Trump urges evangelicals to abandon political ideology to focus on faith

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This winter, the Dallas Theater Center staged a play called The Christians about a mega-church leader, Pastor Paul, who changes his mind about what he believes and loses his congregation. The play, about rival factions who believe the heavens are on their side, provides a setting for understanding the tragic theater of modern partisan evangelism. The evangelical political movement that shaped both American Church and State in the 1980s and 1990s has lost its congregation.

“Evangelical” began as a doctrinal distinction, not a political one. Evangelicals have focused their energy on spreading the good news that Jesus died to ransom sinners. American evangelism is as old as the idea of ​​a New World. As early as the 1720s, charismatic communicators like Gilbert Tivez and George Whitefield led a movement of believers for whom faith was a public enterprise of proselytism.

But in the 1980s and 1990s, evangelicalism fused dogma and diplomacy in an effort to sanctify the art of government. Organizations like the Moral Majority, the Christian Coalition and Focus On the Family have mobilized voters of so-called values ​​to elect socially conservative candidates and to codify Christian morality into law.

At the time, it made sense. The conservative political agenda appealed to Christian values ​​such as modesty, sanctity of life (especially on abortion), family, and fairness (expressed in a free market). Even in the 1980s, many people of faith saw these values ​​as under threat.

This is understandable. All of us, whatever our beliefs, yearn for a like-minded enclave. So Christians get nostalgic for the days when our version of morality was normalized, sin was condemned, pastors respected, and church attendance was expected – when you couldn’t get an abortion on demand, pornography on your phone or wine at the grocery store.

But things have changed. Conservative politics and religious values ​​do not align as well as they did in the last century. Factors such as corporate abuse, changing American demographics and the election of President Donald Trump have muddied the waters.

How and to what extent should Christian ideology influence public policies? How should Christians react when the government and the church no longer agree on the definition of marriage? What is the biblical attitude towards refugees? What happens when once reliable free market institutions breed systems of oppression rather than prosperity? What about a president who espouses Christian theory but lives, as Politico commentator Stephen Prothero writes, “a life comically at odds with the teachings of the Bible and the examples of the saints?”

Questions like these have prompted many evangelicals to abandon the political, if not doctrinal, label. Megachurch pastors Rick Warren and Max Lucado spoke out against the Republican presidential candidate last year. Such a schism would have been unthinkable in previous elections. Russell Moore, spokesman for the public policy branch of the Southern Baptist Convention (one of the most conservative and politically active factions of Christianity in America) publicly skewered candidate Trump and championed a new, less combative approach to speech public. And Texan Jen Hatmaker, successful author and reality TV star, has broken ranks with evangelical politics on the issue of same-sex marriage.

“Christians today return to the Bible and see Jesus with new eyes and discover a faith that transcends cultural wars,” Jonathan Merritt wrote in his book. Our own faith: following Jesus beyond cultural wars. “They want a faith that is not only politically active, but life-transforming. They believe that we can call a truce in the culture wars while remaining faithful to Christ. In fact, they believe that faithfulness requires such a cease-fire. “

What Merritt calls a ceasefire, others call a defeat. In an interview with Fox News, Ed Stetzer, executive director of the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism, said: “Ten years ago we were talking about who would win the crop wars, and now we are talking about how Christian rights will be protected. after the crop war … We lost our advantage in the field. “

It does not mean the end of churches or evangelical beliefs. According to the Pew Research Center, 25.4% of Americans still claim the title. High-profile defections appear to be motivated more by political disagreements than by theological disagreements; none of the personalities cited above denounced their belief in the Gospel readings of the scriptures.

Dallas Theological Seminary professor Tim Basselin sees the end of the Culture Wars as the start of something better for evangelicals. “For evangelism to be healthy, it must be decoupled from politics,” Basselin said. “Evangelicals can lean left on some issues and right on some issues. Political questions are fundamentally different questions from those posed by evangelism.

Like many other pockets of American culture, the once unified body of political and theological evangelicals is fracturing. In a time when evangelicals might brag about Republican political victories, they instead find themselves counting the high cost of achieving those victories and wondering, along with Pastor Paul, if God was really on their political side after all.

Ryan Sanders is a pastor at Irving Bible Church and a writer whose new book is “Unbelievable: Examining the Unlikely Beauty of Christian History”. He wrote this column for The Dallas Morning News. Email: rsanders@irvingbible.com

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