According to the Pew Forum, white evangelical Protestants are the dominant religious force in today’s Republican Party and about 99% oppose impeaching and removing Donald Trump from the presidency.
Christianity is still the largest religion in the United States. In 2019, 65% of polled American adults identified themselves as Christian. This is down from 85% in 1990. Both Protestantism and Catholicism are experiencing membership losses. Currently, 43% of U.S. adults identify with Protestantism, down from 51% in 2009. And one-in-five adults (20%) are Catholic, down from 23% in 2009. However, looking only at Americans who identify as Protestants – rather than at the public as a whole – the share of all Protestants who are born-again or evangelical is at least as high today as it was in 2009.
Evangelical Protestantism, coming from the Latin word for “gospel” evangelium, stresses salvation by grace, the importance of the “born again” experience, and the authority of the Bible, understood literally, as God’s revelation to humanity.
Evangelicalism has played an important role in shaping American religion and culture. The First Great Awakening of the early 18th century marked the rise of evangelical religion in colonial America. Prominent in that movement were animated preachers like John Wesley, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards.The Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century brought what historian Martin Marty called the “Evangelical Empire.” Evangelicals then dominated US cultural institutions, including schools, and universities.
By the end of the 19th century, however, the old evangelical consensus that had united American Protestantism no longer existed. Protestant churches became divided over new intellectual and theological ideas, especially Darwinian evolution and biblical historical criticism. The same change occurred in the Catholic Church. Those who rejected these “Modernist” ideas became known as fundamentalists.
Fundamentalists defended the doctrine of literal biblical inerrancy and separated themselves from Mainline Protestant churches, which had developed a more open-minded understanding of science and biblical interpretation.
After World War II, a new generation of conservative Protestants began calling themselves “evangelicals.” The popular evangelist, Billy Graham (1918 – 2018), was at the forefront in using this term. A number of evangelical institutions were established, including the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today magazine, and educational institutions, such as the multi denominational Fuller Theological Seminary, in Pasadena, California.
Reacting to the counterculture of the 1960s, many evangelicals became politically active and involved in what became known as the Christian right. On January 22, 1973, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Texas statute banning abortion, effectively legalizing abortion across the United States. Throughout the 1970s, certainly in part as a response to the Roe v. Wade Supreme Court decision, the Christian right became a major force in the Republican party and in American politics. Baptist pastor Jerry Falwell and other Christian leaders began to urge conservative Christians to actively involve themselves in the US political process. In response to the rise of the Christian right, the 1980 Republican Party platform took on a number of socio-ethical positions. In addition to the restoration of school prayer, the Christian right began to stress conservative positions on intelligent design, embryonic stem cell research, homosexuality, euthanasia, contraception, sex education, abortion, and pornography.
(Here I add very brief personal observation: In my own friendly and respectful conversations with conservative evangelicals I stress our shared belief in the person and message of Jesus Christ; and then move on to the many ways in which our human understanding has developed over the years. When it comes to politics, I readily admit that my parents were very active Republicans. My Dad held various Republican political offices in Michigan. Most in my family I suspect are Republican. Yes I am a registered Democrat. The genius of the American experience has been that we all, regardless of political party affiliation, respectfully work together for the common good.)
In the United States today, the Christian right has become a coalition of conservative evangelical Protestants and conservative Roman Catholics. Father Frank Pavone, for example, a Roman Catholic who is national director of Priests for Life, responded on Wednesday, January 15, 2020, to the current president’s call for prayers about his impeachment: “President Trump just asked for prayers!” he said on his Twitter account. “Let’s storm heaven against the evil that surrounds him. I pray he will have the courage to continue to fight for the Lives of the unborn!”
Before the end of 2016 there was little in Donald Trump’s life to suggest that, as president, he would be hailed as God’s appointee on earth. Over the three years since Trump took office, however, he has surrounded himself with a fundamentalist Christian cabinet and established an extremely beneficial relationship with white evangelical supporters. It is an strange alliance between “Christians” who theoretically adhere to biblical teachings about right and wrong and yet strongly support a man who has been credibly accused of sexual assault, is a notorious liar, and whom many observers see as a very cruel and demeaning human being. Influential evangelical Christians ignore the president’s moral shortcomings by portraying him as a flawed vessel for God’s will and contemporary work.
Rank-and-file evangelicals have also embraced the imperfect vessel concept. Rick Perry, the evangelical and Former United States Secretary of Energy, repeated the theory of an imperfect biblical figure for Fox News this past November. “God has used imperfect people all through history,” he said. “King David wasn’t perfect. Saul wasn’t perfect. Solomon wasn’t perfect,” Perry told Fox News, in an interview which was theoretically about Trump’s impeachment, that Donald Trump was the “chosen one” who was “sent by God” to lead the country.
