The Glow of Dumpster Fires & The Twilight of Evangelical Influence
The link between evangelicalism and American politics is inextricable. From the very beginning of evangelicalism in the US – American values and Christianity have been nearly synonymous. The intertwining of American and Christian is the pathos of evangelicalism. In modern US history, as social conservatism within the GOP centered on defending conservative social values it has always found a ready ally in its evangelical doppelganger. The evangelical vote has always mattered in American politics. Evangelicals were once king makers. When the defense of American/Christian values reached its zenith during the seventies and eighties evangelicalism’s influence naturally rose with it. During the “culture wars” the most influential public voices included prominent evangelical pastors & Christian leaders. At the time, it was hard to tell the difference between politician and pastor, or between sermon and stump speech. This, of course, was understood to be a good thing. As evangelicalism rode the tide of cultural conservatism upward the ranks of conservative denominations rose with it. From this emerged evangelical organizations with political & social agendas. One organization after another determined to preserve Judeo-Christian ethics in America was founded. The Christian Coalition (1979), The Moral Majority (1989), and ERLC (1988) all came to life during this era. Each of them was created with the express purpose to preserve the Christian foundations of American culture. The season was an evangelical windfall. Never have cultural conservatism and American evangelicalism blended their message with such great effect. But, that was then and this is now.
As the culture war has been lost on both the political and popular fronts, evangelicalism’s influence has waned. The evangelical vote counts for very little any more. Quite to the contrary, nowadays it seems an evangelical endorsement is the kiss of death for any candidate. The old formula of rallying the conservative core no longer works. Furthermore, the parasitic relationship of evangelicalism to social conservatism in the political realm has resulted in a mass exodus from the once burgeoning conservative denominations. As the host goes so goes the guest. One journalist observed, “Partisan preachers politicized the movement and now reap the whirlwind.’’ As the conservative movement struggles to survive, evangelicalism’s investment in partisan politics is starting to report major losses. He goes on to note, “Evangelicalism has languished under partisan political captivity since at least the 1980s, leading to an exodus of young people and less partisan Christians who seek a faith that is more than a handmaiden to Republican politics.” To put that another way – a new generation of Christians have rediscovered the true Gospel. Turns out it is distinctly apolitical. This discovery has led to proper distinctions between that which was assumed to be Christianity and Christianity itself, namely social conservatism and biblical Christianity.
It would be easy to assume the current “no show” of the evangelical vote at present is the result of cultural inoculation or moral indifference. You are hearing this from certain evangelical pundits at present. But, this is a blind spot which will eventually come into focus. The current situation is not because this present generation of Christians is indifferent to the cultural or political issues facing America, but because they now understand them as symptoms of a much greater issue. The real issue cannot be touched by legislation. The problem with society is humanity itself. And, the only solution God has offered for the sinful condition of humanity (outside of judgment) is the Gospel of Christ, not political or moral influence. The aim of Christianity is not the defense of morals in a given culture, but the salvation of individual sinners. There is no direct connection between the atonement and the American way of life. This is now obvious to those who care to admit it.
Evangelicalism is simply not what it used to be. David Platt, best selling evangelical author, met this very reality head on recently as he took over leadership of the Foreign Missions Board of the once unshakable Southern Baptist Convention. As the cooperative funds were running dry, the old guard leadership sought to replenish their reserves by pounding the bully pulpit. They blamed the empty coffers on a lack of concern for lost souls. Ignoring the larger warning signs they nearly drove their prestigious mission wing into the ground. When Platt took over he realized the problem was basic math. There simply weren’t as many pocket books in the pews as before. As a result, Platt had no choice but to trim back the number of missionaries. It was the right move. It was a sort of coming to terms with reality. But, more importantly, the crisis signaled a much larger shift under way in the broader evangelical world. The attrition in the Southern Baptist Church is a very telling sign of the condition of Evangelicalism itself. It should be viewed as such. Evangelicalism is losing its voice.
One of the down sides (among many others) of confusing the Christian Gospel with American conservatism is the inherent dependence on the success of the social conservative movement. If the gospel you preach (upholding morals in culture) is equal with a socio-cultural-political phenomenon when that phenomenon begins to experience its twilight so does your influence. What evangelical leaders are beginning to realize is that a new generation of Christians in the US (who are no less biblically committed and conscientious) have figured out that social conservatism and the Gospel are not synonymous. They have come to realize that while Christianity cannot be less than morals or family values, it has always been more.
