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Can evangelicals unite after the 2016 election?

A group of interfaith religious leaders protest against Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump outside a hotel where he was to meet with evangelical leaders in New York City, on June 21, 2016. Photo courtesy of Reuters/Brendan McDermid

(RNS) The day after the election, Lisa Sharon Harper nearly gave up the name “evangelical.”

That’s because 81 percent of white evangelical Christians voted for Donald Trump for president, a candidate she described as “representing all of the things Jesus stood against — lust for money, sex and power.” And their vote propelled the Republican nominee to victory.

Lisa Sharon Harper. Photo courtesy of Lisa Sharon Harper

Lisa Sharon Harper. Photo courtesy of Lisa Sharon Harper

“I felt betrayed. I felt like that’s just not who I am anymore. This group who voted for Trump is just not who I am,” said Harper, chief church engagement officer at Sojourners, a progressive Christian magazine.

The same sentiment has been echoed by a number of prominent evangelicals in the wake of the 2016 presidential election.

History professor John Fea; authors Preston Yancey, D.L. Mayfield and Skye Jethani; and author and activist Shane Claiborne all have distanced themselves from, if not abandoned, the label. While still identifying as evangelical, former Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty wrote she “can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.”

Earlier this week, Fuller Theological Seminary issued a statement that was nothing short of remarkable for the influential evangelical institution.

“To whatever degree and in whatever ways Fuller Theological Seminary has contributed or currently contributes to the shame and abuse now associated with the word evangelical,” said the statement, signed by president Mark Labberton and president emeritus Richard Mouw, “we call ourselves, our board of trustees, our faculty, our staff, our students, our alumni, and our friends to repentance and transformation.”

Others have called for healing and reconciliation as the election cycle exposed major rifts within evangelicalism.


RELATED: Election campaign makes some evangelicals reject name


Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, said the campaign reminded him of the Vietnam War in the way it divided families; he’d heard from spouses who couldn’t discuss it or watch the news together anymore.

Not everyone sees a major split, though.

“There’s always been a minority of evangelicals that are more liberal in their political leanings,” said Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr., one of Trump’s earliest and most vocal evangelical supporters, “and it’ll always be that way, but it’s less divided than I’ve seen it in a long time.”


RELATED: Evangelical Christians celebrate and urge unity; others wary


But Moore makes a distinction even among those who voted for Trump: There were “reluctant Trumpers,” who regarded the candidate as the lesser of two evils, believing he was more likely to appoint a Supreme Court justice who was pro-life than his opponent, Hillary Clinton.

Then there were “the people who have actively sought to normalize” Trump as the candidate of choice.

“For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that in many cases actually waved away major moral problems,” he said, citing the “Access Hollywood” tape, in which the now president-elect talked about grabbing women by their genitals and forcibly kissing them.

Moore, who has been a vocal opponent of Trump, said that among those evangelicals who were “Never Trump,” or “reluctant Trump,” reconciliation is already underway. But he said those evangelical leaders who have “repurposed the gospel itself in order to defend a political candidate” reveal a problem bigger than a political election.

Falwell sees the divide in evangelicalism as being between its leaders.

“The evangelical rank and file closed in behind Donald Trump long before most of the leaders did,” he said, because those in the pews were “tired of business as usual” and excited by Trump’s choice of Mike Pence as running mate.

For the Rev. Sammy Rodriguez, president of the National Hispanic Christian Leadership Conference, the schism is between white evangelicals and African-American born-again Christians and as a result of the election it “just grew larger.”

Harper, of Sojourners, also sees deep-rooted problems.

“I don’t believe Jesus would look on this fear that is rising — fear and actual assaults that have risen over the last few days — and say, ‘We just need to agree to disagree and get along again.’ I think that Jesus would stand with those who are hurting,” she said.


RELATED: Why reconciliation with President-elect Trump may be impossible for some Christians


Trump’s election has helped her see where things have gone wrong, where she needed to hear the “very real cry from white America, particularly rural white America,” she said.

Still, the church must be vigilant in fighting “the erosion of decency, the erosion of care for the image of God in all, the erosion of the institutions that are set up in our democracy in order to protect the least of these,” she said.

Harper said the healing process within the church needs to start with “deep listening and the creation within churches of safe, sacred spaces where stories can be shared on all sides of the equation so we might understand each other better.”

