Last month, Pastor Robert Henderson of Waco’s Radiant Church briefly made national headlines by telling his congregation that he had led a prayer group whose pleas to God yielded the Sept. 18 death of Supreme Court Justice and liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg, clearing the way for President Trump to appoint to the high court someone expected to battle abortion and save the lives of the unborn. It’s the sort of revelation that might have shocked Americans 20 or 30 years ago but now prompts eye-rolling and shrugs among many of us weary of such spectacles.
One might argue it’s another footnote worthy of the tumultuous saga chronicled by historian Thomas Kidd, associate director of Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion and author of “Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.” The crisis to which Kidd refers in his book is the adoration that white evangelicalism has lavished on Donald Trump — a polarizing figure many Americans revile as a misogynist, an adulterer, a racist and a pathological liar — and the integrity of the white evangelical movement going forward. My own conversations with Ramiro Peña, founder and pastor of Christ the King Baptist Church of Waco and among those evangelicals who meet with and advise President Trump, suggest that faith leaders are well aware of the president’s shortcomings but nonetheless see him as an agent necessary to accomplish certain religious priorities, including judicial appointments and policies pro-life in nature.
Yet given the president’s penchant for provocative observations and pronouncements on any number of topics, often made through hostile tweets, fearmongering, finger-pointing and conspiracy theories, it’s not surprising to see such behavior reflected in followers and faith leaders. Unfortunately, the consequences splash up on other Christians, some rankled over popular media identification with Trump. Prominent faith leaders haven’t helped matters. For instance, Franklin Graham, son of famed evangelist Billy Graham, made headlines by questioning the Christian faith of President Obama, both before and after Trump, then a real estate tycoon and popular reality-TV star, began spreading rumors in 2011 that Obama, the nation’s first black president, was foreign-born and possibly Muslim.
To his credit, Graham issued an apology to Obama in 2012; Trump carried on with idle speculation and rumormongering, successfully convincing many Republicans if polls and surveys are any indication. Retired minister, counselor and educator Hal Ritter of Waco, in the pages of the Trib, expressed indignation at Graham’s calling for a national day of prayer for President Trump to shield him from his enemies in 2019: “In trying to employ prayer to manipulate God into protecting the disingenuous tyranny of President Trump, Rev. Graham has turned himself into a Simon Magus, a man who attempted to buy the power of the Holy Spirit so that he, personally, could decide who gets the power and who does not (Acts 8:9-20).” Ritter said the incident “shows how far evangelicals have wandered from the gospel of Jesus. You never would have seen John the Baptist playing golf with Herod.”
The flap over Henderson and Justice Ginsburg only accents all of this.
“We were in the meeting on Monday night in D.C.,” Henderson told Radiant Church congregants last month, referring to a meeting with conservative evangelicals. “And I told them, I said, ‘Look, we need to go into the courts of heaven right now while we’re on-site in D.C., and we need to shut the mouth of the lion, judicially. We need to ask for a judgment against the lion that has actually been devouring and intends to devour from the Supreme Court. We need to get a judgment against this lion that Paul said God shut the mouth of.’ So I led us into that place. Well, guess what? Ruth Bader Ginsburg has passed away. President Trump will establish a new Supreme Court justice. That’s no accident. That’s no accident. We dealt with that very significantly.”
Henderson continued, shifting in volume and pace amid cheers from his congregation: “You need to understand that if we don’t shut down this abortion issue, that blood altar will invite demonic powers into this nation! It’s not just about the babies, it’s about a blood altar that is inviting demonic powers! We have to shut it down, and we need a judgment, a judgment, a judgment against the mouth of the lion!”
The incident got spotty coverage in publications ranging from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram to Newsweek. Trib editors took note but, with dwindling newsroom resources to deploy, opted to ignore this latest uproar and prioritize the pandemic entering a new and dangerous phase. And, frankly, many longtime Wacoans have special reason to be weary of self-styled Christian prophets and apostles with questionable biblical interpretations and magnetic holds over followers, even as a charismatic, dynamic president popular in this conservative stretch of Central Texas has welcomed the blessings of out-of-the-mainstream evangelists. Among these evangelicals with White House passes: Paula White, whose “prosperity gospel” views wealth as evidence of the blessings of God, and Jerry Falwell Jr., whose reputation withstood a multitude of controversial stances and statements, faltering only after an affair involving kinky sex and a pool boy came to light recently.
