By Alan Bean
Ever since the 2016 election, America’s white evangelicals have been savaged by liberals and moderates who can’t believe that Donald Trump is president. How could 81 percent of white evangelicals cast their votes for a serial adulterer and compulsive liar?
The revulsion against white evangelical hypocrisy is particularly common on social media sites like Facebook where the latest outrage (real or fabricated) from Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr. or Robert Jeffress is presented as evidence that the evangelical tribe has lost its collective mind.
But there is a powerful logic at work here. White evangelicals are best understood as custodians of traditional American values, so it is no great shock that they would be attracted to a man promising to “Make America Great Again.”
The real mystery is why so many non-evangelical white folks lined up behind the 45th president.
Trump’s victory suggests that the influence of white conservative Christians extends far beyond the borders of evangelical culture. Not everybody outside the white evangelical camp is bashing that tribe. Especially in the South and Midwest, white evangelicals are valued as custodians of traditional sexual ethics and old school national identity by white folks who attend Mainline Protestant or Roman Catholic churches.
Evangelicals are best understood as custodians of a lost America. By “custodian” I don’t mean “janitor”. Custodians, in the sense I have in mind, are more interested in preserving valuable, but endangered, institutions, traditions and practices. Think of a curator or a tour guide at a museum of American history who kindles a vision of the future by reminding visitors of past glory.
I will discuss white American evangelicalism under three overlapping heading: Faith, Family and Fatherland.
If you assumed that Jesus Christ stands at the heart of white evangelical theology you would be wrong. Jesus is important because a sinful world needs a Savior, but white evangelical theology begins and ends with an inerrant Bible. Some evangelicals have a hard time with inerrancy, but they keep their reservations to themselves, especially if they are teaching at an evangelical school.
Liberal Christians ask why evangelicals disagree on so many points of doctrine (especially on election and the end of the world) if everybody reads an inerrant Bible. But it doesn’t really matter if evangelicals differ on the details; they are united by their faith in a perfect Bible authored by a perfect God. Regardless of the question, the Bible has an answer rooted in the very mind of God (even if we can’t agree about what that answer is). Properly interpreted, an inerrant Bible produces a “biblical worldview,” a way of seeing, a lens that brings the world into sharp focus, a web of principles teaching us how to live as individuals, families and churches and as a society.
Since the Second World War, the biblical worldview has been expanded to embrace the values of the corporate world and the American military, and this move has had a huge impact on the way the Bible is interpreted. If American evangelicals took their primary cue from the words of Jesus, militarism and organized wealth creation would be problematic ideas. But when you have the entire Bible at your disposal, you can find a biblical basis for virtually anything.
This strategic expansion of the biblical worldview has given evangelicals a fan base much broader than the aggregate membership of evangelical churches. Many white Americans appreciate the custodial work white evangelicals have done by providing a spiritual basis for capitalism and patriotism.
Christians who live outside the evangelical camp will tell you that the notion of biblical inerrancy is indefensible. Christian Smith speaks for many when he argues that evangelical biblicism has made the Bible “impossible.” The Bible is a spirited conversation riddled with dissent and disagreement, critics of inerrancy argue.
Inerrancy may be indefensible, but for American evangelicals, it is indispensable.
The Bible must speak with a single voice on every issue. It was inspired by a God who doesn’t contradict himself and, secondly, a Bible riddled with contradiction would make the evangelistic mission of the church impossible: “If the trumpet give an uncertain sound, who shall prepare himself to the battle?”
This explains why R. Albert Mohler, president of Louisville’s Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, argues that the earth is roughly 6,000 years old. God must have created the earth with “apparent age,” Mohler explains, because the Bible speaks of a young earth. A biblical worldview allows Christians to build on a solid foundation; all other ground is sinking sand.
Non-evangelical Christians are skilled at mocking the doctrine of biblical inerrancy, but they have yet to produce a working alternative. The Bible creates more consternation than inspiration in liberal Protestant churches because liberal preachers appear to be suggesting that only the good bits of the Bible retain authority. Fresh ways to read the Bible are discussed among America’s theological cognoscenti, but at the congregational level there is little consensus on the subject of biblical authority.
American evangelicals, therefore, have good reasons for making biblical inerrancy the one indispensable doctrine. Evangelicals can’t rethink gay marriage, for instance, without changing the way they interpret the Bible (this seems to be what happened to David Gushee). But is it possible for the average person to change their thinking about the Bible when they live within the echo chamber of American evangelicalism?
James Dobson didn’t call his radio program Focus on the Family on a whim: the family unit (mom, dad and the kids) is fundamental to evangelical identity. Evangelicals talk a lot about evangelism; but conservative churches grow by keeping their children in the fold. With the advent of the Internet and smart phones, this has become a daunting task.
American evangelicals believe that little boys and girls thrive when they have a mother and a father and flounder when they don’t; that’s why divorce is still a big deal. In recent years, the tribe has embraced “complementarianism,” a fancy way of saying that men and women are fundamentally different and must have different, but complementary, roles to play in the family and in the family of God. A mother can’t be a father and a father can’t be a mother. Women can’t preach or teach men, but their unique contributions to church and family are celebrated.
