Evangelicals, Trump and theology

unilad-donald-trump-bible6‘I am done with the label “evangelical”. It’s not the theological position I have a problem with, it is just the term. When 80% of white evangelicals vote for Trump…’ This was not a comment from Tony Campolo, but a conversation with someone with UK national profile. What are the theological issues at stake, and what should we make of it?

Before getting into any of the details, there are three vital things to remember when considering the use of the term on either side of the pond. The first is that, in the US, ‘evangelical’ functions as a term of social labelling in a way which we find to hard to comprehend in the UK. For us, ‘evangelical’ is a subset of the Christian church, only used with caution (and mostly used with little understanding outside the church). But in America, it is possible for people to call themselves ‘evangelical’ without being regular church-goers. Secondly, in the US and particularly in the South, Christian faith engages with those at the lower end of the education and socio-economic scale in a way that has never been the case over here. If voting for Trump correlates with lower education and lower income, then we should not be surprised that that is going to involve ‘evangelicals’. Thirdly, being ‘evangelical’ in the US is often used to mean ‘fundamentalist’—and this is not an insult in the way it is over here. Some of the key theological convictions amongst influential ‘evangelicals’ in America are quite distinct from the historic position of evangelicals here.

We also need to note that the ‘80% of evangelicals voted for Trump’ mantra (mentioned by Martin Saunders and emphasised by ‘progressive’ Rachel Held Evans in her poor and unreflective rant) is not well founded. It was based on poor sampling, only assessed white evangelicals, and does not take into account those who decided not to vote—so the more likely figure is around 35%–40%. A number of key evangelical leaders spoke against Trump before the elections, and a group of students from fundamentalist Jerry Falwell‘s Liberty University signed a petition rejecting him.

To understand the connection between theological position and voting, it would be helpful to have someone explain how their decision relates to their theology, and fortunately we have one. Bill Johnson is senior pastor at Bethel church in Redding, California, and is better known for his healing ministry than for his politics, and has been a regular speaker at New Wine summer conferences in recent years. Johnson had expressed his support for Trump during the campaign, and had received a fair amount of criticism for doing so (and it is worth reflecting on who had been offering that criticism). So he offered an explanation on his Facebook page which has been reproduced on various websites.

I was told if I voted for Trump I needed to open my bible to find out why it was morally wrong. So I did, and this is what I found.

Martin Saunders offered a critique, in which he charges Johnson with ‘missing the point’—but I wonder if there are some things Saunders himself has missed in his assessment.

The first issue Johnson raises is that of abortion. The abortion debate in the US is much more polarised and politicised in the US than in the UK, and has a different dimension which we need to bear in mind. The landmark ruling was Roe v Wade in 1973, and which is the focus of debate. It introduced the right to abortion in terms not very different from our own 1967 Abortion Act, but crucially imposed a Federal ruling on every US State, when many states felt they should have freedom to enact their own laws free from federal interference. Many struggle to make sense of a political or theological position which is ‘pro-life’ in relation to abortion, but appears to be ‘pro-death’ when it comes to gun control. But the converse question is worth asking of ourselves: why are so many Christians (rightly) concerned about the vulnerable in our society who are affected by ‘austerity’ and cuts to welfare—but seem unconcerned about abortion which arguably affects the most vulnerable group in our society? Concern about abortion has become the province of those deemed most ‘conservative’ (either theologically or politically) and, without delving into the complex issues involved, it is worth asking why this is.

The second issue for Johnson relates to immigration, and the duty of a government to protect its citizens which (he believes) comes ahead of an open immigration policy. Saunders is highly critical here, and reaches for the long tradition and theological commitment Christians have to welcome the stranger. But I am not convinced Saunders’ argument is as straightforward as it seems. There is a clear mandate in the OT to protect ‘the widow, the orphan and the alien’, but what is embarrassing for our contemporary ethics is that the assumption is made that the resident alien will adopt the culture, customs and religion of Israel when he or she settles there. We are challenged by the loyalty of Ruth and her commitment to Naomi—but we all too quickly pass over her comment that ‘your God will became my God’. As I have explored here previously, a good deal of Christian public comment on this issue does not engage with the complex issues, and lapses into ‘virtue signalling.’ Importing people is not like importing apples, since people come with values, commitments, and beliefs, and when they come they change the country that they come to.

Johnson then addresses a cluster of issues around wealth creation, welfare and socialism. In suggesting that God delights in wealth creation, he is drawing on one strand of Old Testament theology—that God is the source of blessing and abundance—but rather by-passing at least two others. The Wisdom tradition in Scripture raises some significant questions about the correlation between wealth and blessing, and the theme that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Ps 24.1) which leads to the idea of human stewardship of resources offers a strong argument against the idea of permanent human ownership—and the Jubilee principle of restoring land to ancestral families expresses this tangibly. Johnson’s protest against the idea of structured welfare organised by the state doesn’t have much in the way of a theological justification, but is much more a reflection of American resistance to state control rooted in the individualism of both the Puritans and the privateers who were its founders. Engagement in structured social action has been a striking hallmark of evangelicals in the UK for the last couple of decades—though Christians who support welfare provision often have little to say about the destructive force of the dependency culture that it creates.

Johnson’s comments on honesty and propriety sound hollow to most on this side of the pond; given that Trump has contradicted himself on every major area of policy, including in his views of Hillary Clinton, it is really hard to know what this kind of concern actually means. Alastair Roberts, who explores in an earlier post here the concerns about liberal ideology behind Christian support for Trump, also suggests some questions that need serious reflection:

1. What do I believe will happen to the credibility and moral authority of Christians who support voting for Donald Trump?

2. Is Trump someone with a track record of being faithful to his promises and of loyalty to others when things get tough?

3. What bearing does Trump’s personal morality have upon his suitability for office? (…and seven others)

Johnson appears to be taking a Christian Zionist view of Israel, something that is hotly contested amongst evangelicals in the UK, and which I think is based on a misreading of the promises of the land in the Old and New Testaments. In claiming that ‘the one who blesses Israel is blessed by the Lord’ he fails to notice that Paul uses the term ‘Israel of God’ to refer to followers of Jesus (Gal 6.16).

This is only a sampling of Johnson’s views, but three things emerge. First, amongst UK evangelicals, many of the issues that Johnson calls confidently are areas of debate where there is a range of views, some quite at odds with Johnsons’. Secondly, within that spectrum, Johnson’s views sit at best at one end of the spectrum, and on different areas line up at that end. Thirdly, his views are clearly shaped by the particular context he is in; this is to some extent true of all of us, but it is possible to be more or less critical of one’s own culture and inheritance. Given that Johnson would look ‘eccentric’ (in the strict sense of being some way from the centre) amongst Uk evangelicals, why should his views lead me to make a judgment about the use of the term ‘evangelical’ amongst UK Christians? Why should we think that Johnson speaks for us or represents our position in any way?

A better view comes from Mark Labberton and Richard Mouw, the current and past Presidents of Fuller Theological Seminary, where I am adjunct professor (which, being translated, means visiting lecturer). They start by clarifying what Fuller means when it calls itself ‘evangelical’:

This term has captured the seminary’s commitment to the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ, its trust in the unique and supreme authority of the Bible, its engagement in the personal and global mission of God in the world. The term has gone through various stormy seasons of contention and debate, not least as a contrast to fundamentalism. Over time, and in distinction to some, Fuller has not used evangelical as a term of association with political, partisan, racial, gender, or sexual identity politics. The seminary has instead persisted in its use of the term to identify its particular theological and missional commitments.

