We have some polls that are not changing and are simply baffling to understand. The group most committed to Donald Trump is white evangelicals. In spite of his hatred for brown and black people, his sexism, his despisement of immigrants, his mocking of the disabled, his sexual predatory behavior, his human trafficking accusations, and rape trial; in spite of all of this and after all of this, the group most committed to Donald Trump is white evangelicals. Who knew that being made in the image of God came with so many qualifiers. What does it say about how white evangelicals see themselves in the world, if it is ok for other groups to be denigrated as less-thans?
But not all of his support is enthusiastic. Many are voting for Trump even as they seem in disbelief about it. Many are desperately trying to justify it. Why is there such legitimate anguish for white Christians in this election cycle? I think there are a few quick explanations for this. First, demonizing Democrats for 40 years makes it hard to vote for one; second, some people genuinely agree with him; third, some people think that to change society, primarily through the Supreme Court, voting Republican is the only way to go; and fourth, I think gender roles play a part in some people’s decision.
But some people, slowly, reluctantly, almost as if it were the only way to save their soul, are jumping ship. Well-known people are speaking out now and abandoning the traditional party line, seemingly in droves. I’m interested in what took them so long, jumping ship only weeks away from an election, in a campaign that has been going on for over a year. As far as decisions go, this is not a brave one. And yet they still made the decision, going against the evangelical grain, which means it was not one made easily or lightly, and that fascinates me. I would think that for Christians, especially Christians as devoted to the Bible as Evangelicals are, the decision to not support Trump would have come easily and quickly or not at all. Plenty of people not committed to either party line jumped ship early because Trump offends their sensibilities as human beings. But up until this point, white evangelicals largely haven’t. Why?
Part of it are those 4 explanations, and part of it has to do with the history of modern evangelicalism. While people think modern conservative political Christianity formed as a response to abortion, it was actually desegregation that was the starting point. After that, the Moral Majority worked closely with Reagan to solidify both groups’ power, so that for the past 35 years it seemed that white conservative Christianity and the GOP were synonymous. What if that synonymy damaged people’s compassion and empathy?
I think a big part of the delay comes from creating a religious system built around looking inward, not outward. Evangelicalism was built around the needs and desires of its members. It created those needs and desires in the first place. It created its own mission trips and organizations instead of working with already existing organizations. They have their own music, books, movies, magazines, schools, and TV and radio stations. White evangelicalism created a world that revolved around them, because the world was drastically changing outside of them and they thought it immoral to keep up.
It seems white evangelical’s outrage usually falls along the lines of things that protect middle-class whiteness and sexual morality; primarily the sanctity of white women’s sexuality. Evangelicals jumping ship from Trump now just follows the trend. This mass outrage did not happen on behalf of Muslim, Mexicans, or the disabled, it happened because white women were violated. Which is why articles coming out now about the ‘rift in evangelicalism’ have me somewhat cynical. This history of politics and insulation has created a way of living where people can be comfortably resistant to hearing the cries and opinions of people not like them, even in the face of obvious hate and bigotry. Why was there no evangelical outcry about Alicia Machado or Rosie O’Donnell?
It seems to be no coincidence to me that the people lamenting the most about the divisiveness of the campaign, and the outrage filling up their social media feeds, as well as creating a false equivalency between the two candidates, are white people who will not bear the brunt of the results. A safe, insulated world is a convenient place from which to tone-police people’s anger. The same ones who say ‘no need to fear about the results, God is in control,’ are not the ones burdened by violations of civil rights, police brutality, or threat of deportation. There is no need to stop supporting a candidate when his detrimental policies don’t affect you, and there isn’t empathy for the people they do. As the editor of Christianity Today recently said in an interview, “I think it took a comment from Trump that personally affected a majority of evangelicals for there to be a tipping point.” There’s something shameful about that. White evangelicals are suddenly finding commonality with other victims of Trump’s insults. How much better would the world be if we could all find commonality with people before they became victims on the national stage, working to make it so that they wouldn’t be victimized at all, by anything or anyone.
Evangelicals, and Christians of all stripes, should be concerned with more than just our personal issues and interests, especially white Christians who largely have more power and privilege than any other group in this country. For people who follow a person, himself brown, marginalized, oppressed, and a victim of state violence, why does it take the abuse of white women for them to stand up? It’s something that needs to be acknowledged and atoned for if this rift becomes permanent and a group of white politically progressive but theologically conservative people emerge. A faith rooted in Jesus that bears progressive fruit cannot have whiteness as its soil.
I keep thinking about Jeremiah 29 and God’s instructions to the Israelites in exile. “Build houses and settle down; plant gardens and eat what they produce…. Also, seek the peace and prosperity of the city to which I have carried you into exile. Pray to the LORD for it, because if it prospers, you too will prosper.”
It’s not just the fact that the exiles were told to seek the good of the place they lived, but that they were to seek the good of those who were different from them. They were to seek the good of a world they fundamentally disagreed with. I keep thinking about the people I know who are either deeply undecided or willing to vote for Trump in spite of disagreeing with his comments. And I just wonder how different it would be if we were seeking the good of people who are different from us. Why wasn’t the tipping point for white Christians months and months ago? And why have so many people not yet reached that point? Why is whiteness the one thing that both sides of this rift are rallying around?
This election will come to an end soon. If history is any teacher, people will try to forget that they ever supported such heinous beliefs. But the bigger lesson I hope so many white evangelicals learn from this is how important it is that we prioritize the thoughts and experiences of people who are not white, who maybe aren’t even Christian. Because it is only in honoring their humanity that we will find our own.