Amid scriptural citations, and with the backdrop of a computer-generated American flag waving in the breeze, Henderson in a followup 17-minute video insisted that the prayer group he led did not actually press for Ginsburg’s death. “I never mentioned Ruth Bader Ginsburg,” he insisted, “I never even thought about her.” The prayer group only sought “judgment against the lion in the spirit world” (that is, in a heavenly court), and the ailing 87-year-old justice died a few days later. He said he does believe God is “reclaiming the judicial system of America.” It’s certainly all proof of just how head-spinningly tortuous matters can become when one begins praying hard and fast for God-knows-what, then applying biblical interpretations to everything that develops.
Politics shaping religion
Given the inclination of many who write letters to the Trib bolstering right-wing politics with biblical verse, incidents such as Henderson’s prayer session are relevant, especially if Christianity is to emerge from the Age of Trump with at least some virtues intact. Not long ago, I confessed to a local faith leader that decades ago when someone identified himself or herself as a Christian, I immediately assumed I was in the presence of (and took special comfort in) someone of wholesome thoughts dedicated to practicing, even if in limited, day-to-day ways, the teachings of Christ. Now when someone identifies himself or herself as a Christian, I wonder if that person is the kind of Christian I imagined previously or some crazed zealot too comfortable in venting the wrath of a vengeful Old Testament god or spiritually willing some nightmarish punishment from Revelation upon perceived enemies.
Baylor University’s 2017 survey profiling the religious wave that helped catapult Donald Trump into the presidency in 2016 wasn’t so much a revelation as a stunning confirmation of what must be clear to anyone who digests the news daily. Findings: Religious folks behind Trump tend to belong to white evangelical Protestant churches, view the United States as a Christian nation (despite the paucity of such evidence in our founding documents), believe in an authoritative god actively involved in world happenings (such as hurricanes), deem Muslims from the Middle East a threat and oppose gay and transgender rights. More stunning: Researchers’ conclusion that many evangelicals may well allow their politics to shape their religion, rather than vice versa.
Sleight-of-hand biblical interpretations accompanying much of this remind me of retired FBI agent Gary Noesner’s 2013 appearance before Baylor’s Institute for Studies of Religion on the 20th anniversary of the 51-day standoff between the FBI and Branch Davidians at the Davidian compound 10 miles east of Waco. Chief FBI negotiator in exchanges with self-designated, armed-to-the-teeth apocalyptic prophet David Koresh and his theologically grounded lieutenant, Steve Schneider, Noesner paid tribute to Baylor scholars for helping federal agents make sense of Koresh’s biblically slanted conditions for surrendering or at least releasing women and children from inside the compound.
However, Noesner stressed that Koresh’s shifting interpretations of divine text only confounded matters during the siege. Behavioral profiles told the FBI far more.
“How religious was David?” Noesner asked rhetorically. “He played with us a little bit. God said to wait instead of surrendering, as [Koresh] had promised. I believe it was Easter came and he [had] said, ‘I may come out on Easter,’ and we said, ‘Well, it’s Easter.’ And he said, ‘Well, it’s not my Easter.’ ‘Well, when is your Easter?’ ‘I’ll let you know.’ One time he said, ‘If you can tell me what the meaning of the fifth seal is, I’ll let a kid go.’ So we went to Baylor [to consult] and said, ‘Here’s what people typically interpret the fifth seal to be.’ And he said, ‘You’re not even close.’ One night he asked the night shift [of FBI agents], ‘Where are you eating at night?’ And they said Whataburger. He said, ‘Ugh. Whataburger. Terrible meat. If I am the Son of God, the world will find out about Whataburger!’”
