I’m considering filing for divorce. On the grounds of infidelity and betrayal — and I’m heartsick. Don’t get me wrong, I adore my husband. It’s my union with an intimate partner of more than three decades, the evangelical church, that’s in trouble.
We met in college at the University of Texas, where every day I walked to class under a tower inscribed with, “Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Truth was what I was looking for, a philosophy that would make sense of a messed-up world and give me transcendent meaning and purpose. I found it in the teachings of Jesus, and though my relationship with evangelicals would be rocky at times, I’ve stayed faithful to the family that introduced us.
But like any long marriage, if at some point your partner is unfaithful, and you find yourself saying, “He’s nothing like he first presented himself,” you face the sad reality that it might be time to pack your bags.
But how do you leave a church whose members brought you meals for five months when you were bedridden with a difficult pregnancy?
How do you separate from a partner whose encouragement and spiritual wisdom helped raise your children?
And why would you reject a lover who reminds you that your value is measured by the quality of the love you give and not by popularity or prestige?
You don’t. You hang on through the heartbreak over the growing distance between you.
Or maybe not.
A family divided
The first crack in the relationship came when my millennial children questioned whether they could stay in the family. This was after the 2016 presidential election, where exit polls showed four-fifths of their brothers and sisters voted for Donald Trump, making it the most monolithic evangelical support for any president in my lifetime.
“They didn’t vote for him because they respect his character,” I assured my kids. “They’re voting against abortion and for the next Supreme Court justice.”
But then, like a sock in the gut, I watched as a host of evangelical leaders began to turn triumphalist. My children noticed first.
“Mom,” they’d say, “how can you stay in a church whose members defend a president who cheats on his wife with a porn star, brags about assaulting women, and constantly distorts the truth? Doesn’t Jesus hate this stuff?”
These weren’t my children’s first hard questions. When the evangelicals of my generation were raising our families, we focused on Bible passages about personal character and family values.
My children live in a different era. They quote a Jesus who would weep with “dreamers” and reform an unjust prison system. They aren’t losing sleep over transgender bathrooms. They’re fighting to help the most vulnerable in our city find housing.
When my two daughters broke with the evangelical megachurch that helped raise them, one stepped into an Episcopalian congregation, wooed by the beauty of its liturgy; the other bonded with Methodists, who allow women to preach and have a long history of social activism.
Now at Sunday family dinners, the debates over which grievances Jesus would address first in our country become so intense that for the first time our common faith threatens to divide us.
But something else has happened. I decided to look into their worlds a little more closely.
I went to the federal courthouse to watch my daughter, a public defender, fight for a fair sentence for a guilty felon in shackles.
“Why are you defending the bad guys,” I queried her. “Don’t you think Jesus would have been a prosecutor?”
“Are you kidding, Mom? He hung out with prostitutes and sinners. He’s for the disenfranchised and powerless. If I’m going to follow Jesus, I follow him into the prisons.”
In South Chicago, I drove into a virtual war zone to watch my youngest daughter teach special ed to third-graders at risk of being shot on their way home from school.
“Can’t you teach in a safer neighborhood?” I pleaded with her.
“But Mom,” she said, “if we’re the hands and feet of Jesus — like you taught us — this is where we need to be.”
It struck me that all those Bible stories my husband and I read to them nights at the dinner table had stuck, just in ways I was unprepared for.
And now at Sunday dinners, I lose my appetite when my kids point out the hypocrisy of my marriage to the evangelicals, and they question why I keep the name.
Sociologist Peter Berger once observed, “If India is the most religious country in the world, and Sweden the least, then America is a country of ‘Indians’ ruled by ‘Swedes.’”
For two decades, I had the extraordinary privilege of living in both countries. I was the religion reporter at ABC News in New York and before that, at WFAA-TV (Channel 8) in Dallas.
At home in Texas, I lived and worshiped in a flyover state where huge swaths of the population call themselves born-again. At work in New York and Washington, I traveled with an elite tribe of Ivy League-educated journalists who had impressive degrees but were mostly religious illiterates.
An ABC News anchor, the late Peter Jennings, had hired me to report on what believers in flyover states were up to. From the get-go, my colleagues were skeptical. A senior ABC producer told the Associated Press she was troubled that Jennings had hired a Southern “born-again Christian,” which told me she was worried that one of Berger’s “Indians” might have slipped into the newsroom.
