How to Not Welcome the Stranger

With a potentially bad election day looming for Donald Trump and Republicans next week, they and their propaganda machine have gone full tilt into promoting the story that a caravan of Honduran migrants is making its way north through Mexico, towards asylum in the United States. Predictably, the news is being used to mine fear among conservative voters and drive turnout in the midterms.

Among the groups most vocally speaking out against the migrants is, of course, white evangelicals, Trump’s most persistent base of support. At Vox, Tara Isabella Burton writes of the theological pretzels evangelical leaders are twisting themselves into to deny the very clear words of Scripture imploring Christians to welcome the stranger and the immigrant. Here is Burton:

This willingness to define seemingly straightforward passages in the Bible along politicized terms — reimagining what it means to be someone’s “neighbor” — speaks to a wider issue within white evangelicalism. The degree to which white evangelical identity is increasingly predicated on politicized whiteness — and on an insular and isolationist vision of community — reveals the extent to which white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration. And, increasingly, white evangelicals are willing to selectively reinterpret the Bible to justify this.

“We’re seeing literal verses with long histories of interpretation, that favor the poor, that favor outcasts … redeployed in ways that fit now,” Bass said. “They’re inventing a new interpretation, whole hog, to fit the age of Trump.”

One of the most famous verses in the Bible is Galatians 3:28, which highlights how Christianity is supposed to transcend barriers of race, class, wealth, and nationality. “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus.”

It’s unclear how white evangelicals will reinterpret that verse now.

For many white evangelicals, the faith they subscribe to no longer credibly resembles Christianity in any traditional sense. Instead, it has become a form of white ethno-nationalism adhered to with religious fervor, fueled by fear and allegiance to Donald Trump.

Scripture is unequivocal: those who claim to be disciples of Christ are called to welcome the stranger and care for the needy, to love our fellow human beings as our neighbors. There is no grey area in this. The words of Christ in Luke 4 and Matthew 25 attest to this.

The migrants approaching our border are fleeing from their homes in Honduras, a nation with the world’s highest murder rate for at least six years running.  They are fleeing a nation that suffered the coup of a democratically elected government five years ago that we failed to counter in any way, and which is being racked by the violence of drug gangs, the result of deliberate US policy choices in Central and South America in the War on Drugs. In short, they are fleeing a problem created in large part by the United States. We owe these people. They are not a Soros-funded plot to destroy America. They are human beings who have heard their whole lives that America is the greatest country on the planet, and they took our marketing seriously. We have an obligation to address their arrival in a humane and logical way, rather than in a way driven by fear mongering and politics.

It is shameful that the loudest Christian voices are speaking words of the Anti-Christ about our suffering neighbors, but it certainly isn’t surprising. This is Trump’s America, and Trump’s church.

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The Bookshelf: Believe Me

Of all the confounding and frustrating things that the Donald Trump era has brought us, one of the most perplexing to me has been the embrace of a shallow, insecure, and immoral businessman from New York City by white American Christians. Donald Trump, to the eyes of this aspiring theologian, is the antithesis of everything I know Christianity to be: cruel rather than compassionate, brash rather than reserved, egocentric rather than humble, incapable of introspection, or forgiveness, or self-restraint.

35224850_10216116132396646_2037149979729985536_oThis isn’t arm chair psychology, either; one merely has to watch him for five or ten minutes in almost any setting (or, even, just peruse his Twitter feed) to see that this is a person who is pure, undiluted Id, who rarely looks inward or even takes time to think things through, and who certainly rarely, if ever, thinks of others first.

Most frustrating of all to me, is that I have family members, people who are good, Christian people, full of love and grace and compassion and intelligence, who are ardent Trump supporters, or at the least, defenders of him, the party he leads, and the conservative movement that birthed him. It baffles me, how God-fearing men and women, who were so offended by the Clinton scandals, who have for so long fought so hard for family values and public decency, could make such a hard turn and support Donald J. Trump to lead our country, and, even more shockingly, to praise him as some kind of exemplar of everything they believe.

John Fea, professor of history of Messiah College, has been grappling with this same conundrum at his blog, The Way of Improvement Leads Homesince Trump burst onto the national political scene several years ago. Fea himself is a self-described evangelical Christian. Having read his blog daily for almost three years now, I can safely say he is a true moderate in every sense of the word, someone who never seems, in writing at least, to swing too far left or right from his center, but who doggedly sticks to his moral foundation that is rooted in Christianity. On his blog, you will find posts praising Barack Obama for showcasing a singularly Christian attitude during his presidency, side by side with posts condemning abortion in unequivocal terms and pushing back against the kind of secularism embodied by Bernie Sanders and the progressive movement. He always approaches these issues from the dual lenses of his evangelical beliefs, and his knowledge of American history. If you aren’t a regular reader of his blog, well, you should be.