Lost in “Bible babble,” FBI negotiators reportedly were keen to recognize some supernatural sign upon which Koresh made conditional any change in the armed standoff, even as the rock guitarist-turned-cult leader kept interpreting signs in his own self-serving way — evasive dithering that ultimately led to conflict and death among those who faithfully followed him into a blazing, chaotic inferno. “Most importantly, [radio commentator] Paul Harvey broadcast, just coincidentally, a show about a guitar-shaped nebula moving through the universe at a gazillion miles an hour,” Noesner said of a ghostly object some 6.5 thousand light years away in the constellation of Cepheus, “The King” — a spectral confection of gas and dust spawned by a star whose speed made it the fastest in the galaxy. “And we said, 'Holy mackerel, what a good fortune this is.' So we call them [Paul Harvey’s producers] up and said, 'Will you rebroadcast that?' And they kindly said they would. And we called Steve Schneider and said, 'You guys have got to listen to this broadcast! This may be the sign that David is looking for!' And Schneider saw it and said, 'Oh, my God, it's amazing!' And what did David say? 'Well, at 80,000 miles an hour, or whatever it is, it's not very fast.' And that's all he said.
“People in here may disagree, and that's fine, but I think had we tried to use religion as an argument, we would've been on a slippery slope on an ever-changing playing field," Noesner said. “Everyone that we got out — all 35 people who came out during the time I was there — in those times we were not talking theology. It's when we kept him in the here and now."
When in 2003 I interviewed some of the Branch Davidians who left the compound before the April 19, 1993, conflagration and gunfire that claimed the rest, some told me that they still awaited Koresh’s return from the ashes.
Such political and religious extremism, lately spilling from shadowy fringes into the American mainstream, understandably frustrates theological scholars and historians at Baylor, occasionally to the point of defensiveness. In past questioning of historian Thomas Kidd and accomplished theologian (and friend and fellow Trib contributor) Roger Olson about white evangelicalism’s embrace of Donald Trump, both prefaced their comments to me by castigating the media for lumping into the evangelical category some media-savvy individuals who might not qualify as evangelicals. During a fall 2018 symposium on Billy Graham’s influence on evangelicalism and politics, I was treated to this criticism when I informed Olson about a “Make the Gospel Great Again” electronic billboard just north of Waco on Interstate 35 that had President Trump’s face emblazoned across it, complete with a passage from John 1:14: “The Word became Flesh....” (The online group claiming credit for this billboard and another near St. Louis vanished into thin air as soon as media reports about it erupted but reportedly identified itself as Make the Gospel Great Again, “a group of evangelicals from both Baptist and non-denominational backgrounds who love Jesus and the Bible.” Its stated mission: “MGGA exists to help spread the truth of God’s great champion on earth — President Donald Trump. The Lord anointed Mr. Trump to bless America, and we live out our faith by following him. Donald Trump has already won many victories for Jesus by stopping abortions, telling the truth, proving that the real racists are not white and fighting against the liberal media and their War on Christians!”)
Olson expressed repulsion at the billboard near Waco, then articulated his complaint.
“I do think the media in America has tended to focus more than is necessary or even right on the political zeal of certain people who wave the evangelical banner,” Olson told me. “They’ve kind of given — I don’t know whether it’s a matter of blame — but they have kind of given them the right to define evangelicalism for the rest of us. And I really trace that back to [popular TV hosts] Phil Donahue and Larry King. I mean, those two guys, whenever they wanted an evangelical, who would they have on? Jerry Falwell [Sr.] or Pat Robertson or somebody that I would regard more fundamentalist than an evangelical.”
Yet even Olson acknowledged moments earlier that much of what he laments comes from forces well beyond popular media: “What has happened is that fundamentalists came out of the woods and began to call themselves evangelicals in the 1980s, Jerry Falwell [Sr.] being the prominent example. I almost literally fell off my easy chair when I was watching him on ‘The Phil Donahue Show’ in the 1980s and he called himself an evangelical. And I knew he had been harshly critical of [evangelist] Billy Graham in the ’60s and I was going, ‘What?!’ And over the decades, it seems to me that the leading voices among evangelicals tend to be fundamentalists, more than really followers of [Harold John] Ockenga and the original neo-evangelicals of the ’40s and ’50s who wanted to move away from that [fundamentalism].”
Olson, incidentally, defined evangelicalism that day as a “spiritual-theological orientation within Protestant Christianity,” though he acknowledged Catholic evangelicals as well. In his 2019 book, Kidd suggests evangelicals may be properly marked by the “penchant for charitable ministry and giving,” including to non-religious charities. In an interview I conducted with Kidd last year he further defined an evangelical as someone who has been spiritually born again; feels called to share the gospel; and gives to missions and similar causes. Even Billy Graham, who one can argue unwittingly helped lay the groundwork for what we see today involving Trump and evangelicals, acknowledged confusion over what precisely defines evangelicals.
