This opinion piece is by Collin Hansen, the editorial director for the Gospel Coalition. He is writing a book on the Religious Right.
I don’t need to tell you about the latest revelation of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump’s views and behavior toward women. I won’t tell you these comments, because they’re not appropriate for any ages.
But I will tell you that the American evangelical movement and Religious Right won’t be the same after the 2016 presidential election.
This week I traveled to Nashville to speak with Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. The largest Protestant denomination in the United States has elected him to represent their values in Washington and guide 15 million Southern Baptists in how to bring their faith to bear on public life.
I asked him what percentage of Southern Baptists he thinks will vote for Trump. He answered 80 percent. Yet Moore has become the most vocal evangelical critic of Trump. What gives?
Moore explained that he knows many Southern Baptists older than 50 who oppose Trump — and nearly all of them are women. Among Southern Baptists younger than 40, Moore says, almost all of them he knows are appalled by Trump. That means, then, that most white Southern Baptist men older than 50 back Trump, at least given the alternative of Hillary Clinton from the Democratic Party.
We already know this election has exposed deep racial divides in America at large and among evangelicals. Trump polls at historically low levels, perhaps just 3 percent, among African Americans who aren’t swayed by his promise to restore “law and order.”
But we’re also seeing this election expose significant generational divides. Some older evangelical leaders argue that Trump is a “morally good” choice and that he “lives a life of loving and helping others as Jesus taught in the great commandment.” Closer examination, though, continues to reveal the New York businessman as beholden to the unholy trinity of money, sex and power.
Younger evangelicals and former evangelicals have taken note. An aspiring president of the United States can brag about sexually assaulting women and still claim the backing of many if not most of the older stalwarts in the Religious Right.
Trump can maintain nearly all his evangelical support in the voting booth despite unrepentant lying and cheating. But these same leaders still insist on a traditional, biblical ethic when it comes to views on same-sex marriage in evangelical ministries.
The latest evidence of Trump’s depravity hits at the same time one of the leading evangelical parachurch ministries, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, has come under scrutiny for requiring staff to believe that God intends sex to be enjoyed only in the context of marriage between one man and one woman. If you don’t see the connection between these two developments, then you’ll miss the story that will define evangelical unity and witness for the next generation.
To the older evangelicals planning to vote for Trump: You can try to explain the difference in electing a president and hiring a 23-year-old college graduate to evangelize students. You can say we’re electing a commander in chief and not a Sunday school teacher. You can say that God often raises up pagan leaders to deliver his people from their enemies. But no one is fooled by your arguments.
They can see you will apparently excuse anything in a Republican nominee so long as the alternative is a manifestly unqualified Clinton. And they will conclude that they don’t really need to listen to you when it comes to “traditional, biblical ethics.”
I know older evangelicals want to pass along a traditional, biblical ethic to the next generation. So do I. God’s Word is good for human flourishing yesterday, today and forever. Especially on college campuses, young Christians come under tremendous pressure to compromise their beliefs, either to find acceptance among peers or to escape the strict demands of chastity or both.
Can we not see, though, how older evangelicals are likewise tempted? Does aging past 50 suddenly deliver Christians from the need to fit in among their peers in the country club or diner? Can we not see how the church’s failure to discipline and teach against divorce and racism has orphaned so many youth who don’t know if they can trust their elders to do the hard thing when God demands it?
The 2016 presidential election will be remembered as the last spasm of energy from the Religious Right before its overdue death.
The older leaders aren’t replicating themselves among the rising generation. “There are no 22-year-old James Dobson’s,” Moore told me this week. The generations born between the rise of the Religious Right and 9/11 have already made their choice. They will be tempted to make new mistakes. But they won’t make the old ones.
Children of divorce don’t want to divorce when they grow up. Instead, as Moore said, they give up marriage altogether. Similarly, younger evangelicals who came of age under the Religious Right don’t want to risk their souls in a reach for power. As a result, many will give up politics altogether. They may give up a lot more in the process, if they conclude their elders can’t be trusted at all in the wake of Trump’s campaign with its overt and implicit misogyny and racism.
Hypocrisy is not about failing to live up to your standards. Hypocrisy is about teaching something you don’t actually believe.
Grace abounds for Christians who fall short of the glory of God and call on the name of Jesus for forgiveness and salvation. But woe to the hypocrites who hold the most powerful leader in the world to a lower standard than they do the searching young believer who desires to serve God and neighbor.