They go on to note the serious concerns raised by ‘evangelical’ support for Trump:

For some evangelicals, abortion and future Supreme Court appointments were of primary concern, placed over and against concerns for women, people of color, Muslims, and LGBT persons. This polarization, even among evangelicals, led some to conclude that evangelicals on both sides were increasingly and inextricably bound to and complicit with scandalizing words and actions that degrade people and contradict and betray the gospel of Jesus Christ…For some who have identified themselves as evangelical, these distorted entanglements now compel them to abandon the term, to adamantly reject further identification with evangelical and with groups associated with it.

But they commit to retaining the term, because of its articulation of what Fuller believes:

Evangelical has value only if it names our commitment to seek and to demonstrate the heart and mind of God in Jesus Christ. This calls us into deeper faith and greater humility. It also leads us to repudiate and resist all forces of racism, misogyny, and all other attitudes and actions, overt and implied, that subvert the dignity of persons made in the image of God. The only evangelicalism worthy of its name must be one that both faithfully points to and mirrors Jesus Christ, the good news for the world, and seeks justice that reflects the character of God’s kingdom.

Because of its non-negotiable commitment to the evangel, God’s good news, Fuller Seminary will continue to identify itself as evangelical. We must understand evangelical not as a self-congratulatory description of Fuller Theological Seminary but as our commitment and aspiration: our deep desire that the daunting and urgent hope of Jesus Christ will transform us so our speech truly proclaims and our life faithfully enacts God’s good news of love, justice, and mercy.

This seems to me to be a wise, credible and coherent reason for holding on to the term. And it reflects by continued commitment to the term ‘evangelical’. God has amazing good news for the world. But it has often been obscured at different times because people either add something to it or take something away—perhaps by saying ‘You must do additional things or believe additional things to earn the grace of God’ or by saying ‘You cannot trust what God has said in Scripture and you need to trust yourself instead.’ The passion of evangelicals is to be faithful to what God has said in the person of Jesus as faithfully testified in the Scriptures, because this is the hope for the world.

Follow me on Twitter @psephizoLike my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, would you consider donating £1.20 a month to support the production of this blog?

Signup to get email updates of new posts
We promise not to spam you. Unsubscribe at any time.
Invalid email address

If you enjoyed this, do share it on social media (Facebook or Twitter) using the buttons on the left. Follow me on Twitter @psephizo. Like my page on Facebook.

Much of my work is done on a freelance basis. If you have valued this post, you can make a single or repeat donation through PayPal:

For other ways to support this ministry, visit my Support page.

Comments policy: Do engage with the subject. Please don't turn this into a private discussion board. Do challenge others in the debate; please don't attack them personally. I no longer allow anonymous comments; if there are very good reasons, you may publish under a pseudonym; otherwise please include your full name, both first and surnames.

14 thoughts on “Evangelicals, Trump and theology”

  1. This is helpful. But it fails to address whether voting for Hillary – who supports some very unbiblical causes, and is herself a morally compromised individual – is not also morally problematic for evangelicals. The complaint seems very one-sided. Was the only morally defensible course abstention? But do we really only engage with worldly politics when it is sufficiently pure for our sensitive souls? What is the threshold? Don’t we have to choose between the available options, not the ideal and the actual?

    I was also disappointed to see no mention of a commitment to the authority of scripture in the Fuller definition of evangelical – usually a sign of a worrying trend, but presumably not in this case.

  2. It seemed to me that Christians in the recent US elections were faced with what they regarded as the lesser of the two evils (depending on your own particular weighting of the issues) or not voting at all. But I agree will Will -the complaint is somewhat one-sided.

  3. A difficult and complex issue for me is the relationship between Christian faith and the exercise of political power. It’s become a ‘left-of-centre’ Christian mantra that Christians should recognise the Gospel is political and Christians should be involved in politics (voting, campaigning and joining parties and government etc). But the assumption is often that this will mean being more ‘left’ than ‘right’. However it does seem to be considered much more acceptable in America for right-wing Christians also to involve themselves in the political world, in a way that shocks people in the UK. Politics involves compromises, making alliances to gain democratic mandates and influence and it is impossible to engage in politics without being associated with (and tarnished by) the views of others whose support you might need to win political battles. Christians both sides of the Atlantic are, I think, much more products of their national culture than they realise, so within the body of Christ cross-cultural engagement and fellowship should help to challenge each other’s assumptions and blind-spots. There are things about America we love and things we hate, and I dare say, that non-Brits would say the same about us.