“Lots of pollsters, with no question at all, make a category for non-church-going evangelicals,” said Kidd, who served on Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s religious liberty advisory board during the stormy 2016 Republican presidential primary season. “I think that’s problematic. I mean, I have questions about their evangelical identity if they just don’t go to church. Don’t misunderstand me. There’s millions of people who love Trump and they’re practicing white evangelicals. But there’s also a whole lot of other people who are somewhere on the spectrum and, as soon as you dig deeper, you start finding all these oddities in the data — they don’t go to church or they’re Catholic or they’re Mormon or they’re Eastern Orthodox or they’re Jehovah’s Witnesses or all kinds of things. Yet they say, ‘Yeah, I’m an evangelical.’ ”
According to a Pew Research Poll issued Tuesday, white evangelical Protestants have “softened slightly in their support for Trump, though they overwhelmingly remain on his side: 78% of white evangelicals intend to cast ballots for Trump, compared with 83% who said this in August.”
Trump’s phone number
The Baylor 2018 symposium, incidentally, included a telling narrative from Billy Graham biographer William Martin of Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy on how the internationally popular evangelist’s confidence was rattled and his reputation tarnished because of his understandably human desire to revel in the easy access to secular power he enjoyed with several presidents, beginning with Dwight D. Eisenhower. Graham questioned his involvement with political figures after his openly expressed faith in President Richard Nixon took a battering once the Watergate tapes became public, revealing the scope of Nixon’s cynicism, lawlessness, manipulation and profanity.
“When he finally read the transcripts of the White House tapes, in the spring of 1974, what he found devastated him,” Martin said of Graham. “He wept, he threw up, and he almost lost his innocence about Richard Nixon, even though he was more troubled by profanity than by political espionage, bribery, suborning perjury and other strikes at constitutional government. The pain of that perception grew even stronger and sharper as he considered the possibility that Eisenhower and Kennedy and Johnson might also have shown him only one of several faces and inevitably led him to confront the possibility of his unwitting collusion in helping do unto others as had been done unto him.”
Yet that corrupting allure of political power holds some Christian leaders transfixed, even given the controversy surrounding the character of Donald Trump.
“When I attended Billy Graham’s funeral [in March 2018], behind me were three luminaries of the Religious Right in the political realm,” Martin recalled. “A couple of them had Donald Trump’s private cell number and one of them had tried it. ‘It works!’ So there’s that delight in being a friend of the president and having him be on ‘our side, the most powerful man in the world is on our side,’ and I think that power is heady. When Jimmy Carter was president, I talked with his liaison with the religious community. He talked about how easy it is for people to be so happy to be talking with the president that they wanted to agree with him. He said that White House iced tea can be mighty intoxicating.”
Martin added one more insight into the man whose life he chronicled, along with a clear reference to current times: “Because he was a trustworthy man of deep integrity, Mr. Graham found it difficult to believe that not all people seeking or holding high office shared those traits in similar measures, even when evidence of their faulty character was no real secret. But I think he did learn. We can never know for sure, but hypothetically should he ever have been faced with a candidate whose amorality, bigotry, corruption, pathological narcissism, total disregard for truth and fundamental meanness were apparent to all with eyes to see and ears to hear, I choose to believe Billy Graham would have withheld his approval and suggest other evangelicals do the same, lest they incur indelible stain.”
As for the current state of affairs, Martin said in response to my inquiry: “Billy Graham played a major role in making evangelical Christianity a powerful quarter of the population, a powerful force, and the Religious Right hijacked it.”
Kidd doesn’t necessarily agree that fundamentalists hijacked the evangelical movement, though much of it has clearly shifted in focus and orientation, evident in the sharp differences between Billy Graham and his son, Franklin. “I tend to think that Franklin Graham, Jerry Falwell Jr. and Robert Jeffress [of First Baptist Church of Dallas] and people like that are promoting a very politicized brand of evangelicalism, and they’re evangelicals,” Kidd told me. “I’m not saying they’re not. But I think they’re more opportunistic about maintaining access and influence, including access to the Trump administration.”
For all Trump’s openly bragging about marital infidelity and other immoral behavior, he was shrewd enough to be deferential to evangelical and Pentecostal leaders when it came to their most important issue, Kidd argues.
“Abortion is the single most important issue to many white evangelical voters,” Kidd writes in his book. “The first years of Trump’s presidency gave backers little reason to doubt his commitment to the pro-life cause, especially when he nominated Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. (Because of the conventional unwillingness of nominees to comment on prospective cases, it remained unclear whether either Gorsuch or Kavanaugh would actually vote to overturn Roe v. Wade.) Evangelicals already knew what they would get from the staunchly pro-choice Hillary Clinton, who supported women’s freedom to get even late-term abortions. Although such procedures are rare, the issue of late-term abortions has often become a test question for whether Democratic candidates would consider any restrictions on abortion rights.”
Praising the strongman
Thus emerges the compelling motive for a significant segment of Christians — white evangelicals or otherwise — who embrace the concept of a “strongman” who, whatever his character, will press for the appointment of jurists who can check or even overturn Roe v. Wade and right other perceived social wrongs from the bench. In my conversations with him during the 2016 election and afterward, Pastor Peña of Waco’s Christ the King Baptist Church pointed to “multiple examples in the Bible where God’s person is an adviser to someone who is not God’s person. All you have to do is read the short book of Daniel. Daniel served, advised and counseled multiple pagan kings. I’m not calling Donald Trump a pagan king. But God uses Daniel to be an adviser to multiple people who are not walking with God — and, again, I’m not saying Trump is not walking with God.”
While Rev. Peña has also pressed for immigration reform and saving the so-called Dreamers from deportation in meetings with Trump both before his election and since (but with stunningly limited success, it would appear), abortion remains a driving issue, something Peña stressed during his July 2016 appearance on The Jim Bakker Show, hosted by the controversial televangelist and convicted fraudster: “If we don’t elect Donald Trump president, we’re going to end up electing someone who we absolutely know will put justices on the U.S. Supreme Court that will be pro-abortion. They will be pro-gay marriage. They will rob us of religious liberty, will continue to tear away at our right to bear arms, and that’s the kind of jurist that will be placed on the Supreme Court and on the federal bench.”
Such priorities are mirrored in powerful letters to the Trib opinion page, including this recent epistle from a reader in the nearby Bell County community of Rogers who fears godless socialism supplanting churches and god-given liberties: “Standing in their way is the church and Donald Trump who are fighting for the survival of America as she was founded. To destroy the authority that causes chaos, pray continually for God to lead us in the battle against those intent on destroying our God-given republic. The victory belongs to the Lord but he sends us out into the battle. Put on the full armor of God and fight for a nation under siege before she becomes a nation gone under. God’s children cried out and God heard! Psalm 50:15.” Or as a Lorena reader put it more succinctly in a letter last December, “Yes, I’m a one-issue guy. Yes, I will support Donald Trump. This ‘white, evangelical Christian’ recognizes that abortion is murder. What else would you have me do?”
Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, offers vibrant counterpoint in her new book, “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” in which she pointedly describes the movement’s focus: “Far from representing a betrayal of evangelical values, Trump, with all his swagger, crassness and cruelty, is perfectly equipped to do whatever it takes to protect America, and American Christians. As [Dallas-based] evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress famously quipped in 2016, ‘I want the meanest, toughest SOB I can find to protect this nation,’ and most evangelicals appear to agree. Trump was the right man for the job precisely because he was uninhibited by traditional Christian virtues — by values such as loving one’s neighbor and one’s enemies, or indeed by any of the fruits of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness or self-control.” Baylor’s own survey from 2017 confirms some of this.
