By Alan Bean
What I learned from my ten-part series on American white evangelicals
Writing ten blog posts in a three-week period is a more daunting task than I had imagined. The idea was simple enough. Like Pharaoh in the Exodus story, American white evangelicals see plagues and calumnies on every side. Beginning with 9-11, I moved on to the plagues of diversity, liberalism, feminism, gay rights, losing (in shooting wars and the culture war), anti-racism, social justice, climate change and, of course, a pandemic.
According to the biblical account, Pharaoh was besieged with plagues because he hardened his heart. In similar fashion, I suggested, the hearts of American white evangelicals have been hardened.
My purpose, however, was not to bash white evangelicals. I wanted to understand how they view “this world with devils filled,” and what has driven them to such desperate ends.
I also wanted to understand the 19% of white evangelicals who refused to burn incense to Donald Trump. The 19 percenters interest me for a couple of reasons. First, they demonstrate that one can be conservative, politically and theologically, without selling your soul to a second-rate flimflam man. Secondly, I found myself worrying about the fate of the 19 percenters. We know what happens to Republican politicians who refuse to bend the knee; why should it be any different for evangelical Christians who stand against the zeitgeist?
After conducting ten deep dives into the white evangelical mind, I came away with a deep appreciation for the 19 percenters. I am not one of them, but I can learn from them and they fill me with hope.
Focusing on white evangelicals is somewhat arbitrary, of course. On most issues of moment, white Catholics and mainline Protestants don’t come out looking a while lot better. Distinguishing between white evangelicals and Republicans is also of questionable value: the two groups overlap almost exactly. And it isn’t as if white liberals don’t have their own issues.
I decided to narrow my focus to the 81% of American white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump. The ex-president is a repulsive mix or narcissism, ignorance, malice and violence. If this guy has become your shield and defender the word “Christian” has lost all meaning. And yet, as the last two election cycles make clear, half the electorate is, at the very least, willing to tolerate the man.
Either Trump voters are blind to his faults (as half of them appear to be), or they are so disgusted with Democrats like Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, Adam Schiff and Nancy Pilosi that they’re disapproval of Trump pales in comparison. Either way, we’ve got a problem. Let’s narrow the focus to Trump and his nemesis, Schiff. Whether you agree with his policy decision or not, Schiff is a dedicated public servant doing the best he can with the options at hand. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t deal in wild hyperbole. He is a devoted family man. He takes his Jewish faith seriously. So why would the very sight of the man make you boil with rage? What’s going on here?
I mention Schiff because I just finished his Midnight in Washington. It’s the kind of book you would expect. This isn’t deathless prose; just a chronological account of his personal experience during the Trump years. Schiff thinks Trump is an amoral psychopath who represents a clear and present danger to American democracy.
Trump, for his part, loathes his most articulate “Shifty” Schiff, deriding him as a pencil neck and a “total disgrace”. I’m not sure what Schiff’s neck measurement is (probably larger than mine), but the guy runs marathons. These are not two political apparatchiks with differing philosophies. Schiff’s critique of Trump is undeniably accurate. Trump’s critique of Schiff is Junior High playground stuff.
And yet, millions of Americans, almost all of them white, vote for Trump while vilifying Schiff. How do we explain this phenomenon?
My posts didn’t get a lot of push-back. That’s likely a function of social media self-segregation. The Trump voters unfriended me a long time ago. Some post generated over 7,000 views (one received over 900 views from outside the US); others hardly made it past 400 views. But the comments were remarkably uniform. While a few readers engaged with my analysis, the typical response was “to hell with white evangelicals.”
And that too is problematic. It reminds me, curiously, of the comment Trump allegedly made to Michael Cohen seconds after a large group of evangelical preachers exited Trump Tower: “Can you believe that people actually believe this bullshit?” Apparently, Trump and the American liberals share a disdain for white evangelicals. Trump views his base as simple, gullible, mean and vengeful, and makes the most of it. Liberals arrive at a similar conclusion and wish these people would just disappear, or die. I’m not sure which response I find most disturbing.
At any rate, my ten-post series on American white evangelicals wasn’t intended as a take-down; I really want to understand these folks. That’s partly because they are my people. I grew up in their midst. I white evangelical pastored churches. I have seen them at their best. I lament their plight. It was never my intention to kick them when they’re down. Because they are down. They feel cornered. That’s what makes them so dangerous.
How can America come together? We’ve not going to suddenly agree, and it would be a little creepy if we did. Neither side is going away anytime soon. Given these realities, how best can we proceed? That’s the question of the hour.
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