  4. Related to the (OT) assumption … that the resident alien will adopt the culture, customs and religion of (the host country) when he or she settles there – as regards refugees from the Middle East to Bulgaria, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church have commented:

    “… that the government should take care and pay attention that the refugees who come to Bulgaria under the proposed quota system, and for which the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was ready to assist in providing care to, are those who would feel well among us – and for those whom the care, provided to them by an Orthodox Christian society, is not some kind of moral problem.

    Because if they have a problem to accept support from the Christian community, it will mean that the Christian community in the future would have a bigger problem than we currently suspect.”

    From http://sofiaglobe.com/2015/09/25/bulgarian-orthodox-church-tells-government-dont-admit-more-refugees/

  5. I think Alistair is right.

    The problem that evangelicals faced was greater than a personality contest, or even the specific, individual policies of either party or person. I think you are wrong to look for an answer there.

    To try and summarize the immense volume of work on this subject already generated, it was perceived by the conservative factions in the US that 4 more years of democrat administration would have fundamentally undermined the key founding principles of America. They feared it would have seen free speech and liberty undermined further (through legislation on speech and action), and their views, opinions and actions increasingly sidelined and ultimately despised and rejected in the public arena (through the largely left-leaning academia and media). I think in a great many ways they had good reason to feel this way: conservatives were being pressed into a corner by forces they had not learned to control.

    In effect then, many evangelicals saw the election as a “fight or die” moment for conservatism. It could capitulate and let a third term of liberal, progressive policy irrevocably change the culture and nation, or it could fight back; the angry, sometimes irrational, but focused backlash of people faced with a stark choice. Just look at the alt-right, a micro (and certainly extreme) example of what goes on in the macro.

    You cannot expect to so radically and so comprehensively affect culture change in areas like Sex, Gender, Marriage and Drugs in such a short time (a few decades) without encountering resistance. In this case the resistance stayed largely (but not always) below the surface, like a pressure cooker, and this was the moment the lid came off; in many ways comparable to Brexit, but dissimilar too.

    My point is that trying to assess how evangelicals rationalized Trump as a possibility fundamentally misses the bigger picture of evangelicals perceiving their worldview and lifestyle as under siege and at breaking point; a mass repression.

    Unless we realize how they perceived this threat, their reaction will make no sense to us. This is why so many English commentators have failed to grasp or explain what went on, and simultaneously why so much of the polling and media coverage got it so wrong! They failed to see, or saw but ignored, the reaction and discontent they were creating.

    Evangelical IS a social label, that is my one major agreement with you here Ian, but the group it labels was both far bigger, and far less passive (when pushed) than anyone, even from within it, seemed to have understood.

    • Matt, I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with this comment. Despite all the negative reasons for doing so, I would have voted for Trump as a last-ditch effort to stop the USA from destroying itself. There has been far too much evidence that the USA has been deserting any pretence of a rational view of life, individual freedoms (not least those upheld by states but overruled by federal imposition), justice, social boundaries and economic resilience. Of course I’m not suggesting that Trump is the personification of rational thought – the environment and gun control come immediately to mind!

      But a point of no return (which even Trump now accepts on SSM) would surely have passed had Hillary Clinton been elected. The make up of the Supreme Court is an obvious example of how things could have been given a one-way trajectory for years to come. Ironically, it’s only the pretty awful electoral college system which put Trump in office and I would imagine many Christians would see this as an example of God working despite the flawed procedures drawn up by humans – perhaps directly through them. I wouldn’t necessarily agree with that a) because we yet know (in the present time frame) how things will develop and b) because we don’t yet have the eternal perspective to understand how, why, and when, God acts in the affairs of nations and politics. Going by what’s happening here in the UK, I don’t think it’s easy to be sure any more what Christians will think or how they might vote on any issue – whatever label they are given.