As for those excited by Trump’s election, Charisma Magazine cultural commentator Larry Tomczak wrote a post discouraging them from triumphalist behavior.

Instead, he said they should “express genuine love to people obsessed with tearing down Mr. Trump, no matter how belligerent or unreasonable some seem. And yes, sometimes this means smiling and simply walking away from a conversation.”

Moore argues that it’s up to a new generation of evangelicals not to disengage from politics, but rather to create new coalitions that preserve the “best of religious conservatism” — on questions of life and religious freedom and stable families and communities.

“I think there’s a sense of the need to turn the page toward something new,” he said.


RELATED: Are evangelicals expecting too much from a Trump presidency?


In the end, Harper decided not to give up on the name “evangelical,” which she described as having a rich legacy of faith that includes abolitionists William Wilberforce and Sojourner Truth. And besides, she said, Christians are people who believe in resurrection.

“I believe the evangelical church may be on death’s door, but it ain’t dead.”

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

43 Comments

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  • Here’s hoping that all of us, Trump supporters, Trump opponents, don’t stop paying attention.

    If you didn’t vote FOR racism, then Steve Bannon’s appointment should worry you deeply. You should call your Congressman. If you didn’t vote FOR bigotry, then recent examples of graffiti and vandalism and harassing of Muslims and Jews should concern you deeply. You should say, “not in my name,” wherever and whenever you can. Have your church write your local mosque and say, we do not condone bigotry, we support your right to live here and worship as you choose.” If this “Muslim registry” idea actually takes off, you better be on a bus to join a protest, or register yourself. Whether you voted for Trump or not, figure out where your lines are. What the Law of Love calls you to do not last Tuesday, but tomorrow.

  • No. Sorry. Post-election “unity” among “evangelicals” is a nice idea, but it’s not really possible.

    Why? Because THIS election wasn’t just another boring popularity contest. This one ran much deeper. How so? Because acceptance of Legalized-Gay-Marriage and Unrestricted-Abortion-On-Demand is NOT an option for Christians, period. The 2016 election was a referendum on both.

    Hillary was and is a full-power fanatical advocate of both national evils, just like Obama. For his part, Trump turned out to NOT be an opponent of Legalized-Gay-Marriage, (although watchful Christians already expected that development), but he was and is absolutely better than Hillary.

    Trump has openly promised to defend the “Religious Freedom” of Christians, and that will give us Christians a little time to effectively fight the evil of Legalized-Gay-Marriage **on our own**, which is the way it should be. He’s also promised to look for PRO-LIFE judiciary nominees. But you’ve got a few so-called “evangelicals” (who have gone liberal, honestly) who oppose Trump on these things.

    So our differences are EXTREMELY deep, and there’s no Band-Aids to cover them. Evangelicals can get some relief and some reconciliation by praying, worshipping, & serving together, and NOT mentioning politics at all while doing so. (Not even once!) Other than that, **there’s NO unity**, sorry.

  • I hope that Ms. Harper was engaging in hyperbole when she declared, “I believe the evangelical church may be on death’s door, but it ain’t dead.” If the “evangelical church,” which is a very broad term and is embraced in a myriad of ways, is in fact made up of genuine, dedicated, and sincere followers of Jesus Christ, that portion of the “evangelical” church cannot die. God will draw to Himself people from almost every “church” and class of people in the world, if those individuals have surrendered to the Lordship of Jesus Christ and strive in daily repentance, confessing, seeking, praying, and serving under the banner of the Gospel as delineated in God’s Word. That Universal Church of the elect, faithful to Jesus Christ and His teachings and commands lives forever.

  • How can you say this election is a referendum on on Legalized Gay Marriage when both major party candidates were for it? Didn’t you hear Trump say on 60 Minutes last Sunday that Gay Marriage is settled law and he is okay with it?

