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Dozens of evangelical leaders meet to discuss how Trump era has unleashed ‘grotesque caricature’ of their faith

Wheaton College. (Sarah Pulliam Bailey)

About 50 top leaders of major evangelical institutions will attend an invitation-only gathering this week to discuss the future and the “soul” of evangelicalism at a time when many of them are concerned their faith group has become tainted by its association with divisive politics under President Trump. It runs Monday and Tuesday.

The diverse group, which includes nationally known pastors such as Tim Keller and A.R. Bernard, is expected to include leaders of major ministries, denominations, colleges and seminaries. The gathering will take place at Wheaton College, an evangelical college outside of Chicago, according to organizer Doug Birdsall, honorary chair of Lausanne, an international movement of evangelicals.

The gathering, which has been in the works for several months and was discussed at evangelist Billy Graham’s funeral last month, will take place before the expected meeting of a separate group of evangelicals who advise, defend and praise Trump. Those leaders, which include members of Trump’s informal advisory council, are considering convening at Trump International Hotel in Washington in June.

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The purpose of the Wheaton meeting is to try to shift the conversation back to core questions of the faith, and Trump as an individual will not be the focus of discussion, Birdsall said. Nonetheless, the president will be the “elephant in the room,” he said, because under his leadership the term “evangelical” has become negatively associated in the minds of many Americans with regard to topics such as racism and nationalism.

While the organizers said they are not trying to build a new coalition or launch a counter political agenda, the gathering shows how many key leaders of major institutions are wringing their hands over the state of evangelicalism.

“When you Google evangelicals, you get Trump,” Birdsall said. “When people say what does it mean to be an evangelical, people don’t say evangelism or the gospel. There’s a grotesque caricature of what it means to be an evangelical.”

The label "evangelical Christian" gets thrown around in politics. Here's a look at how it has evolved and this group's religious beliefs and political leanings. (Video: Claritza Jimenez, Sarah Pulliam Bailey/The Washington Post)

Those gathered will not necessarily oppose Trump and some may even be friendly to some of his policies, said Darrell Bock of Dallas Theological Seminary, who is also helping to organize the event. But organizers said evangelicals need to return their focus to the term’s true definition: a person who believes in the authority of the Bible, salvation through Jesus’ work on the cross, personal conversion and the need for evangelism.

“We need to be wiser and better in the way we do ministry,” said Keller, founding pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York. “Faith and God and sin and grace and idolatry are about fundamental human reality, and everything else is a way of dealing with those issues. It is a complete terrible reversal when [people believe] religion is about politics when it’s the other way around.”

“No matter what happens to American evangelicalism, it is here to stay. It’s international, global and politically diverse,” he said, pointing out that evangelicalism is quickly spreading in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

During Barack Obama’s presidency, Keller said, many evangelical leaders talked nervously of the future, but for different reasons than the ones that concern them now. Some were fearful that religious academic institutions could lose accreditation or federal funding because many do not hire openly gay staff members. And several colleges and universities, including Wheaton, sued the government over an Obamacare mandate to cover certain forms of contraception.

Under Obama, many of these leaders felt that their religious freedoms were under attack, feeling pressure primarily from the left. Now, Keller said, many of them feel under attack from those on the right if they support a more open immigration policy or foreign policy.

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Bernard, a black pastor of a 40,000-member church in Brooklyn, said he fears that white evangelical supporters of Trump have put the reputation of American Christianity in danger.

“They continue to squander their moral authority in an attempt to sanitize the president,” said Bernard, who resigned from an advisory group of evangelicals last year after Trump blamed “both sides” for deadly violence in Charlottesville after a white supremacist march.

Many white evangelicals have been too focused on what they view as issues of sin and personal morality, such as abortion and same-sex marriage, without looking at the systemic injustices that most concern black evangelicals, such as economic inequality and radicalized policing, he said, adding the bill has now come due.

“This presidency has exposed the spiritual, moral and racial condition of this nation,” he said. “The racial divides go deep in this country, and they’ve invaded the church.”

Several of those planning to attend the Wheaton gathering said they are tired of seeing leaders who regularly praise Trump — such as evangelist Franklin Graham, Liberty University president Jerry Falwell Jr. and Texas megachurch pastor Robert Jeffress — representing all evangelicals.

“When a lot of folks think about evangelicals they think of people who are tied to the administration, but they don’t represent the evangelical community,” said World Relief vice president Jenny Yang, who will co-chair this group’s conversation along with Bishop Claude Alexander, a black pastor based in Charlotte. She later said she did not intend to imply that all of Trump’s advisers do not represent evangelicals.

Even though the gathering isn’t about politics, Yang said she expects discussion around major events of the past year, including the #MeToo movement about sexual assault and harassment, the white supremacy march in Charlottesville, and Trump’s refugee and immigration policy changes. About six leaders from outside the United States, she said, will tell the group how evangelicals are perceived globally.

Many of the evangelical leaders who will attend the meeting are caught in a generational divide. Their institutions tend to be fueled by an older generation of primarily white donors, many of whom are conservative and friendly to Trump’s policies. However, the future of their institutions is worrisome because many younger evangelicals and the growing numbers of evangelicals of color are distraught by the perception that the movement has become so tied to Trump.

Since World War II, American Protestants have tended to group themselves into three broad categories: fundamentalism on the right, mainline Protestantism on the left and evangelicalism somewhere in between.

But white evangelicals, who made up 26 percent of the electorate in the last election cycle, have been a powerful group to court politically since the 1980s. Exit polls showed that 80 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump, and the president’s approval rating among those voters remains strong at 78 percent, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey.

Given such strong support, a case could be made that the greatest barrier to the gospel is evangelicals’ embrace of “Trumpism” as an ideology, Birdsall said.

“We realize millennials are disaffected and global evangelical leaders are disillusioned,” Birdsall said, pointing to his own daughter’s concern that people perceive evangelicals as racist and fearful.

Few nationally known white evangelical pastors have vocally opposed Trump, though some critics have emerged, including John Piper, a retired megachurch pastor in Minneapolis who has written of Trump’s “immoral behavior.”

As evangelicalism has grown without any formal hierarchy, it has formed tribes often driven by celebrity pastors, authors and artists. Evangelical leaders of institutions have been having conversations about how to address an evangelical identity crisis, said Rich Mouw, former president of Fuller Seminary, but most of these gatherings are small.

“There’s a real pastoral problem right now that in any given congregation that it’s a topic you can’t talk about,” Mouw said. “I don’t think it’s fear. I think it’s genuine pastoral perplexity about how we deal with this.”

Other invited leaders at this week’s gathering include Mark Labberton of Fuller Seminary, Ed Stetzer of Wheaton College, Jo Anne Lyon of the Wesleyan Church, Harold Smith of Christianity Today and Gabriel Salguero of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition.