Religion

Charles Foster Johnson: Why Evangelical Support for Trump Is Eroding

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Charles Foster Johnson is a pastor, a supporter of public education, and a great advocate for separation of church and state. He founded Pastors for Texas Children to marshall support for public school students and their teachers and schools. PTC has been a major force in blocking vouchers every year in the Texas Legislature. He has worked with pastors in other states to encourage them to speak out against vouchers and privatization. He has reminded his colleagues that the best way to protect religious liberty is to avoid any funding by the government for religious activities or schools. He has attended national meetings of NPE and was a keynote speaker at our meeting in Oakland, CA. It was a rare treat to watch 500 educators prepare to listen to a Baptist preacher, tense up, then break into smiles when they realized that he is on our side and wants to make public schools better for all children.

He writes:


The evangelical support for President Trump is alarming for Christian ministers like me, who do not share their views and values. But, it is my sense, possibly born of my inveterate optimism, that the Evangelical coalition supporting Trump is breaking down. 

It’s an arcane nuance, but Trump only has the continued support of a certain subset of evangelicals, those of a triumphalist mentality, who feel that it is God’s will that their particular brand of Christianity has a divine right to succeed. These people have been at war with the culture for decades. They have advanced their apocalyptic brand through the peculiar grievance that the world is awful, that America is lost, and that it all should be blown up. Thus, their disdain for our American institutions, including public education.

They are found largely in middle class, suburban, megachurch demographic and religious categories. There is a detached gnosticism that marks their theology. The emphasis is not on love of neighbor, but rather one’s own prosperity and alleviation of anxiety. It bears little resemblance to the faith outlined in the Hebrew Scriptures and the New Testament. Harold Bloom, the Yale literary critic, nailed this curious gnosticism twenty years or so ago in a book called “The American Religion.” 

But, here is some good news:  real, organic, embodied faith communities across the theological spectrum – conservative, moderate, liberal– are not falling for Trump’s toxic mythology. These are smaller, more connected congregations in rural communities, small towns, and urban neighborhoods that are highly contextualized. They are not the disembodied entertainment circuses of the megachurches. We see these congregations thoroughly involved in their neighborhoods, particularly their public schools, and internalizing the pressing human need found in the children. Yes, some of these folks voted for Trump, but they are beginning to rethink the entire program. Providentially, Donald Trump is waking up the church!

This is why you see a growing communalism generating in places like Texas, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Candidates like Beto O’Rourke are tapping in to this communalism, and the message is simple: love your neighbor as yourself. Accordingly, there is an astonishing reaffirmation of public education nationwide. Evidence of this is the defeat of vouchers in Texas the three past legislative sessions, the remarkable repudiation of anti-public education candidates in Oklahoma this past week, and the teacher uprisings in Kentucky and West Virginia. These states are gaining sufficient strength to shift the conversation to charter schools, the privatization measure of choice for corporate profiteers. We will have some kind of policy in the upcoming legislative session, however modest, that draws the line on further charter expansion. This would not have been possible in these states even a couple of years ago. 

So, why the paradox of so-called “evangelical” support for President Trump in the heartland at the same time we are seeing a recovery of progressive faith and politics in the same southern and midwestern Bible belt localities?

When sociologists of religion drill down deep in examining what I’m calling this “evangelical subset,” and inquire as to the exact nature of their religious observances and practices, they find that many of them do not attend religious services, are not active in any religious community, do not hold church membership, do not engage in formal prayer, do not read Scripture, do not participate in good works or service.  In other words, do not have any embodied or communal behaviors that constitute what C.S. Lewis artfully called “mere Christianity.” 

Rather, they have a hyper-rationalistic and strictly conceptual notion of what constitutes “faith.” It is a mix of doctrinal purity (literal view of Scripture, creationism, etc.), a hermeneutic of suspicion about culture (academia, media, Hollywood are evil), and a reactionary view of history and politics (if we could only “go back” to when gays stayed in the closet, women stayed in the kitchen, and Christianity occupied the public square.).

Perhaps a church history lesson is instructive. A perfectly good word, “evangelical” has been stripped of its theological and historical roots, and assigned to this weirdly gnostic and apocalyptic political worldview. The word comes from the Gk. euanggelion meaning “gospel” or “good news.” It was a political term used by Caesar to announce his arrival into the gates of a Roman Empire city. The writers of the New Testament, subversives that they were, co-opted Caesar’s terminology to describe the announcement of what they considered to be the New Rule of God in the world expressed in the teachings of Jesus. 

Dietrich Bonhoeffer struggled mightily with the application of the word in his day when so many so-called “evangelical” Lutherans threw in with Hitler. So, Bonhoeffer and Karl Barth called their group the “confessing” church instead. 

The very term “Christian” has taken on a similar bad reputation in the culture at large. The term literally means “little Christ” and was a term of derision when first applied by the Romans who understandably thought the Jesus cult was the strangest of all the exotic religions they encountered in their conquests.

The term has fallen into disrepute again, especially among Fredrich Schleiermacher’s “cultured despisers of religion.”

I had a fascinating experience not long ago that brought this home to me in a chilling way. A young TCU student who had recently arrived at the university from New York City overheard me visiting with a friend in a Fort Worth coffee shop, approached our table, interrupted us courteously, and said: 

“I’m sorry, forgive me, but I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation. You say that you are a Christian, but you sure don’t talk like one.” 

Thinking instinctively that she was an “evangelical” of the variety described above, I groaned inside and said, “Excuse me?”

“Well, I’ve been listening to you for the better part of the last hour. You speak of justice, full equal rights for all people, acceptance and affirmation for LGBTQ folks, social responsibility, and the Common Good. You sure don’t sound like a Christian.”

She went on to say that the only Christians she knew of were intolerant, bigoted, hateful, and militant, which is why my speech confused her. Honest to God, this young woman, without a shred of irony, equated Christianity with a cult of meanness, and understood that fear, hate and shame were requirements. 

Needless to say, that’s a conversation I won’t soon forget.

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