Members Only | November 1, 2019 | Reading Time: 4 minutes
White Evangelical Christians Aren’t Really Religious Conservatives
Liberals should reach out to evangelicals who are.
Something most normal people don’t understand is that white evangelical Christians aren’t conservative. Politically and socially, yes. Very much so. But religiously, no.
If I’m remembering my Sunday school lessons properly, a foundational belief among conservative evangelical Christians is that this world is a fallen world. After Eve tempted Adam to eat the forbidden fruit, God cast them out of paradise into a world where they would know pain, suffering and evil. More importantly, this world is beyond redemption. There is nothing man can do. God has a plan. We mustn’t doubt it.
If we do, we’re playing God. According to Grandma Stoehr, that was the sin of sins.
I vaguely remember going to a sermon one Sunday evening about the End Times. That’s when Jesus would return to gather his flock and return them to paradise. The preacher spoke of “the signs” we’d see to indicate the Lord was coming. Being a good Christian boy very much looking forward to going to Heaven where no one got sick, no one was poor, no one suffered and everyone was happy, I asked if we could hurry things up. If there were signs, perhaps, we could make the signs happen faster.
These Christians have forfeited their conservative faith in God for a chance at worldly power.
We can’t do that, I was told. Be patient. We must endure this existence while awaiting another. That is the Christian’s burden and duty to our Heavenly Father, and anything more was arrogance, envy and greed. We must be in this world, but not of it. We must separate ourselves physically, emotionally, spiritually and politically from Babylon. My early life was shaped by this dual thinking. This world was full of temptation, and the Christian, following Christ’s example, must avoid temptation—or else fall into sin.
Like I said, most normal people don’t understand this. Therefore, most normal people don’t understand why the relationship between white evangelical Christians and Donald Trump is at least somewhat offensive to religiously conservative Christians. I suspect the offense is more than somewhat, but we may never know, because the Washington press corps does not see a difference between religious and political conservatism. And it doesn’t see it, because the Republican Party doesn’t either.
It wasn’t always like that. At one time, there was no space for hayseeds, wacko birds and charlatans speaking in tongues in the party of American aristocracy. That changed incrementally with Richard Nixon, who gave a closet to Billy Graham; then Ronald Reagan, who gave a room to Jerry Falwell; then George W. Bush, who gave evangelicals the whole bottom floor. With Donald Trump, they pretty much run the house. So the melding of the Republican Party and white evangelicals is complete. They are like twins. If one feels joy, so does the other. If one feels pain, so does the other. There is no longer a meaningful difference between this world and the next. These Christians have forfeited their conservative faith for a chance at pulling levers of worldly power.
I don’t think there’s a better example of the point I’m trying to make than the evangelical reaction to the House Democrats leading an investigation into the president’s extortion of a foreign leader. Before the House voted Thursday to formalize impeachment proceedings, the apparent worry among evangelical leaders was Trump’s abandonment of Christian minorities in Syria threatened with ethnic cleansing by invading Turks after the pullout of American troops. Pat Robertson, the broadcaster, even worried Trump might lose Heaven’s mandate. Well, things are different now.
The religious interests of the kind my get-saved-or-burn-in-hell grandma taught me don’t really matter.
Now that impeachment proceedings are official, evangelical leaders act like it isn’t just the president facing constitutional indictment. They are facing it, too. McClatchy’s Francesca Chambers reported Thursday the following: “Johnnie Moore, a member of the United States Commission on International Religious Freedom who attended the meeting, said faith-based leaders vented about the impact of impeachment efforts on their legislative priorities and that the sentiment was, ‘they’re trying to impeach us.’”
That’s absurd, because there was no legislative agenda. What he’s saying implicitly is what I’m saying explicitly: that the political interests of white evangelicals are now wedded entirely with the political interests of the GOP, and that the religious interests of the kind my get-saved-or-face-an-eternity-burning-in-hell grandma taught me don’t really matter. Moore and the others see impeachment as a threat to their political power, because it is. And they are reacting like any other political animal would.
None of this is about God.
As odd as it may sound, liberals should try harder to reach evangelicals who have not yet fused politics with conservative faith. That is to say, liberals should try as much as possible to communicate to the remaining number of actual religious conservatives who have not conflated God with a lust for power. Think of them like the Amish.
The Amish and other “closed” religious communities—some Jewish sects, for instance—don’t want anything to do with the modern world. They just want to be left alone to live and worship as they please. No liberal on earth would begrudge them of that, but many liberals forgot to reassure religious conservatives that secularism is not bent on replacing religion but on making room for it in order for all to live free and in peace.
Many liberals forget to do that, because a lot of them, frankly, have forgotten about religion entirely. To the extent that they think about it at all, liberals equate it with people who aren’t religious conservatives but instead ordinary political conservatives.
John Stoehr is the editor of the Editorial Board. He writes the daily edition. Find him @johnastoehr.