We’re happy to welcome back to the Anxious Bench Barry Hankins, professor and department chair of history at Baylor University. Barry has previously contributed posts about Woodrow Wilson (see also his spiritual biography of the 28th president) and the Supreme Court.
It’s been an interesting autumn for religion in America. Hopefully, the press and media have noticed that while supporting Donald Trump appears to be the essence of white evangelicalism at the moment, there is another way. For starters, a very evangelical thing took place last month in a courtroom in Dallas:
Brandt Jean forgave his brother Botham’s killer, Dallas police officer Amber Guyger. He also told her he loved her and implored her to “give your life to Christ.” Then he begged the judge to allow him to hug her.
I’m going to try to remember to YouTube that scene every time I hear Pastor Robert Jeffress, Franklin Graham, or Jerry Falwell, Jr. say in effect that the presidency of Donald Trump is a gift from God. Three days before Brandt Jean’s act of forgiveness, Jeffress told Fox News that impeaching Trump would cause a “Civil War-like fracture in this nation from which this country will never heal.”
Brandt Jean’s actions and those of the Jeffress-Graham-Falwell triumvirate are historically evangelical. Historians define evangelicals or evangelicalism in a few different ways. The most common is the Bebbington Quadrilateral. Formulated by David Bebbington of the University of Stirling (and also a Visiting Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University), the four elements are: 1) Biblicism (the belief that the Christian scriptures are authoritative on all matters of faith and morality; 2) conversionism (individuals must convert to Christ); 3) crucicentrism (the centrality of the crucifixion of Christ that makes forgiveness and therefore #2 possible; and 4) activism (social activism such as the abolition of slavery or abortion but especially evangelism and missions aimed at, again, #2).
Are we seeing a pattern here? Conversion looms large in evangelical public activities, and that is what Brandt Jean called on Amber Guyger to do. “Give your life to Christ” is a synonym for conversion. So, how do we get from the quadrilateral to the triumvirate, and Jeffress’s comment that healing from an impeachment of Trump will never happen?
Here is where some historians take issue with Bebbington. They argue that understanding a movement by its beliefs is not very helpful when in their public activism (#4 of the quad) they do things unrelated or in opposition to those beliefs. If the triumvirate tried to use the Bebbington Quadrilateral to explain their support for Trump, they would probably say something like this. Trump supports religious liberty, which protects Christians as they engage in activism or conversionism. On many occasions, Jeffress has called Trump the “most religious-liberty oriented president we’ve ever had.” Graham and Falwell have said similar things. To which one might respond, if support for a man like Trump is the cost of religious liberty, Christians might better endure discrimination, even go to jail.
But then we saw the real shape of Trump’s religious liberty. When he withdrew U.S. forces from Syria, leaving the Kurds defenseless against Turkey, evangelical leaders like the triumvirate finally found a reason to criticize Trump. The president’s actions left Christians in the Middle East vulnerable. Perhaps the triumvirate will see what has been obvious all along. It’s not religious liberty the president supports. Rather, he supports evangelicals with whom he is transacting business, looking out for their interests. You support me; I support your brand. He treats evangelicals like a market share that he has made a deal with, and he cares not a whit about religious liberty as a principle.
Jeffress returns the favor. Not only has the Dallas pastor said Trump is the most religious liberty president ever, he has also called him “the most faith-friendly president in history.” Those are not quite the same. One can be friendly toward a particular “faith” while disregarding the religious liberty of the other. The Puritans loved their faith; they wouldn’t tolerate Quakers and Baptists. Trump likes evangelicals; he bashes Muslims. Given that evangelicals such as the triumvirate like nearly everything about Trump — except his personal morality, of course — one wonders if they too are protecting and promoting the evangelical brand more than religious liberty. Convinced during the Clinton and Obama administrations that they were victims of discrimination, they have turned to a strong man who will protect them. But in protecting the brand they are damaging the witness. As another evangelical, Russell Moore, put it when the triumvirate came out in support of Trump in 2016, “The damage done to the gospel witness this year will take longer to recover from than those 1980s televangelist scandals.” Remember those — Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker, sex, greed, conspiracy to defraud? So much for the brand — or the witness.
And this brings us back to Brandt Jean. Evangelicals will only recover their witness when they forget about their brand — and the strong man politician they think protects it. Their activism needs to be brought back in line with the rest of the Bebbington Quadrilateral. It will take at least a generation, and it may never be the case again that evangelicals are known primarily as people who forgive those who have hurt them or their families, and as those who call people to conversion — “Give your life to Christ.” Calling on Trump to do exactly that would be a good start.