Almost a year later, I still wonder and ponder: What does the testimony of the modern Christian Church in the U.S. sound like anymore? To ourselves? To the entire world? In a very troubled world, what is the testimony of the Christian Church in the U.S., Nigeria, Brazil, Europe and the world over? The uncertainties of the Christian witness exposed in 2016 have hardly abated. On the contrary, religious and ethnic tensions in places like Nigeria rekindle age-old contradictions between faith, words, rhetoric, and action. Living out our identity as Christians, in the face of terrorism, racism, bigotry, and ethnic hatred, demands deep reflection and soul searching. My faith in God is not shaken; my understanding of fellow Christians is.
I thought America would pass the test this time, but it didn’t. I pray Nigeria will not follow suit and fail too because the consequences would be nightmarish.
Clear lines of division
I start from the U.S. The elections of 2016 exposed yet again America’s divisions in race, geography, economics, and politics. They forced us to calibrate “American values”. More so, the elections uncovered the deep-seated divisions within the Church, the Christian Church. Typically and historically, the political Right has been known to receive much support from Evangelical Christians. With this support, Conservatives made their claim on being the moral Right, burdened with preserving our very Christian heritage and the soul of the nation.To this extent, the values espoused as Christian and supported politically have included family values (pro-marriage; pro-life, moral character, personal responsibility). When nothing else worked, the political Right used the pro-life /anti-abortion position to ascribe to itself the moral high ground. Furthermore, in aligning with the political Right, Evangelicals (consequently? inadvertently?) also adopted the Right’s positions on gun control, freedom(s), small government — positions that have less clear Biblical support and many times even contradictory ones. In the aforesaid sense, the political Left was left to hold the “non-Christian, godless” bag. They were left to look and sound “heathen” with their positions on pro-choice, inclusion, LGBT, and now same sex unions. The big umbrella had “cost” the Left — at least in the eyes of the moral majority — their faith, if they had any to begin with. In their defense, the Left claimed not to put a religious test on issues of state, insisting on separation of personal faith from state functions. In fact, both sides categorize the same issues differently under personal vs. state. On abortion rights, while Liberals say it’s a personal decision that should be protected by the state, Conservatives want the state to completely overturn that right. The inherent contradictions as well as nuanced positions in the middle on both sides require more analysis not to be taken up here. The optics of the debate in any case pegs Christianity on the right and begs the existence of it on the left.
The affiliations have always been there and are occasionally challenged. Christian identity does not neatly align to political identity, Right or Left. President Jimmy Carter would probably qualify as one of the most notable presidents in recent history who clearly articulated his Christian beliefs and lived out his faith, prior to, during, and post his presidency. On the other hand, Conservative groups such as Focus on the Family, Family Research Council, Ralph Reed’s Christian Coalition offer their Biblical values with a unique appeal to and support of Republican candidates such as George W. Bush, George H. W. Bush, and Ronald Reagan. While Jim Wallis and others have challenged these political alignments and the claims made by one political party about Christianity, they have added to the nation’s conversations many of the issues on the Left as equally valid and worthy Biblical values needing solutions. Consequently, issues such as immigration, social justice, and poverty are now strongly part of Biblical values lexicon. In any case, the underlying debate of Right/ Left divide and Christianity is not new.
The shake up: The facade of Christian values
But enough of the categorizations. If the Church had an appearance of division along political fault lines, would its core essence, values, and beliefs stand the test of
authenticity in matters of everyday human experience? More so than before, had the Christian faith become more segregated by race, geography, and ethnicity? The reality was that the Late Dr. M. L. King’s assertion that 11 am on Sunday mornings was the most segregated hour had continued to be true. We began to accept the segregated Church as a cultural convenience. We chucked it up to cultural comfort, stylistically different worship experiences, and choice.
Minorities, immigrants, Blacks, Whites, Asians all worshiped in their own enclaves. But was it all cultural? Were we all indeed believing and practicing the same? At the very least, did we hold the same Christian values in the “essentials” category (1 Corinthians 10)? Things were about to shake up.
