We have lived—indeed are living—through a time in which the cherished ideals of American democracy, from the unalienable rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence to the very notion of free and fair elections open to all, are under fierce and unrelenting attack. I am referring of course to Donald Trump, the movement of Trumpism, and the GOP which continues to support him. Our time is witnessing a struggle for democracy itself. There are no bystanders.
Nested within the political struggle against Trumpism is another, perhaps less visible battle: an American church struggle for the very soul of the Christian faith. It is no secret to anyone that white evangelicalism is the single largest bloc of supporters pledging their allegiance to Trump. The white evangelical quest for political domination that began with the Moral Majority in the 1980s finally found the candidate it was looking for all along. The evangelicals wanted power; and Donald Trump offered them dominance. They wanted a war against all; and Donald Trump offered mass destruction. They wanted to win at all costs; and Donald Trump promised that no moral sensitivities would hold him back. Donald Trump became theirs; and they became his.
And in this mutual covenant of hate and malice, white evangelicalism walked away from the gospel of Jesus Christ. In the technical terms of theology, they embraced false doctrine, more colloquially known as heresy. Affirming faith in a human figure of power is a direct contradiction to the one Christian affirmation of faith in Christ the crucified and risen Lord of all reality. It is either Christ or Trump; and white evangelicalism put its faith in Trump.
And so here we are. The critical threat to our democracy posed by Trumpism cannot be understood without the fanatical support of Trump by white conservative evangelicalism. The GOP, with very few notable exceptions, is being drawn by Trump—still, even in his post-presidency—far beyond the outer limits of democratic norms of speech and action. At the same time, white evangelicalism sees in Trump a savior figure in direct violation of the most basic Christian confession. Thus, the crisis is self-perpetuating. All of which summons the question: Where do we go from here?
The Best Way Out is Always Through
How then should we move forward in our assessment of the basic relation between democracy and the language of faith? If the reality of the problem is as painfully clear as the sickening sight of shattered glass, splintered wood, and broken bodies resulting from the assault by Trumpism on the U.S. Capitol, the solution is frustratingly less so. Three possible options present themselves.
Some see white evangelicalism as identical to Christianity in its totality, and therefore want to abolish both at the same time from the public square. As is perhaps clear from the present essay, I certainly share the frustration with white evangelicalism. Nevertheless, the present option has, as I see it, two fundamental flaws. First of all, it is simply wildly inaccurate in its assessment of Christianity. White evangelicalism does not represent the gospel; it misrepresents it. Moreover, it is a minority movement within American Christianity, not to speak of global Christianity, where it is mere chaff blown by the wind. Over time, white evangelicalism will go the way of all Christian heresies; it will wither and die, like the fig tree in the story of the gospels. Let it be condemned; but do not let it be confused with the real thing. And second, while I am not a political strategist (by a long shot), I wonder whether cutting off an entire community of American citizens (the Christian church) is wise, if only a small wayward segment is truly the offending party. Is that not a self-defeating political posture? Why alienate all Christians when only white evangelicals are doing the real damage?
Others want to counter white evangelicalism with a “progressive Christianity,” including a power-sharing link to the Democratic Party not unlike that of evangelicalism to the GOP. Just as there arose the Moral Majority on the religious right, with its obvious concordat with the Republican Party, why not now forge a new Progressive Majority on the religious left, with a similar concordat with the Democratic Party? One is of course tempted. There is not the slightest doubt that care for the poor, solidarity with the oppressed, and active engagement with the vulnerable are writ large on virtually every page of Holy Scripture. But the problem with this answer lies elsewhere. How can religious progressives, over time, avoid the exact same threat of both religious and political language becoming distorted and twisted, thus losing their very identity—as has so obviously happened on the religious right? If truth becomes a function of power, how can the church speak truth to power when the need arises?
