by Carolyn Custis James
Anyone who has a finger on the pulse of American evangelicalism has to be wondering if the patient will survive.
During the current presidential election cycle, American evangelicalism has suffered what may prove to be a potentially lethal setback at the hands of a few evangelical leaders. Prominent evangelical figures that include such notables as Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Richard Land, James Dobson, and Eric Metaxas have drawn national attention by publicly endorsing Donald Trump, a man whose actions, values, lifestyle, and rhetoric run counter to the life and teachings of Jesus.
How can American evangelicalism survive when, like an immune system gone awry, it begins to turn on itself? Yet, despite Trump’s racist, Islamophobic, misogynist, and xenophobic rhetoric, they have rushed to the Republican nominee’s side, pledged their support, and seem intent on influencing the rest of us to join them in violating our evangelical convictions.
More evangelical defections
In the aftermath, and despite an online outcry of resistance from appalled fellow evangelicals, things have only gotten worse.
In late July, Professor Wayne Grudem released his lengthy diatribe for endorsing Trump—“Why Voting for Donald Trump Is a Morally Good Choice.” In it, Grudem glossed over the long list of Trump’s offenses, calling him a “flawed” candidate and affirming him as “a morally good choice.” His essay caused another dumbfounded evangelical to retort, “How ‘Trump’ and ‘morally’ can meet in the same sentence defies the imagination.”
If the shock waves created by Professor Wayne Grudem’s lengthy rationalization of his endorsement of Donald Trump weren’t enough, last Friday Dr. James Dobson doubled-down on his earlier support of Trump with a video endorsement of the real estate mogul. Dobson, founder and former president of Focus on the Family, stated he is “deeply concerned about the direction our country is headed.”
In our republic, there is maximal freedom to express political preferences. But it is a good deal more troubling when an evangelical leader plays off their identity as an evangelical with the clear intent of influencing others to follow their lead.
With so many offensive statements radiating from the nightly news, evangelicals are right to protest these endorsements and to call these evangelical leaders to account.
But there is one dimension of all this that doesn’t get as much attention as I think it should in Christian circles: namely, what this phenomenon reflects about issues of gender. As a woman, I find it especially troubling that not only are both Grudem and Dobson, as staunch defenders of complementarianism, willing to dismiss those offenses, but they are also sabotaging core values of their respective lifelong ministries.
Here’s what I mean.
Family values and biblical manhood?
As the evangelical guru of family values, Dr. Dobson’s endorsement strikes a double blow to the fight against some of the most serious issues facing American families—battles he has historically engaged. Significant efforts are underway to combat the destructive plague of bullying.
Bullying has lead to suicides even of adolescents and has been a factor in some mass shootings. Dobson himself expressed alarm over what is happening. “Kids are regularly committing suicide because of the horrible bullying they endure.” Likewise, many are working vigorously to prevent young girls from hating, cutting, and starving themselves because they don’t conform to some culturally embraced ideal of the female body. Yet James Dobson would have us cast our votes for an unapologetic bully who routinely belittles his opponents, ridicules a disabled man, and objectifies women (including both of his daughters).
James Dobson would have us cast our votes for an unapologetic bully who routinely belittles his opponents, ridicules a disabled man, and objectifies women (including both of his daughters).
What possible explanation can we give our children and grandchildren if we follow his lead and vote for Trump?
Grudem—a founder, formulator, and relentless defender of complementarian manhood—has written tomes advocating the view that real men protect women. Finding any alignment between Grudem’s diehard complementarian stance and his advocacy for Trump is difficult to imagine. For goodness sake, Trump is a strip club owner. But there is more. Trump openly boasts of his sexual conquests and adulterous escapades, and he degrades women with misogynist remarks. Grudem’s logic for supporting Trump escapes me.
You would think that if protecting women and girls truly mattered to complementarian Grudem, he’d at least be willing to acknowledge the efforts of Hillary Clinton as a candidate who has sought to lift up, protect, and defend the rights of women and girls globally. Instead, Grudem wants to defeat her.
Better Trump than a woman president, I guess.
These endorsements of Trump reflect a fundamental failure of complementarianism.
These endorsements reflect a fundamental failure of complementarianism. The commitment to protect women and children—a central tenant of evangelical family values and the complementarian manifesto—is all too easily abandoned.