However temperament and chauvinism might or might not infect the white evangelical movement, the issue of abortion dominates much of the politics. And it’s arguably the one issue that demands compromise somewhere, somehow, given that total victory by one side or the other means the rights of either mother or unborn child are sacrificed as the rights of the other are deemed more relevant. Such sacrifices and compromises clash with an evolving constitution championing the rights of all, not just some. To complicate matters, the Trump administration has unwittingly highlighted the utter hypocrisy of the pro-life movement, whose key champions seldom spoke up when immigrant women and children fleeing violence and poverty in Central America were incarcerated in borderland kennels, sometimes in squalid conditions, or when Trump ridiculed public health measures and those who heeded them during a nationwide pandemic that he recklessly mismanaged to the detriment, decline and death of many. Unwilling to risk the president’s ire, pro-life leaders fueled the narrative that at least some feminist forces have long stressed about pro-lifers: They’re all about suppressing women and discouraging out-of-marriage sex, not innocent lives. One area pro-life crusader told me during a casual discussion about this moral dilemma that it wasn’t that other lives were unimportant but that unborn lives were the political movement’s priority.
More than one evangelical voting against Trump this year voices the freedom to do so now that pro-life justices will soon dominate the high court with likely confirmation of Judge Amy Coney Barrett. In short, Trump’s usefulness is at an end. (Talk about your shrewd, strategic voter!) Consider, too, Elizabeth Neumann, former assistant secretary of Homeland Security for Counterterrorism and Threat Prevention under Trump. In a video recently posted by longtime conservative Bill Kristol’s Republican Voters Against Trump, Neumann explains she voted for Trump in 2016 because of her devout Christian views and “the pro-life issue.” Now she says Trump is a danger to American lives: “We are less safe today because of his leadership. We will continue to be less safe as long as he is in control.” Reasons cited: Trump’s refusal to distance himself from white nationalists and his undermining administration pandemic plans early on.
About that billboard
David Bebbington, one of the foremost experts on evangelicalism who has long taught history at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion (and has spent weekends visiting a wide range of area churches — his idea of scholarly enjoyment), acknowledged during a September 2019 symposium that he didn’t anticipate how interwoven the white evangelical movement would become with the Republican Party. “I didn’t foresee that,” he told me, “and I certainly didn’t foresee the extent to which the choice of a candidate for the Republican Party in the last presidential election was going to be somebody who so ran athwart so many evangelical values and practices that I didn’t think evangelicals would support him. Many opposed him, not least of all at Baylor, even among Republicans. Nevertheless, I didn’t think anything like 81 percent of [self-identified] evangelicals would support him [in the election].” Yet they did.
Also an emeritus professor of history at the University of Stirling in Scotland and co-author of the recently issued book “Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now and Could Be,” Bebbington says he can now understand the tremendous temptation that led to white evangelicals lining up behind Trump: “They couldn’t bear to refuse the opportunity that Providence seemed to be providing them, somebody who was prepared to, crucially, choose for the Supreme Court those who would vote for the things that evangelicals want them to vote for, which is an embracing of the doctrine that the means are justified by the ends — which I never believe is the case.” Evidence suggests hardline immigration policy also drove self-identified evangelicals, notwithstanding Leviticus 19:33-34, which demands a compassionate approach to immigrants — presumably including Dreamers whose studies and careers have lately been thrust into such uncertainty.
In his concise, insightful and utterly frank book, “Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis,” Kidd ponders the evangelical movement’s future: “There’s no question that millions of practicing white evangelicals followed the lead of Falwell Jr., Jeffress, Franklin Graham and other evangelical endorsers of Trump in the November 2016 elections. But many questions remain. How many of these self-described white evangelicals voted against Hillary Clinton more than for Donald Trump? Do they actually admire Trump or did they simply hope he’d make good Supreme Court appointments?”
During a discussion last year concerning that Trump/John 1:14 electronic billboard on Interstate 35 in 2018, Kidd offered equal doses of optimism and pessimism about evangelicalism.
“I think there’s always going to be crackpots whom you can certainly look at to do outrageous things or, in that case [of the Trump billboard] make heretical statements,” he said. “I mean, in [the case of the billboard], you almost wonder if they’re trolling people — and if you can’t find out who did it, you just don’t know. I don’t know. Of redeeming the term evangelicalism, I’m not quite as sanguine because I think the politicization of the term is so set in concrete. You’d have to talk about the term in a more historically sophisticated way, and it’s tough to get people to do that. But I’m not pessimistic about what I see as evangelicalism in its practicing, vibrant form, partially because it’s not just American. It’s a fully global movement. There are parts of the world where it’s absolutely booming.”
