This Christmas season has some members of the American evangelical community questioning their faith. Or, to be more accurate, questioning where their faith is headed, given that American evangelicalism is now permanently associated with support for an Alabama child molester.
Whoever wins, “there is already one loser: Christian faith,” wrote Mark Galli, whose publication, the flagship of American evangelicalism, was founded 61 years ago by the Rev. Billy Graham. “No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”
The sight of white evangelical voters in Alabama giving their overwhelming support to Roy S. Moore, the Republican candidate, despite accusations of racial and religious bigotry, misogyny and assaults on teenage girls, has deeply troubled many conservative Christians, who fear that association with the likes of Mr. Moore is giving their faith a bad name. The angst has grown so deep, Mr. Galli said, that he knows of “many card-carrying evangelicals” who are ready to disavow the label.
It is a legitimate question. In this world there is a difference between religious people and religious people, and one that never quite gets teased out because it is considered deeply rude to point it out, even as the vast majority of humans nod their heads and know precisely what the pointer-outer is saying.
There are people for whom their religion is a guidepost, a means to their own desired personal ends of becoming a more moral, or more generous, or more forgiving, or more compassionate person.
And then there are others, and we have all met them, who instead consider religion to be a license permitting them to go against all of those things. People who declare that the saved are saved, either in advance of their misdeeds or after them, and so that if someone like Roy Moore molests children it is insignificant compared to the other supposed good and noble things he will do, things like helping to ban abortion or to restrict the rights of Muslims, and so the child molestation can be overlooked. People who similarly dismiss Trump’s status as a stingy, self-centered, sexual harassing racist because he may be those things, but a Republican in office stands a better chance of elevating the role of their own churches in American discourse, and so that is that.
Evangelicals, more than any other American religious group, have become publicly associated with the cheaper, latter version. And it is nobody’s fault but their own—the fault of the evangelical leaders who have defended Trump’s every immoral outburst and lavished religiously-premised defenses of Moore, and it is the subject of a growing war for the movement’s soul.
“It grieves me,” said Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, a prominent evangelical school in Illinois. “I don’t want ‘evangelical’ to mean people who supported candidates with significant and credible accusations against them. If evangelical means that, it has serious ramifications for the work of Christians and churches.”
That notion is bewildering to evangelical leaders who see Mr. Trump as their champion. They say that Mr. Trump has given them more access than any president in recent memory, and has done more to advance their agenda, by appointing judges who are likely to rule against abortion and gay rights; by channeling government funds to private religious schools; by recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel; and by calling for the elimination of the Johnson Amendment, which prohibits churches and charitable groups from endorsing political candidates.
That really does sum it up, does it not? For a great many people, even the morality of racism or sexual assault is transactional. It can be granted dispensation, in exchange for concrete—secular— power. Trump is a bigot and a sexual assaulter, a perpetual liar and a man whose sole notion of charity is purchasing and hanging expensive pictures of himself. His pretenses at faith range from embarrassing to insulting; if you had to name an American that least represented Christian values, any Christian values, you would be hard pressed to come up with a more suitable name.
But he has power, and he is willing to meet with their leaders. And so to a great many people who have staked their lives and, presumably, their eternal wee souls on testifying for a very specific and ever-shrinking version of God’s Word, and not incidentally made a decent personal living doing so, thank you very much, it is the people questioning Moore and Trump who are the heretics.
Mr. Strang said that those who talk about Mr. Trump tarnishing the evangelical brand “are not really believers — they’re not with us, anyway.”
This is a battle that will play out largely without the rest of us. Many evangelical groups and sub-groups are growing increasingly disillusioned with leaders that would consider the likes of Donald Trump to be the path to spiritual salvation, or who have demanded of followers that they overlook the grotesque personal behaviors of would-be leaders in exchange for fractional advantages in church power—whether that be government codification of their own religious beliefs or mere tweaks to charitable tax laws that would allow their churches more influence in partisan election battles.
“We’ve let evil overtake the entire reputation of Evangelicalism,” one prominent evangelical author, Beth Moore, wrote on Twitter the day before the election. “The lust for power is nauseating. Racism, appalling. The arrogance, terrifying. The misogyny so far from Christlikeness, it can’t be Christianity.”
The question is whether this new disillusionment will be met with spiritual action in the churches themselves. Whether there will be a counterattempt to take back the word evangelical, or whether the disillusioned will be content to mutter amongst themselves that they are not like those others, but leave it at that. We don’t know. They don’t know.
It is perhaps the quietest political fight that has been waged this year, in a year in which every other fight seemed to be premised on who can scream the loudest or invent the most dramatic lies, but in the end a decision will have to be reached. Even if that decision is to continue to say nothing, as the leaders that meet with Donald Trump and the preachers that stump for the Roy Moores of the party continue to make pronouncements chipping away at the movement’s once-core beliefs in order to defend themselves and their political charges from the latest tawdry scandal. Even if the decision is to remain silent, it still counts.