All of that is to say, Fea is uniquely placed to think and write about the phenomena that is American evangelicalism’s rabid support for Donald Trump. And, he has done just that, in his newest book, Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In this book, Fea traces the history of American evangelicalism, and the apocalyptic fear it has always carried around, to the current situation it finds itself in, where its numbers are rapidly shrinking and its influence on the cultural conversation has diminished to the point that the need is felt to throw the weight of the movement behind a thrice-married, openly admitted adulterer and reality TV star. Its the kind of move that reeks of death throes and desperation, and that becomes clear in the pages of Believe Me.

Fea unequivocally points to existential fear as the driving force behind American evangelicalism today. The opening sentence of a chapter entitled “A Short History of Evangelical Fear,” reads,

“Despite the biblical passages exhorting followers of Christ to ‘fear not,’ it is possible to write an entire history of American evangelicalism as the story of Christians who failed to overcome fear.”

Fea traces the history of evangelical fear all the way from Puritan fears of witches and Native Americans, to fears of deism and secularism in the earliest years of the republic, through 19th century fears of Catholics and southern and eastern European immigrants, to post-bellum fears of freed and empowered blacks, right up to today’s fears of immigrants who look different and speak different languages, incomprehensible terrorists who seem to want to burn everything down, and secular leftists who want to drive Christians from the political and social realm.

Of course, fear either leads to fight or flight in human beings, and Fea shows how evangelicals very quickly realized that fighting was the only way to combat what they saw as an increasingly terrifying world. Evangelical theology was subsequently built on top of this fear and the drive to fight back, rather than the other way around. In the process, evangelical ideals were sidelined and put to use to serve the needs of a conservative movement that was reeling in the Seventies in the wake of Watergate and Supreme Court rulings that took away prayer in schools, segregation, and religious iconography in public places. Fear is a powerful motivator in democratic politics, and the Republican Party has learned well over the last forty years how to exploit the existential fear, and the desperate fighting instinct of a cornered animal, to win elections.

Donald Trump is but the culmination of this decision, something that becomes clear through Fea’s book. This is perhaps the most important work Fea does here, showing that Trump is not a one-off phenomanah or abberation, but instead, is the logical conclusion of a conservative evangelicalism that is built on a foundation of sand. Donald Trump figured out to most potent way to harness the fear of evangelical voters, by promising to take them back to some mythical past, when all was right in the world and evangelicals ruled America. Fea exposes this nostalgia, exemplified by the Trump campaign slogan “Make America Great Again,” for the sham it is, in a powerful section where he runs through the eras evoked by Trump as times of American “greatness,” and reveals instead they were also times of upheaval, racism, genocide – in short, times in which, yes, a few white people may have been doing well, but times in which the great many, including people of color, were oppressed and injustice was done. As he writes,

“For too many who have been the objects of white evangelical fear, real American greatness is still something to be hoped for – not something to be recovered from an imagined past.”

Fea ends the book with a powerful call for a rethinking of American evangelicalism in its public engagement. Instead of fear, he calls readers back to the Christian value of hope; instead of the pursuit of worldly power, he prescribes the Christ-like attitude of humility; and instead of a nostalgic but ultimately false view of the past, he encourages an honest view of history, warts and all. Ultimately, he writes,

“Evangelicals can do better that Donald Trump…Too many of its leaders (and their followers have traded their Christian witness for a mess of political pottage and a few federal judges.”

Amen. Its amazing to realize how small and uninspired the worldview of so many evangelicals has become. Reading Fea’s book is to walk through the process of how we got here, to a place where so many Christians can imagine little more from their public witness than a few crumbs in the form of federal judges and harsh words about abortion, immigrants, and political correctness.

The last two years have been profoundly disorienting, for our nation, and for those who call themselves Christians. How did we get to this place, where so many millions of our brothers and sisters in Christ have spurred the values we thought they held so dear, and embraced a brand of politics so ultimately divisive and unChristian? If you, like me, have been struggling with this question, then I can’t recommend Dr. Fea’s book enough. The answers we need in the fight to reclaim a public Christianity that looks like the form of faith we see embodied in the example of Christ are rooted in understanding our past. Believe Me explains that past clearly, and in doing so, claims an important place in the conversation about the future of Christianity in America.