There are some evangelicals, of course, who still resonate with authentic Gospel values. On December 19, 2019, an editorial, by Mark Galli, in the evangelical publication Christianity Today called for President Trump’s removal from office. “The President of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral. The reason many are not shocked about this is that this president has dumbed down the idea of morality in his administration. He has hired and fired a number of people who are now convicted criminals. He himself has admitted to immoral actions in business and his relationship with women, about which he remains proud. His Twitter feed alone—with its habitual string of mischaracterizations, lies, and slanders—is a near perfect example of a human being who is morally lost and confused.”
President Trump, who began rallying his evangelical supporters right after that editorial was published, called Christianity Today a “far left magazine” and reminded his religious supporters that “no President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close.” Franklin Graham, the son of Christianity Today’s founder Billy Graham, also criticized the Christianity Today editorial, stating “My father knew Donald Trump, he believed in Donald Trump, and he voted for Donald Trump. He believed that Donald J. Trump was the man for this hour in history for our nation.” Unfortunately one cannot interview Billy Graham about any of this….
An examination of conscience is a review of a person’s values, words, and actions for the purpose of evaluating that person’s conformity with Christian belief and morality. Evangelical Christians, and those conservative Catholics who have joined them, need to do some very serious reflection and self-examination. An examination of conscience. Right now I fear they have become “Christian” in name only…
6 thoughts on “An Evangelical Examination of Conscience”
Hear, Hear! Amen!
This is the most cogent, clearly stated, and insightful explanation of the relationship between our American conservative movement and evangelical Christianity that I have read. My heart is greatly troubled because of this linkage of religion and politics because once one’s faith is used as justification for political decisions, there is little chance for real dialogue to move governance in meaningful ways. My first political science professor defined politics as the “art of compromise.” I see no compromise on the horizon in our country in the foreseeable future. Donald Trump doesn’t bother me because he is openly and clearly a man of twisted morality and mentality. What deeply worries me is that a huge segment of our society who self-define as “Christian” equate him with representing their values and beliefs. Trump will be gone, for better or worse, in no longer than four and a half years (scary thought!) Those who adore him are out there ready to follow the next demagogue with skewed and aberrant ideas. And, it will all be done in the name of “Christianity.” Sadly, I now think of myself as a “Vatican II Catholic/Christian” so as not to be lumped in with those whose Christianity means making America great again by demeaning, attacking, abusing, and minimizing others. Wouldn’t it be interesting to see how Jesus would handle the American world we live in today.
Again, Jack, thank you for inspiring and encouraging us. Bless you!
Well said Frank!
Happy New Year to you and the family.
Following is a letter to editor that I sent to our diocesan paper in Oakland, The Catholic Voice.
The two of us are in sync. Sorry for the length.
Keep up your good work. I read you religiously and pass your thoughts on.
In his campaign and in the first three years of his presidency Donald Trump has been able to count on the unquestioning support of white, right-wing, evangelical Christians. They have been staunch supporters of his agenda and the person himself. All of this in spite of his immoral words and behavior. Their support has been puzzling to other Christians.
Finally, there has been a significant break in that support. Christianity Today, an evangelical newspaper founded by Billy Graham, wrote an editorial Dec. 19 asking its readers to support the removal of Donald Trump from office. This is an unusual step for Christianity Today, which typically stays above the political fray and comments only on moral and social justice issues.
The editorial states: “The facts in this instance are unambiguous: The president of the United States attempted to use his political power to coerce a foreign leader to harass and discredit one of the president’s political opponents. That is not only a violation of the Constitution; more importantly, it is profoundly immoral.”
It goes on to address his evangelical supporters: “To the many evangelicals who continue to support Mr. Trump in spite of his blackened moral record, we might say this: Remember who you are and whom you serve. Consider how your justification of Mr. Trump influences your witness to your Lord and Savior. Consider what an unbelieving world will say if you continue to brush off Mr. Trump’s immoral words and behavior in the cause of political expediency. If we don’t reverse course now, will anyone take anything we say about justice and righteousness with any seriousness for decades to come?”
Christianity Today’s words are strong and unequivocal. Its moral leadership is admirable. It is time for the American Catholic bishops to speak out on this issue either individually or collectively. If the bishops fear that they do not want to enter into politics, they should follow the lead of Christianity Today and speak out against this immorality. If they do not, they will be seen as irrelevant and no one will take them seriously for decades to come.
Thanks Dennis….and very well said!