Last week I published a column here titled “Donald Trump and the Great Evangelical Compromise.” It created something of a stir. Studies suggest that people only read headlines or a paragraph or two, but seldom do they read whole articles and, well, I believe those studies are on to something if that article is any indicator.
If you haven’t read the column, read it and then come back here. I will wait.
Many read — pardon me, didn’t read — that article and assumed I was saying one of the following:
The comment section at the end of articles is generally a dangerous place for any author to go, and in this The American Spectator is no different than any other online news source. One commenter said that I was “another schmuck who is trying to look like he is above politics.” If only. Another said that I was a “full blown sell out” — presumably he meant I had sold out the Republican Party or the conservative cause. Still another, reading into the column a #NeverTrump agenda, wrote that it was “Sad that the author had to add his misguided viewpoint to all the other negative against-Trump views.”
Finally, there was this, my favorite commenter, who said that I must be a “hipster theologian.” Yes, I wrote that column in a Wicker Park apartment that my parents paid for while listening to indie-rock on an old turntable, pausing here and there to sip my green tea and sneak occasional glances at my tatted-up, androgynous self as reflected in the computer screen (my typewriter is broken).
However far afield these comments may be, I nonetheless take them seriously if only because they are indicative of the problem I was addressing. Hipster theologian? Hardly. Theologically, I am somewhere to the right of Charles Spurgeon. Politically? I will never forget a conversation I had with my father when he learned that I had registered as a Republican:
My father: “You registered as a Republican? Your family are Democrats as far back as I can remember!”
Me: “Dad, who did you vote for today?”
My father: “George [H.W.] Bush.”
Me: “Who did you vote for in ‘84?”
My father: “Reagan.”
Me: “Who did you vote for in ’80?”
My father: “Reagan.”
Me: “And before that?”
My father: “Carter, and he was a son-of-a-bitch!” He then shrugged his shoulders and added, “Never mind.”
Please forgive my late father for the expletive. I can only imagine the language he would have employed had he lived to see the Obama Administration and the specter of a Hillary Clinton presidency. He was a Democrat who loved Reagan and, to that extent, I shared his political sentiments. Now, with these images fixed firmly in your mind, let us revisit what I wrote.
Dear reader, I am all for Christians participating in the political process and I would sooner be waterboarded than vote for a candidate who has done so much to empower abortionists. By all means, vote, and vote your conscience. I hope that conscience will be informed by Christian principles. I have voted in every presidential election since I was first eligible to do so in 1988.
The point is this: The American church’s influence in American society is disproportionate to its size — and in the wrong direction.
Jesus changed an empire with twelve. By contrast, according to Pew Forum evangelicals number a whopping 26 percent of the U.S. population. To use a good southern colloquialism, you can’t swing a dead cat in my part of the country without hitting a church. Churches are on almost every corner. Literally. And not little ones, mind you. Big ones. Megachurches.
This raises the question: How did evangelicals and their churches become so culturally irrelevant that they have been steamrolled on such issues as abortion and gay marriage and where religious liberty itself now hangs by a thread?
To answer, we must go back to the year 1979. It was then that Christian minister, religious leader, and political activist Jerry Falwell established the Moral Majority. Founded with the goal of stemming the tide of liberalism in schools and in public life, the Moral Majority had measurable objectives: more stringent abortion laws, prayer in public schools, and the election of public officials who professed Christian values and promised to uphold them in office. The Moral Majority gave voice then to what many evangelicals are feeling now. It organized them and mobilized them. The pinnacle of their success was the presidency of Ronald Reagan.
The 1990s saw this evangelical strategy continued and expanded. In 1989, following his own failed presidential campaign, Pat Robertson founded The Christian Coalition. Like The Moral Majority before it, The Christian Coalition became a political force. Under the leadership of Robertson’s executive director, Ralph Reed, voters’ guides were issued to Coalition members who voted accordingly. The Coalition’s crowning success was the “Republican [Congressional] Revolution” in 1994. The birds were singing, the sun was shining, and the future appeared bright.