Which brings us to the third option. There are those—largely silent, but they are there, faithfully bearing witness to the gospel in word and deed—who maintain the free integrity of mainstream Christianity in absolute and determined opposition to its grotesque distortion by white evangelicalism/Trumpism, while remaining fully open to a new way forward for American society, whether they are Democrats or Independents or even Republicans. The mainstream church not only respects the boundaries of the First Amendment of the Constitution barring any establishment of religion in the United States. It relishes them, for God gives growth to the church, not the state. On the other hand, it also cherishes the free exercise of religion, and the joyous freedom to speak its mind when it has something useful to contribute. In my judgment, this is the genuine future for the role of faith in shaping the common good. In order to pursue this line of argument, our first task is simply to ask: What is mainstream Christianity?
Mainstream Christianity in America, a Still Small Voice
Despite the ascendancy and ultimately catastrophic implosion of white evangelicalism, there remains in fact a vibrant religious and theological landscape in the United States. Mainstream Christians make up the majority of the church in the United States, yet their witness is often drowned out. There are more than 205 million professing Christians in the United States; of those, only some 33 million are white evangelicals of voting age. Who exactly are these mainstream Christians, though, and what is the language of faith they speak? I can here give only a brief series of vignettes, but it is hoped that an accurate portrait can be surmised, if not fully described. Global Christianity—of which the mainstream American church is now a rather small part—continues to be comprised of Roman Catholic, Protestant, and Eastern Orthodox components.
Contemporary Roman Catholicism is the result of three successive waves of change, each building upon the energy generated by the previous wave. The first wave was constituted by the so-called “social encyclicals,” a series of official papal writings beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891 and extending throughout the twentieth century. These forceful writings were intended to address the social and economic conditions of modern society resulting from the advent of industrialization from the point of view of Catholic concern for the well-being of human persons in community. While Marxism was never embraced, the abuses of capitalism were roundly criticized. The goods of the earth are for all people, and the state has both the right and the duty to make sure that such goods are steered toward the common good. Wages are to be just and fair, working conditions to be ennobling and enriching. Economic life does not first serve the multiplication of wealth and profit; it first serves the wholeness of the entire human family. In short, economic life serves the good of human life; human life does not serve the requirements of any economic system.
The second wave of change was ushered in by Vatican II, called into being by Pope John XXIII, and met during the years 1962-1965. While the vast changes in Roman Catholicism ushered in by Vatican II go well beyond the purposes of this article—American Catholics first heard Mass in English on November 29, 1965, the first Sunday in Advent; until then it was in Latin—there were two primary concerns: calling the church to renewal in its mission and presence in the world, and rethinking its unity as part of an ecumenical, global church. The church is no longer defined as a closed ecclesiastical system; rather, there is ongoing dialogue with all people of good will throughout the world. All human beings have inherent dignity as creatures of the living God, and therefore deserve Christian respect and love. The third wave—still sweeping around us—is the papacy of Francis, especially his writings Evangelii Gaudium, Laudato Si’, and Fratelli Tutti. Building on the work of Vatican II, Francis insists that church mission be understood as motivated above all by joy in the redeeming embrace of God for the whole world. The power of joy is transforming, in both church and culture. There can be no joy where there is inequality, for inequality steals away the humanity of both rich and poor. The church has a special role to affirm the rights and dignity of the poor, as especially beloved and called by God. So-called “market forces” that inflict pain upon the human community are by definition at enmity with the reign of God. The church lives in solidarity with all, but especially the poor and vulnerable. Above all, the point is to forge new realities, not just new ideas, of peace and justice for all peoples of the earth. Pope Francis has also written more recently of the need for a revolutionary change in our approach to the environment, based on the biblical harmony of creation, and of a global society “without borders” and with a sense of moral responsibility for all migrants everywhere. In fact, we need nothing less than a new form of political love, based on kindness to all. Under God’s care, there is only one all-inclusive human family. In short, the Roman Catholic church in America—despite determined conservative opposition—has changed. As Cardinal Newman said: “To live is to change; to be perfect is to have changed often.”
