Jesus said, “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account.” Christians, in other words, should expect to be hated by the unbelieving world. But that doesn’t mean we ought to give them a legitimate cause.
At The Atlantic, Pete Wehner describes what he takes to be a worsening crisis facing evangelical Christians: Our uncritical and unwavering devotion to Donald Trump, which he says is permanently damaging our public witness and diminishing our credibility to speak on “culture war” issues, particularly to younger generations.
I can see where he’s coming from. As buoying as it was to see my own denomination (the Presbyterian Church in America) affirm the Nashville Statement in the midst of a debate over homosexual temptation, the document’s roll-out was among the most tone-deaf in the history of document roll-outs.
Consider the optics: Just one year after overwhelmingly electing (and thumbs-upping) a thrice-married philanderer who bragged about being able to grope women—a man whose campaign manager cut a hefty hush-check to a porn star—evangelicals came together to declare their unwavering commitment to “biblical conviction, clarity, and courage” on sexuality.
To borrow an expression from the lexicon of the generation we’re supposedly losing, “oof!”
Wehner asks how it’s possible to ascribe anything but self-serving hypocrisy to a group that once issued a statement against a sexually profligate president, only to flock to another sexual profligate running for president against the previous profligate’s wife. And he’s not just re-litigating the dizzyingly over-litigated 2016 election. Wehner cites polling of white evangelicals proving that they’re still among the president’s most ardent supporters.
His explanation for this about-face is very much in-line with what evangelical Trump-supporters themselves have told me for the last three years: 2016 was a “Flight 93 election”—a moment of existential peril for the American republic which justified any amount of nose-holding and reluctant lever-pulling. That reluctance, he argues, has since morphed into devotion to and even fanaticism for President Trump precisely because he’s delivered on his promise to go to bat for evangelicals. So much so that many have come to view President Trump as a model for future Republican candidates.
“Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing ‘nice guys.’” wrote Jerry Falwell, Jr. on Twitter. “They might make great Christian leaders but the United States needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists [sic] Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!”
In other words, a good Christian may be the president we deserve, but he’s not the president we need right now. This tectonic shift from principle to power, Wehner argues, will have consequences. He recounts a conversation with a “theologically orthodox” spiritual mentor who told him, “We’re losing an entire generation. They’re just gone. It’s one of the worst things to happen to the Church.”
In place of the “street-fighter” model of politics, Wehner thinks Christians should imitate Ambrose of Milan, who barred a murderous emperor from the church’s doors until He had confessed his sins. Borrowing a term from Makoto Fujimura, he urges us to take up “culture-care” in place of culture wars, maintaining our witness against morally-compromised leaders no matter what the stakes in any given election. Only then can we get back to our God-given mission to be “healing agents in a broken world,” and—he pretty clearly implies—only then will the kids come back to church!
It’s a compelling story. But it has two major problems. First, as Pericles is reputed to have said, “Just because you don’t take an interest in politics doesn’t mean politics won’t take an interest in you.” Wehner seems to have fallen for the common idea that if Christians just behave politely and don’t compromise our morals by voting for guys like Trump, everyone will love us.
Besides Jesus’ warning and His fairly well-known personal experience to the contrary, there are plenty of reasons to reject this simplistic promise. Anyone who has ever tried to reason an abortion activist out of his or her beliefs has felt the kind of undeserved hatred Jesus talked about.
A host of bakers, florists, t-shirt designers, and women who just want to use the bathroom in peace can tell you that disinterest in the culture wars won’t keep you out of them. Heck, I can’t think of a company better-known for politeness than Chick-fil-A, yet powerful progressives loathe this chicken restaurant with comical intensity.
The second problem with Wehner’s argument is that no matter how anecdotally compelling we may find the claim that the evangelical church is “losing an entire generation,” there’s little evidence for it. The General Social Survey indicates that evangelicals have held steady at about a quarter of the U.S. population for the last twenty years.
Even with the rise of so-called “nones” (those with no religious affiliation), evangelical affiliation has barely budged. The overwhelming majority of those who’ve left organized religion likely came from Mainline Protestant churches, which have bled out almost two-thirds of their members since 1970.
Evangelicals even have a pretty good retention rate, which means that affiliation with a Bible-and-conversion-centric form of Christianity isn’t just a phase a quarter of Americans go through. Ninety-five percent of those who call themselves “born-again” (a classic evangelical identifier) still call themselves that 5 years later, compared with just 85 percent who call themselves “Protestant” but not “born-again.”
Faced with these facts, it would be easy to dismiss Wehner and others who think conservative Christians in America are facing a crisis of credibility with the secular culture, or with the next generation. The demise of the American church has—to paraphrase Mark Twain—been greatly exaggerated.
And anyone who’s been paying attention to the headlines for any length of time could be forgiven for thinking that secular progressives will hate Christians no matter how nice we are. Even given Wehner’s preferred biblical metaphor for the church in 2019—faithful exiles—there are always bureaucrats in the courts of Nebuchadnezzar, Darius, and Haman who would prefer to see us in a furnace, a lions’ den, or at the end of a rope.
But we don’t do the right thing because it wins us cultural points or draws the crowds. We do it because it’s right—and in that sense, Wehner’s warning ought to hit home for every American Christian who has argued that political success is more important than—or synonymous with—faithfulness. If his argument is built on a faulty, consequentialist premise, his conclusion is no less valid.
There is a way to fight for good government and cultural reform without sacrificing Christian conviction or witness, because these things were never dependent on public opinion polls. It’s possible to criticize a president who looks out for our political interests, or even to withhold a vote for his re-election, because our political interests were never the point.
Yes, Christians are going to be portrayed as the bad guys no matter what. That doesn’t give us leave to play the part. Yes, there will be young people who leave the church in disgust. If Jesus was being serious in Matthew 18:6, we had better hope their disgust wasn’t valid. Yes, the world is going to hate us. But Jesus said they would hate us on His account. God help us if it’s for any other reason.