According to Peter Wehner, “the evangelical church is breaking apart.” The primary culprit, he says, is Donald Trump.
In a feature-length piece in The Atlantic, Wehner acknowledges the historic tensions within the evangelical camp but argues that the advent of Trump, and a frightening pandemic, changed the equation.
Wehner, if you’re curious, is a never-Trump Republican who cut his teeth in the Reagan White House before working for both Bush administrations. He is a big believer in free markets who, as an opinion writer for The Atlantic and The New York Times, has argued for an aggressive foreign policy. In recent years, he has worked for the conservative Ethics and Public Policy Center.
Wehner, in other words, isn’t a liberal partisan gleefully charting the demise of the conservative base. He is conservative. He is evangelical. He wants to right the ship. But he fears it’s going down.
A blind allegiance
Wehner fears that, for many evangelicals, loyalty to Trump has become a blind allegiance. As a consequence, he says, many Christian followers of Trump “have come to see a gospel of hatreds, resentments, vilifications, put-downs and insults as expressions of their Christianity, for which they too should be willing to fight.”
It’s getting so bad, Wehner laments, that unprecedented numbers of evangelical pastors are resigning their churches or leaving pastoral ministry altogether. Scott Dudley of Bellevue Presbyterian Church told Wehner that several pastors in his personal circle are looking for a less traumatizing way of making a living.
“They have concluded that their church has become a hostile work environment where at any moment they may be blasted, slandered and demeaned in disrespectful and angry ways,” Dudley says, “or have organized groups of people within the church demand that they be fired.”
Sociologist Michael Emerson, one of the many authorities Wehner interviewed for this piece, has spent the past quarter century studying American evangelicalism. Evangelical infighting is far worse now than anything Emerson has seen in the past.
Church historian George Marsden told Wehner that “political loyalties can sometimes be so strong that they create a religious-like faith that overrides or even transforms a more traditional religious faith.” Until now, Marsden says, this was a limited and transitory phenomenon. “When Trump was able to add open hatred and resentments to the political-religious stance of ‘true believers,’ it crossed a line. Tribal instincts seem to have become overwhelming.”
Many of the prominent pastors and religious scholars Wehner interviewed believe a lax commitment to discipleship (or “catechesis”) has contributed to the problem.
“What we’re seeing is massive discipleship failure caused by massive catechesis failure,” James Ernest, vice president and editor-in-chief at Eerdmans, a publisher of religious books, told Wehner. “The evangelical church in the U.S. over the last five decades has failed to form its adherents into disciples. So there is a great hollowness. All that was needed to cause the implosion that we have seen was a sufficiently provocative stimulus. And that stimulus came.”
But that’s only one side of the problem. “Many churches aren’t interested in catechesis at all,” Wehner says. “They focus instead on entertainment, because entertainment is what keeps people in their seats and coins in the offering plate.”
According to Alan Jacobs, a humanities professor at Baylor University, superficial catechesis afflicts both progressive and conservative churches.
“This is true of both the Christian left and the Christian right,” Jacobs told Wehner. “People come to believe what they are most thoroughly and intensively catechized to believe, and that catechesis comes not from the churches but from the media they consume, or rather the media that consume them. The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”
“The churches have barely better than a snowball’s chance in hell of shaping most people’s lives.”
Jacobs believes the tidal wave of hate breaking on ecclesiastical shores is partly a function of the media driving religious networks these days: television, radio, Facebook, Twitter and podcasts.
“What all those media want is engagement, and engagement is most reliably driven by anger and hatred,” Jacobs observes. “They make bank when we hate each other. And so that hatred migrates into the church, which doesn’t have the resources to resist it. The real miracle here is that even so, in the mercy of God, many people do find their way to places of real love of God and neighbor.”
Politics trumps religion
Most of the folks featured in Wehner’s article fear that politics trumps religion in contemporary America. Dudley, the Presbyterian pastor, believes many people leave churches because they don’t like the political message, explicit or implicit, they hear from the pulpit.
“The reality,” he says, “is that a lot of people, especially in this era, will leave a church if their political views are ever challenged, even around the edges.”
“A lot of people, especially in this era, will leave a church if their political views are ever challenged, even around the edges.”
Dudley draws a sharp line between political ideology and biblical teaching. “Many people are much more committed to their politics than to what the Bible actually says,” he told Wehner. “We have failed not only to teach people the whole of Scripture, but we have also failed to help them think biblically. We have failed to teach them that sometimes Scripture is most useful when it doesn’t say what we want it to say, because then it is correcting us.”