Mainstream American Protestantism, comprising Lutheran, Reformed, Episcopalian, and various free church branches, continues to maintain its ties to the radically new discovery of the gospel in the sixteenth century known as the Protestant Reformation. The leading theologians were undoubtedly Martin Luther and John Calvin, and the various confessions and catechisms spawned by their theology continue to hold authority in the protestant communions. Above all, the reformation brought a fresh discovery of the truth of the gospel, that we are reconciled to God through the free promise of grace alone, apart from all moral striving. Only the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ put us right with God, not the righteousness of works (or, as we would say today, “traditional moral values”). The gospel is received by faith alone, which is itself a gift of God’s mercy. Luther found this radical truth while leaving behind medieval monasticism, which taught that the secular world was a lower order in God’s sight, while the pious world of the cloister was the realm of true spirituality. Luther reversed that equation. The call of the gospel is not to leave the world behind, but rather sends us out in mission to the world, to share the love of God in word and deed. The world and all that it contains—family and friend, science and art, music and government—is not evil, or even questionable, but a positive realm of divine beauty. In short, the secular world is set free to be enjoyed by the Christian, for the risen Christ already holds the whole world in his hands. Calvin in particular stresses that the Bible alone is the divine word for church and world, and that continues to be the attitude of mainstream protestant teaching. But his point needs to be made crystal clear. There is a logic of confirmation in reading the Bible, which simply cites the Bible to confirm what we already know, or think we know, about God. That, Calvin utterly rejects. He espouses rather a logic of discovery: We read the Bible to understand what we have yet to learn—about God, about ourselves, and about the world around us. Truth is not given once for all; each new generation is led by the Spirit to fresh discovery. The church is reformed, by also always reforming. Above all, the Bible contains no worldview, but points to the risen Christ alone, the light of the whole world. Both Luther and Calvin taught the way of discipleship, which is the way of the cross. We are not called to dominion in this world but to service of others in conformity to the cross of Christ. And that service can and does often bring suffering, a truth adopted and transfigured by the Black church in America. Martin Luther King said it best: “We must accept finite disappointment, but we must never lose infinite hope.” The coming of the Spirit at Pentecost radically relativizes all status based on gender, race, nationality, a truth now widely affirmed in mainstream Protestantism, and also in Pentecostalism, at least in its classic form. To be Protestant is to let God be God, to recognize that no earthly figure, movement, cause, agenda, or personality can ever be confused with the sovereign majesty and glorious reality of God alone, whose rule knows no end, and whose service is perfect freedom. To summarize the difference: For mainstream Protestantism, the gospel comes first, and from it flows a fresh vision of a new society. While for white evangelicalism, a conservative worldview is the fundamental affirmation, in which the gospel is then enfolded. The former leads to renewal and transformation; the latter leads to religious captivity and ultimate disaster.
The third division of mainstream Christianity in America, Eastern Orthodoxy, is smallest in terms of number of adherents, yet has an outsized impact on mainstream Christian life and worship because of the richness of its theology. I can here only give a few brief indications of the enormous breadth of its vision. Eastern Orthodoxy first came to America from two opposite directions: from Alaska (in its Russian form, in 1794), and from Florida (in its Greek form, in 1767). Since then, Greek, Russian, Serbian, Syrian, Albanian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Ukrainian, and many other Eastern Christian communities have taken root. The whole of Eastern Orthodox teaching and liturgy is oriented toward a future, which already now gives eternal meaning to the present; the risen Christ himself has given all time its true meaning, and therefore the entire universe is oriented toward his exalted glory. The church is called to live now as a sign of what God in Christ wills for the whole world, including the entire human community. Indeed, according to Eastern Orthodox teaching from the early church onward, the gracious love of God not only embraces the whole of humanity, but the whole cosmos, including the natural world all around us. We are not saved from the world; rather, the natural world itself participates with us in the one all-encompassing love of God, which gathers all things in glory.
If the American church is a body, the Black church is its beating heart. There are three elements that give such great strength to the Black church despite the extraordinary pain it has had to endure and still does. The first is the institutional strength, which surrounds its members in every moment of life, from birth to death and every moment in between. Black Christians, as a group, remain the most active church members of any group in the United States, and there is a reason; the strength of the churches they attend draws them in to participate, and their participation in turn strengthens the institution. The second is the astounding legacy of preaching in the Black church, which most Americans have experienced on one occasion or another. The special cadences of truth, the call and response of the hearers, the building crescendo of exhortation and exultation, all contribute to a genre of preaching quite unlike any other. The third is the music of the Black Church, which moves body and soul, stirs heart and spirt, instructs mind and will, summons emotion and commitment. Some wounds only the music of the gospel can heal.
