As the Republican Party prepared last spring to nominate Donald Trump for president, two concerns stood out to me. First, many evangelical leaders had lost touch with the rest of the movement. And second, the rest of the movement had lost touch with the concerns with their minority brothers and sisters.
But I never imagined Trump would win the White House. My armchair analysis had nothing to do with any confidence in Hillary Clinton’s electoral appeal as the Democratic nominee. It had everything to do with my assumption that there wouldn’t be enough white evangelical and other voters to propel Trump to victory in such a racially polarizing election.
It was indeed a racially polarizing election, just not quite to the extent that I feared. Trump didn’t come close to winning African American or Hispanic voters, but he didn’t fare much worse than previous Republicans had, either. He did, however, turn out many more white voters, motivated by some combination of Trump’s promise to shake up Washington, Clinton’s liberal agenda, and fear of further economic and cultural erosion.
In light of this stunning outcome we must admit the obvious division between many evangelical leaders, elected and self-appointed, and the rest of the movement. At some point in the primary I realized that whatever I might say about my concerns with Trump, most American evangelicals weren’t listening. The same was even true with much more popular, trusted, and wise thinkers.
I talked with plenty of fellow church members and friends near and far who shared my worries about Trump. But these conversations never represented the thought process for most of our evangelical neighbors. Several counties in my home state of Alabama, one of the most religious in the country, voted 85 percent and up to 90 percent for Trump. That’s not a typo. Meanwhile, the majority of my county, with a large African-American population, voted for Clinton. For this and other reasons I’m not in touch with the typical experience of most white evangelicals in my own state. And that makes it difficult for me to anticipate the kind of electoral wave we saw on November 8.
Who, exactly, are we “leaders” claiming to lead?
I’m praying now that the 81 percent of white evangelicals who backed Trump (according to exit polls) will be proven right, especially in their hope that he will nominate Supreme Court justices who respect the Constitution and that he will follow through on his newfound pro-life convictions. Perhaps such a Trump presidency will indeed provide the religious freedom a Clinton administration would have almost certainly curtailed. Perhaps a Trump White House with Vice President Mike Pence will advocate for a culture of life that protects our most vulnerable children made in the image of God. And, hopefully, a Trump-led Republican Party will listen to minority concerns and fears.
Not Easily Healed
The real fear now felt by black, Asian, and Hispanic evangelicals reveals that that many white evangelicals have lost touch with their brothers and sisters of color. I don’t know where we go from here, because this election has opened up a wound that will not be easily healed. At just the time when minority concerns have found an audience via social media, the country has elected a president who uses that same media to belittle and threaten his critics, many of them minorities. What will Trump do with actual power and not just a Twitter account? It’s possible that Trump’s intimidation tactics amount to nothing more than entertaining bluster, a bit of political theater, as some of his evangelical defenders contend. I hope so. But that’s not what scared minority parents are telling their children today.
I want to believe the best, because I’ve been wrong about so much already in this campaign. But history suggests much darker alternatives. Trump’s candidacy has forced me to dig into the origins of the Religious Right where I had previously feared to tread. And what I’ve found so far has shocked and appalled me.
I had previously been led to believe that white evangelicals only engaged in politics reluctantly during the 1970s in response to the sexual revolution. They were slow to see the evil in Roe v. Wade, decided in 1973, but they eventually mobilized for the unborn. They fought off the Equal Rights Amendment because they rightly saw it would unleash chaos inside and outside the home. They learned from the civil rights movement how to leverage democratic politics for social change rooted in moral imperatives.
There’s truth in that story. But it’s not true that white evangelicals only engaged in politics after the sexual revolution began to bear fruit. Many conservative Protestants, especially in the South, had long been active in local, state, and national politics. And they fought for causes like racial segregation that white evangelicals thankfully now repudiate. To cite just one example, Jerry Falwell Sr. didn’t cut his political teeth in the Moral Majority in 1979. He had previously condemned the Supreme Court’s 1954 decision in Brown v. Board of Education and later denounced Martin Luther King Jr. for his clerical activism.
The scars from this era can still be plainly seen today. Before and during Election Day I visited these locations: the churches now abandoned that once banned African Americans. The funeral home where church members in good standing plotted to kill little black girls on their way to Sunday school. The school where black pastors trained children to endure verbal taunts and physical violence from classmates waving Confederate battle flags. There was no happy ending in Woodlawn or Selma when entire churches, including their pastors, relocated to escape racial integration.
Those especially brutal days have thankfully lessened in my city and in the rest of America, though tragedies such as the Charleston Massacre remind us they have not fully passed. But the healing has only just begun more than 50 years later. Will this election help or hurt the needed process of reconciliation and redemption? That’s the pressing question for me and many others in my community and church as the election results sink in.
Once Again Ascendant
The Religious Right—much to my surprise—is once again ascendant, having delivered perhaps the most shocking presidential upset in American history. Republicans control governance of the most powerful nation on earth at nearly every level. I know many godly men and women overjoyed with this result that I never thought possible.
And history is not doomed to repeat itself. This Religious Right is not necessarily bound by the sins of its fathers, who contributed to the ongoing political split between white and black evangelicals. They were often blind to the ways their success excluded racial minorities. Perhaps President Trump, contrary to my expectations, will deliver justice and opportunity for all, held accountable by the white evangelicals who granted him power.
I’ve been wrong about so much already. And I’ve never before wanted so badly to be wrong again.