In story after story about evangelicals, who were often at the center of religion news, my East Coast friends and colleagues used names like “swamp people” to describe members of my family, people whom they considered threats to their progressive worldviews.
I didn’t take it personally because I felt part of my work was to tone down the culture war by creating understanding between both countries.
So when I was assigned to cover stories like the evangelical men’s movement Promise Keepers, I reassured my media friends: “They’re not secretly trying to oppress women and discriminate against gays. They’re just trying to help men be better husbands, fathers and civic leaders.”
When my producers scoffed at the thousands of young evangelicals filling arenas and vowing to remain celibate until marriage, I explained that this movement wasn’t part of some right-wing radical fringe. These students were embracing centuries-old beliefs about the sacredness of sex inside marriage, something once common to Muslims, Christians and Jews.
As the only religion correspondent on network TV, I had a front-row seat for the battles playing out across the country over religious liberty, which would take me to the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court. Whether it was prayer in schools, the Ten Commandments at the courthouse, a creche in the town square, or keeping religion out of the public square, in the ’80s and ’90s, evangelical Christians increasingly felt they were losing more than respect. They felt under siege.
At the dinner table with my adult daughters, I tried to explain that in the 2016 vote, evangelicals believed they had found a defender, albeit a mean-spirited bully, who would restore their rights to practice their faith freely.
But even as I said it, I wondered: At what cost? I had assumed the evangelical leaders who supported Trump’s policies would frown on his lack of character and sexual promiscuity.
Instead I watched them wink at behavior the Old Testament prophets would have shouted down.
The head of the Family Research Council suggested evangelicals should give Trump a “mulligan” for his sexual shenanigans.
Dallas Pastor Robert Jeffress, a spiritual adviser to Trump, brushed off news of the president’s affair with porn star Stormy Daniels. “Evangelicals still believe in the commandment: Thou shalt not have sex with a porn star. However, whether this president violated that commandment or not is totally irrelevant to our support of him,” Jeffress said on Fox News.
But when I covered the scandal involving President Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the very pastors now defending Trump called for Clinton’s impeachment.
Not all evangelical leaders walk in lockstep. Many have raised alarms about the president’s behavior.
But the voices of troubled evangelicals are hardly heard, drowned out by a media that gravitates toward extremists and by ultraconservative Fox News, which for many of my family members is the source of Truth. Fox Evangelicals — a new term — refers to politically conservative Christians who sip a cocktail that is part Sean Hannity, part Jesus.
I see it even among my own friends. When I question how our president’s words and actions reconcile with our beliefs, I hear, “So what if he’s had affairs and exaggerates a little. He’s better than Hillary. Finally, someone in the White House is fighting for our interests!”
Now, in my weekly Bible study, where we pray over our joys and concerns, I’m hesitant to bring up my angst over my crumbling marriage to the family of faith I once called home.
In the beginning
How did evangelicals get to this place? You don’t have to look much farther than the first chapter of the Bible, where God placed Adam and Eve in a beautiful garden and gave them power to rule over everything more vulnerable than them.
“The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and take care of it.” Genesis 2:15
The original Hebrew words for “work it” and “take care of it” are avad and shamar. They literally mean “to serve” and “protect.” So in the beginning, God’s idea was for men and women to use their power to serve and protect.
We seem to have gotten it backward. Instead of making our mission to serve and protect the most vulnerable, the church now seems desperate to BE served and protected.
Trump’s promise to protect evangelicals is so delicious and tempting that, like Adam and Eve, my sisters and brothers have reached for an apple that could lead to their undoing.
I joined a church that was once a headlight, pointing the way to personal redemption and social justice. But it’s become just another taillight, wooed by the Sirens of political power. That leaves me heartbroken, like a woman whose husband has found another lover.
Just two weeks ago, millions of Christians in this country gathered in their churches to once again hear the story of a God who became human and vulnerable, gave up his power, and laid down his life for us so that we might do the same for others.
On Monday, a group of evangelical thought leaders who have not bowed a knee to Trump will gather for a private meeting outside Chicago, in hopes of steering the church back to that original mission. A mission that has long set people like me free. I’ll be there. And I’ll be looking for a resurrection.
That’s the kind of miracle we’ll need if there’s any hope of this marriage being saved.
Peggy Wehmeyer is a writer in Dallas and a former news correspondent for WFAA and ABC News. She wrote this column for the Dallas Morning News.