#FFWgr2018: In Trump era, is “evangelical” worth saving?

Good question.

When I was stuck in Grand Rapids on Sunday after the Festival of Faith & Writing due to snow and ice, I met up with a friend and joked to him that this year’s event could’ve been called the “Festival of Faith & Writing & Trump,” based on how often the president – and his relationship with religious groups – was mentioned.

In one session, Emma Green of The Atlantic said she’s come across stories “16,000 times” asking how 81% of white evangelical Christian voters – the number reported by exit polls after the 2016 election — could support Donald Trump, given his apparent contradiction with their personal and political beliefs. “I think we need to move past that story line,” she said.

However, based on other sessions I attended, she seemed to be the only one feeling that way. Evangelicals of various races and sexes wanted to discuss how the election affected them, whether their community was being unfairly characterized and where they might go from here.

“The worst part was when the number 81% was published,” Korean-American writer Kathy Khang said at the “Still Evangelical in the Age of #MeToo?” forum. “I couldn’t be around my white evangelical friends,” including white women who were outraged by Trump’s bragging about sexual assault but stayed silent on his previous racist comments. People of color “kept raising the alarm over and over,” but she said it made no difference.

Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a pastor and daughter of Latin American immigrants, agreed. “I’m not going to pat you [white women] on the back – you’re late,” she said. She felt a “deeper and deeper sense of betrayal” on Election Night. Now, “this nightmare is really true. This year, not only is it that bad, but it is so much worse. Trump supporters continue to back him,” and she fears for the immigrant women her church serves.

The one woman on the panel who did not identify as evangelical, African-American author Deidra Riggs, said she wanted the 81% to explain their reasoning. “Why won’t you tell us how you got there?” she asked. “As long as you stay silent, it says we don’t really matter.”

Looking ahead, Van Opstal and Karen Swallow Prior, a white woman who teaches at Liberty University and has written multiple books, said evangelicalism needs drastic change.

“I think it’s going to take death and resurrection,” Van Opstal said. “I am not interested in trying to resuscitate a corpse. I’m just hoping someone will listen to the fact that we are dead.”

Prior hearkened back to evangelicalism’s better days, noting its tradition of social activism. “Right now, evangelicalism is broken,” she said. “We need you [people of color] to bring those things back to us. We need you to evangelize us.”

The history of evangelicalism – and the very meaning of the word itself – also figured into a discussion between editor John Wilson, historian Heath Carter and writer Macy Halford, all white evangelicals.

“I am appalled every day that we have the president we have,” and that evangelicals contributed to that fact, Wilson said.

Although some in the audience questioned whether the 81% figure was accurate or whether it mostly included less-educated rural voters, Carter said that Trump found a great deal of support in suburban churches and that white evangelicals tend to vote as a political bloc. He said the word “evangelical” has a historic theological definition in David Bebbington’s quadrilateral but also has sociological and political connotations. And even though many black American Christians may have similar personal piety and theology to that of whites, they don’t often use the term “evangelical” to describe themselves.

Looking ahead, “evangelical elite folks [are] worried about the future of the movement,” he said. In fact, just after the Festival, a group of about 50 leaders (including Festival participant Katelyn Beaty) held a meeting at Wheaton College in Illinois to discuss that.

Still, Halford said that evangelicalism will still have an influence, due to its impact on American history and culture. “We’re all partly evangelical,” she said.

I suspect she’s right, even though I’ve been debating whether the word still has any meaning at all – and whether a word that encompasses such divergent viewpoints is even useful anymore. For the record, I grew up in an evangelical family and church, although I hesitate to use the word now to describe myself, since I hate having to explain it. I realized I was guilty of what Khang criticized, being more vocal about Trump’s misogyny than his racism. As a Christian, I know I have to do better, and I apologize to those who were hurt by that.

For a good primer on white evangelicals and Trump, Michael Gerson’s recent cover story for The Atlantic, which several Festival speakers mentioned, is a great place to start. I plan to read “Still Evangelical?” which features contributions from Prior and Van Opstal, and see what comes out of the meeting at Wheaton. Hopefully, this year’s Festival will lead to some much-needed conversations – and new story lines – for the next few years.

Postscript, April 18: Religion News Service’s Emily McFarlan Miller highlights another important part of the discussion: evangelicalism’s problem with sexual assault, harassment and abuse, which sadly makes it no different than the rest of American society:

The reason more than 80 percent of white evangelicals didn’t listen to the people of color alongside them in the pews on Trump, several panelists said, is the same reason some struggle to believe women who have come forward with their experiences of sexual misconduct and abuse: misplaced trust in powerful men and institutions. Congregations, they noted, applauded Pastors Bill Hybels and Andy Savage as they responded to allegations made against them before resigning.