People undergo crises of faith all the time. Personal suffering and loss; exposure to science and competing philosophies; misconduct by religious authorities – these and more will mark the faith of virtually every serious believer. Perhaps we come through them with a wiser, deeper, and stronger love for our Maker and our neighbor. Or perhaps we find ourselves on some spiritual off-ramp, headed toward some place called “the Nones.”
I find it fascinating how few people are willing to talk about faith crises until long after the fact, when they are safely receding in the rear view. But in America today, I wonder how any serious Christian can avoid the tectonic forces assaulting our faith. Either we are busily redacting from our religious lexicons all those “good news to the poor” and “least of these my brothers” narratives of Jesus; or we are wondering what the heck has happened to our religious tribe. Or perhaps a third response: putting our heads down, closing our eyes, and soldiering on with as little thought as possible.
Why all the gloom, you ask? Well, it’s that “81 percent” thing.
Remember? That’s how much of the white evangelical church in America voted for Donald Trump. The debate goes on whether the polls properly identified people of “real” Christian faith. But the data is pretty unambiguous: a huge majority of white people who identify with my Christian faith voted for this president.
Now, my faith affirms that something really special occurs within each person who is “in Christ,” like I claim to be. They have become new creations. “The old has gone, and the new has come!” So declares St. Paul in his famous discourse on rebirth and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:17-19). Sure, we’re still sinners. But something dramatic and redemptive has happened to us. By God’s grace, we’re going to hold tightly to the ethic of Jesus. We’re going to love God and our fellow man; we’re going to lay down our lives for others; we’re going to see our neighbor in the face every stranger; she is going to look to us like the image of God.
That’s the theory, at least.
And yet, somehow, we voted for Donald J. Trump. In droves.
How Were We Okay With It?
Do I need to remind us of what we saw? For five solid years, Trump stoked racist and sectarian passions by swearing that the first black president wasn’t even a citizen. Instead, he was African. Worse, he might even be a Muslim. Trump’s “people,” he swore, “cannot believe what they’re finding.” When the sitting president succumbed to the humiliation and produced his official birth records, Trump spent four years calling it a fraud. And then he finally called off the dogs: nothing found; never mind.
We white Christians were okay with that. Somehow. But how, I wonder?
Then, the candidate came down the escalator, launching his campaign by calling Mexicans “rapists” and “morally corrupt” losers. Then he promised to deport the desperate refugees from the four-year Syrian war. Then he promised to deport eleven million undocumented fathers, mothers and children, tearing apart innumerable families. But we were okay with that too. Somehow.
Then he promised to ban all Muslims from entering the country. And then he proposed a Muslim registry, evoking chilled shudders from those who remember the ethnic genocides of the last century. Then he ridiculed a disabled journalist and insulted war heroes. We might have wished for better manners. But we were still basically okay with that. Somehow.
And then, women. They were fat pigs. Their value was measured by a number. If they challenged him, he called them menstrual. And he boasted of the power to grab them by their genitals. But, after some fleeting second thoughts, we found a way to hang in there. You know, us “new creations” in Christ. But how?
Then, he stoked violence among his crowds of angry white men. They chanted “Lock her up!”, while he promised to pay the legal costs of anyone assaulting protesters. “I’d like to punch him in the face,” he told his mob, lamenting the passing of the old days when protesters would be “carried out on a stretcher.” He boasted that he could shoot somebody in the middle of 5th Avenue and not lose one of our votes. And amazingly, he was right. We were okay with all of this. Somehow.
When the world’s most eminent Christian, Pope Francis, called such conduct “not Christian,” we paid no heed. When the world’s most dangerous dictator endorsed him, we admired the strongman’s respect. When he was forced to pay $25 million to defrauded students, we called it “business.” When he cast racial and ethnic aspersions on the Hispanic judge overseeing that case, we shut our eyes tight. When he undermined faith in our electoral system by calling it “rigged” with massive voter fraud, we gave him the benefit of the doubt. And when he became the first candidate since Richard Nixon to refuse to disclose his tax filings? Meh.
And then…. And then, we voted for him. In huge numbers.
How Do We Remain Silent?
You might think that that would be the heart of the story: We – we white Christians – put into office a man most closely representing the antithesis of our supposed Master, Jesus of Nazareth. But it didn’t end there. Because now, he is president. He is president, and we are silent.
We have been silent as he has muzzled government scientists, and censored their websites. Silent when he ordered a Muslim and refugee ban. Silent when he attacked the judicial independence of courts that have stood in his way. As he has fired top law enforcement officers, and kept in place a National Security Advisor known to have lied about ties to Russia. As he has cancelled environmental reviews, and ordered that highly controversial pipelines be built. Silent when we learned that he asked the FBI Director to drop an investigation into appointees and demanded his personal loyalty. And when that failed, we were silent when he fired him.
In Ohio, preachers prayed against “Satanic attacks.”
We’ve remained silent through it all. Somehow.
He rescinded some of the most important environmental safeguards in place for our country and world: the Clean Power Plan, the Waters of the United States rule, the Methane rule, and the CAFE auto-efficiency standards. Then he made us the only nation in the world (other than Assad’s Syria) to renege on the global Paris Accord, vital to preserving a livable climate for every country. Then he abandoned the two-state solution to the Israel-Palestine conflict. Then he proposed putting our national parks up for sale. But we kept silent.
