How Evangelicals are Losing an Entire Generation
This morning I want to throw in the towel.
The morning hustle began as it always does on Friday mornings. I walked the dog, drank the coffee, cleaned the kitchen, and headed for the shower. My phone in my hand, I checked Twitter (you know, because I’m current and all). Usually, my Twitter feed is a conglomeration of Trinitarian debates, quotes by dead theologians, and cute dog pictures. But not this morning. This morning, I had no more than opened the app on my phone and there it was: Wayne Grudem’s endorsement of Donald Trump.
Maybe you’re unfamiliar with Grudem, but most church leaders and many Christians are not. He wrote the basic systemic theology that has not only been touted among evangelicals as the primary source of Christian systematic theology for the modern day, but it is the 1200-page book that I was required to read in Bible school and seminary – not once, not twice, but three times. Grudem is the head of the Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, a gathering of Christian leaders that believe in a particular model of gender roles that we call conservative Complementarianism, and work to see that vision come to life in homes, churches, and society. A leader among leaders, he is the Evangelical trump card (pun intended). And this morning he released an article titled, “Why Voting for Trump is a Morally Good Choice.”
Listen, I have been fairly silent on this site about my political views, but here they are: I was raised in a Republican home by politically-aware but not politically-obsessed parents. I was raised to believe that voting was a moral decision but to put my trust and hope ultimately in God and His coming Kingdom. Through college, I, like most, wavered between the social justice of the left and the conservatism of the right. Now, I’m just somewhere in between. I’m not politically passionate, though I’m learning to take interest in local politics. I would consider myself like my parents: politically-aware but not politically-obsessed. Seem fair?
This election has brought people like me, particularly millennials, out of the woodwork. We thought Trump was a bit of a harmless joke at first. With “you’re fired” still ringing in our ears, we thought his presence on the screen would be much shorter lived than his show, The Apprentice. I kept waiting for him to trail off, but he didn’t. In fact, he somehow, mysteriously to me, gained momentum and endorsements. Despite his racial generalizations and telling women they look good on their knees, he only grew in popularity. I moved from disappointed to shocked to disgusted as he garnered the approval of Republican and Evangelical leaders.
Over the last several months, I have lost respect for the Republican party, and I honestly thought that would be the biggest tragedy of this election. But the disappointing truth is this: I’m losing faith in Evangelicals.
And this is frightening. I am an Evangelical. I hold to Evangelical theology. I have attended not one, but two Evangelical schools. But I fear that we’re going to lose an entire generation because of the actions, words, and teachings of some Evangelicals. Including Wayne Grudem.
Different hierarchies of moralism
I have watched many Evangelicals endorse Donald Trump. But Grudem did not give an endorsement. No, he gave a moral imperative. Grudem’s article argues that it is morally constraining on the Christian person to vote for Donald Trump, particularly citing things like Trump’s upholding of religious rights for Christian schools and businesses, support of traditional marriage, and pro-life support of the rights of the unborn. Grudem dismisses accusations of Trump being a racist, anti-(legal) immigrant, and misogynistic. He feels Trump has been misunderstood, quoted out of context, and the victim of an unfair media.
What Grudem effectively does, then, is sets up a hierarchy of morality. He is willing to hold some moral values (religious rights for Christian schools and businesses, support of traditional marriage, and pro-life notions) above others (the equality of races, genders, and ethnicities). All are moral concepts, all require a moral stance, and Grudem has chosen which he prefers over others.
I know he is not alone in this hierarchical approach to morality. We all have things that we prioritize over others for no reason other than the way they effect and affect our lives. But Grudem has chosen to be old guard, predominantly upholding political issues that are less felt by our generation. Now, please don’t misunderstand, it’s not that we don’t think these things are important, but we are currently grappling with other moral imperatives that infiltrate the ebb and flow of our daily lives. Yes, we value the rights of the unborn, but we want leaders that are pro-life in all areas of society. Millennials feel the daily pangs of racial tension, a deep desire for equality for all, and a propensity toward the social justice issues surrounding the refugee crisis.