  • The church has been divided since its very beginnings and this is just another chapter in that division. In fact when Christ returns he will divide the chaff from the wheat, something we ought recognize since every church is filled with as much chaff as there is wheat, if not more.
    Just because a person thinks they are Christian does not necessarily mean they are and therein lies the problem with folks stating they are leaving evangelical circles. Perhaps they have not made that all important decision to make Christ, not only Savior but Lord of their lives, instead still determining what they believe most important.
    If this were not true than Christ would not have said, 21Not every one that saith unto me, Lord, Lord, shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that doeth the will of my Father which is in heaven. 22 Many
    will say to me in that day, Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in thy name? and in thy name have cast out devils? and in thy name done many wonderful works? 23And then will I profess unto them, I never knew you: depart from me, ye that work iniquity. Math 7:21-23

  • He said that “he” is okay with it (which means that, unlike his plans regarding Pro-Life justices and judges, he won’t be seeking to install anti-gay-marriage justices and judges).

    But that’s not the same position as Hillary. Trump HAS openly promised to protect Christians’ constitutional religious freedoms, and if he keeps that **one** promise, we Christians can still take care of business on own time and dime, and fight gay marriage.

    Hillary (and Obama) in contrast, clearly oppose Christians having their constitutional religious freedom, precisely because such freedoms open the door to Christians fighting the Gay Marriage Mess on our own.

    Yes, it would be nice if Trump opposed gay marriage, but the fact is that he never really made that promise. He was always avoiding it. The only thing he promised was to give us Christians a little breathing room, instead of choking our necks like Hillary and Obama want to do. That’s good enough.

  • Two things: it’s ridiculous to make this whole election as having been about candidate stances on gay marriage. It is settled law. Now for the second thing. The economically disaffected people who voted for Trump are truly hurting, but many of them decided to vote for “change” and, apparently with the attitude “the devil with how we get it.” Too many people voted against their own best interests because they did not think things through. “Change” is an empty bucket. It depends on what you fill it with. I think we shall see what goes into this bucket soon enough– walls, wars and “winning.” My mother had a saying: “Consider the source.” Trump voters should have done a lot more of that regarding Trump.

  • seriously now..some church people are more liberal in their doctrine due to the church they go to, so they are not seperate from the worlds theology or ideology so to speak. Many churches today are so liberal in theology they do not speak the gospel nor are they really christian. This is about Constituional LAW that the forefathers wanted, so that we have rules to the law as to who gets in..some people have turned this into RACE issues..it is NOT!

  • True gospel believing churches base it on doctrine..some do not care for all the doctrine..that is the crux of the matter here…in other words: DOCTRINE MATTERS or you have nothing concrete

  • The evangelicals who voted for Trump abandoned the highest ideals and ethical values of Christianity. Will they ever wake up?

  • Amen…..one of the primary doctrines of the New Testament is the idea/teaching that FALSE TEACHERS will abound. Paul proclaimed that many would come and teach “another Jesus”, “another gospel”. Jesus said the road was narrow and FEW will find it.
    In my social circle, every person I know who voted for Trump did not vote for Trump out of support and admiration; but rather to NOT vote for Hillary. If it were up to me, I’d have every self-professing Christian to just not vote period. Along with every other person to not vote either. The whole system at the Federal Level is thoroughly and utterly corrupt. Throw them all out! Start over. Get money out of politics and then see what happens.

  • As a matter of conscience, I could not vote for either of the major party candidates given that one was mentally deranged and the other was knee deep in corruption. So I voted Libertarian (and I am a libertarian by temperament anyway). However, I’m amazed at how white evangelicals allowed political ideology to take precedence over the clear teaching of Holy Scripture. I heard some so-called leaders argue that “we are electing a leader, not a pastor,” and hearing that made me want to gag. I’m sad that the Democrats could not nominate Joe Biden as I think he would have defeated Trump easily.

  • Best of luck to them for getting together. Talking and listening with open minds and hearts will be key. Also genuine compassion.

  • The electoral college was created in 1787 to,protect low-population states. It has long outlived its purpose and has allowed the defeat of the popular vote, as in 2000 and 2016. These two defeats for We the People will cost our country dearly.

  • Evangelicals–and all the other Christians, need to get busy “rendering unto God the things that are God’s” and let Caesar (Trump, Obama) take care of the rest. Christ’s kingdom is not of this world. It’s only when Christians have abandoned their mission of preaching and living out the Gospel in favor of contemporary secular politics, that they’ve become disappointed, discouraged and depressed. “Be not weary in well doing,” the Good Book says. That’s a personal admonition. You are almost always weary and disillusioned when you become distracted by placing your hope in the realm of Caesar.