Ironically, many would argue that the current upheaval in the GOP is partly due the void left by partisan organizations like the Moral Majority and the Christian Coalition. In other words, these evangelical-political organizations helped create this current mess by existing in the first place. As a result, at present, their messages are little more than political white noise. These organizations are currently in a battle – not only for conservatism itself – but also for their own existence. They are rapidly descending into irrelevance. It’s a sad and confusing state of affairs. Honestly, when evangelical leaders stoop to the level of passing insults back and forth with Donald Trump on cable news outlets, it does not help their cause, or that of Christ. It only confuses both. It can only be seen as hypocritical when the leader of a Christian organization relentlessly attacks another human being, even when it is Donald Trump. Regardless of your opinion of him, when you obliterate another human being and show no grace – you have walked away from the Christian message. You have confused your politics and Christianity.
As the dust of the culture war has settled and the social conservative movement finds itself on the wrong side of history, so does evangelicalism. If you put all your eggs in one basket then you should keep your eyes on that basket. A younger generation of believers long ago realized that redeeming culture and redemption are not the same missions. What once rallied the faithful (fear mongering about liberal Supreme Court justices, etc.) only pushes the believing masses away. The old rhetoric doesn’t work any longer. This is because the same issues we fought against with legislation before (and lost) are now standing right in front of us as rights and privileges of liberal leaning citizens. The conservatives lost. This is an established fact. Quite frankly, those political and evangelical leaders who once led us are severely out of touch. The modern Christian exists on front lines where the cultural shift has already happened. We realized long ago the tide had turned. We live as Christians in a liberal nation.
While the old guard is calling for “third party candidates” in an effort to prop up a political corpse, conscientious, god fearing, bible believing, reformed Christians have admitted reality and turned to face it. And, to their delight, they have discovered an unprecedented opportunity to declare the true Gospel into a culture that desperately needs it. The darkness of the moment sets the light of the Gospel in perfect relief. The more the true Gospel is distinguished from political/social conservatism of the past the better. While we see the fields as white unto harvest – the conservative establishment can only see dumpster fires. As one conservative blogger fomented upon the presumptive nomination of Trump, “America is about to get what it deserves.” Our response is slightly more compassionate. “Christ received what we deserve on the cross. So, let’s offer the citizens of this country what it doesn’t deserve – the Gospel of Grace.”
Consider Ted Cruz’s unmerciful attack against Donald Trump the days before the Indiana primary. He threw everything, including venereal disease, at the real-state mogul. The result? Donald Trump took the evangelical vote in Indiana by more than five percentage points. Obviously, the major evangelical players are outraged that its constituency could ever consider supporting someone like Trump. We hear the vitriol everywhere. But, what they should be paying attention to is the fact that evangelicals – who saw through the clatter of Cruz – could not bring themselves to support a poster child for social conservatism. The lack of enthusiasm for Cruz is far more telling than any support for Trump. Besides, is any believer really under the illusion that any politician seeking the office of the President of the United States of America actually represents Christians values anyway? Evangelicalism’s desires for a “Pastor and Chief” is a sad fantasy.
It’s strange to watch evangelical leaders – in typical fashion – hammer their bully pulpits attempting to wake the masses. “The Republican Party is in jeopardy of extinction!!” “We’re giving our country over to liberals and socialists!! “Trump is an abomination!” The response back has been “crickets.” As it turns out, republicanism and Christianity aren’t the same. These leaders should take a queue from Platt and finally realize they’re screaming at empty pews, and not pews filled with the uninformed, or the unconcerned. They are coming off as sanctimonious and elitist. Their panic over our lack of concern is unfounded. It is naive to assume (and elitist) that Christians are uniformed or unconcerned about what’s happening in America. That’s simply not the case. Given the information at our fingertips – my generation is more informed than ever on nearly every issue the moment it becomes an issue. Fact is, we don’t depend on insiders to provide us information, or moral watchdogs to inform us about the right choice among candidates. One of the historic traits of evangelicalism is its fierce anti-establishment bent. If evangelical leaders manifest an heir of superiority in these matters, their constituency will turn on them. This is already coming to pass.
As evangelical leaders excoriate the masses for their moral lethargy (not much unlike how Washington elites insult their constituency), their concerns are falling on deaf ears. This is not because Christians don’t care about America, or Jesus. It’s rather that Christians have made the proper distinction between the two. Abortion, gay rights, and the like are all topics of discussion and grave concerns for all believers. More than at any other time believers have been forced to maneuver these matters. These evangelical leaders can continue hammer away and draw an equivalence between America and Christianity if they choose. But they are missing a real opportunity and marginalizing themselves in the process. If evangelicalism needs the Republican Party to remain successful, then it has been nothing more than a religious special interest group. If someone believes losing a cultural war, or having a president appoint a liberal justice to the Supreme Court, or a shake up in the GOP somehow signals the end of Christianity in the US, then they have lost their way. At the least, they have confused their role as citizens and their mission as biblical Christians. Christianity does not need the presence of a politically charged evangelicalism in order to be effective in these United States of America. In some ways, we’d be better off without the political baggage it brings.