Even a perfunctory perusal of most media (social or otherwise) and serious commentary (and now even some conservative commentary) reveals an almost total negative take on the current presidency. And, I think an over-all negative view is justified and accurate. However, there is one very positive result of the current state of affairs relative to the current occupant of the White House: it has revealed the deep divide within evangelical Christianity.
Students of modern American religious history are aware that, beginning in the 1940s, several prominent Protestant Christians, such as Carl F. Henry, began to separate themselves in sensibility, emphasis, tone, and even theologically from fundamentalism. From that divergence, we get our modern-day evangelicals. Their rejection of the isolationism and anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism laid the groundwork for modern evangelical Christianity.
Before that divergence could happen, however, it had to be noticed and addressed. One of the ways that happened was through Carl F. Henry’s 1947 book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism. With the help of Charles E. Fuller, Harold Ockenga, Billy Graham, and others, Christianity began to diverge and break with the fundamentalism of the past.
The break wasn’t so much in the areas of theology, as these new evangelicals held to many of the same views, especially inerrancy, as fundamentalists. The theological differences mostly concerned the de-emphasis of dispensationalist end-times views. The divergence was really over the isolationism and anti-intellectualism of fundamentalism. The new evangelicals were open to working with non-fundamentalist churches and secular entities, and wanted to focus on evangelism, which is difficult if isolation and talking about the End Times is one’s primary focus. They also wanted to move away from the anti-science views and the suspicion fundamentalists had toward mainline seminaries and secular universities.
Did these evangelicals do enough to truly break from fundamentalism? Given where we are today, clearly not. However, in their day, it was probably as far as they could go. Bearing that in mind, I think we are in a similar moment where the current evangelical movement in the United States is deeply divided.
What has led to this division? Primarily, it was the decision by evangelical leaders to get into bed with the Republican Party in the early 80s. In doing so, they tied themselves to a right-wing political ideology—a mix of nationalism, free-market economics, and libertarian individualism, all wrapped up in a moralistic and judgmental covering upon which they stamped: “Biblical.”
We have now had well over three decades of this unholy marriage. Many evangelicals, especially the younger generations, have come to the conclusion that this toxic mix is neither biblical nor Christian. They mostly kept this to themselves and, with reasonable conservative people like George Bush in power and then the progressive years under Obama, there was little happening to bring it to the forefront. They were happy to rest in their dogmatic slumber.
And then Trump happened. This was beyond the pale. This was out of bounds. This wasn’t conservative. This wasn’t Republican. And this certainly wasn’t biblical or Christian. Trump has revealed the divide within evangelicalism just as it was revealed back in the 1940s, even if for different reasons.
After Trump, we have evangelicals no longer even recognizing one another. Here they sat, for years, next to each other in the pew. They sang together, took communion together, and had potlucks together. They read the same Bible. They listened to the same sermons. They spoke the same language.
Yet when they learned that the other person had either voted for Trump, or Clinton, or neither, they didn’t know what to make of the situation. The realization took hold that perhaps the person sitting next to them all these years had, in reality, been a stranger. While the language of their faith had been the same, they both had been taking completely different meanings from it when it came to political theology and public discourse.
We are now living in the aftermath, and it is far from over. We’ve all seen the damage thus far. Many evangelicals have left their churches over Trump. There have been a multitude of essays and published writings, each calling the other to task. I would surmise that one out of three of us have probably had a friendship strained (or even lost) because of Trump. Even family members and spouses have experienced fall-out because of Trump. A quick perusal of social media bears this out. Trump brought to the fore what was already present: a deep divide within the evangelical world, especially in the area of public, political theology and discourse.
Many evangelicals have mistaken modern, secular, right-wing, libertarian, free-market, hyper-patriotic nationalism for orthodox, historic, biblical political theology. I, at one time, made the same mistake. I now don’t believe they are the same thing and, in fact, I think a historic and orthodox biblical theology leads in the exact opposite direction. Does this mean that I think the Bible and Christian theology are inherently left-wing? No. I think Christian political theology transcends the modern secular left/right spectrum. It is much more radical than either could ever fathom.
My point, however, is that Trump has revealed this deep divide and it is actually a theological and philosophical divide, more than a purely political divide. It is also one of sensibility. So, for all the damage our current president has done and will no doubt continue to do, we can at least thank him for this: a problem this big and deep cannot be addressed or dealt with until it is actually acknowledged and put on the table. And for that, we can say: “Thank you Mr. President.”
Photo via Pixabay, edited by Dan Wilkinson.
About Darrell Lackey
Darrell Lackey has been a lead pastor and currently works in the private sector. He is part of a home gathering of some amazing, wonderful Christians and a graduate of the University of San Francisco and Golden Gate Baptist Theological Seminary (Now Gateway). You can follow him or read more of his writings at Divergence (A Journey Out of Funda-gelicalism). He and his wife reside in Northern California.