  • Sorry Ed! The electoral college system has NOT outlived it’s purpose!

    Hilliary Clinton knew the system that elected her husband president, going in. She was a sorry candidate, and many evangelicals voted Trump as a way of voting, “Not Hilliary!”

    BTW, Hilliary was solidly against the electoral college system and for popular vote presidential elections because the popular vote in twenty of American’s largest cities would elect a Democrat president every time! We still need to give the low-to-middle population states a place at the table in presidential elections, the same way we do to create a balaned House of Representatives, which is based on population. Every 2 years Wyoming elects 1 Representative, and California around 27-28!.

  • That’s the weakest of weak retorts! I love democracy! The Electoral College happens to be our expression of democracy. The people accept it–or they would exercise their democratic right to change it in a constitutional way, and they haven’t for all these years. Hilliary definitely understood and accepted the electoral college system, and her campaign was predicated on winning the electoral vote.

    The Brits have a different expression of democracy. India yet another differerent one. Ours is very old, and every generation seems to approve, or they would go to the trouble and expense to change it, as the Constitution allows. To claim that the electoral college system is not “democracy” is sheer idiocy!

    Stay warm, Ed! Winter’s a-comin’ on!

  • edddoerr, (sorry, at least DISCUS owned their error!)… overthrow any branch of government by violence. That law closes off that direction, no matter how frustrated we get!

  • Gee, if you history and gov’t profs are so influential, you could have changed that electoral college system by now. History and gov’t were both required in high school and college. None of my profs bothered to advocate for that change. Seems like maybe you’re an impotent minority view within your teaching field?!.

  • Doctrine does matter, but as I have been at pains to point out to others, doctrinal orthodoxy is problematic when it does not function in conjunction with a heartfelt, Spirit-led passion and concern for those who are being witnessed to. Doctrinal Truth on its own will not usually persuade an unbeliever unless they have a very open and objective mind, even then one must be led by God into the mystery of the faith. But my original point was about the life or “death” of evangelical Christianity. If one insists on labels, which is just a simple way of categorizing people and circumstances, and one prone to error quite often, then let us use Evangelical in the way that Christ and the early Church intended it. Sharing the Good News that Christ died to save sinners from perdition and the wrath of His Father, which is the just consequence of sinful rebellion and unbelief. That I believe is very sound doctrine.

  • Yes i heartily agree, the true gospel of salvation is the main message of doctrinal truth. Spirrit leading is key the sinner must realize he/she is a sinner then full expression can be realized for salvation. salvation seems to bring to mind for a lot of people- big tents, river baptism and nonsense. Often our post modern society is fixated on money- sex-nascar-football or any sport and iphones..with a huge disconnect to the spiritual until a crisis presents itself in one’s life.
    The rioters after this election are very young millenials who cannot connect it in other areas as well. they are spoiled, lazy and usually jobless or low end paid jobs,
    They are too self focused and when things don’t go their way they either get depressed or angry or both and cause millions of dollars of damage to others and the insurance will not pay for “acts of god or Civil unrest”
    The bible calls them gluttons, perverse, haters of truth and ungodly. Yet god loves them , but He will bring judgement to each of them by the law system or personal future failures. We have a disaffected president who has not once said to stop the rioting..but concludes his words with the “right to protest” in a free society.that to me is saying “go ahead keep it up” from obama. seriously obama is jaded. He is so lost yet he claims to be christian but the label is weak when he says it to us. He is a muslim who believes in his past father’s heritage. Maybe he wants sharia law in his heart because he seems not convinced by the U.S. Constitution!

  • >>Too many people voted against their own best interests because they did not think things through. “Change” is an empty bucket. It depends on what you fill it with.<>Too many people voted against their own best interests because they did not think things through.<<

    Yes, many Obama voters realized that they voted against their own best interests, and hence rationally changed how they vote.

    Once again, we hear that Republican voters are stupid and ignorant and are voting against their own best interests. News flash: People know better and are tired of hearing such arrogant drivel. I have a Ph.D. in Political Science and no doubt know far more about government and policy than you, as do loads of other Trump voters I know.

  • “For me, I think the bigger issue is with the political activist religious right establishment that in many cases actually waved away major moral problems,”

    What about all the religious lefties who waved away major moral problems with Hillary? REALLY major moral problems of many sorts? Involving both public actions/corruption and policy? Apparently that’s not an issue.