The American evangelical view of marriage is defiantly patriarchal. Men are called of God to serve as the head of the household and terrible things happen when this call is ignored. Evangelicals can quote reams of scripture in defense of patriarchy and it’s a critical aspect of the biblical worldview.
American evangelicals are convinced that home trumps hormones. Children suffer horribly when adults elevate their personal desire for sexual gratification over the needs of their children. Deadbeat dads, feminist mothers and the abortion debate are viewed through this lens.
So is the gay rights movement. Because heterosexuality is God’s will for all his children (evangelicals have chapter and verse on that point as well) homosexuality is decried as an anti-family life-style choice. This interpretation is non-negotiable and those who fail to reach the right conclusions about gay marriage and abortion are disowned by the evangelical family.
When I entered the world 65 years ago, the “family values” endorsed by American evangelicals were rock-solid Americana. Recent changes to the ethical code may seem obvious and long overdue to liberals, but if you see feminism, the gay rights revolution, and the erosion of the nuclear family as contrary to the biblical worldview, panic is the natural response.
Viewed through an evangelical lens, American society is a network of families. If the family is in trouble, the nation cannot prosper.
I have a number of reasons for using the term “Fatherland.”
For one thing, it begins with an “f,” so it goes nicely with “faith” and “family.”
Secondly, white evangelicals see America as the prized possession of God the Father Almighty; it is, quite literally, the Father’s Land.
Finally, white evangelicals often speak of the U.S. Constitution as if it shared a divine origin with the Bible. “Founding fathers” like John Winthrop created the United States of America to be “a city upon a hill.” It is essential to popular evangelical historians like David Barton, the unofficial historian of white American evangelicals, that the signatories to the U.S. Constitution were all evangelical Christians.
This explains why 2 Chronicles 7:14 is constantly being quoted by American evangelicals:
If my people, which are called by my name, shall humble themselves, and pray, and seek my face, and turn from their wicked ways; then will I hear from heaven, and will forgive their sin, and will heal their land.
Like Israel of old, America is the unique creation of God and this is the source of her exceptionalism. America is God’s idea; God inspired the rule book (otherwise known as the U.S. Constitution), and, like ancient Israel, America is accountable to God.
When evangelical leaders like Billy Graham and Pat Robertson compare America to Sodom and Gomorrah, they speak as latter day Jeremiahs calling the nation back to her original greatness. For the white evangelical tribe, “Make America Great Again” has a deliciously familiar ring. The dramatic arc of Deuteronomic theology is applied to the United States: we have prospered when faithful; we have been punished when we have rejected our calling; we will regain our former glory if only we can recapture our spiritual roots.
The biblical worldview gives white evangelicals a way of seeing America. The flag celebrates and symbolizes America’s covenant with God. So, when Colin Kaepernick takes a knee while loyal Americans, hand-over-heart, face the flag, a sacrilege has been committed.
When we are talking about the evangelical perspective on faith and family, race doesn’t enter the discussion. All evangelicals, regardless of race, are biblicists with strong patriarchal tendencies who take a dim view of abortion and gay marriage.
But when Kaepernick takes a knee to protest police brutality, evangelicals divide along racial lines.
Black evangelicals agree that America is exceptional, but not always in a good way. When white evangelicals reflect on America history they talk about Plymouth Rock and a U.S. Constitution rooted in Holy Writ. When black evangelicals wax historical, they reflect on the slave trade, Jim Crow segregation and the civil rights movement.
Which explains why 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump while 88 percent of black evangelicals supported Hillary Clinton.
When pollsters refer to “evangelicals” or “born again voters” they are talking about white people. When they speak of “liberal” voters they are also talking primarily about white people. Nationally, Trump carried the white vote by 21 points, and that’s when the pro-Clinton West Coast and New England are included in the tally. In the American South and in large swaths of the Midwest, Trump was the overwhelming choice of white voters of whom most don’t identify as evangelicals.
White evangelicals punch above their weight because their custodial work is appreciated by millions of people who wouldn’t be caught dead in a white evangelical church.
When white evangelicals realize that their brand isn’t working at all for Millennials, they can see themselves as an embattled minority. This anxiety is reflected in the popularity of end time theologies that picture evangelicals rocketing up to heaven while the liberals are left to stew in their own juice.
But when American white evangelicals consider the popularity of their custodial work among non-white evangelicals, the conservative segment of the Protestant Mainline, the military, the business community and the Republican Party, they can envision themselves as the vanguard of a movement to take back America. This renewed confidence is reflected in the resurgence of Dominionism, a postmillennial vision of the end times in which evangelical Christians take charge and the biblical worldview is unchallenged.
The custodial work of America’s white evangelicals has given them power far beyond their declining numbers. But there’s a downside (and a dark side) to the white evangelical vision. Trump will go down as the most embarrassing president in American history, and the white evangelical brand just might go down with him.