During the era of Trump, lots of evangelical thought leaders have indicated they are not like the born-again Protestants who voted for the president or even like those pastors and religious leaders who comprise Trump’s circle of spiritual advisors. Since the protests and riots in Washington, D.C. last week, many of those same thought leaders are telling anyone who will listen that they are not like those Trump supporters on the mall. For added measure, the good, sensible evangelicals are the ones who support democracy and democratic norms.
Here’s how the critique goes: The problem with Trump-supporting evangelicals is that they fall too easily for conspiracy theories and alt-right speculation. Real evangelicals don’t.
Russell Moore took the lead:
as Christians, we can start now—just by not being afraid to say what is objectively the truth. Joe Biden has been elected president. Millions of babies are being aborted. The pandemic is real. So is racial injustice—both personal and systemic. So is the sexual abuse of women and children. If Christians are people of truth, we ought to be the first to acknowledge reality.
Ed Stetzer pitched in:
I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many have been brought into — conspiracy theories, false reports and more — and so I think the Christian responsibility is we need to engage in what we call in the Christian tradition, discipleship. Jesus says, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” So Jesus literally identifies himself as the truth; therefore, if there ever should be a people who care about the truth, it should be people who call themselves followers of Jesus.
Evangelical historians rounded out the early returns:
We reaffirm our commitment to seek and speak the truth, and will model the best practices of truth-seeking in our interactions with our students, our colleagues, our fellow believers, and the public at large. The mob that invaded the US Capitol on January 6 was motivated by beliefs that were empirically false. The cause of the gospel is harmed when Christians trumpet such political falsehoods in the name of Jesus. Christians are to be people of the truth, and we therefore commit ourselves to the highest standards of integrity in our teaching, scholarship, and daily lives.
The thing is, Christians who take the Bible seriously, accept some fairly unreasonable claims.
Think of the virgin birth of Christ (which many Christians more or less celebrate every year):
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed[b] to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!”[c] 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1)
How can this be, indeed. Mary had a point. It’s an strange belief to think that a baby boy, who grew up perfect and who was also God incarnate, took human form by through the parentage of the Holy Spirit and a virgin maiden. But maybe Christmas makes it seem conventional and reasonable.
And when it comes to conspiracy theories, do Bible-believing Christians really think they stand in the mainstream of common humanity’s rationality? You don’t need to go to Revelation, simply to Jesus’ teaching itself, to read some projections that non-believers could well regard as paranoid:
3 As he sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” 4 And Jesus answered them, “See that no one leads you astray. 5 For many will come in my name, saying, ‘I am the Christ,’ and they will lead many astray. 6 And you will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet. 7 For nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are but the beginning of the birth pains.
9 “Then they will deliver you up to tribulation and put you to death, and you will be hated by all nations for my name’s sake. 10 And then many will fall away and betray one another and hate one another. 11 And many false prophets will arise and lead many astray. 12 And because lawlessness will be increased, the love of many will grow cold. 13 But the one who endures to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.” (Matt 24)
Evangelicals may like to think that their beliefs are less odd than Mormons — the lost tribes of Israel becoming Native Americas, Jesus preaching to the Nephites in America shortly after his resurrection, Joseph Smith discovering sacred texts on golden tablets buried in upstate New York. But actually, Christian (along with Judaism) makes claims that defy human reason.
If evangelical academics and thought leaders want to disassociate themselves from Trump supporters, they should rethink positioning themselves as reasonable over against the evangelical rabble’s QAnon obsession. By the world’s standards, no Christian is reasonable. It’s not even clear that a liberal Protestant holding on to the moral teachings of Jesus qualifies as reasonable. Jesus’ ethics are better than Aristotle’s? Christians answering that question are biased.
What would be better for religious leaders and evangelical academics is to take steps to define the Christian terms by which Trump supporters fail. That way the critics would actually have to identity with Christian teaching rather the chyrons on cable news shows. Even better, they could help instill some discipline and coherence to a movement that has historically been a mile wide and an inch deep. If evangelicals had boundaries, if the smart evangelicals put up fences around evangelicalism the way the National Park Service is putting up fences around the Capitol, born-again Protestantism might actually matter.
As it stands, evangelical significance depends almost entirely on the categories supplied by the nation’s political parties. And these critics of Trump’s supporters want us to think they have avoided partisan politics. Pshaw.