  • Yeah, in Stalinist Russia, and Hitler’s Germany, and Maoist China… Please find me examples of the “most of the time” that the rejection of religion brings peace.

  • Sweden
    Denmark
    Holland
    Netherlands
    Norway
    France
    Switzerland

    All of these countries have high rates of peace, equality in the work place, fair incomes, decent education, free healthcare, excellent health overall, wealth distribution and longevity.

  • I never went to sleep. And what our the “highest ideals and ethical values of Christianity”? Allowing Hillary Clinton, a law breaking, establishment pay-for-play politician whose gotten rich off of her government service, inveterate liar, who believes killing babies in the womb is a constitutional right, to become president? No thank you! I’ll take Donald J. Trump, President-elect Trump, any day, proudly.

  • Even with her faults Hillary was a far better candidate than Trump, the arrogant, ignorant, misogynist, racist, hypocritical oaf who stiffed many of his own employees and boasted of his misbehavior toward women. Besides, Hillary won well over 1 million votes than Trump.

  • This is a joke, right? Everyone who knows Trump says you don’t know what the hell you are talking about. Besides, we live in a Republic and not a pure democracy, so this stupid notion that it’s the total number of votes and not the electoral college votes is irrelevant. Oh, the ignorance of the Trump haters is only exceeded by their arrogance.

  • What you overlook, Mike, is that our electoral college system that may have made sense in 1787 today thwarts the will of the people and hands power to the minority, just as Republican gerrymandering and voter suppression have given the GOP control of Congress even though the Dems won more votes overall. Note also that Trump scored more votes from the uneducated than from the educated, and that the Trump voters are the ones most likely to get hurt if and when Medicare, Medicaid and Obamacare are cut back. And I didn’t even get to the bad results of climate change denier and hostility toward women’s rights and public education.

  • Progressives always think things way back in the past don’t apply anymore. That’s why they ruin pretty much anything they touch. Obamacare is a disaster. Every promise Obama made was a lie, and methinks he knew it. I sat this very day with a family who had their premiums go up (we’re in Illinois) 100%! And the deductible is a joke. You may remember that Obama said over and over and over, that the “average family’s healthcare costs would go down by $2500.” Lie, lie, lie. He also said, you could keep your doctor if you want. Lie, double lie, lie. And of course, Democrats don’t gerrymander, hehehe. The Founders were rightly afraid of the tyranny of the majority, not the minority. Good luck getting three quarters of the states to ratify a constitutional amendment to abandon it. And if there happened to be no electoral college, the race would have been run completely different. Both ran on the same rules, and Hillary got smoked. Thank God! I hope you enjoy the next eight years as much as I’ve enjoyed the last eight:)

  • No… the trumpites have left the Church to follow their man/messiah. I’ll not be fellowshipping with the most ardent of them because they’ve joined a new anti-christ cult. I’ll love them, turn the other cheek, maybe even be polite etc, but I’m not sure I can consider them brothers/sisters in Christ… they do not follow Him anymore (and actually probably weren’t before trump) … they’re idol worshippers in the most apparent and egregious ways. Nationalism, ethnicity, power are their gods. I’ve often wondered what my mission in life is supposed to be… Well, these trumpites have helped me find it more strongly than ever before. First I and my household will do our best to follow King Jesus and secondly I’m going to do all I can to rid the Church of the kind of people and theology that supports, condones and collaborates with trumpism.

  • NO – trumpites do not know better… in fact they know very little. They’re the ones who most easily fall for fake news. They are lazy, ungrateful, arrogant fools who chase after false gods. They are easily played and the trump admin is going to ruin their lives and this country. You are going to reap what you’ve sown and in a measure you have no idea of. God does not reward idolatry, hatred of others, power/money worship, “winning” and other satanic, worldly follies.

  • You’re deluded… trumpites hate Jesus and all He stood for. He and many of them could care less about your twin sacred cows that can and never will be solved from the top down (and doubly not when the leaders don’t have moral character themselves!). NEVER! Read the Bible! In a few years you’ll be begging for anyone to rule instead of this “baby-christian” surrounded by prosperity gospel/power loving false prophets leading him and this country to great destruction.

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