Russell Moore, a defector from the Southern Baptist Convention who now writes for Christianity Today, blames the evangelical civil war on the “pugilism of the Trump era, in which anything short of cruelty is seen as weakness.”
Deeper roots to the conflict
But not everyone is convinced that the problems Wehner pinpoints are of recent origin. He gives ample space to the work of Kristen Du Mez, author of Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation. According to Du Mez, “even men who embrace a kinder, gentler version of masculinity — servant leadership, for example — may tip into a more rugged, ruthless version when they deem the situation sufficiently dire.” And for more than half a century, she says, “evangelical leaders have found reason to deem the situation sufficiently dire. They rallied their congregations against the threats of communism, secular humanism, feminism, gay rights, radical Islam, Democrats in the White House, demographic decline, and Critical Race Theory, and in defense of religious liberty.”
Conservative columnist David French — a never-Trumper like Wehner — points to yet another tangle of ancient roots: “the South’s shame/honor culture and its focus on group reputation and identity.”
“What we’re watching right now in much of our nation’s Christian politics,” French has written, “is an explosion not of godly Christian passion, but rather of ancient Southern shame/honor rage.”
Donald Trump, in other words, has given white evangelicals, particularly those in the South, permission to express their worst selves.
“Donald Trump, in other words, has given white evangelicals, particularly those in the South, permission to express their worst selves.”
But if a civil war is tearing American white evangelicalism apart, we must ask why now. Sure, Trump cannot be ignored, but could such a man have so successfully captured a major slice of American Christianity in any other era? I don’t think he could.
Consider the massive changes white evangelicals have faced in the present century:
- The election of America’s first Black president.
- The legalization of gay marriage.
- The Black Lives Matter movement.
- The rise of antiracism and a radical reappraisal of American racial history.
- The legalization of gay marriage and growing attention to non-binary sexual identity.
- Two incredibly expensive wars America could not win.
- Growing public perplexity with the climate crisis.
- The most devastating pandemic in a hundred years.
I could go on, but you see where I’m going. America’s white evangelicals see each of these developments as a catastrophe. Unsure that they can turn back the clock, a sizable minority of the evangelical subculture has quite literally lost its mind. They are no longer in touch with reality because, for decades now, reality has been defined by non-evangelical politicians, scientists, academics and entertainers. A large slice of the white evangelical pie no longer believes these authorities and is willing to believe almost anyone else.
Reading the Bible through ideology
Wehner’s focus on the collapse of discipleship training and catechesis is entirely legitimate. But can we draw a fine distinction between the Bible and political ideology? Everyone reads the Bible through an ideological lens. We blithely ignore any biblical teaching that doesn’t work for us. Every text, biblical and otherwise, is fraught with political implications.
What happens, then, when a church is equal parts Democrat and Republican, as most American mainline Protestant and Catholic churches are? Eager to keep the peace, priests and pastors limit sermons and training materials to personal piety and the life everlasting. Any biblical teaching likely to expose the ideological fault line running through a local congregation will be ignored or, if that isn’t possible, superficially interpreted.
“Any biblical teaching likely to expose the ideological fault line running through a local congregation will be ignored or, if that isn’t possible, superficially interpreted.”
Evangelicals, on the other hand, have cobbled together a brand of personal piety entirely lacking in social application. We’re about saving souls, not changing society. A religion nurtured in slave culture is bound to say that. Evangelicals, as a consequence, oppose practically every form of progressive social change but propose little in the way of positive alternatives.
We tell our people that evangelism is the only practical application of the gospel. “Go ye into all the world and make disciples” is our favorite passage. We leave off the end of the sentence “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.”
We love Jesus. But the kingdom of Jesus is forbidden territory. Dispensational evangelicals once convinced themselves that even the Sermon on the Mount didn’t apply to the church. You can see why.
Peter Wehner’s in-depth report from the frontlines of the evangelical world should be required reading for anyone trying to understand the relationship between politics and religion in America. Fasten your seatbelts, ladies and gentlemen. We’re in for a bumpy ride.
Alan Bean is executive director of Friends of Justice, an alliance of community members that advocates for criminal justice reform. He lives in Arlington, Texas, and is a member of Broadway Baptist Church in Fort Worth, Texas.
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