Concerns haven’t changed much among Baylor religious scholars at what some call “Jerusalem on the Brazos,” where Bebbington this month hosted (from Scotland) a conference on Latin American evangelicalism, conducted virtually because of COVID-19 precautions. When I contacted Kidd last week, he expressed faith in evangelicalism beyond America: “I would just add that the major areas of global evangelical growth are in Latin America, Africa and Asia, places where evangelicals have very different political concerns than what you might hear from the three or four main evangelical GOP insiders on Fox News (Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, etc.). The global evangelicals may not be ‘pure’ either, but at least no one would think that their faith is just a mask for a Republican agenda.”
Time of epiphanies
As for Olson, who has co-chaired the Evangelical Theology Group of the American Academy of Religion and authored numerous books such as “How to Be Evangelical without Being Conservative,” he today fears much of white evangelicalism in America has lost its way: “I no longer identify myself with any American ‘evangelical movement.’ If one exists, it has left me behind and outside. Still, I call myself evangelical in the ‘ethos’ sense of the spiritual-theological tradition stemming from the Great Awakenings.” He added in an email exchange last week: “I have no idea what the future of the white American evangelical movement may be but I’m not optimistic. It seems to me to have been taken over by fundamentalists and people more interested in American nationalism and even Social Darwinism than in the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
As with interpretations of the Constitution, as with reliance on Republican Party principles, so it ultimately is with Christian tenets drawn from presumably divine text when mixed with the worst in politics, especially when matters revolve around such confounding forces of nature as a narcissistic, ratings-mad TV personality grappling for power and adoration and claiming the divine right of kings to be above the law; complicated issues such as abortion, immigration, gun rights, climate change and health care, aggravated by bumper-sticker policy solutions and cherry-picked biblical verses and constitutional passages; and those among us who in their passion and zeal are content to turn elected officials into demigods, free to run rampant in ways that violate both Bible and Constitution. Who is corrupted in this alchemy? Religion or politics? God or the Constitution? Citizen, church or country? Do the ends justify the means? Prophets, scholars, disciples and everyday citizens disagree. For some of us, it reaffirms why certain Founders, many of them savvy frontier intellectuals of the Enlightenment, prioritized separation of church and state in our young, vulnerable republic, even while protecting private religious liberties. Indeed, what happens when religious dogma gums up the liberties of some? For those who want our constitutional democracy to become just a little bit theocratic, which sect or strain of Christianity should dominate?
From any number of perspectives, this is a time of epiphanies, revelations and madness, conjuring both political and religious realms. Former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who in 2015 declared Donald Trump a “cancer on conservatism,” now says the president is “here at this chosen time because God ordained it,” even as horrified conservative intellectuals vigorously question immigration actions, trade policies and deficit spending that are more populist, isolationist or irresponsible than anything remotely conservative. Evangelist Franklin Graham, arguably the most respected of those who gather around this president, proclaims “God was behind the last election,” which thus raises logical followup questions of who was then behind ravaging forest fires in the American West, hurricanes and powerful storms pounding the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Coast, the deadly pandemic invigorated by the lack of any consistent national strategy to combat it and a bustling economy that has cratered because of that very lack of strategic vision and resolve. Was God behind all this too? At the risk of emulating old-time fundamentalists sounding off on cable TV, one must ask: Is God now sending us a message about what some might even argue is blasphemy, chicanery and prostitution of religion?
“Christians need to reacquaint themselves with the Jesus of the New Testament, not the Jesus of the right-wing media complex,” former Reagan and Bush administration official Peter Wehner writes in his thought-provoking book “The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic After Trump,” released in 2019 and worth consulting alongside volumes by Bebbington, Olson, Kidd and Du Mez. “The real Jesus demonstrated a profound mistrust of political power, declined Satan’s offer of the kingdoms of the world and their glory, and did not encourage his disciples to become involved in political movements of any kind.” Point taken, even as another dilemma surfaces: No one expects most latter-day Christians to display the courage, discipline and selflessness of Christ in long-ago tumultuous times, but one wishes more of us could demonstrate Jesus’ shrewd discernment, the better to recognize the growing cavalcade of charlatans, flimflam artists and glorified snake-oil salesmen masquerading in our midst as contemporary saviors of one cause or another — divine, secular or both.