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Still evangelical? Literary festival panelists question label after Trump, #MeToo

Left to right, Christian writers Deidra Riggs, Karen Swallow Prior, Sandra Maria Van Opstal, Kathy Khang and Katelyn Beaty discuss what it means to be evangelical and female, in a packed session April 13, 2018, at the Festival of Faith and Writing at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (RNS) — The panel of Christian women writers described the night Donald Trump won the presidency as, in the words of one, “a nightmare.”

“As the numbers rolled in, (there was) just this sense of this nightmare is really true – our family, the body of Christ, is actually going to vote in a way that dehumanized our presence here in this country,” said Sandra Maria Van Opstal, a second-generation Latina and the executive pastor of Grace and Peace Community in Chicago.

Speaking at a session Friday (April 13) at Calvin College’s Festival of Faith and Writing, the writers recalled the shock for them of the election of a man who had spoken so disparagingly about women and minorities.


RELATED: Will evangelical women turn the tide against Trump?


But the worst part, said panelist Kathy Khang, was realizing the next day in what force evangelical voters came out for Trump. She recalled “when the number of 81 percent was published and the sneaky gut suspicion you had all along was confirmed in a way that cannot be denied and was printed and reported over and over and over.”

That number is now familiar to those who follow politics and evangelicalism closely as the percentage of white evangelical Christians who voted to elect President Trump. (It was actually between 80 percent and 81 percent.)

More than a year into Trump’s presidency, the writers on the ethnically and racially diverse panel — called “Still Evangelical in the Age of #MeToo?” — discussed how politics has strained their relationships with American evangelicalism and has highlighted what they see as the church’s silence on the problems of racism and sexual abuse.

The standing-room-only session attracted more than 150 attendees from the festival, many lining the walls and spilling into the aisles of the packed room.

Still, the panelists, in their distaste for the president, belong to a minority of American evangelicals — about 76 percent of whom are white, according to the Pew Research Center. White evangelicals still strongly support Trump, who created a campaign evangelical advisory board of preachers and lay leaders he still consults informally, but relies on no such group representing other Christians or people of faith.

The Public Religion Research Institute reported Wednesday that 75 percent of white evangelicals view Trump favorably — the highest that number has been since the organization began asking the group about Trump in 2015.

Nevertheless, the panel called for American evangelicals to listen to those among them who see support for Trump as a betrayal of the movement’s values and its people of color — and to speak out.

They pointed to the president’s language and rhetoric: his speech announcing his run for president, in which he referred to Mexican immigrants as rapists bringing drugs and crime to the United States; the “Access Hollywood” tape in which he can be heard bragging about forcing himself on women; and the policies he’s enacted since taking office, which they deemed unfair to the poor and otherwise vulnerable.

“When people were supporting the idea that my community were rapists, criminals, thugs and animals, Christians said nothing,” Van Opstal said.

The reason more than 80 percent of white evangelicals didn’t listen to the people of color alongside them in the pews on Trump, several panelists said, is the same reason some struggle to believe women who have come forward with their experiences of sexual misconduct and abuse: misplaced trust in powerful men and institutions. Congregations, they noted, applauded Pastors Bill Hybels and Andy Savage as they responded to allegations made against them before resigning.

It’s a difficult moment for evangelicalism, panelists agreed, but panelists said they still felt called to their roles as evangelicals or working within the movement.

And Liberty University Professor Karen Swallow Prior said she hopes good can come from it. A “brokenness” has been revealed, she said, which “I hope we can work together to repair.”

The panel was moderated by Katelyn Beaty, an author and InterVarsity Press acquisitions editor, and sponsored by the Christian publisher, which in January released a book titled “Still Evangelical?,” to which several panelists had contributed.

The session took place just before about 50 evangelical leaders gathered early this week at Wheaton College to discuss the future of evangelicalism amid concerns raised by the election.


RELATED: Evangelical leaders discuss future of their movement in Trump era


The three-day Festival of Faith and Writing isn’t exclusively an evangelical event; Calvin is part of the Christian Reformed Church, and the festival features speakers and sessions from a number of religious traditions. The 2018 festival welcomed nearly 2,000 people, many of whom are interested in race and social justice issues, according to festival director Lisa Ann Cockrel.

This story is available for republication.

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.

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