In the first part of this series, I made the claim that evangelicals have accommodated to postmodernism in practice by accepting the idea that truth is determined by the community. Evangelicalism is seen by many evangelicals as a cultural tribe rather than a Christian religious movement. In this post, I want to support that claim and suggest a way back to a more faithful embodiment of the gospel that the word “evangelical” reflects.
One example of evangelical tribalism is the increasing tendency since the “culture wars” era of the 1980s and 90s of white evangelicals in America to identify Christianity with political conservatism. In the early days of evangelical activism, opposition to abortion was a major political concern (I think rightly), and since the Republican party was more open to identifying with that stance, many evangelicals supported Republican candidates. Almost forgotten, now, however, is that this had nothing to do with political ideology in general. In fact, in 1976, evangelicals went strongly for Jimmy Carter, who was a Democrat and a self-proclaimed born-again Christian. It was his failure to promote pro-life legislation as president that lost him the support of evangelicals in his re-election campaign. In fact, though today they are a seriously endangered species, in the 1980s and 90s there were a number of pro-life Democrats, and many evangelicals supported them in their house and senate races.
But as evangelicals became a voting bloc, things began to change. For the promise of political access and power, a number of evangelical leaders began to adopt and endorse the conservative agenda, moving beyond the pragmatics of voting for pro-life candidates to embracing the ideology of the conservative wing of the Republican party. Prominent evangelical spokesmen such as James Dobson began to make the claim that the only Christian way to vote was to vote for Republicans. The liberal agenda was said to be anti-Christian, and therefore faithful Christians (meaning evangelicals) had to vote Republican. Beyond opposing abortion, evangelical tribal “truth” came to include opposition to taxation, climate change denial, and even perpetuating the lie that President Obama is a Muslim.
Essentially, the leaders of the primarily white suburban evangelical tribe declared that God was an ideological Republican (and that he hates Democratic policies, if not Democrats themselves), and this became the community-defined “truth.” That would be quite a surprise, by the way, to their Fundamentalist forbears of the early 20th century, when God was a considered a Democrat, and the popular evangelical crusader was William Jennings Bryan, a dyed-in-the-wool progressive who was nominated three times to be the Democratic candidate for president.
By today, the idea that God is a Republican is almost beyond question for many evangelicals, and to suggest otherwise will earn you stares of incredulity, and perhaps veiled (or not-so-veiled) suggestions that you might want to reassess your salvation. Even when the Republican presidential candidate is so obviously un-Christian in his language, demeanor, attitudes, and policies as Donald Trump is, most evangelicals are still unable to fathom voting for a non-Republican candidate, and are grasping at the thinnest and most brittle of straws to justify voting for Trump. A particularly egregious example is James Dobson’s comment that Trump is a “baby Christian,” seemingly as a way to justify his endorsement of a man who has advocated the killing of terrorists’ families, shown contempt for the poor and disabled, and who has said he doesn’t feel he needs to ask God for forgiveness. Why? Because no matter what, “evangelical truth” says God is against liberals, and we want to identify Trump with our tribe.
This is tribalism at its worst. Thankfully, I know a number of evangelicals who still consider evangelicalism to be a religious movement that includes certain commitments to historic, orthodox Christian belief, and who consider that political alliances have nothing to do with that. But according to many studies, and in many conversations I have had with evangelicals I know, many still think that it would be somehow a betrayal of their evangelical identity to vote for a Democrat.
I do want to point out, lest anyone start beating tribal drums in an attempt to dismiss my ideas, that I have been a Republican and have voted Republican since I marked my first presidential ballot (for Ronald Reagan, by the way). Though I must also say that in the aftermath of the Republican nomination of Donald Trump I have changed my voter registration from Republican to unaffiliated–I don’t want any part of a party that would nominate a demagogue like Trump. I oppose many things that the Democratic party supports, and I am genuinely concerned about a number of things that might transpire in a Clinton presidency. But this political season has reminded me of something that I think is important to remember, and that is that as a Christian my first loyalty is to the King, and I am to seek first his kingdom. Neither the Republicans nor the Democrats are concerned to seek first the Kingdom of God, and therefore, neither of them can claim to be “God’s party.”
To transcend tribalism and return to what I think evangelicals should most be concerned about requires us to recover something that many evangelicals today seem to have abandoned, and that is confession. I have been in a number of different evangelical churches over the past several years, and I have noticed that in many the confession of sin–either individual or corporate–has vanished from the worship service. Confession of sin is a vital part of worship and sanctification. When it is absent from our worship, we are tempted to forget that we can be wrong and that we need to be corrected, and that the only One who can set us right is Christ. Tribal “truth” is not what is ultimate. The Word of God, which witnesses to the One who is the Truth, is given to us “for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim 3:16). Guided by Christ and his word, perhaps we can once again remember that the commission of the church is to “make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19), and not to advance a tribal identity or a political agenda.