The rise of Donald Trump and the abandonment by evangelical leaders of their own core convictions should compel American evangelicals to reflect on what it means to be a Christian. In a very real sense, Trump and his evangelical advocates provide an opportunity for the rest of us to rethink where our true loyalties lie and to ponder how following Jesus defines our values and shapes our engagement in the public square. That same standard applies to how we as Christians evaluate every other candidate.
Reclaiming our Christian identity
In his NYTimes article, “Why Values Voters Value Donald Trump,” Daniel K. Williams raised the obvious question facing Christians:
“If conservative evangelical support for Mr. Trump requires [evangelicals] to retract their convictions about the values of decency, marital fidelity and Christian virtue in public life, are they at risk of attempting to gain the Supreme Court at the cost of their movement’s soul?”
Perhaps instead, the current evangelical crisis signals the demise of the distorted American version of evangelicalism and compels us to reclaim our true allegiance to Jesus and to recommit to be bearers of the good news of his kingdom.
The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion (εὐαγγέλιον) which means “gospel” or “good news.” Historically for Christians the word evangelical identifies the followers of Jesus and connects them with the good news of his gospel—a gospel of God’s love and mercy for the world he loves through Jesus and the kingdom Jesus brings. Tragically, in America the word “evangelical” has been politicized to reflect white, right-wing Republican values. The current election cycle has brought the misuse of that good word to a head where Christians must rethink what it means to be a follower of Jesus. For many evangelicals it means (at least for the moment) abandoning that label.
The need to rethink what it means to be an evangelical prompted me to reread Walter Brueggemann’s book, Truth Speaks to Power: The Countercultural Nature of Scripture. In it, he explains the fact that the kingdoms of this world are not and never will be the kingdom of God. He demonstrates in powerful ways how all through the Bible courageous individuals are confronting and speaking truth to the powerful and rich. Those voices belong to the ancient prophets and ultimately to Jesus who refused to play along with the powers that be, but instead confronted them with their responsibility to pursue justice and mercy for the vulnerable, the oppressed, and the marginalized. Most notably this meant widows, orphans, the poor, and foreigners. “‘Isn’t that what it means to know me?’ says the LORD” (Jer. 22:16).
Grasping for power, as Brueggemann notes, “is never innocent or disinterested; it is always, to some important extent, a front for self-interest perpetrated through violence.” That violence, as we well know, comes in many forms.
The evangelical church detours from its true mission by seeking alignment with the rich and powerful instead of calling them to account and speaking for those whose voices have been silenced. Self-interest and self-protection run counter to the gospel. So does silence in the face of injustice.
The evangelical church detours from its true mission by seeking alignment with the rich and powerful.
Every time we kneel to pray the words Jesus taught his disciples to pray, we affirm our pledge of allegiance to Jesus’ kingdom—an allegiance to which all other loyalties defer. Our commitment is to the reign of God, to the advance of his kingdom on earth, and for his will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. As God’s image bearers, we are called to be agents of that kingdom first and foremost.
We have our work cut out for us. I would not presume to tell anyone how (or if) they should vote. That is a matter of conscience for each of us. But if we understand anything, it is that our starting point is not with evangelical leaders who are endorsing Trump or any other candidate, but by listening again to the ancient prophets and to Jesus . . . especially before we pull that lever in the voting booth.
Carolyn Custis James thinks deeply about what it means to be a female follower of Jesus in a postmodern world. As a cancer survivor, she is grateful to be alive and determined to address the issues that matter most. She travels extensively both in the US and abroad as a speaker for churches, conferences, colleges, theological seminaries, and other Christian organizations. She is an adjunct professor at BTS in Pennsylvania and is a consulting editor for Zondervan’s Exegetical Commentary Series on the New Testament. She blogs at her own site, at Missio Alliance, and at Huffington Post/Religion. In 2012, Christianity Today named Carolyn one of 50 evangelical women to watch. In 2016, she joined the Board of Advisors at the Institute of Bible Reading. An award-winning author, her books include Malestrom, Half the Church,The Gospel of Ruth, Lost Women of the Bible, and When Life & Beliefs Collide. This post originally appeared on Missio Alliance and is reproduced here by kind permission from the author.
Also of interest:
Why Donald Trump Is Good for Evangelicals by Carolyn Custis James