First Principles

This past week my wife held a conversation using the app Meetup to bring folks together to discuss spirituality and religion. I went with her this week and the question we discussed was, “What is your guiding principle in life?” We had a diverse group of people with various backgrounds and experiences and unsurprisingly the question provoked an interesting and wide-ranging conversation. At first the question came off as a bit challenging for people to fully answer but no one objected to the topic. I think at some level we all want to feel we have clear life principles and goals.

I grew up in a Christian home and have attended church all my life. I was even essentially a missionary overseas for two years after college. I feel like I grew up being taught, and then taking as my own, very clear first principles that have guided my life. These principals include the centrality of a relationship with Jesus for salvation, reading the Bible and praying regularly, and loving others. To give you a landmark these principles could be described as conservative protestant evangelical.

I have been far from the perfect Christian in my life but my adherence to these principals has always been near the forefront of my life. In high school I got into fights about abortion more often than I discussed going out with friends. I developed a huge interest in Christian apologetics in high school in order to better defend my faith. I have always tried to be as best I can to be honest, respectful, and kind to others. Friends and others, even when they disagree with me, have noticed these qualities in me repeatedly. I have grown a lot in the last ten years and I see many pros and cons to these first principals of my life but overall I am grateful for the grounding they have provided me.

The reason I mention the above is I read an article a couple of weeks ago that put these first principles up for a debate that infuriated me. You can read the article here. The article discusses how Trump earned the wide-ranging support of white evangelicals. The same white evangelicals I have been a part of my entire life. The most damning quotation to me in the article reads,

“The clearest example of evangelical ethics bending to fit the Trump presidency is white evangelicals’ abandonment of their conviction that personal character matters for elected officials. In 2011 and again just ahead of the 2016 election, PRRI asked Americans whether a political leader who committed an immoral act in his or her private life could nonetheless behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public life. In 2011, consistent with the “values voter” brand and the traditional evangelical emphasis on the importance of personal character, only 30 percent of white evangelical Protestants agreed with this statement. But with Trump at the top of the Republican ticket in 2016, 72 percent of white evangelicals said they believed a candidate could build a kind of moral dike between his private and public life. In a head-spinning reversal, white evangelicals went from being the least likely to the most likely group to agree that a candidate’s personal immorality has no bearing on his performance in public office.”

Conservative evangelicals whether you agree or disagree typically have incredibly clear and strong first principals. They are rooted in scripture and, if you grow up in church, you hear them from cradle to grave. I do not think all these principals are good or helpful but I think many are. And until November 8th, 2016 I thought most evangelicals followed them. With the advent of the Trump candidacy and now presidency, it is evident that many conservative evangelicals have either rejected, or never had, many of the first principals I thought they did.

I realize, as I have said before, that many evangelicals did not vote for Trump. I also realize why politically, morally, or spiritually many felt they could not vote for Hillary Clinton. What I cannot wrap my head around is why people with the strong first principles that conservative evangelicals supposedly have could justify voting for a man like Trump. As I have written before, he is a leader with the opposite in character, temperament, and ability that any conservative evangelical would want. Or so I thought.

This is not merely a political issue for me. If white evangelicals had gone for Cruz and Rubio I would not be writing this. This is not about a mostly republican base voting for a republican candidate. This is a about a group who promotes clear first principles reject them to vote for a chance at what they perceive as power.

I am beyond disappointed at how all this has gone down but ultimately I am not worried about myself. In spite of everything I will still attend church and believe that , at our best, Christians can do much good in the world. I do worry about our witness to the world though. What does it say to the world when our first principles have to be so soundly ignored and rejected to bring us to a man like Trump? What does it say to our young people? Why should a secular person care about the moral compass of a philosophy that explains away the incompetency and moral failings of our current president?

I do not write this to demean people who voted for Trump. Many did who are not, in fact, evangelicals. He was elected at a specific point in history, via an arcane electoral system. But it needs to be said, as a life-long evangelical, I feel betrayed and this cannot bode well for the church or its mission in the world.

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A Better Story

This past weekend President Donald Trump gave the commencement address at Liberty University in Virginia, one of the premier evangelical colleges in the US. In a presidency that so far has never been short of headlines, this one is completely unsurprising. The President of Liberty, Jerry Falwell Jr. was an early supporter of Trump and invited him to campus during his campaign. In recent weeks he has gone so far as to say that Trump was a “dream president” for evangelicals so far.