In times past, the distinctions between these communions would be perceived as divisions to be defended. Now, after the advent of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century, which began in conversations on mission fields and was finally given a lasting framework by the founding of the World Council of Churches in 1948, they are distinctions to be overcome, when possible, in respectful dialogue. There is a pattern of truth based on Scripture and celebrated in the prayers, liturgy, and hymns of the church that, despite the differences, binds mainstream Christianity in America (and globally) together in a united voice of joyous and confident affirmation.
Moreover, there is an affirmation of open hospitality and common action among religious traditions, such as Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, and so forth. In short, love of neighbor knows no religious boundaries.
The Language of Faith and the Issues of our Democracy: Two Sides of the Same Coin
We begin with a rather solemn declaration. The church of Jesus Christ—certainly the mainstream church in the United States—does not have the right answer to every question. We see in fragments, as the apostle Paul says, and only love binds those fragments into a living unity, not a “worldview” with all the right answers. Now, having said that, the church of Jesus Christ lives in and for the world, open to the world in all its grandeur and temptation. Based on the freedom of the gospel under the authority of Scripture, we, too, have our opinions on matters of consequence concerning the common good. We are not here to legislate morality, or to delineate policy; but we are willing to offer a perspective that may be useful to our fellow citizens in the struggle for democracy in the days ahead.
So let’s now apply all this to specific cases. The issue of climate change, and the needed response to it, boils down to three thrusting questions: whether, when, and why. The first two are answered by science, and mainstream Christians are confident that scientists know what they are doing. The whether is “yes”: Climate change is measurably real, and is caused by the release of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere due to human consumption of fossil fuels. The only answer is a massive transition to renewable energy such as wind, solar, and geothermal, perhaps nuclear fusion, if and when a successful reactor can be built. There is no viable alternative. The when is now; the urgency is immediate. Comprehensive action is needed globally in the near term: years, not decades, even months, not years. We can count these simply as scientific truths, no longer under dispute by people of good will. We can also add that the resulting jobs from such a massive transition will go a long way to cushion the impact on human economic dislocation. Which leaves the why question, and it is here that the Christian community has a counter-perspective. We often hear: We (humans) are responsible to fix the mess we have created. To which the gospel responds: Who put human beings in charge? Is not this sense of human responsibility for nature the very root of the problem to begin with? In the Bible, the world does not belong to humankind, it belongs to God alone, who made it: “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in, the world, and those who live in it.” It is God’s world, not ours; God made it, not us. We have a role to place in the harmony of creation, but it is a limited role, a niche, alongside all other creatures, great and small, animate and inanimate. The cosmos is a vast, interconnected whole, as both the Bible and Darwin would agree, and humankind is not in charge. I think a new sense of humility in the face of the natural world—indeed of sheer awe at nature’s grandeur—needs to replace the misplaced arrogance of responsibility (however well-intended) if we are truly to advance beyond an era of exploitation to a new era of ecological co-existence. We don’t need to master the world, but to master ourselves; that alone is the basis for authentic responsibility.
Mainstream Christians have a deep and abiding interest in health care, going back to the early church, based squarely on Scripture. Many of the miracles of the Bible are miracles of healing: giving sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, restoration to the disabled. In the biblical view, God’s redemptive love encompasses the whole person. We are not immaterial souls locked inside the prison of the material body, as in the classical Greek view. We are whole creatures, viewed from a variety of perspectives: intellectual, volitional, emotional, and physical. Christians do not confess every Sunday: “We believe in the immortality of the soul,” but rather “We believe in the resurrection of the body,” so central is this holistic understanding of human life to Christian understanding. Indeed, the first hospital in human history was established in Cappadocia in the fourth century by Christians, with the help of city political leaders and wealthy citizens. So our interest is not new, nor is it casual. We believe that every human being—in this case, every single resident of the United States—deserves not just adequate but excellent health care. The government has the right, and the duty, of making sure that this directive is carried out, or it is failing those under its care. Universal health care is not just a goal but an absolute mandate from the vantage point of the community of faith. Now, how this is to be carried out will necessarily involve the adjustment of a variety of interests, no doubt; and human government exists to weigh and balance those interests. But mainstream Christianity puts one interest first, above all others, without reservation, and that is the patient. And since every resident of our country is at one time or another a patient, health care must serve patients first, universally and always. All other interests are secondary, and frankly pale in comparison.
