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Reclaiming Evangelicals: The Religious Left Responds in Washington

By: Nicholas Scrimenti

July 26, 2018

America’s religious landscape is being painted, perhaps to their joy and surprise, by the likes of Mike Pence, Jerry Falwell, and Franklin Graham. The so-called “religious left,” meanwhile, scrambles to distance itself from this evangelical wing. White evangelical Protestants remain largely an outlier of all religious groups in terms of political and ethical opinion, yet they are enjoying a level of political power that seems to defy waning levels of religious participation. The religious left, in turn, has responded with a remarkably ecumenical and interreligious coalition, which is mobilizing to counter evangelical Protestants and protect threatened groups, especially Muslims, during the remaining years of the Trump presidency. What all of this has resulted in is a high level of activity on both sides, but virtually no debate between the left and right. All of this seems to question the true value of interreligious dialogue.

Among American religious groups, evangelical Protestants are politically radical. While this term—radical—is almost used exclusively to describe Catholic Workers, Engaged Buddhists, red-letter Christians, and other leftist groups, it is not inappropriate to describe evangelical Protestants too in this way. According to Pew data, evangelical Protestants are radically divergent in terms of political opinion. Of all religious groups, they, sometimes joined by Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, are the only group to have a majority say that government aid does more harm than good, that abortion should be illegal in all/most cases, and that homosexuality should be discouraged, as well as one of only two groups who did not have a majority say that stricter environmental laws and regulations are worth the cost. At the same time, Donald Trump has appointed an “evangelical executive advisory board” headed by a who’s who of American evangelical Christianity, including the televangelist and prosperity Gospel thumper Paula White. Thus, although they are a political anomaly, evangelical Protestants remain the largest American religious group and enjoy an outsized ideological voice in American power.

This has forced the remaining Christian groups in Washington to join forces for a theological and political response to not just a Republican, but an evangelical government. Recently, leaders from various Christian communities—Catholic and Protestant—gathered in Washington for an event entitled, “Reclaiming Jesus.” These leaders, including Rev. Jim Wallis of Sojourners, Fr. Richard Rohr of the Center for Action and Contemplation, and the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry fresh off his royal wedding fame, signed onto a document outlining their opposition to the cozy relationship between evangelical Protestants and the Trump administration. Their document challenges the evangelical tendency to sacrifice moral and theological belief for the sake of political power and suggests that this very tendency is the reason for evangelical Protestants’ outlier status. The memorable line from the Reclaiming Jesus document is the following maxim: “When politics undermines our theology, we must examine that politics.” The document condemns the resurgence of white supremacy, sexual violence against women, attacks on the poor and vulnerable, and lying in public office. Most importantly, it takes a contradictory stance to evangelical Protestant opinion highlighted above in the Pew data, especially concerning government welfare and climate change.

In this climate of staunch opposition to the evangelical agenda, many faith leaders are questioning the continued value of interreligious dialogue with this group. Some, like Rabbi Bruce Lustig, senior rabbi at the Washington Hebrew Congregation, still find value in dialogue with evangelicals despite obvious difficulties. Rabbi Lustig, in an interview with the Berkley Center, said, “I’m partnering with evangelical Christians who I don’t agree with at all on a lot of social issues. We have to find ground to be able to understand how we can all be children of one G-d, and how do we love G-d together.” Yet, he also recognized the futility of certain debates, particularly about the state of Israel. “[Evangelical leaders] may love Israel more than I do, because they’re not willing to be critical of it. They see Israel as the second coming of the Messiah.” Others, like Rev. Jim Wallis, are rather ambiguous about whether constructive dialogue with evangelical Protestants is possible. He has written quite unequivocally about evangelicals' voting habits, saying, “TRUMP EVANGELICALS (sic) have so completely and uncritically offered their faithful allegiance to the man in the White House that they have compromised the gospel of Jesus Christ — whose values the president’s life has stood antithetically against.” Yet, he does not quite outline how he plans to “reclaim Jesus” from the evangelicals.

Muslim groups in Washington, however, are clear in their opposition to dialogue with an administration and religious group so explicitly hostile toward them. Recently, the Council on American-Islamic Relations held a “NOT Trump’s Iftar” outside of the White House while the president held an iftar, or Muslim dinner marking the end of Ramadan, of his own inside. Georgetown’s very own Imam Yahya Hendi was terse in his response to the idea of Trump’s iftar dinner, saying, “Do not feed us and stab us.” Many other Muslim groups in Washington simply cannot assume a good faith effort on the part of the president and his evangelical base after such an anti-Muslim campaign and with policies such as the so-called travel ban. Any dialogue between these groups, in the eyes of American Muslims, would not only be an exercise in futility, but it risks normalizing the racism and bigotry of evangelical Protestants who did not disqualify Trump despite his rhetoric towards Muslims.

Yet, evangelical Protestants are not so blindly apologetic of the Trump administration as some on the religious left might think. In June 2018 many evangelical leaders, including Franklin Graham, openly criticized the Trump administration policy of separating immigrant and asylum-seeking families at the U.S. border despite the group’s hardline stance on immigration.

Still, as Graham’s statements show, while white evangelical Protestants were quick to criticize the policy, they were just as quick to blame anyone but the president himself for the creation and implementation of the policy. Jentezen Franklin, a member of Trump’s aforementioned evangelical advisory council, blamed Congress for the separation of families, while Franklin Graham blamed immigration policy generally, suggesting that these problems predate Trump. And so, while white evangelical Protestants sometimes find themselves aligned with the religious left, they do not easily rid themselves of their allegiances to Trump and find ways to justify their continued support of the president. Perhaps this is not surprising when we understand that some evangelicals believe Trump to be the “prophesied president,” quite literally ordained by God.

While there is no easy solution to the problem of having a minority religious opinion in the most powerful office in the land, the important thing to remember is that evangelicals understand themselves to be a minority group under attack. This is a promising starting point for dialogue, and Daniel Tutt, director of outreach and educational programs at Unity Productions Foundation and lecturer at Marymount University and George Mason University, has stressed its importance. Tutt said in an interview with the Berkley Center, “[Evangelical] Christians perceive themselves to be experiencing more discrimination [than Muslims]. It is even worse because the discrimination they experience, or think they experience, goes unnoticed.” This helps to illuminate why evangelicals feel compelled to align themselves to those in power; they feel threatened and are willing to accept almost anyone as their savior and protector, even Donald Trump.

Ultimately, Washington is fractured by the question of how to engage white evangelical Protestants. Those most threatened by the Trump administration (i.e. Muslims) have generally been the most unwilling to engage in any sort of interreligious encounter with evangelical Protestants, hoping to simply fortify their ranks enough to survive the remaining years of this presidency. Others, particularly mainline Protestants and Catholics, have banded together for a more strength-in-numbers approach, providing an interesting theological and political counterattack to evangelicals on the Hill. Yet, few religious groups have dealt with the issue of addressing evangelical pain and evangelical fear. The issue, then, might not be how we can “reclaim Jesus,” but how we can reclaim evangelicals, wresting them from the bigotry and theological heresy they adopt for the sake of political expediency. As of yet, the religious left has not quite figured out how best to do this, but it remains a critical objective for the survival of American religion and American democracy.