(RNS) — The past four years have seen an outburst of opinion about white Christian evangelicals and their support for President Donald Trump. No surprise. White evangelicals are among the most socially conservative Americans. They did not support the expansion of abortion rights and opposed marriage between people of the same sex. They lost both those battles, not at the ballot box, but at the Supreme Court.
This helps explain why evangelicals vote for Trump and other presidential candidates who are not their co-religionists but who promise to nominate their preferred justices. They have learned how — and where — cultural change becomes law.
Lately, in a season of national reckoning about police shootings, evangelicals have become the target of progressives and academics concerned about racism and nationalism. As Robert P. Jones demonstrates in his new book, “White Too Long,” all white Christians have much to answer for in colonialism, slavery, lynching, denial of voting rights, redlining and much more. As Samuel L. Perry and Andrew L. Whitehead point out in their new book, “Taking America Back for God,” Christian nationalism poses challenges for pluralism.
White evangelicals must bear their share of responsibility for both racism and Christian nationalism, so I have no argument with these careful, well-researched critiques.
I do take issue with these legitimate criticisms becoming a license for others to marginalize, even demonize, white evangelical Christians. White evangelicals are routinely and unfairly stereotyped, lumped together in the basket of deplorables with the neo-Nazi marchers in Charlottesville and other supremacists. Some may think it’s not possible to be bigoted against a group that is so closely associated with the historical trajectory of power in America. I disagree.
Evangelicals have rarely been at the center of American power. For most of U.S. history, white mainline Protestants made up the American establishment. Episcopalians, not Baptists, produced the most U.S. Supreme Court justices well into the 20th century. Presidents were Episcopalian or Presbyterian. Evangelicals were countercultural in the 19th century in a very progressive direction. Charles Grandison Finney’s Oberlin College, then an evangelical school, was the first white male college in America to integrate by race and gender. Northern white evangelicals like Finney were crucial to the abolition of slavery.
Their long, slow ascendance as a conservative cultural force began with the rise of fundamentalism as an anti-intellectual movement in the early 20th century (though even today not all evangelicals are fundamentalists). By the 1960s and ’70s they were far enough right to be part of Richard Nixon’s race-driven Southern Strategy. Desegregation and voting rights became intertwined with concerns about abortion and the scope of the federal government, and thanks to their small-government views, they were invited to play a critical role in Reaganism in the ’80s and the Gingrich revolt of the 1990s. The progressive distaste for evangelicals is part of a backlash against this entire conservative constellation.
White evangelicals are certainly complicit in our country’s history of systemic racism and overt nationalism, but I offer three reasons why transparent prejudice against them offers no way forward. First, this prejudice reduces a large, complex group to their political activities; the philosophical term is “essentialism.” In a mass culture dominated by Amazon, Netflix, Google, Harvard and MIT, evangelical ideas barely register, other than as stock villains and straw men. But in politics they loom larger, so the mainstream culture defines them entirely by their political activities and seek to “cancel” them.
Second, many evangelicals, far from seeking out division, are the salt of the earth. They donate time and energy to their churches, but also to strangers, including strangers in other countries, where they are well known for fighting sex trafficking and providing clean water. They are conscientious parents, church members and Little League coaches. They are honest businesspeople. If racism is systemic, well, they are not the elites who own the systems. They don’t see themselves as racist because, to them, racism is a matter of personal attitude. They don’t see themselves as nationalists either, or if they do, their definition is more akin to what the rest of us call patriotism.
Lastly, marginalizing and demonizing this group is politically untenable. White evangelical Christians make up about 25% of the U.S. population, around 85 million people. When this election is over, they will still be here. And they will still be deeply intertwined in American life. These folks are our fellow-citizens, part of our country’s lifeblood. We need to be building bridges toward evangelicals of goodwill, not burning them.
We must still condemn the obvious racism. No more “Curse of Ham,” a cheap biblical justification for racism that goes back to slave days. It can be tiring to explain systemic racism or unconscious bias, especially in an environment that is historically anti-intellectual, but that is what must be done. We must also constantly evaluate the linkage between Christianity and nationalism. Many evangelicals are raising these questions themselves in critical self-examination.
But America cannot be rebuilt without white evangelical Christians. Excoriating them for the sake of Twitter likes only moves us in the wrong direction. Look for common ground. Acknowledge others’ attempts to eradicate personal prejudice even as you seek to educate yourself and others about systemic discrimination. Look for the fine line between the nationalism you fear and the patriotism you value. Take note of the positive contributions made by others, even when they believe, and vote, differently than you.
There will not be a revolution this fall, only an election. On Nov. 4, all Protestants, Catholics, Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists and every other American will still be in the same boat. Constantly berating white evangelical Protestants now will only make it harder for all of us to stay afloat.
(Arthur E. Farnsley II is research director of Religion and Urban Culture 2.0 at IUPUI. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily represent those of Religion News Service.)