Evangelicals and Pres.Trump
During the very divisive campaigns, the fault lines within the Church became more visible. The schism emerged even within Evangelical communities. In the face of an unusual candidate, now President, the political Left thought for sure there was no way the Christian Right would support and get behind this candidate. For certain, the beliefs, and positions on every one of those major conservative values were completely abandoned and in fact trounced by this candidate — marriage, morality, sexual purity, bullying, boastfulness, and verbal abuse of even their own. The list was long. Candidate Trump: doubly divorced, triply married, tainted by scandals of infidelity, multiply accused in court, cheater, grabber, etc. This could not be the candidate for the political or religious Right. Evangelicals could not support this man. His would be a doomed candidacy, or so they thought.
But then came the huge surprise: No! Some Evangelical leaders rather than reprove the candidate’s unsavory outbursts chose to tacitly support him. Evangelicals from the pews followed their leaders and aligned with Trump’s candidacy. Why, everyone wondered?
Well, the reasons ranged from Trump had asked for forgiveness (which he didn’t); the sovereignty of God was not to be questioned; and “He who is without sin should cast the first stone.”
Of course, there was a convergence of other interests since his appeal captured the disenfranchised, the anti-establishment, the people left-behind, and/or the Rust Belt. These same groups just so happened to be Christian, it was explained. Yet, the Evangelical support was geographically and economically diverse: the Rust Belt, suburban, rural, middle class and the economically more stable. The presumptuous nominee went on to solidify this support by playing the Christian cards well. He vocalized the promise of conservative Supreme Court appointees
and offered a wisp of overturning Roe v. Wade. These two issues, it is said, sealed the deal. Never mind that Trump had wavered on his own positions on abortion; his identity as a political conservative was not even convincing, what more a religious one.
In this regard, Evangelical support was justified to some extent, but was there something else? A more flawed candidate in the person of Hillary Clinton? Then came the question of why her own “sins” and poor judgments were not being easily forgiven by the Evangelical community even though she had a more convincing Christian background, had previously taught Bible studies, etc. The attempt is not to litigate the elections, but to eliminate as many factors to get to my main point. Ultimately, the flawed and unsuccessful candidacy of Mrs. Clinton was buried by Evangelicals because of her pro-choice position. So went the rationalizations. Several outspoken leaders as well as bloggers online ventured that the Supreme Court sealed the deal for Christians voting for Trump. In their consciences, they would cast a blind eye to every other mitigating factor in deference to the life of the unborn. We’ll get back to the altar of the unborn thus erected.
Evangelicals and Pres. Obama
Many comparisons have been made, but the reality is that many Evangelicals also voted for Trump in opposition to Obama. Why? The latter’s position on gay rights, Planned Parenthood, and let’s stop pretending – the belief, still, that he is a closet Muslim. Yes, all that played into white Evangelicals’ sense of loss, loss of control of the white culture and of white dominance. The growing immigrant, writ Muslim populations, added to their feelings of being under siege. Understandably so.
Pres. Obama’s professed and observed faith, as with Mrs. Clinton’s, meant little in this part of the Evangelical world because the two could not abate the fear, but ironically augmented the threat. [The threat of difference — black, perceived Muslim, and female identities will be discussed at some other time]. Barack Obama stepped into the picture and it is needless to repeat the over-repeated phrase that he was different. But while Donald Trump, who was also considered “different,” got forgiven from the onset for his own many unchristian words, behaviors, and actions, Barack Obama was vilified for another’s utterances. He was asked to pay for his former Pastor Rev. Wright’s fiery speeches. A demand was made on Candidate Obama to answer for the sins of another while Candidate Trump was rewarded with “Christian” love and acceptance. Early on in his presidency, when President Obama faced the ire of tea party and anti-health care riots, the full assault was made to his non-white, non-Evangelical identity. The religiously-laced attacks about his being the anti-Christ were followed by conspiracies of membership in the secret society of Illuminati and intimations of his ushering in the one-world order, plus Armageddon.