The beginning of the 2000s seemed to validate the evangelical program pioneered by Falwell, Robertson, and Reed. George W. Bush was elected and reelected. Following each of these political victories, evangelicals could return home from the polling stations and sleep soundly in the confidence that the politicians they had elected would stand guard on the walls of their nation and protect them from the barbarians without and within.
But it was only an illusion. Obama’s election in 2008, it turns out, was not as anomalous as many then thought. 2008 became 2012, and now evangelicals are faced with the prospect of a third consecutive liberal presidency and the advancement of the Cultural Left’s agenda and the simultaneous rolling back of their own. Reagan is dead, Falwell, too, along with the glorious days of David and Solomon. Now, from a Christian perspective, the Philistines are overrunning and desecrating “The shining city upon a hill.”
Evangelicals’ success politically had the unexpected effect of rendering them irrelevant culturally because it gave them the illusion of effecting societal change. That this strategy hasn’t worked is obvious.
Referring to the similarly disproportionate influence of conservative nonprofits in Washington, Tucker Carlson observed:
Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have all those think tanks and foundations consumed? Billions, certainly. Has America become more conservative over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: Salaries, bonuses, retirement funds, medical, dental, lunches, car services, leases on high-end office space, retreats in Mexico, more fundraising. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.
One might ask the same question of the American church. Over the past 40 years, how much donated money have they consumed? Billions, certainly. Has America become more Christian over that same period? Come on. Most of that cash went to self-perpetuation: “Family Life Centers,” gymnasiums, and stained glass. Unless you were the direct beneficiary of any of that, you’d have to consider it wasted.
By any measure, America has become less Christian since 1979. And, to be clear, 1979 was not an absolute beginning, but it signaled the adoption of a political, top-down, evangelical strategy for the transformation of culture rather than the bottom-up, one-heart-and-soul-at-a-time approach modeled by Christ and the Apostles. The Great Commission, Christ’s command that his disciples should “go into all the world and preach the Gospel,” was understood in political terms. As a consequence, the faith became insular and its influence minimal.
The proof of this is difficult to refute. According to the same Pew Forum survey cited above, both Protestant and Catholic churches in America are declining in membership. Evangelicals have remained the most stable (a loss of less than 1 percent in the last seven years), but that is hardly good news because they aren’t growing. This data means that the megachurch phenomenon is chiefly one of transfer of membership rather than one of conversion. Worse, according to LifeWay Research, seven in ten Protestant children currently in the church will leave it by age 23.
Simply put, the very culture that evangelicals have set themselves against politically is making more converts than they are. And with so much of the cultural space dominated by the Left, from Hollywood to higher education, why wouldn’t it? It is true that Christianity has been driven from many aspects of public life, but Christians have unwittingly accelerated that process by retreating from public life and reducing their civic engagement to voting, tweets, and Facebook posts. Today, Christianity in America is treated much like smoking. You can do it, but only in designated areas.
The evangelical strategy of the last half-century — a largely political strategy — has failed. This is true regardless of Tuesday’s presidential election results. There are no quick political fixes. They are, at best, a stopgap. All of the evangelical handwringing over Donald Trump and whether or not Christians should vote for him is the wrong conversation. Were Donald Trump an Abraham Lincoln — and he certainly is not — he could not solve America’s spiritual identity crisis.
What is needed is a new strategy that is a great deal more comprehensive than voting alone. And that means returning to a very old strategy. “Go into all the world and preach the Gospel” must once again mean just that. But it will require much more than voting or attending political rallies. Converting one’s neighbors to a political platform is not the same things as introducing them to the eternal hope on offer from Him who said, “Let there be light.”
I will repeat what I said in my first column on this subject: The American church is a sleeping giant. Should it ever awaken and recover its authentic mission, it will bring about a third Great Awakening and the spiritual transformation of America.
Now, hipster that I am, it’s time to wax my beard and make a run to the thrift store to see if they have any oh-so-fashionably tight skinny jeans.