President’s Trump victory was surprising and even shocking to many whether you were ardently opposed to his candidacy or not. Much analysis will continue to be done on how he accomplished this victory but a major factor was his deep support from white evangelicals. The most common statistic I have seen is that 81% of white evangelicals voted for Mr. Trump. This number has been parsed in many ways often to minimize how religious these “evangelical” Trump voters really are and to an extent I agree with that. I know anecdotally that many Christians either refused to vote, or voted for a third party candidate. Many Christian leaders began and remain in the #NeverTrump camp. But a quick search on the internet reveals a deep swath of support for Trump from white evangelical leaders and the group as a whole.

As someone who is essentially a white evangelical and still attends church this troubles me deeply. I know this will be almost impossible but take away the politics from Donald Trump as a person for a moment. Who are we left with? We are left with a man who rarely, if ever, tells the truth. A man who was caught on tape bragging about sexual assault.  A man many consider racist or at least deeply hurtful. A man who, whatever his political views, seems woefully unprepared for the office of the presidency. And most damning to me, a man who seems the polar opposite of what I thought white evangelicals would want in a presidential candidate.

I realize no one is asking for my advice but writing this is simply one small way that I can tell myself that I spoke out against this man. As a Christian I think we need to cut our losses. We need to speak out against the white evangelical leaders who undercut their entire lives of work and ministry and their moral rightness in advising that Mr. Trump was somebody evangelicals could support. Leaders like Mr. Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, Tony Perkins, and Eric Metaxas, among many others. They can keep telling us that we saved the republic by voting for Mr. Trump but we should not listen to or support their claims. I’m not asking anyone to become a democrat who is not or that they should have voted for Hillary Clinton. I am not proposing that either political party is all good or all evil. I am simply asking the white evangelical community to renounce their support for Mr. Trump and to move on.

The leaders I name above are all Christians. They fancy themselves as truth-tellers. They want to believe we avoided catastrophe by electing Mr. Trump. They want to believe that Mr. Trump’s presidency is adding to the story that all Christians tell of the gospel, the good news. In fact Christians have a better story. A much better story. A story that can change lives and even societies for the better. Mr. Trump does not add anything to this story, he undercuts it at every turn. Our moral witness as Christians means nothing as long as it is tied to the support of this petty and incompetent man. We can do better. We have done better. We must do better in the future.

Louie Giglio in the news.

I did not imagine that the day after I wrote an entry about Christians, family values and LGBT people that something like this Louie Giglio news event would occur but here we are. This news story is yet another example of what Christians and evangelicals (my faith) will have to deal with in coming months and years and our response is clearly vital not just for the practice of our faith but also our relationship with the greater culture as a whole.

Some background for folks who have not been following: Giglio is a well-known pastor from Georgia. His main focus has been Passion conferences and a movement to end sex trafficking. This anti-slavery work garnered an invitation from the Obama Inaugural committee to offer a prayer at the ceremony. A couple days ago a website publicized a sermon by Giglio from the 1990s that preached negatively about homosexuals. After much outcry, Giglio released a statement respectfully declining the invitation to speak.

Full disclosure: I have watched a few sermon series by Giglio and went to one of his conferences when I lived in South Africa in 2008. I have not kept up with his Passion or anti-slavery movement but by most accounts I find him to be an engaging speaker and a great and thoughtful man of God.

Unsurprisingly the battle-lines have been drawn after this event. Somewhat unexpectedly though they are calling each other out about the same thing: tolerance and inclusiveness. LGBT advocates denounced Giglio as someone who is “anti-gay” and unworthy of the inaugural stage. Evangelicals accused LGBT advocates for promoting tolerance for everyone except them and other conservative religious followers. The question has been raised, is there any space in the public square for the conservative evangelical pastor or leader? Giglio himself expressed the issue concisely in his statement backing out of the invitation saying, “…individuals’ rights of freedom, and the collective right to hold differing views on any subject is a critical balance we, as a people, must recover and preserve.”

As an evangelical christian these are tough issues to think about and navigate. I foresee these issues continuing to come up in the days and years ahead. Here are just a few thoughts on things I think both sides could be thinking about in the days ahead.