In retrospect, Obama’s uniqueness may have been all too much to swallow at one time. On the spectrum of religious fanaticism, one person occupied all points from being the anti-Christ to Muslim and back to Illuminati! If these charges were not made by mostly Christian majorities, Conservative talk shows that were aligned to the religious Right amplified them. Mainstream Evangelicals, meanwhile, mostly kept silent. Most of them said and did nothing. Pres. Obama left office 8 years later, with no one-world order in place and no Apocalypse. He left office with a beautifully intact and loving family that matches what the Bible requires of Christians, and yet, we never heard any retractions or apologies from those Evangelical-backed voices. I reiterate: After having witnessed a scandal-free two-term presidency, after having observed one of the most beautiful families any Christian family could emulate, those voices have remained silent to the Obamas’ right living and personal morals. But why would any retractions be made? After all, Pres. Obama failed the tests on abortion and worse, ushered in same sex unions. Why would Evangelicals now care about those indispensable personal virtues, those old family values of marriage fidelity, personal responsibility, and moral character that Evangelicals themselves previously championed!
History cannot lie.
It’s almost like we are living a re-run. Christianity’s fingerprints in aiding slavery, poverty, inequity, and anti- immigrant positions are now well-known but little discussed. I was reminded of that tainted past by two movies. Minister Nat Turner’s story, as powerfully depicted in Birth of a Nation, and the Loving’s story as emotionally rendered in Loving, demonstrated the loss of Christian witness. Biblical sound doctrine was sacrificed on the altars of fear, discrimination, and white supremacy. The subtext of the lived experiences of Turner and the Lovings — of love, disappointment, injustice, and racism — is that Christianity in the West went on trial and was found wanting.
For Nat Turner, abolitionist and former slave, teacher, preacher, one could see how White slave owners used the very values in the Bible to oppress and dominate. There’s no getting around it. At that time, White Christians believed they were of a finer breed than Blacks, that the latter were not created equal to them, and the Bible, the very inerrant Word of God, was exploited to commit evil. No less with the Lovings, until the Supreme Court brought the discrimination to a halt, ruling that love should know no boundaries of color and race. Again, with the eyes of history, we wonder how Christians then did not live out practically Christ’s witness to truly love. The Supreme Court righted a wrong that Christians then did not care nor were willing to correct. [I will admit I am not of the opinion that the Supreme Court always represents God’s justice, but it has in many cases been used to establish righteousness that governments or man have reneged on. Ultimately, the Supreme Court does not and should not be expected to always rule according to the Bible for the very reason that the founding fathers did not envision this country as a theocracy. I digress.]
A wake-up call for the Church
Nat Turner and the Lovings: That was then; this is now. The Church is continuing to be tested and refined. What are the personal truths but also societal and kingdom truths that we espouse and live by as witnesses to ourselves and to others? I believe that the values we choose to elevate and the reasons for those choices are worth deep conversations. For instance, why do Evangelicals stand only for the unborn and not for every other life post birth? The fact is that there was no guarantee then and even now that Pres. Trump has everything in place to roll back Roe v. Wade, that that would actually happen. The greater point to be made is that Evangelical Christians have erected an ungodly altar of Pro-Life/Anti-abortion. The worship at this altar is turning the Christian witness into a lie. The Machiavellian reasoning of Evangelicals at this altar and other so-called moral Right values calls for a soul searching. How is our total witness being compromised by this one position? Have Evangelical Christians turned into Esaus who have sold their birthright for a piece of pudding? As Christians, we certainly agree on the sanctity of life and science continues to buttress our belief that life at any stage is worth preserving. But have we created a false god, above all else, with its politicization?
