileged social and economic conditions than the majority of Americans, especially white evangelicals. Their faith however endures in spite of these purported disadvantages or discouragements. Jesus did not come to enshrine a worldly kingdom in the hearltand of America or anywhere else, but to create His spiritual dominion within our own personal bodies. The Church is not an institution; the Church is God’s people. The key problem for US evangelicalism now appears to be that they have become too focused on their own desire for predominance in the temporal earthly kingdom of the United States of America and less focused on where the Church fits in building a godly spiritual kingdom for eternity.
Also recommended for further reading and research: articles by The Dispatch columnist David French.