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.

Advertisements

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.

When Churches Do More than Preach.

Over the past 10 years I have become decidedly more liberal in my political beliefs and general worldview. It is difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how this has happened but nonetheless it has. Today I typically find liberal solutions to issues more feasible, just, and factual accurate than many conservative ones. I try to read sources from both sides regularly but everyone has their biases and I think I’m fairly well aware of where mine lean.

However, one thing I have been uncomfortable with as I have driven ever deeper into a liberal worldview is the often clear animus toward religion. Sometimes this is subtle, sometimes it is blatant. Many liberal writers (or bloggers, or facebook posters) are quite clear that religion is a pox on humanity and if we just got rid of it the world would be a much better, kinder, tolerant place. I can understand where that view might come from but I also see it as hopelessly out of touch with where many people still are and where society might continue to go.

Given the divisive nature of American society at the moment and the dangerously cruel and incompetent nature of our current president I want to explain a little bit about what many churches do on a regular basis to help society. If religious and irreligious people can understand each other a little bit better I think we can not only achieve more in the future but also avoid political leaders like the one we recently elected.

Churches do far more than just preach a message on Sundays. Many give away significant portions of their money (which is usually exclusively donated by church members) to missionaries doing health care, relief, and leadership training in countries many Americans have never heard of. Many operate food banks. Many can, with one special offering, give thousands of dollars to charitable groups both domestic and international. Many churches have small groups and ministries that not only preach a religious message but offer folks support for all sorts of issues, addictions and emotional baggage. Churches are often small (or enormous) networks that provide things like childcare, education, or just a place to talk to each other. During the holidays many churches do more than just typical charitable giving but go beyond to provide a place where people who do not have family can spend time together. At their best churches want to make the world a better place not only by preaching an “exclusive” message but by helping the poor, downtrodden, widow, and orphan.

To be clear churches also all too often have many significant problems. There is homophobia in some churches. There is Islamophobia in some churches. There is sexism in some churches. Uplifting the institution over the people can create environments where abuse has been tragically too common. Churches are made up of flawed people just like the rest of society. Just as government and society are far from perfect so churches often (regrettably) miss the mark. But I also think if every church closed tomorrow our world would be much poorer from it.

I understand that any entity that preaches an exclusive, religious message may be a bridge too far for many people to accept.  But in a divided society I think it is essential that we at the very least seek to understand one another. Many God-fearing religious folks do not want to bestow theocracy on the US but simply want to help others. Maybe in my attempt to bridge these divides I am being too kind or naive. But in these times I think it is essential that we see and call out the good that we can in others.