In the end, this is not a story about Pres. Trump or Pres. Obama. This is a search for the heart of Christianity. In the West, the sad reality is that the anti-abortion/pro-life stance has turned into a litmus test for Christianity in America. The stance on abortion has become the one and only factor upon which every other faith issue is measured. It has become the one unforgivable sin. Against abortion, no other moral expectation of faith matters. Can one kill, lie, hate, cheat, steal, insult, debase, assault, bully, divorce, or fornicate and Christians look the other away as long the rhetoric on abortion is espoused?
Not out of the woods yet.
The dilemma is that going forward, Christians cannot afford to stand against a whole slate of God’s children — Other Christians, the poor, immigrants, Muslims, LGBT, and non-White minorities. I am not in any sense proposing agreement with non-Biblical beliefs. However, for every group that was marginalized and dis-empowered in 2016, that received little compassion or empathy from Evangelicals, Christ’s witness through His children is called to task. What gospel are we preaching and living?
The world is still watching. Nigeria looks on. As ethnic and religious divisions appear to escalate, Nigerian Christians cannot count on Evangelical neighbors from the West who have failed their own test to model the way. The voices of division and hatred threaten to overshadow those of peace. Universally, the Church of Christ is made to look weak and lacking in truth. But that is not to be.
What are Christians going to stand up for or fall for? In the U.S., in Nigeria, and elsewhere? Are our values going to be all of God’s values or just a select few mounted up on altars that defy the very compassionate heart of Jesus for all people? Do we allow love to speak? Can the elect be deceived? The possibility is hinted at. Will they be deceived? It’s never safe to compromise our core beliefs as Christians or condone hateful rhetoric, even in the name of God. All Christian values matter. In the U.S., will Evangelicals look the other way again and return to the Nat Turner-like years of misapplication of Scripture? Will Nigerian Christians yield to the bloodthirsty ethnic hatred under the guise of defending the Christian faith against Islam?
We have a world that is reeling with pain, with wars and displaced refugees, and our compassion as Christians, much like our Master’s, should not fail. We have a world in which deceit, lies, and underhandedness are being normalized and the alliances being formed could be the deadliest yet to be seen. On a spiritual level, that is the unnerving truth. Will Christians be silent again as they were in the past?
My interest and fascination with the Evangelical response to the two U.S. presidents particularly, and the social issues that abound, led me on this inquiry. From the perspective of faith, the Evangelical response to both presidents has been glaringly and uniquely different and one must wonder no more. How longstanding divisions separating Christian Right and Christian Left played out differently with these two presidents reveals much about the state of the Church. Many Evangelical faith positions are hardly recognizable from Biblical values. When Pastor John Piper, one among the very few that chose not to be silent, spoke up, he was attacked mercilessly. Part of his message, supported here is this: “Not speaking out against the moral ineptitude of Trump and blindly affirming him amount to a tacit approval to his behaviors –behaviors that have in the past been unequivocally categorized as totally unchristian.”
I have sought for Evangelicals, all Christians to conduct some introspection. More uncovering will continue under a Trump presidency. What will be maintained, what values will be jettisoned, abandoned, ignored, or affirmed and why? Refugees are being summarily denied compassionate responses from this administration and will Christian leaders (political and religious) continue to look the other way? What will Christians stand up for, to, and against?
Of course, no one could ever always and completely understand God’s ways. That God can allow and use anyone is indisputable but that is not the same as claiming (as has been repeatedly uttered) that our Almighty God gives approval to what is unlike Him. Our silence and inaction in the face of wrong does not get the cover of God’s sovereignty. Yes, He is sovereign. He also expects us to be faithful to the entirety of holy Scriptures in building His Church. To select, rationalize, or compromise our Christian values to the extent that they become merely politically expedient tools makes them unchristian.
“So God, I ask that the church would not rely on government and would not rely on a Trump presidency. I pray for evangelical leaders not to celebrate Donald Trump’s presidency with no apparent qualification, no tears, no brokenness, no sadness that he set such an awful example for this land.”
Pastor John Piper—Prayer for Pres. Trump, 2016