Believe Me comes out June 28. You can find more info and pre-order here.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Eerdmans Publishing Company. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commissions’ 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Barack Obama and the Evangelicals

I am fascinated with Michael Wear’s piece at Christianity Today on the relationship between President Barack Obama and American evangelicals. Drawing on his new book Reclaiming Faith: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in America, Wear tries to answer the question of why evangelicals hated Obama so much, but love Donald Trump.

obama-faith-outreach-na02-wide-horizontal3I’ll admit, this question has been central in my mind since Trump burst onto the political main-stage three years ago. The deep hatred and disdain evangelicals have for Obama baffles me. There is no doubt in my mind that President Obama governed in a Christian manner like few others before him have. I don’t mean he participated in the cheap, public displays of devotion that a George W. Bush or Ted Cruz engage in. Rather, Obama was always thoughtful, humble, and driven by deep convictions of morality and regard for human dignity. He never stood on a stage and declared himself “born again,” but he did showcase a deep knowledge and regard of the Christian faith, and clearly let himself be driven by it. He was committed to his family, and to American families as a goal of American policy. When speaking of faith, he spoke with great knowledge and reverence for God and Scripture.

As a Christian with a background in politics and policy, I can’t see many areas where I would have made choices much different that Obama with regards to faith (drone strikes overseas and other foreign policy choices are the chief areas that come to mind.) The public expression of faith exhibited by Barack Obama is something I would hope to emulate if I were again pursuing a career in public service.

Beyond personality, Obama’s Administration was much more faith friendly that it gets credit for, something Wear points out:

President Obama came into Office with plans to deliver on the promise of his campaign outreach to people of faith, including evangelicals. He kept and expanded the White House faith-based initiative, creating an advisory council (which, unlike the current president’s council, was official, established by executive order for the purpose of providing recommendations to the president and the federal government) that included robust evangelical participation. Four months into his Administration, he delivered a passionate case to heal national divides around abortion by seeking to ‘reduce the number of women seeking abortions’ while maintaining his commitment to Roe v. Wade. This speech was followed-up by years of staff work, overseen by the president, to pursue this common ground. Evangelicals were central to many of President Obama’s signature achievements: the Affordable Care Act, New START, the Paris Agreement, the expansion of America’s effort to combat human trafficking, and the rejection of deep social safety net cuts proposed by the Republican Congress.

Yet none of this is taken into account in the narrative that prevails about Obama and faith. And with good reason. The Religious Right made the decision early on, mirroring Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party, to blindly oppose everything the President did. Wear goes on:

In addition to discussing these partnerships, my recent book, Reclaiming Hope: Lessons Learned in the Obama White House About the Future of Faith in Americaalso describes why the president’s olive branch withered. On the right, political Religious Right groups made it their mission to sow distrust of and animosity toward the president. This went far beyond opposing specific policies or values of the Obama Administration. They did this through spreading half-truths, tolerating or promoting conspiracy theories, and insisting that Obama was an existential threat to their faith and the nation, among other things. There were notable exceptions to this fearmongering, but they were, sadly, in the minority and suffered under accusations of being closet liberals by their fellow evangelicals.

Evangelicals doubled down on abortion, same-sex marriage, and religious freedom issues, elevating these three areas over everything else. Where Obama looked for areas of cooperation and shared values, evangelicals made the decision to focus only on differences.

Wear points out that this attitude, driven by fear and loathing of someone they only saw as an “other,” led directly to President Donald Trump:

Fear was the primary basis of Donald Trump’s appeals to evangelicals. He did not pretend he was one of them. He told them they were alone, that Democrats were out to get them, that ISIS was ‘drowning Christians in steel cages,’ and only he could protect them. He offered himself as a bully. Yes, he had flaws. Yes, his pagan approach to sex, money and power was evident and unseemly, inconveniently brought to the surface repeatedly during his campaign. But he would be their bully.

Evangelicals, driven by eight years of hate, began to believe their own propaganda, that the various disagreements they held with Barack Obama not only outweighed their numerous agreements, but in fact signaled a coming apocalypse for American Christianity. Minor disagreements could not be tolerated, because they indicated, to them at least, the cracks showing deep seated liberal hatred for all things Christian. So they took a bet on a strongman to save them from a non-existent boogeyman. In return for his “protection,” they get to carry his baggage forward for decades to come, tarnishing their own reputations and making themselves culturally irrelevant.

Wear eloquently discusses the consequences of this choice:

Evangelicals may find such attention as they received from Barack Obama more hard to come by after the Trump era takes its full toll. In years to come, I believe evangelicals will view Barack Obama’s disappointment toward them in a different light. They will see that it reflected much higher esteem than either Hillary Clinton’s cold disregard or Donald Trump’s toxic embrace. As they acclimate to the cultural changes that drove them to Trump, and understand just what their support of Trump cost them and our country, they will look back and see that Obama’s disappointment was a compliment.

President Obama was indeed a liberal, and a supporter of women’s choice, equal rights for LGBTQ+ people, and an expansive view of the separation of church and state that makes room for all faiths and non-faiths. He also was passionate about reinvigorating American families, combating poverty and declining standards of living, pursuing broader economic equality, and presenting a more humble, more humane, and more compassionate America to the world. American evangelicals let their own fear and hate deprive them of a great opportunity, one they may not get again in the future.

H/T to John Fea for bringing this article to my attention.