Evangelical leaders like Grudem are using their political and social weight on issues close to their generation, and are neglecting the moral imperatives to seek justice, peace, and equality for the Black community, the immigrant community, and the refugee community (and a slew of others). My generation will not identify with this. We cannot call a candidate “good,” as Grudem does with Trump, who has made racist remarks. We will not call a candidate “good” who has demoralized and dehumanized women on national television. We will not buy into the hierarchy of Grudem’s proposed morals over others. Because Grudem (and others) are making this hierarchy of morality intrinsically related to the Christian life and theology, we will not stand with them.
The “Good old days” vs. our days
Evangelicals are endorsing Trump by and large because he promises to return our nation to the “good old days.” Trump promises to bring back steel and coal, to return our country to an immigrant-free land, and, with gusto, he promises to make America the world super power it used to be. His campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again,” has deeply resonated with leaders across the spectrum.
But our generation doesn’t quite know what that means. Don’t forget, we grew up during war times. On September 11th, 2001, I was in eighth grade. When the war in Iraq started, I was in high school. Graduation came and many of my high school friends enlisted. I can still remember my friend, Kyle, telling me he had enlisted and feeling this overwhelming sense that we were far too young for all of this. These are the days in which we have grown up. We haven’t known the days of peace and tranquility that older generations reminisce about and desire to return to. It’s not that we don’t think things should change, it’s just that we don’t know a different way.
But war was not the only thing the separated the “good old days” from today in many leaders’ minds. There were many “benefits” of that by-gone era for those supporting a traditionalist view. Women were in the home raising the children without complaint, the Christian feminist movement hadn’t yet touched the churches and immensely inconvenienced pastors who had not had to grapple with these issues in a long time, and the notion of being politically correct wasn’t as demanding on conference speakers, writers, and preachers as it is today. When some Evangelicals look back, they see more tranquil days simply because these things were absent. But when millennials look back, we see how far our society has come. Evangelicals have warned us against the allure of progressivism, but I’m here to say that we actually like the progress. We actually like that women are on their way to equal pay, we like that you can’t make a racist comment as a public figure and go unnoticed, and we like that there are more female theologians and teachers and professors than ever before in American history. So when you try to pull us back to the “good old days,” you’ll miss us.
Nationalism and Christian worship
I remember arguing with a dear Christian friend of mine in college over whether or not he should vote. At the time, I was the student body vice president and we were on a mission to register every student to vote for the coming election (2008). Most students didn’t think much of it, except for one student who really pushed back at the notion of voting. I pulled out my best lines, my most passionate pleas, until he hit me with a one-liner I will never forget: “I am not voting right now because I’m trying to figure out if a Christian can also be a nationalist.”
I remember turning his words over in my mind. It was a very good question to grapple with, and yet one I had never considered. Since leaving college, I find that many (if not most) millennial Christians have answered the question with a resounding “no.” Now, don’t mistake me: most of us, to my knowledge, do not believe that voting and nationalism go hand-in-hand as my college friend once did. But you will be hard pressed to find a millennial nationalist outside of the Republican intern pool. Perhaps it is that international travel is more available to our generation, or that we are living in more diverse communities that celebrate that diversity, but we don’t think America is the only great country, and we certainly don’t think that America is a Christian country.
Evangelical leaders are not just supporting nationalism, but are elevating nationalism to a Christian virtue. Many point back to the founding fathers as Christian leaders in our nation and impress upon us that we must support the constitution and protect our country because it is a Christian thing to do. We have deeply muddied the language between serving our God and serving our country. Forget the martyrs of the faith around the world, posters show us that soldiers make the “ultimate sacrifice.” As Christian millennials, we just can’t buy this. We look over our shoulders at our nation’s history and wince a little. We don’t have a lot of national pride because we are waking up to the immense on-going racism that exists in our nation’s systems, the horrors of early American history, and the tragedies around the world that happen because every country has nationalists. So when you equate nationalism with Christian virtue, we’re out.
Evangelical leaders are going to lose an entire generation of Christians in the wake of our current political and social climate. This is not an article asking millennials to leave Evangelicalism because I believe it can’t be saved, nor is this article saying that Evangelicalism is dead. It also is not a proposal of a useful way forward in this “dumpster fire” of an election. It is a plea for reform. It is a big ask of Evangelical leaders to reevaluate the stakes they have put in the ground and ask if there could be a better, more truly Evangelical way. It’s a request to leaders in our communities to speak out against the evils that surround and are supported by Trump. Because you’re losing us, and we don’t want to be lost.
Win us back, and let’s complete the work ahead together.