      • Yes, I’m with you on this.

        However, I personally would not have voted for Trump, but then I am not an American living with the social pressures of the so-called “culture war”. If I were I may well have considered it, but as an Englishman, protected from recent assaults on my liberty (well, most of them) my only acceptable choice is ‘neither’.

        I therefore try not sit in a position of judgement on those whose situation is critically different to mine, and that their response in that situation is both understandable and rational, even if the man that achieved that victory is neither.

  6. Missing from nearly all the commentary and narrative is the Clinton/Obama regimes’ support for wahhabi terrorism and consequent genocide of Christian and other minorities in the ME. Wikileaks has demonstrated that the destruction of Libya was largely Clinton’s project. Following the destruction of Libya Obama sought international support for the destruction of Syria and was turned down cold. The CIA then began weaponising the Caliphate and turned them against Syria and Syrian Christians. Russia BTW is a democracy and a Christian nation of 150 million souls. Obama/Clinton engaged in an extremely dangerous hybrid war against that nation that has pushed the world to the brink of nuclear extinction. In every context and on every issue that matters Obama/Clinton have been violently pathologically anti-Christian. They made it clear that their extreme social ideology would be imposed on Christians by whatever means necessary. Trump basically said he would call off the war. That’s why they voted for him. No he is not a nice man, but in war my enemies enemy is my friend.

  7. Populist politicians always major on the fears and insecurities of the electorate, particularly when income and employment are involved. I guess that Christians are just as susceptible as anyone else to such blandishments. We saw a frighteningly similar example here in the UK in last June’s referendum. Turkeys can be persuaded to vote for Christmas. But for people of faith to claim that Trump occupies the high moral ground rather beggars belief.
    Putting policy to one side what does it say about their understanding of the Christian faith for Evangelicals to wildly support (or even just quietly vote) for someone who has been openly racist, boasted of predatory sexual behaviour and denied his need of divine forgiveness?
    But perhaps we shouldn’t be too surprised. Back in 1932 plenty of German Christians voted for the Hitler as the moral alternative to the supposed decadence of the Weimar Republic.

  8. Even apart from the differences between US and UK/European evangelicalism, it sounds like your friend has also blown this a little out of proportion when s/he rejects the label evangelical. I have followed the US election quite extensively, and I have to say I haven’t seen any analyses of the results which prominently mentioned evangelical support for Trump as a reason for his victory. It’s just not the story coming out of this election – instead people are discussing rural working class whites shifting from Democrat to Republican, or the surprisingly large support for Trump among ethnic minorities, low turnout among youth, etc. The ONLY people who seem to be talking about evangelical support for Trump are my fellow evangelicals, who are talking about this as if it was 1980 all over again. So I actually don’t think this election has done much to damage the evangelical brand in the wider public, on either side of the pond.

  9. I find Mat Sheffield’s ‘pressure cooker’ comment particularly helpful – simply describing what is happening, where real concerns (e.g. lost jobs, liberal intolerance?) are heated wickedly by a ‘popular press’ owned by wealthy and self-interested lobbies … who care little for the best ‘conservative’ concerns. And I wonder if the picture of a pressure cooker will be useful again to describe the economy Trump might create.

    Ian – I wanted to challenge a line of yours above that (though it may pass as shorthand) is … horrible! Rather than “welfare provision … the destructive force of the dependency culture that it creates” I suggest you might prefer to defend “… dependency culture associated with it”. (Oh – go and watch ‘I, Daniel Blake!’)

    You recognise the “destructive force” of consumerism driven by the powerful, and the “destructive force” of wealth-making that doesn’t offer secure jobs (inviting participation in society, as we like to think was once the norm), and the “destructive force” of the entitlement culture of the wealthiest that is wrecking housing provision, the NHS, cohesive social services, education – and leaving pot-holes unrepairsed! – and, simply, the “destructive force” of sin in lives with little hope.

