The night that Donald Trump was elected president, I got very little sleep. Surely the wine I sipped as a wave of red swept from east to west across that horrible, televised electoral map didn’t help. But I managed to have one vivid dream.
Wednesday greeted me as it did half the voting population, with waves of grief. But since then, the grief has turned into a more complex emotion — something like soul abandonment. After an election in which 81 percent of my white coreligionists supported Trump, the faith that has been my home for 20 years seems foreign, even hostile.
In a story fit for testimony, I gave my life to Christ at age 13, at the end of a church service fervent with prayer and worship. I quickly became involved in a youth group, going on trips to serve orphans and attending annual prayer rallies outside my high school. Behind much of it was an earnestness bordering on naivete, I see now. But I also see, with gratitude, the way that evangelicalism exposed me to authentic kindness, service and awe. It taught me that love of God and neighbor was a force in the world and, indeed, could heal its deep brokenness.
These early gifts stayed with me into adulthood, when I staunchly defended the evangelical label, despite its quirks and excesses, in my professional and personal life.
To secular friends, I noted that today’s efforts to rescue sex trafficking victims and shelter refugees are largely led by evangelical organizations.
To mainline Protestants, I noted that the most dynamic growth in the global church is among Christians whom they would likely consider way too concerned about hell.
To myself, I said that evangelical was about theology, not politics, and at Christianity Today, we always transcended political divides to root the gospel in the local church and not a voting bloc.
The Religious Right didn’t mean anything to me and other young evangelicals; it was a relic of railing radio preachers and big-haired moral scandals. Our forebears had surely learned from the mistakes of the 1980s. An older, wiser evangelical movement knew not to throw their lot in with political leaders who would squeeze from the church a drop of a vote before dropping it once it was no longer useful.
This election, I didn’t personally know any evangelicals who were vocally supporting Trump. Many of us were troubled by the other candidate, to be sure. But, as so many wise evangelical leaders had noted, electing Trump would seriously harm our already fragile democracy and undo the church’s witness, and I believed the white evangelical community would take heed.
On Wednesday, I woke up to an evangelical family I no longer resembled.
Evangelical at its root means evangel or “good news.” We proclaim to follow a man who chose to affiliate himself with the poor and dispossessed, who called the political and religious leaders of his day to account, who saw and loved people whom others had discarded.
To be sure, no political leader can or should try to enact the good news in policy. Christians of good conscience have and will continue to elect leaders of different ideologies, then go about the daily task of loving their neighbors.
But when evangelical starts to sound like very bad news for very many Americans, it has drifted far from its roots. A prophetic consensus has emerged that U.S. evangelicalism is irreducibly linked with white privilege.
Many Christian leaders of color line up with their white peers in theology, yet won’t claim the label for white evangelicals failing to provide a robust response to violence against racial minorities. That white evangelicals broke sharply from Christians of color in supporting a candidate who was endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan will undo generations of efforts to heal the racial injustice tearing apart the church and our country.
Meanwhile, Muslims now wonder if the liberties that white evangelicals are eager to protect by electing Trump will extend to their own worshiping communities.
Women who have been sexually assaulted wonder if white evangelicals’ support of Trump means their trauma will be minimized in Christian communities.
Immigrants who have been embraced by churches wonder if said churches will no longer shelter them after threat of deportation.
Trump’s presidency poses a unique threat to the vulnerable — the very communities the church is called to stand beside.
It’s a very evangelical thing to talk about what is in one’s heart. So: My heart beats even stronger with the faith that I embraced as a teenager. When it comes to the Bible and Jesus and evangelism and service, the 81 percent and I share the same DNA. Although recently I have wished it were otherwise, evangelicals are my people.
But this time, this election, I can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.
It’s like the way you love your offbeat uncle — the one who rambles at Thanksgiving dinner about threats to his freedoms and political correctness run amok. You understand why he feels the way he does. You sympathize with him on many points. But when he starts in with racial slurs and sexist jokes and complaints about “illegals,” at some point you have to get up and leave the table.