Evangelicals need to realize that the standard “Christian” response to homosexuality is largely untenable to large segments of our present society. Most LGBT people have no desire to change, do not believe it is possible and are gravely insulted when Christians tell them that they can. This does not make them “anti-christian” as much as it makes them “pro-themselves.” In a nation that values “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” Christians need to accept that some will find all those things outside of the “evangelical” model. In addition, they need to accept that while they believe they are speaking “truth in love” this truth can be and has been incredibly hurtful, unhelpful, and destructive to people trying to not just live their lives but also find Jesus. Evangelicals also need to accept that the “Biblical” model of sexuality is not their own exclusive domain. There are many churches now that openly accept and affirm LGBT people and their relationships. We can debate and argue about who is right but are we willing to condemn all these other churches even as they preach Jesus as well? “…for whoever is not against us is for us.”

 

On the part of LGBT advocates I am sure it is wildly frustrating and even infuriating to hear over and over again how destructive their lives are from people who do not even know them. Realize that most have no idea how hurtful their words are and are often genuinely trying to simply follow their faith. I have no doubt in my mind that Giglio is not a bigot. He is however, trapped by his set of circumstances. If he were to disavow that sermon from the 90s he would likely have to give up his entire life’s work up to this point. He would lose his pastoral job and with it the leadership of his Passion conferences and leadership of his anti-slavery movement. Please understand I am not comparing his troubles to the myriad injustices LGBT people face simply existing in the world today but simply noting this is a tough issue that will take time. I personally feel it was unhelpful and unwise for Giglio to refer to LGBT people’s desire for acceptance as an “agenda” yet again yesterday. But I also think that labeling him a “bigot” does little to respect the great good he has done in his career or move the conversation forward.

I guess what I am calling for is a dose of humility from both sides. The more entrenched we become the less likely we will be able to meet each other going forward as citizens and Christians.

 

Not a Strategy, the Cornerstone.

This past Sunday there was a great article about Evangelicals in the paper. Being one myself it caught my eye and I read it with great interest. You can read it here. It gives a balanced portrayal of why evangelicals often get such a bad wrap in many circles while noting that many actually do a significant amount of good in the world. I think it was an article I would write if I was a journalist of a world famous newspaper. But I’m not so I’m happy to read such things for free.

I gravitated towards the comments section not because I care much for this section typically but because I wanted to see what people’s thoughts were on my faith and way of life. Predictably their was a whole grab bag of negative and postive thoughts. Some were interesting and thought-provoking. Many were worthless polemical dreck. One theme that stuck out to me though was the confusion from many about why Evangelicals couldn’t just do nice things apart from Jesus, religion etc. People need help, it feels nice to help, why get all messy with the Bible? Added to this was the generalization that Christians “only” do good works to further proselytizing efforts. I feel like a few short comments are warranted.

Jesus is not my strategy. He is not a gimmick, a selling point or a product that I am trying to purvey. He is the central cornerstone of  my life. His life,  example and existence informs everything that I believe and every action I decide (or don’t decide) to do. Having Jesus exist outside any good works I may do is simply not an option. I don’t tell people about Jesus because it makes me feel good, I do it because it just comes up. I will applaud good works wherever I see them and I will call out bigotry, hatred, homophobia, stupidity, sexism or anything else that is contrary to God’s incredible love for humanity.

I imagine that first sentence in my last paragraph lost a lot of you but if your still reading know this: I’m not asking, forcing, persuading, or trying to manipulate you into a false sense of religious security. I am living my life  for someone, something incredibly bigger then myself. In fact it is bigger than all of us. I have no idea what that will look for you. I do know that if Jesus is not in the picture it will be less than what it can be. We have been created to do good works not to glory in ourselves and our goodness but to exalt and proclaim Jesus.

One more personal example. This summer I have worked at a Christian camp for boys and girls ages 7-15. In my position of leadership I have been the one that my counselors have come to when they have a camper with an issue, serious or otherwise. I have talked to kids dealing with homesickness, bullying, and trouble in their home life. Just last week I spent 45 minutes consoling a boy who was literally cowering in the darkness because he was exhausted and scared of his cabin mates and any potential judgement they might dole out to him. It took every ounce of my patience and energy to console this camper enough for him to go to bed.

It should be noted that I would console a camper, child, person, human being regardless of their race, socioeconomic status, appearance, religion, political leaning or sexual orientation. I have no idea if this kid was a christian or if and when he will ever become one. But the important question is really “Does God love them?” Then I better do my best to mimic that the best I can. God is the cornerstone of my life and I hope it will be evident to whoever I come across.