    I’ll go on voting – with you I reckon – for welfare provision believing it is more just than the neo-liberal alternative and therefore a healthier option for all. I worry much more about the “dependency” encouraged in the richest who are helped to extract wealth instead of investing it in sustainable – and shared – prosperity.

    As usual I’ve arrived on a thread when the lights are going out – is anyone still here?!

    • I am still here at least.

      It is my conviction that a conscientious and compassionate government/state (well, such as we can ever realistically hope for) should recognise the need and the duty to look after the most vulnerable within it. There is a line though, increasingly difficult to find, where welfare, far from simply providing the safety net for those who need it, has become another type of net; instead of cushioning people, it succeeds at trapping people within (dependency).

      I think this is more of an acute problem in the USA, especially when you look at this in terms of race, or healthcare. Certainly in the UK very few people object to welfare as a concept, but may see it as inefficient and unhelpful in the long term. My observation of the issues stateside are that this generalised agreement doesn’t really exist, and there is far greater variance in how people view the state’s responsibility. There are many conservatives for instance who stand against any and all forms of welfare, a position quite alien to Europeans. There is much that could be said about the Capitalist/Socialist relationship here, but that is a debate for another time.

      Essentially what we want as Christians is a society that can, without judgement and condemnation, support and assist those who would otherwise be outcast, vulnerable or suffering; such as the poor and elderly. This is basic compassion, and an expression of our Christ-heartedness to those in need. What we also want however is for those people to not be dependent on the state indefinitely, but to be able to find liberation from it and once again take control and responsibility for their lives. Welfare should be temporary, and I think the model we find in Israel (insert lengthy exposition here) is precisely that.

      In the midst of that balance is Ian’s comment. I personally think that the way we approach welfare in the UK can be, and is, “destructive”, I don’t find that too strong a word. But the concept of welfare itself is not. We should not be condemning of those who find themselves in a position of dependence, but we should be strong enough to encourage people out of it and to view welfare not as a permanent social status but as temporary.

      How does this relate to Trump, Evangelical and Theology?

      It is my impression from reading and listening to many evangelicals in the US, that the “right” has a far greater grasp of the need for this balance than the “left” does.

      The Republicans, for all their many flaws, have a correct emphasis on the need to achieve independence/sustainability in family life and work. The battle is so fierce because the essential building block towards achieving that aim is the strength of family unit; which the Democrats are being seen to undermine. This is where US evangelicals are strongest. Their vision is for united families, man and woman together raising children and responsibility for education. Anything that can be seen to undermine that (LBGT, Gender Issues, Divorce, Abortion, women in work) is railed against.

      The trouble they have is that Trump is not really a conservative, though he’s not a democrat either. In principle he shares the same aim of a strong traditional family, is pro-life and anti affirmative action, but he is also pro a huge workforce, pro SSM and socially progressive when it comes to divorce and sexual liberation. The huge question is how a Trump executive will balance that.

      • Mat – you’re much more clued up on the American picture than I am and I found your insight helpful. I might try to frame a reply tomorrow afternoon.

      • Mat – in response to your very helpful description of the ‘pressure cooker’ I commented how that was heated up by the prevailing media voices. If only the loudest voices were more fair minded!

        I tried to unpick what I think was an unfortunate phrase in what Ian wrote and I think I now want to put the same challenge to you as well.

        I think we are unwise to allow ourselves to speak of ‘welfare provision’ as destructive – any more than wages are (an off the cuff comparison I might regret!) – though it’s obvious that wrongly directed or administered it can cause problems.

        The trap – far beyond the sins of the ‘have-nots’ – is in forces driven by ‘the haves’: consumerism, wealth-making for private gain that offers only insecure and low paid work, unaffordable housing, etc.


Leave a Reply to Mat Sheffield Cancel reply