Christian faith is an immigrant faith. Father Abraham was called to leave behind his homeland, to journey to a far country. The people of Israel—forerunners of the church—were sojourners in a foreign land, in bondage, until they found a home in the promised land. The early churchgoers who gathered at Pentecost to receive the Spirit were from all peoples of the Roman Empire, from the Far East to the Far West. The gospel respects no boundaries or borders; it tears down, and leaps over, every wall of human division, honoring only the universal love of God for all humanity. The Christian attitude to immigration and immigrants can be summarized in a single word: welcome. Modern states have the right to secure their borders; but the Christian approach to immigration is to encourage policies that welcome and honor immigrants, refugees, and those who seek asylum, and to provide a clear and practicable path to citizenship. Bias and prejudice against immigrants are profoundly antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ, a sure sign that true understanding of God’s love is absent; hospitality to the immigrant is a manifestation of the clear will of God made known in Scripture. Why is this so? First, in God’s sight we are all immigrants, as the Psalmist eloquently attests: “Hear my prayer, O Lord, and give ear to my cry; do not hold your peace at my tears. For I am your passing guest, an alien [immigrant], like all my forebears.” We never land fully in place in this life; God alone is forever our home, and to that home we will all one day return. Second, even in our own homeland, our country, we remain immigrants, according to Scripture; for God alone owns the whole earth. We understand in our hearts the struggles of immigrants, because we, too, know the burdens of being an outsider, though we are glad patriots of a noble nation. And third, how we treat immigrants is the measure of how we stand with God. On this point the Scriptures are quite clear: “You shall not oppress a resident alien; you know the heart of an alien, for you were aliens in the land of Egypt.” I was a stranger, an immigrant, a refugee, a seeker of asylum; that is the word of Christ to all nations, and to our nation. Did you welcome me?
Next, let us consider poverty. There is no more central moral issue in the entire Scriptures than poverty, and the gap between poor and wealthy. The gospel of Jesus Christ turns the world of human values upside down; it is the poor who are freely given the kingdom of God, and the rich and powerful are sent away empty. The Hebrew prophets never tire of pounding away on the inequalities of wealth that manifest themselves especially in the “best of times,” such as the reign of Jeroboam II, when Amos preached: You “sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals . . . trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth, and push the afflicted out of the way.” These are not ambiguous words. The sages of Israel agree, making it quite clear that treatment of the poor manifests our relation to God: “Those who oppress the poor insult their Maker, but those who are kind to the needy honor him.” Indeed, the law of God has a revolutionary mechanism—called the Jubilee—in which the whole socio-economic order is reset every generation. All land is returned to its original owner, all debts are cancelled. The point is this: Wealth is a divine gift for the good of the community, and periodic adjustments are needed to ensure that its intended goal is reached. Jesus puts it rather bluntly (as he often does) in the Sermon on the Mount: You cannot worship both God and wealth. You have to choose. Three issues are paramount. First, the gap of wealth between rich and poor in our time (as in every time) is a moral outrage. It injures, in fact, the humanity of the whole human community, rich and poor alike. Second, the church takes its place in solidarity with the poor, the weak, the needy, the vulnerable. That has been our place from the beginning, and it is our place now. And third—a point stressed especially by John Calvin, but shared by the mainstream church: It is the role of government to make certain that the gracious goods of the earth are shared in common for the benefit of all. There needs to be a mechanism in place to keep the gap of wealth from becoming oppressive, and it is the role of government to put that mechanism in place and monitor its effectiveness.
