If you had asked me three months ago what the greatest threat to evangelicalism is, I might have said the evangelical Left. For the past decade, I have been dismayed as more and more professed evangelicals have abandoned biblical orthodoxy and have embraced gay marriage, socialism and recently — the notion that Muslims and Christians worship the same God.
These pose very real threats, undermining the integrity of the church and its witness to a lost and dying world. But now, evangelicalism has an equally pernicious foe — the Trumpian, evangelical Right.
At first, I couldn't believe the news reports. Donald Trump could not possibly be the choice of the Religious Right. How could a man who flaunts his moral indiscretions, uses foul language, insults the handicapped, and praises Planned Parenthood become the darling of evangelical voters? Add to this the fact that Trump openly advocated murdering the family members of terrorists. And, when challenged on whether the military would follow his murderous and illegal order, Trump responded: "They won't refuse. They're not gonna refuse me."
Not only is Trump crude, brash, immoral and proud. He has zero respect for the rule of law and talks like some Third World Dictator, not the leader of the free world. Surely, I assured myself, the exit polls must be wrong. And, to some extent they were.
As a Religion News Service article explained, exit polls lump marginal evangelicals and devout evangelicals together because they usually ask only one question about religion. When pollsters have asked additional questions, though, it becomes clear that Trump's support is not nearly as strong among devout evangelicals as it is among nominal ones. In Missouri, for example, only 30-33% of Christians who attend church one or more times a week voted for Trump, compared to 46% of all evangelicals.
Still, one-third is a sizeable number. Plus, it's not just the anonymous evangelical masses who are supporting Trump. Liberty University President Jerry Fallwell, Jr., endorsed him too, claiming Trump's indiscretions weren't any worse than King David's, and arguing that we're electing a president, not a pastor. (Of course, King David repented of his sin, but Trump said he doesn't feel a need to ask God for forgiveness.)
Ben Carson, a man widely respected for his sincere Christian beliefs, has endorsed Trump too, though somewhat begrudgingly. And, just recently, the Trump campaign hired Sarah Huckabee, Mike Huckabee's daughter, as a senior advisor, sparking rumors that her father, a former pastor, may soon endorse Trump.
Though deep divisions already existed between the evangelical Right and and the Left, now deep fractures are also forming between #NeverTrump or #AnyoneButTrump evangelicals and #Trump2016 evangelicals.
This week, the Washington Post ran an article on how "Donald Trump is tearing evangelicals apart." The article included testimony from an evangelical pastor who said he receives calls every day from distressed pastors whose congregations are divided over the controversial candidate. Some Trump supporters reportedly have even threatened to leave their churches if their pastors dare to preach anything against him.
Trump has also pitted evangelical leaders against each other.
When Falwell first announced his support for Trump, Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore called the endorsement "absolutely unbelievable" and tweeted: "Trading in the Gospel of Jesus Christ for political power is not liberty but slavery."
This week, Moore even admitted that "this election makes me hate the word 'evangelical.'" "The word 'evangelical' has become almost meaningless this year," Moore said, "and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ."
Moore is right.
For years, I have defended conservative evangelicals against accusations from the Left that we care more about preserving power than advancing the gospel. I have argued that we support pro-life candidates because we love the unborn; we defend traditional marriage because it leads to human flourishing; and we advocate for limited government because it respects the dignity and agency of human beings created in God's image. We are not the ugly stereotype. We are compassionate conservatives.
I still believe these are the core convictions of many of my devout, evangelical brothers and sisters. But clearly, not all. I admit, I am ashamed and embarrassed by my own tribe. And, I am grieved.
Recently, Denny Burke, a pastor and professor of biblical studies at Boyce College, wrote about his experience attending a Trump rally. Burke said repeatedly Trump berated protestors from the stage, turning a tense situation into a potentially dangerous one.
"Probably my main take-away from listening to (Trump) in person was his ability to stoke anger and outrage," Burke wrote. "The people he appeals to are frustrated with their government. They are frustrated with jobs being shipped overseas. And they are frustrated with a sense that the political elite don't listen to them. He knows how to stoke that frustration into a blazing rage, and that is what he does at his rallies."
I understand Trump followers' anger. Much of it is legitimate — and there's certainly a part of me that would like to stick it to the establishment too. But, every demagogue that has ever risen to power has done so riding a wave of legitimate rage and discontent, from Stalin to Mussolini and yes — Hitler.
As Christians, though, we normally distinguish between the means and the end. Though we may agree with the end of a political movement, we refuse to engage in any sinful means of achieving that end. Yet, as Trump rallies have turned violent and even racist, his evangelical support has not waned. As he warns (incites?) of riots if he's denied the nomination, Christians rattle their sabers with the rest of Trump's thugs.
Truly, Trump's Christian supporters seem to be just like his godless ones, proving Trump's boast, "I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn't lose voters." Little does he or his supporters seem to realize that that isn't an endorsement of Trump's movement, but an indictment.
So, this is what evangelicalism has become. On the Left, we are abandoning orthodoxy for gay rights and solidarity with other religions. And on the right, we are an angry mob, overlooking sin and vice for the sake of our righteous indignation. For those on the Right and the Left, our faith has succumbed to politics.
We are no longer serving Christ; we are serving idols. And, our big tent, once a haven for so many seeking salvation, is now ripping at the seams. If we continue as we are now, I fear there will soon be nothing left except shreds of cloth and vestiges of the gospel.