Evangelicals face a reckoning: Donald Trump and the future of our faith
No one likes to admit they were fooled. It’s tough to admit we were wrong. Now, many evangelicals are seeing President Donald Trump for who he is, but more need to see what he has done to us.
It’s time for an evangelical reckoning.
I’m an evangelical, like about a quarter of the United States population. Evangelicals believe in the good news of the Gospel — that Jesus died on the cross, for our sins, and in our place — and we need to tell the world about that.
But that’s not what most people are talking about today. You see, white evangelicals embraced the president, some begrudgingly and some enthusiastically, because he addressed many of their concerns.
Many evangelicals and leaders invested money, time and conviction toward the promise of making America great again. In turn, Donald Trump made good on these investments from an evangelical perspective. Most evangelicals (me included) are grateful for the Supreme Court justices he appointed and for some of the religious liberty concerns he addressed. His anti-abortion stances surprised many (again, me included), and for that I was thankful.
Nevertheless, most of that is in jeopardy now because Trump is who many of us warned other evangelicals that he was.
We reap what Trump has sown
He has burned down the Republican Party, emboldened white supremacists, mainstreamed conspiracy theorists and more.
Yet of greater concern for me is the trail of destruction he has left within the evangelical movement. Tempted by power and trapped within a culture war theology, too many evangelicals tied their fate to a man who embodied neither their faith nor their vision of political character.
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As a result, we are finally witnessing an evangelical reckoning.
For years we’ve been talking about a coming evangelical reckoning. A flood of books, articles and conferences — many of which I wrote and participated in — have warned of the approaching storm clouds for the evangelical movement.
This reckoning is here.
Americans (and the world) have the right to ask us some hard questions. Some of us were vocal, often and early, about the dangers of Trumpism. It was costly. As we sort through the coming months and years, we must be clear on three reasons why we have arrived at this point:
►First, far too many tolerated egregious behavior. The past half-decade has offered near daily examples of people co-opting the Gospel for sinful ends. Racism, nationalism, sexism and a host of other sins have found purchase within the evangelical movement in both overt and subtle expressions. Many have been able to dismiss these examples as outliers that did not truly represent the evangelical movement. We have long since exhausted this excuse.
As evangelicals, we have to stop saying this isn’t who we are. This is who we are; these are our besetting sins. However, this isn’t who we have to be.
►Second, far too many failed to live up to their promise of speaking truth to power. During the 2016 election, and at many points since, many evangelicals justified their full-throated support by promising to be a check on Trump’s character. What has become apparent is that this promise was hollow. Too few were willing to speak out regularly and often couched their criticism so much it lacked any weight. When evangelicals finally had access to the White House, they seemed unable or unwilling to use their prophetic voice to speak truth to power.
Watergate figure, and later evangelical leader, Chuck Colson once said:
“When I served under President Nixon, one of my jobs was to work with special-interest groups, including religious leaders. We would invite them to the White House, wine and dine them, take them on cruises aboard the presidential yacht. … Ironically, few were more easily impressed than religious leaders. The very people who should have been immune to the worldly pomp seemed most vulnerable.”
That was us.
►Finally, all of us have failed to foster healthy political discipleship. The foundation of our reckoning was laid far before Trump. Committed to reaching the world, the evangelical movement has emphasized the evangelistic and pietistic elements of the mission. However, it has failed to connect this mission to justice and politics.
The result of this discipleship failure has led us to a place where not only our people but also many of our leaders were easily fooled and co-opted by a movement that ended with the storming of the U.S. Capitol.
What comes next
At the root of these three causes lies our inability to live up to our calling as evangelicals: to righteously, prophetically and compassionately proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ to the world. Our reckoning is not because we have lost worldly power but because of what we betrayed to attain and sustain it in the first place.
I have been working on a book on evangelicalism for three years, and it has been one of the most frustrating projects in my life. At its core, the problem is not in diagnosing the illness but in prescribing the cure. Where do we go? What do we do? How can the evangelical movement navigate this reckoning?
In listening and praying, I’ve found myself coming back to Martin Luther’s words: “Toward those who have been misled, we are to show ourselves parentally affectionate, so that they may perceive that we seek not their destruction but their salvation.”
I don’t believe that everyone who voted for Trump was fooled or foolish. And Trump voters are not Trump. They are not responsible for all of his actions over the past four years, but they are responsible for the ways they responded and for their own hearts.
If the evangelical movement is to flourish in the coming generations, we must face (and even embrace) this reckoning. As leaders and members, we must acknowledge our failings but also understand the habits and idols that drew us to Trump in the first place.
That we have failed and been fooled is disheartening but not surprising. The true test will be how we respond when our idols are revealed.
Will we look inside and repent when needed, or will we double down? Every political and cultural instinct will pull us to the latter, but God calls us to the former. Into this temptation we hear the words of Jesus: “For what will it profit a man if he gains the whole world and forfeits his soul?” (Matthew 16:26).
We have reached a reckoning. What comes next will reveal where our trust truly lies.
Ed Stetzer is a dean and professor at Wheaton College, where he also leads the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center.