It may seem ironic that we Evangelicals, who profess everyone’s need for redemption, helped to nominate Donald Trump, who professes no such need. But we did: he swept the Bible Belt primaries, losing only Texas to favorite son Ted Cruz. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, Trump’s support among white Evangelicals has since swollen to seventy-nine percent. Why?
I first felt my own need for redemption as a teen in Newport News’s Ferguson High School. One of my best friends there had suddenly gotten religion – a common experience during the Jesus Movement of the late nineteen-sixties and early seventies – and I walked the aisle at his church. My conversion felt powerful. Shy as I was, I often preached until crowds clogged the school’s halls, forcing our assistant principal to stop me.
I wanted everyone to see what I saw: each of us is made in God’s image and endowed with an invisible spirit – a means of connecting with something universal and eternal.
Slowly something happened to our movement. As a William and Mary law student in the late seventies and early eighties, I watched Pat Robertson’s 700 Club, the Portsmouth-based show I had enjoyed as a teen, begin to mix politics with its religious programming. Nationally, of course, American Evangelicalism was by then becoming associated with a conservative stance on a number of social issues, including abortion, homosexuality, and the expression of religion in public places.
Our culture-war emphasis came at a cost: we Evangelicals became less inclined to see the image of God in our political opponents. In other words, our new status as an interest group made us lose touch with the core of our democracy – our political equality as God’s children – an understanding that our earlier spiritual renewal made particularly available to us.
Our nation was founded on Enlightenment philosopher John Locke’s notion of equality before God. As law and philosophy professor Jeremy Waldron observes, “Locke accorded basic equality the strongest grounding that a principle could have: it was an axiom of theology, understood as perhaps the most important truth about God’s way with the world in regard to the social and political implications of His creation of the human person.”
In Enlightenment terms, this “axiom of theology” is a “self-evident truth,” and the American Framers accorded the Declaration of Independence’s Equality Clause – “all men are created equal” – this foundational status.
Instead of discovering in the Declaration the core of our own faith, however, many of my fellow Evangelicals have reconstructed America’s Revolutionary past with a “Christian nation” narrative. This rather tribal outlook on our country’s origins tends to exclude other faiths and denies the universal truth at the heart of the American experiment in self-government.
The “Christian nation” narrative is also godless at its core. It suggests that our political rights spring from historical accident and not from our status as God’s children. G. K. Chesterton, the Christian apologist, in his book What’s Wrong with the World stood up against a similar notion of the origin of English rights, quoting and then countering Edmund Burke:
“I know nothing of the rights of men,” [Burke] said, “but I know something of the rights of Englishmen.” There you have the essential atheist. His argument is that we have got some protection by natural accident and growth; and why should we profess to think beyond it, for all the world as if we were the images of God!
Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address claims that America was dedicated not to the Christian God, exactly, but to Chesterton’s proposition, a universally shared spark of divinity reflected in our essential – that is, our political – equality.
We Evangelicals were not wrong per se to mix religion and politics, but we have fought our culture wars as us-versus-them moral battles at the expense of the Equality Clause, which Lincoln rightly calls “the father of all moral principle among us.” This moral principle guided some past Evangelicals to support political movements that led to the abolition of slavery, to women’s suffrage, and to Civil Rights legislation.
Our own efforts at political action, however, have culminated in our support of Mr. Trump, an autocrat at heart who shows little inclination to see God’s image in Mexicans and Muslims, among others. After some political defeats, we Evangelicals see ourselves as weak and as a mere special interest; we seek Mr. Trump’s protection, and he has promised it to us.
We seem willing to give up on our nation’s 240-year-old experiment with equality in favor of a king. We fit a biblical precedent, that of ancient Israel, who rejected God by crying to the prophet Samuel to “give us a king!”
Unlike ancient Israel, of course, America isn’t a theocracy, but the spiritual core of the Equality Clause suggests an outlook on democracy based on a people’s status as children of God – government by “the people in mass . . . inherently independent of all but moral law,” as Jefferson puts it. In a real sense, we Evangelicals are rejecting the spiritual essence of our nation’s founding.
Instead of breaking through “the gates of hell,” as Jesus envisioned the church, we Evangelicals may pay dearly for arranging for our own protection.
1 Samuel 8 (KJV) (“Give us a king!” quote)
Chesterton, G. K. (Gilbert Keith) (2012-05-12). What’s Wrong with the World (Kindle Locations 2085-2086). Kindle Edition.
Erler, Edward J. “Harry Jaffa and Original Intent Jurisprudence.” Introduction. Storm over the Constitution. By Harry V. Jaffa. Lanham, MD: Lexington, 1999. Xvii-Xl. Print. (For Jefferson’s “moral law” quote, page xxix.)
Jaffa, Harry V. “What Were the ‘Original Intentions’ of the Framers of the Constitution of the United States?” University of Puget Sound Law Review 10 (1987): 351-448. Web. 22 July 2013. <http://digitalcommons.law.seattleu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1246&context=sulr>. (For Lincoln’s “the father of all moral principle among us” quote, page 417.)
Matthew 16:18 (KJV) (“Gates of hell” quote)
Mitchell, Travis. “Evangelicals Rally to Trump, Religious ‘Nones’ Back Clinton.” Pew Research Center’s Religion Public Life Project RSS. Pew Research Center, 13 July 2016. Web. 18 Sept. 2016.
Waldron, Jeremy. God, Locke, and Equality: Christian Foundations of John Locke’s Political Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print. (Page 6)