It’s clear how we got here. Trump, by his own admission an unrepentant sinner, was evangelical leaders’ golden calf — their ticket to recapturing the glory days of evangelical political influence. This was a Faustian bargain that would have made Elmer Gantry blush, but let’s be honest: They weren’t interested in moral leadership but proximity to the power of the presidency. And that’s exactly what they got. It’s heady stuff being in the Oval Office laying hands on the most powerful man in the world.
Evangelicals didn’t blink in 2020 when the Republican Party eliminated its entire platform and, with it, its pro-life plank. Their blind loyalty never wavered when the platform was replaced with a cultish resolution not affirming life but affirming Trump, whatever positions he might take. What had once been a principled governing philosophy was swapped for snake oil.
Even the shocking capstone of the Trump years — his incitement of the mob that attacked the Capitol on Jan. 6 — wasn’t enough to turn evangelical leaders away. Franklin Graham, the son of Billy Graham and an outspoken loyalist, equated the 10 Republican members of Congress who voted for Trump’s impeachment to Judas Iscariot — a jarring comparison his father surely would have condemned.
Imagine if they had chosen a different posture. Over the past four years, where moral leadership was absent, the evangelical church could have stood in the gap. Instead, its leaders held up their end of their political bargain by promoting Trump’s empty rhetoric and ignoring or excusing his real record. They pointed to puffed-up achievements such as winning a fake war on Christmas.
And they celebrated pro-life judicial appointments, religious freedom and defunding Planned Parenthood. But judges are often unpredictable, the religious freedom of non-Christians is routinely ignored, and Planned Parenthood received a record $616.8 million in federal funding in the 2018-2019 fiscal year through Medicaid under Trump.
Substantively, Trump simply did not deliver on the issues evangelicals profess to care about most — faith, family and life. Where were the leaders speaking out for the children ripped from the arms of their asylum-seeking mothers? Why did they not stand for life when their unarmed Black brothers and sisters were being killed on the streets and in their homes? How could they stand silent through Trump’s endless attempts to degrade those who disagreed with him?
Instead of standing for righteousness, they sold poison apples. And now we can add one more failed moment to the list: Where is the moral leadership needed to heal the deep scars inflicted by domestic terrorists incited to desecrate the very citadel of a self-governing people?
Evangelicals missed the call to denounce the vicious lie that created the conditions for insurrection — a lie told over and over again manifested in the chant “Stop the Steal” and specifically, as court cases attest, in the majority Black districts of Milwaukee, Detroit, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Atlanta. Yes, many rushed to denounce the violence of Jan. 6. But that’s just not enough. The teller of lies must be denounced, too. How can people accept the truth about Jesus from people who are willing to lie about an election?
There is a way out of this darkness. We have a new president, and evangelical leaders have a new opportunity. In just his first few days of service, President Biden has already demonstrated his Christian humanity and decency. Evangelicals won’t like every judge Biden will appoint, but many issues remain where a Biden administration and evangelicals can find common ground and work together to bear fruit, beginning with immigration reform that includes a compassionate asylum policy protecting life at the border. There is much work to be done in judicial reform and race relations. Perhaps there will be differences on environmental policies, but there should be much to agree on in being good stewards of our part of God’s creation.
But none of that is possible if the evangelical church chooses to settle for merely being one coalition partner to one political party.
True evangelicalism is so much bigger than that. It’s time for evangelical leaders to reject the false god of politics and its ideological binaries and return to their historical role of promoting justice, modeling grace and standing for truth. It’s a role that once helped with the work — and can help again — of making America “one nation under God” where life is cherished, liberty is advanced and happiness is only limited by our talent to pursue our dreams.
I suspect President Biden would welcome them back.
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