Finally, with respect to race: Racism pervades American society, from police brutality and outright murder, to job discrimination, educational inequality, housing discrimination, a wide range of health-care disparities, mass incarceration and death penalty rates, and much, much more. These facts can sadly be documented rather easily with brute statistics, though behind every statistic is not only a human life, but a web of human sorrow and suffering. Trumpism—and its GOP and white evangelical disciples—has three answers. It either openly embraces racism; denies that it exists; or ascribes it to an individual choice. Above all, white evangelicalism in particular insists that racism is not systemic, and in this denial, also denies a central truth of the Christian gospel. Our grasp of the truth of grace is not only linked to equality in freedom; according to the apostle Paul, such equality is a sign that grace is truly understood to begin with: “There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all are one in Christ Jesus.” Equality of race, gender, nationality, is not only a divine gift of grace, but a necessary sign that grace is truly affirmed. Why is that so, for Paul? Because grace means freedom; and the freedom of grace reveals our common bondage. We do not choose sin, we inherit it. We sin freely (spontaneously), yet we cannot but sin, bound as we are to a power far beyond our individual choice. Christians call this original sin, as affirmed by Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Barth, Bonhoeffer, and the mainstream church everywhere. It has its clear analogy in social structures of racism which are cumulative, devastating, and invisible apart from grace. Only grace opens our eyes to see; only grace grants us the freedom to resist; only grace teaches us to move beyond assimilation or identity to the power of mutual and radical integration (as Michelle Adams, professor of law at Yeshiva University, puts it). We do not make an individual “choice” to be racist; we are born into racism, born into the cumulative facts of historic wrong. The moral choices we make—as acts of discipleship, according to the late Congressman John Lewis—are to opt out of that system, to fight non-violently but actively against it, and perhaps even one day, to overcome it.
We Have Reached the Theo-Political Hour
The foundations of democracy itself are under relentless assault by Trumpism and its religious-political followers. Evangelicalism has given politics religious significance, and servile fealty to Donald Trump is the result. By contrast, mainstream Christianity must recognize the significance of the hour, which has given faith political significance, not because we want it to, but because the time demands it. Martin Buber called moments like these the “theo-political hour.”
What does the moment call upon us to do? First, we must educate one another. False doctrine thrives on covert lies, clandestine innuendo, mythological half-truths. We must, together, gather our resources to recognize and validate a public truth that exposes the lies of Trumpism and its supporters. We believe in differences of opinion in the mainstream church, including political opinion. But we utterly reject the notion that facts and opinions are the same thing; that opinions can suddenly be converted into spurious facts, while genuine facts are banished from public truth. Now is the time to speak the truth in love.
Second, we must organize together. At every level of the church’s life: within local churches, between local churches, in ministerial associations, in denominational agencies, between various denominational bodies, we must recognize that now is not the time in the mainstream church to shelter bureaucratic inertia. In the technical language of theology, it is a time of confession; a time to compare notes with one another, to make plans with one another, to combine resources with one another, all toward the goal of making sure that the politico-theological disease of Trumpism is utterly vanquished.
Third, we must mobilize. A great and terrible wrong has been, and still is, being perpetrated on our democracy, even to the point of calling its future into question. How can we now, of all times, hide our light under the bushel? Now is surely the time to let our light shine. Defeating Trumpism and its religious-political supporters means taking action, not in order to gain success or influence or power, but in order to be faithful. Each must decide the best course of action, based on the best use of her own gifts. We cannot do everything; we cannot do nothing; so, we must do what we can, joyfully and without reservation.
And lastly, if it comes to it, we must protest. Peacefully, non-violently; but actively and without shame, we must take our place in the streets in protest against unjust policies clearly designed to undergird a Trumpist agenda. I think, for example, of the measures in various states clearly designed to curtail access to voting for minorities. Even if it is made the law of the state, it is an unjust law, and it should be peacefully but loudly reproved. The mainstream church, over its long history, is no stranger to peaceful public demonstration. What good is being a protestant (for those who are) if you never protest anything?
To summarize: Not often, but occasionally in American history, there is a convergence between the best aspirations arising out of the political world and the vision of the Christian community for a new society. One thinks of the American Revolution, Abolition, or the civil rights era. Often this convergence happens in times of crisis. Whether now is such a time of transformational change remains to be seen. We live by hope.