How We Got Here—Christian Church Edition

(The second in a three-part series)

In 2016, 80% of white evangelicals supported Trump. A similar amount did so in 2020, meaning there was nothing he did in four years to change their minds. Nothing.

How is that possible?

First, a little personal history.

My good friend, Ken Ashby, recently wrote a song entitled Rise Up. The song begins with this:

I grew up in my Daddy’s congregation

Preacher’s kid singing hallelujah hymns.

I was not the son of a preacher man, but I did grow up attending a rural Baptist Church in northcentral Indiana, and we sang a lot of hallelujah hymns. Churches are cornerstone of the social and moral fiber of the rural Midwest, as they are in most of rural United States.

While my preacher often used the Old Testament for their Sunday morning scolds (God was a force to fear), my Sunday School teacher taught me about Jesus, a kinder, gentler figure. I formed an early bond. One of the songs I most remember from that Sunday School rang out:

Jesus loves the little children,

All the children of the world.

Red and yellow

Black and white

They are precious in his sight.

While I grew to reject the word Red to speak of the Indigenous, and Yellow to speak of Asians, the song did give me an early acceptance of people who did not look like me. Today, Blacks are proud to be called Black, and Whites are justifiably labeled White, and most wear that label proudly.

This was the time of President Eisenhower’s eight-year presidency and the shortened term of President Kennedy. I do not ever recall either president’s name being mentioned from the pulpit or in conversations between parishioners, or any politics for that matter. Politics was mostly a private matter and not welcome in the “House of the Lord.” At that time, Indiana would have been considered a purple state.

What happened?

Short answer: Jerry Falwell.

Jerry Falwell co-founded Liberty University in 1971. In 1974, the IRS moved to revoke the tax-exempt status of Bob Jones University, which forbade interracial dating. Falwell seethed. In 1978, an IRS ruling (initiated during the Ford Administration) stripped tax-exempt status from all-white private schools formed in the South in reaction to the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court ruling. Falwell’s Liberty University was one of those schools. The IRS was messing with Christianity’s pocketbook.

In 1979, Falwell founded the Moral Majority. The Religious Right found, not only its voice, but also its power. It then forever linked up with political conservatives.

The Moral Majority instantly became an influential political lobby group, and was credited for delivering two thirds of the white, evangelical Christian vote to Ronald Reagan in the 1980 election against Jimmy Carter, who they labeled as a traitor to the South and no longer a Christian.

Even Billy Graham criticized Falwell for “sermonizing” about political issues that lacked a moral element.

Paul Weyrich, co-founder of the conservative Heritage Foundation, claimed that Falwell launched the Moral Majority Political Action Committee to aid the Catholic protest against legal abortion. This abortion hatred, with an underpinning of racism, has galvanized white evangelicals to this day, making many a one-issue voter.

As the years passed, it became hard to distinguish conservative Republicans, or any Republican candidate, from the Christian Right. In fact, Republicans could not win without their support, and thus enshrouded themselves in the Bible, whether they were true believers or not, or even regularly attended church. This mattered little to the Christian Right — do their bidding and you received their blessing.

Evangelist and media mogul, Pat Robertson (Christian Broadcasting Network), ran for president in 1988, apparently feeling buoyed by the new political prowess demonstrated by the Moral Majority. He began strong in Iowa, placing second, and then faded quickly.

What followed was the demonizing of a Democrat’s faith. In the early 1990s during one of my wife’s adult Sunday School classes, a church member pontificated that one could not be a Democrat and be Christian. Imagine my wife’s surprise. This man went on to become the leader of the California State Senate Republicans for several years.

A couple of years ago my wife’s nephew, who has probably spent a total of four hours in his 50-year life inside a church, asked her how a Democrat could be a Christian.

Regardless of the Moral Majority history and their ilk, I could not portent the Christian Church’s or evangelical’s embracing of Donald Trump, given his well-documented misdeeds and immorality. Alas, they not only supported him, they embraced him with a fervor usually reserved for charismatics.

You could have knocked me over with a feather.

With Trump, they got what they came for, a 6–3 Supreme Court majority and the likely overturning of Roe v. Wade. I wondered to some friends what fervor would replace the anti-abortion crusade once Roe v. Wade is overturned. Answering my own question, I posited LGBTQ rights and same-sex marriage. We shall see. They are too drunk with power to go away.

Richard T. Hughes, professor emeritus of religion at Pepperdine University (not a liberal institution) believes that Christian America is dying before our eyes. He wrote recently in a Los Angeles Times Op-Ed, “What should we make of decisive Christian support for an American politician whose life and priorities are fundamentally anti-Christian. How could insurrection against a people’s government be configured as patriotism? As Trump’s reign implodes, these anomalies betray the last gasps of a long-standing American religion that is now passing away — the religion of Christian America sustained by a corrupted version of Christianity.”

Earlier in the article he argues that part of its history was the John Calvin-inspired Christian Church that became America’s church. This church was centered in whiteness and patriarchy. Calvinism inspired the Puritans in New England, Presbyterians in Middle Colonies and Baptists in the South.

But when it came time to form a country, religion took a back seat, and not as Calvin envisioned and crafted for Geneva, Switzerland. In general, our founders would have no part in Calvin’s vision.

The separation of church and state stayed that way, for the most part, until the advent of Falwell.

I am certain there are millions of Christian Americans who take the teachings of Jesus to their heart and do their best to follow him. But, somewhere along the way, they became a minority in the Christian Church.

The hard reality is this — today there is a razor thin separation between Christian Evangelicals, Trump fanatics, and radical fringe groups like the Proud Boys and QAnon. Plus, the Republican Party membership and the Christian Church are, at a minimum, guilty of silence. Silence is consent.

The January 6th insurrectionists were well stocked with Christian Evangelicals. I saw a prayer session video on one of the chartered buses as it traveled to Washington DC.

What began with Falwell’s quest for political power via the ballot over forty years ago, erupted into an attempt to seize power through violence on January 6th. Ponder that — power through violence, here, in our country, today.

Ed Stetzer, the head of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College in Illinois, spoke to NPR and had this to say to his fellow evangelicals: “It’s time for a reckoning. Evangelicals should look at how their own behaviors and actions may have helped fuel the insurrection. Part of the reckoning is: How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories? I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many bought into. I think the Christian responsibility is we need to engage in what we call the Christian tradition, discipleship. Jesus says, ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.’ If there ever should be a people who care about the truth, it should be people who call themselves followers of Jesus.”

My advice to Mr. Stetzer is that he and others first need to confront the cold reality of the thirst for power initially launched by Jerry Falwell. Look how hard it was for those insurrectionists and the Republican members of Congress to give up power, so much so that they resorted to power through violence.

And, he needs to confront the reality that the American Christian Church is historically racist.

Neither of those two realities are the teachings or the truth of Jesus. This, I learned in Sunday School.