And we kept our silence through the sleaze. When fact checkers told us that seven out of ten presidential statements were lies (eight if you include half-truths), we held our tongues. When he treated the Boy Scouts like a modern incarnation of the Hitlerjugend, and told them raunchy stories of sexual debauchery, not a peep from us. He appointed his family members to high office, and they used those offices to enrich the family businesses. Maybe we said a little prayer, or something.
Then he championed plans to deprive 23 million poor and older Americans of health care while cutting taxes on the rich by $800 billion. When that effort stumbled, he advocated throwing 32 million Americans off of health care by “repeal without replacement.” Then he appointed a panel to search for evidence of voter fraud, since he lost the popular vote. Then he prioritized friendship with the Russian dictatorship, and refused to reassure our democratic allies of our commitment to mutual defense. And he labeled inquiries into Russian electoral interference a “witch hunt.” And we were still silent.
Through it all, we are still silent.
What are the Consequences?
It’s tempting to imagine that our white American Christianity was in great shape prior to this train wreck; that we have suffered moral collapse in the span of only a year or two. But in fact, Donald Trump has not created the monster we now witness. Rather, his unapologetic crudeness and blatant disregard for the most minimal ethical standards have merely unleashed what was already there, waiting for someone to normalize our worst impulses. But it is now on display for all the world to see, awakening from remission with a vengeance.
Others have attempted to explain how this has happened to us. I will settle for something much less ambitious: I see three inevitable results of what we have become.
First, recall that Jesus told his followers to “let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven” (Matthew 5:16). Note the connection: Good deeds, shining as light in darkness, result in faith on the part of many, and glory to God. But it follows that the opposite is also true. Allegiance with or acquiescence in evil – whether racism, xenophobia, scorn for the weak, lying, or violence – destroys faith, and mars God’s glory. We are now destroying faith. Many who would call themselves Christians are now on a path toward doubt, confusion, and ultimately rejection of a faith that appears to be in league with forces of hatred. The “Nones” are growing fast. We are at least part of the reason.
Second, in America, the name “Evangelical” has now lost any and all practical meaning. To argue otherwise is laughable to anyone not already part of my tribe. The very term means that we bear “good news.” Jesus launched his ministry on earth by adopting the term for himself: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach GOOD NEWS to the poor … the prisoners … the blind … the oppressed…” (Luke 4:18). He was the bearer of good news to the least of all people, the outcasts of the earth. And we had the honor of adopting the title. Evangelicals. Bearers of good news to the poor. Like Jesus.
Today, however, only the most credulous Americans can imagine the poor and oppressed greeting white “evangelicals” as bearers of anything other than Trump-like disdain and disregard. Without a message of good news, and with faith-destroying conduct, we have virtually assured the decline and eventual end of Christianity as a dominant influence upon our culture, other than as a fading memory.
Finally, the crisis of faith we have unleashed will certainly lead to an explosion of theological experimentation. I note that a number of thoughtful conservative religious commentators have bemoaned the apostasy of white Christianity in the age of Trump, as I have; but often their lament merely assumes that we have strayed off the narrow way in practice. The path of individualist, personal, other-worldly salvationism was just fine. Our creeds and confessions are spot on. But we ourselves made some mistakes along the way.
But this, of course, is absurd. How could it possibly be that people who read those texts daily and listen to those sermons weekly would have become more likely than their secular counterparts – not even equally so – to worship at the altar of Babylon? No, this crisis of faith will lead to a new wave of fresh-minted seekers.
I don’t presume to offer theological alternatives. Only this: dismayed Christians will look in many directions to find a new spiritual reality – a faith that moves toward justice and reconciliation in a broken and unjust world. Many will wander in their search. This is inevitable.
During the campaign, Candidate Trump promised evangelical leaders – Falwell, Jeffress, Dobson and their fellow religious courtiers – “you’ll have great power to do good things. And religion will start going, instead of this way — I mean, Christianity, when you think of what’s happening, you look at the numbers … the power you have is so enormous.”
Well, it may have been clearer in person, hand gestures and all.
But you get the message: I’ll give you POWER! It was the second temptation of Jesus all over again: I will give you all authority, if you worship me! (You may recall that the Lord thought that was a lousy deal.) But we, my fellow evangelicals, we got the power, or as much of it as can be bestowed by the kingdom of Babylon. And what did it get us? If I’m right, it brought us near to the end of whatever faith we may have ever had. It cost us much of the remaining good news we had to offer. And it is now leading to a diaspora of seekers from our own pews.
So on a personal basis, how are you managing your crisis of faith? Are you reinventing Jesus so that he has nothing to say about hatred of other religions, refugees, the poor and marginalized? Or are you looking around at your brethren in confused anguish, wondering where you and they have gone wrong? Or, perhaps, are you keeping your head down – as the German resistance preacher Helmut Gollwitzer said – “in the stupid hope that everything will get better on its own without our having to become courageously involved ourselves?”
Friends, our faith is in crisis. Which kind of crisis is yours?