What a difference a week makes. It already seems like forever ago that we lived in a world where Trump just couldn’t be elected president. Most of us (literally – a popular majority) just knew in our bones that when we cast our vote, this annoying potential catastrophe would be averted and all would be well. If Trump’s apocalypse were to ever come, it most certainly wouldn’t be now.
But it did come, and it came by way of the Electoral College doing what the Electoral College sometimes does – favoring the candidate chosen by the most delegates rather than the most individual citizens. While in my opinion this is all the more reason to abolish the Electoral College (and the delegate systems in the RNC and DNC primaries for that matter), that is neither here nor there. Trump won. And his apocalypse is upon us.
I recently wrapped up writing my latest book, The Light is Winning, which will be released by Zondervan next summer. In it, I talk about one way of looking at the current phenomena of Christianity’s decline in the U.S. and the shift to a post-Christian cultural reality.
I propose that we view it as an apocalypse.
“Apocalypse” literally means revealing, unveiling, or disclosure. The book of Revelation in the Bible – typically seen as source material for all things End Times – is even called “The Apocalypse of John” in some traditions, showing its synonymous meaning to revelation or revealing. And the book title is derived from the apostle John’s own words at the start of the letter: “The revelation of Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place…”
The point is, while we might immediately associate the word with the End of All Things, that is not really the root of it – or even its core meaning. Apocalypse is really, always about an explosive eruption of realities that once lay hidden under the surface of things, exposed now for all to see. Yes, that brings about an end of sorts. And yes, that can be quite cataclysmic, with all manner of tribulation attached to it. But it does not automatically imply The Ultimate End, just as the apocalypse John prophesied about would “soon take place” for his own first century readers.
It is in that deeper sense that I think Trump’s election has brought about an apocalypse in American culture, particularly with respect to the Christianity he so brazenly claims and the Christian vote he so easily secured. Over 80% of white evangelical voters – the Christian Right voting bloc that has proved an influential political force for decades – went decidedly to Trump. That, in itself, was both a validation and a commission – a validation of Trump’s status as not just a political leader, but a Christian leader, and a commission to carry out the moral and political agenda of the (mainly white) Christian right with the extreme prejudice that has marked his entire campaign.
And what this reveals, in a total kind of sense, is the empty core of that same evangelicalism. When a candidate who so perfectly embodies the worst tendencies of sinful human empire – authoritarian control, vicious exclusion, and unmitigated corporate greed – is validated and commissioned as nothing less than a leader in the kingdom of God, we have, quite literally, the kind of antichrist imposter that many biblical apocalyptic texts warn about. (I don’t say this to be inflammatory; it was obvious that even Trump himself manipulated and maneuvered among “the evangelicals” for votes – not because he was ever actually one of them.)
This sudden revelation of realities beneath the surface of American Christianity is, I believe, the last straw in triggering a radical reformation in keeping with the generational shift (and decline) already taking place. That is, as many journalists and thought leaders are already highlighting, the meaning of the evangelical label has been all but robbed of its theological, or even historical, significance in favor of its overwhelming political meaning in the U.S. context. Which is to say, for a rising tide of younger and shifting Christians in this country it has lost its meaning entirely. And this meaninglessness is, and increasingly will be, witnessed in an exodus from the American evangelical establishment in favor of more traditional and denominational institutions and churches that have a strong justice/inclusion bent. And, it will be witnessed in a transforming of what remains of (mostly nonwhite/diverse) evangelicalism into something altogether separate and new.
Which is all to say, in this apocalyptic moment there is an end – an end to American evangelicalism.
The death of the (mostly white) Christian Right.
Because its true essence has been revealed.
The Victory MarchTwo Saturday’s ago, SNL aired what might have been its last election-themed cold open, with Alec Baldwin’s titular Trump and Kate McKinnon’s hilarious Hillary trading jabs and truncated policy soundbites to finish up one of the best sketch series of all time. That open ended surprisingly, with Baldwin and McKinnon breaking character because it was all beginning to feel “gross,” and heading out into Times Square to meet and hug real people – and voters – of all stripes.
But that unity-themed break was before the apocalypse, when a Trump victory still seemed impossible, a catastrophe our democracy would surely cut off at the pass.
This past Saturday, in the wake of the Trump victory, the writers put their brilliance on display by taking an altogether different tack – opening with McKinnon in character, as Hillary, alone, doing something that neither candidate has actually ever done.
Playing the piano and singing.
Of course, this moment represented a strange convergence of events, both occurring last week – the election of Donald Trump and the death of poet-songwriter Leonard Cohen. McKinnon, as Hillary, was singing Cohen’s Hallelujah:
Watching that open, I found myself, like many others, overwhelmed with emotion and moved to tears. I think it was even more moving because McKinnon stayed in character instead of just wearing the pantsuit as a formality; she was her, she had a certain lightness, but she was not being silly. To imagine Hillary singing her own Hallelujah in the wake of this historic loss was simultaneously jarring and deeply healing. It summed it all up, somehow, perfectly.
Cohen’s song, of course, is familiar to all of us, but its lyrics come to potent life in this context. Consider the direct impact of the last verse with regard to Hillary’s campaign:
I did my best, it wasn’t much
I couldn’t feel, so I tried to touch
I’ve told the truth, I didn’t come to fool you
And even though it all went wrong
I’ll stand before the Lord of Song
With nothing on my tongue but Hallelujah
“I did my best, it wasn’t much…And even though it all went wrong…” These words of defeat, of resignation, describe perfectly the feeling that seemed to descend after Hillary’s loss. And yet, there is the hidden grace in that defeat. The even though. The Hallelujah.
That hidden grace is, I think, precisely what the American church must discover in the days ahead. While on one hand it appears that the evangelical voting bloc is on the ascent in power and influence, this is an illusion. This election really marks the peak of a perspective on the brink of passing away. Don’t be deceived: in this victory there is all the quaking tension of an apocalyptic end. Reformation will rise in the years ahead, reshaping the church in our post-Christian context for a flourishing future — one that doesn’t depend on cultural influence or confuse its kingdom mission with the power-hungry pursuits of sinful human empire.
Or, perhaps better stated in the words of Cohen himself, sung by McKinnon’s Hillary:
I’ve seen your flag on the marble arch
And love is not a victory march
It’s a cold and it’s a broken Hallelujah
Resigned defeat, in all its cold brokenness, is the gracious seedbed of resolved resistance, as we sing our Hallelujah anyway.
In this even though spirit, McKinnon’s Hillary ended her performance by comforting us: “I’m not giving up, and neither should you.”
And Hillary herself (not her perfect SNL doppleganger) pastored the nation to this effect in her concession speech, reminding all of us, with the apostle, to “not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.”
And to that we can all say, Hallelujah.