This year’s election season clearly revealed what many have long suspected: America is a deeply divided nation. What has caused this division? What is the way forward? How can evangelicals respond in a way that leads to healing and increased unity? The Gospel Coalition invited several writers and observers to explore those and related questions for an online symposium on the State of Evangelicalism.
Other articles in this series:
- #NeverTrumpers in the Age of Trump (Hunter Baker)
- What Persecuted Syrians Can Teach Us About American Politics (Mindy Belz)
- 4 Unique Perspectives on Politics (Mika Edmondson)
- Powerful Witness from a Position of Weakness (Bruce Ashford)
- Hope for America Despite Signs of Death (Greg Forster)
- 4 Suggestions for Post-Election Listening (Eric Redmond)
- Raise Up a Transcendent Voice in a Partisan World (K. A. Ellis)
During the closing weeks of the 2016 campaign a prominent Southern Baptist layman, publicly complaining about the never-Trump stance of a seminary president, warned: “There is no tomorrow after a Hillary Clinton presidency.”
In a similar spirit, James Dobson warned at the annual Values Voters Summit: “We won’t ever recover from it! We will go down in flames, maybe literally, if we put the wrong person in power.” Another speaker at the summit, echoing a well-publicized conservative column, cited 2016 as the Flight 93 election, in which a hijacked America could never recoup from Democratic victory.
One conservative Christian friend told me Clinton’s election would result in a totalitarian police state. A writer friend likened the election to the Spanish Civil War, with Christians obliged to support Franco, lest priest-massacring leftists/Stalinists gain power. A scholar friend told me 2016 could be the last contested presidential election, since Clinton as president would invite 20 million immigrants.
We’ll never know if these prophecies of doom were justified. But I firmly believe American democracy is stronger than these fears portrayed. I also believe such apocalyptic rhetoric, while often sincere and motivating for the moment, will ultimately exhaust and disillusion the target audience.
Perpetual Existential Drama
In four years, there will be another Democratic Party presidential candidate, whose views may be to the left of Hillary Clinton. Will 2020 also be a Flight 93 election? Will every national election for the rest of our lives essentially recreate the existential drama of the Spanish Civil War? Are we always one election away from irreversible calamity?
If so, then the GOP victory this year has only delayed by four, eight, or twelve years the inevitable collapse of America into an anti-Christian dictatorship. How many can realistically endure this tension of a supposed Sword of Damocles permanently poised over our republic?
Threats to religious liberty were absolutely a legitimate concern in this election and will be again in future elections. But dark Manichaean rhetoric that demands complete Christian loyalty to one political party is theologically dubious and will ultimately yield political failure.
Culture War and Changing Demographics
This year’s Republican victory was due to older white voters, especially older white evangelicals and Roman Catholics. Black, Hispanic, and Asian evangelicals and Catholics, along with young Christians, voted differently. Many non-whites and younger whites believed the GOP presidential candidate was, at best, insensitive on racial and ethnic issues.
In 2008 pro-Obama blacks and Hispanics were key to affirming traditional marriage in California’s marriage referendum, which the Supreme Court later arbitrarily tossed. This year, black and Hispanic Christians in California were key to persuading the overwhelmingly Democratic state legislature to step back from a legislative assault on the autonomy of Christian colleges regarding Christian sexual morals.
Transracial and trans-ethnic coalitions are vital if religious liberty is to be robustly protected in America. Young voters also need to be persuaded. But this election likely left many non-white Christians wondering to what extent they have political commonality with older white evangelicals. The same is true for many young white evangelicals who are typically Republican or conservative but now wonder if they have a political home.
Hillary Clinton was not personally appealing to many non-white Christians or young white Christians, yet they mostly chose her over Donald Trump, religious liberty concerns notwithstanding. The social media posts and sermons at successful white evangelical church plants with which I’m familiar, and the pro-Clinton poll at Wheaton College, often considered evangelicalism’s most prestigious school, indicate that the culture war hot buttons motivating many older Christians weren’t so compelling with the young.
Yet the old Religious Right, which for decades stressed those culture-war flash points, was declared prematurely dead during this election, which turned out instead to be at least a momentary vindication. White evangelical support for the GOP this year, at least as identified by exit polls, seems to have been higher than for George W. Bush in 2004, which provoked a freak-out from liberal secularists over the supposed threat of theocracy. Notably, Bush almost certainly did much better among non-white and young evangelicals than did Trump.
Political Hubris of the Old Religious Right
This year’s win for the old Religious Right will, unfortunately, probably delay the perceived need for Christian conservatives to expand their outreach to a younger and more diverse community. But other politically concerned traditional Christians absolutely must do so. Now is not the time for cynicism or social withdrawal or despairing about America as irretrievably post-Christian. The architecture for an emerging biracial and multiethnic Christian social witness must be crafted and argued for, regardless of the course of the new administration.
The architecture for an emerging biracial and multiethnic Christian social witness must be crafted and argued for, regardless of the course of the new administration.
This architecture should also aim higher than predictable voter guides that reflexively aim to align Christians with the GOP. Evangelicals need a public theology that is, like Catholic social thought, rooted in centuries of transcultural historic Christian teachings about pursuing the common good and affirming human dignity for all. An effective Christian political witness is not transitory, reactive, fearful, or apocalyptic. Nor does it dogmatically claim scriptural mandate for our every preferred cause while viewing all opposition as demonic.
Reinhold Niebuhr may not have always been personally orthodox, but his warnings about Christian political hubris certainly are. Niebuhr would have mocked apocalyptic warnings about this or nearly any other election. Partly he had more confidence that American democracy, for all its terrible sins and failings from the start, was flexibly constructed to protect against permanent domination by any one faction over others. But more importantly, he pointed Christians toward the superintendence of a guiding Providence not beholden to the errors and floundering of a perpetually restless and confused fallen humanity. And he warned that even when Christians are politically right, they can still be dangerous because of arrogance and presumption.
Let’s hope Christians across the spectrum ultimately learn helpful lessons from this election that steer away from dogmatic doomsday purple prose and instead toward rediscovery of the riches of historic Christian political theology, based on realism and hope.