The Mirror of American Evangelicalism

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In May of 2015, Pew Research released their highly-anticipated Religious Landscape Survey and revealed what many already knew to be true: Christianity is on the decline in America. But it also revealed much more: in comparison to other denominations steadily bleeding members, Evangelicalism has remained remarkably stable, identification declining only slightly.

 

For evangelical leaders, there was a vindication in these numbers. The changing culture of the last decade, particularly around sexuality, had moved evangelicalism into sharper contrast with the rest of the country. In a 2007 study from the Barna group, 91% of non-Christians said the first word that came to mind when they thought of Christianity was “antihomosexual”, the second “judgmental”, and everyone, including myself, implored evangelicals to change their theology or prepare for their funeral.

 

And yet, all these years later, the numbers have stayed stable. Evangelicalism survives.

 

Immediately following Pew’s publication, Russell Moore and Joe Carter  took to the internet for a victory lap, penning long lectures about the godlessness of the liberal mainline tradition, about the resiliency of evangelicalism despite an inhospitable climate.

 

Moore had this to say at the time:

The Pew report holds that mainline denominations—those who have made their peace with the Sexual Revolution—continue to report heavy losses, while evangelical churches remain remarkably steady—even against some heavy headwinds coming from the other direction. Why?

We learned this answer 100 years ago, and it reminds us of what we learned 2,000 years ago. Two or three generations ago, Christians who held to the Virgin birth of Christ were warned that their children would flee the faith unless the parents redefined Christianity. “If you want to win the next generation,” they were told, “you have to make Christianity relevant, and that means dispending with miracles in favor of modern science.” The churches that followed that path aren’t just dying; they are dead, sustained by endowments and dwindling gatherings of nostalgic senior adults with a smattering of community organizers here and there.

 

It’s a counter-punch I’ve seen throw a million times this past year whenever evangelicalism has been the subject of  criticism: Our numbers our bigger. Our people are staying, because our faith is deeper, truer, gospel-centered. The world may not like it, but God is with us. God is so clearly with us. Did you see the numbers?

 

Enter Donald J. Trump.

 

The Presidential frontrunner most of us were laughing about months ago now commands the largest share of evangelical support. Half of white evangelicals, according to a recent pew survey, believe Trump would be a “good” or “great” president.

 

This makes no sense, but also, it makes perfect sense.

 

In a normal world, the Donald would be roundly disqualified from the evangelical vote for his long list of crimes: his past support for partial birth abortion. His current support for same-sex marriage (which I agree with, but evangelicals strongly disagree with.) His honest answer that he doesn’t ask God for forgiveness because he has nothing to be sorry for, and likewise, he doesn’t forgive anyone else. His inability to cite a single line of scripture. His notable absence from church. His unabashed hatred for women, who he has called “dogs”, “pieces of ass,” and said you have to “treat ‘em like shit.” His mockery of the disabled. His racist rhetoric. When Ben Carson gave him a run for his money, he likened him to a pathological child molester. Whenever he had the opportunity to talk about his daughter, he says he’d date her if she wasn’t his daughter. When some of his supporters were arrested for assaulting a homeless man- urinating on his face and then beating the crap out of him- they said, “Donald Trump was right, all these illegals need to be deported” and Donald Trump replied to this by saying these supporters “are passionate… they want this country to be great again.”

 

Trump may not be the evangelical’s final choice of candidate, but at the moment, he is their mirror. He reflects the unabashed bigotry and twisted theology endorsed by a large slice of their lot. A slice that is finally saying how they really feel about minorities and women and immigrants and the disabled- political correctness be damned. A slice that finds no offense in Trump’s crude impersonation of their sacred faith, perhaps because his looks a lot like theirs.

 

Now, to be honest, every conservative evangelical I know is opposed to Trump on the basis of faith and good sense. His large support doesn’t reflect the will of most evangelicals.

 

But it opens up a world of revelation inside those numbers from May. 

 

Many evangelicals, including my own dad, have been arguing that these folks are not real evangelicals. Russell Moore and others gatekeepers have been hollering in exasperation, in the pages of the Times and in their Twitter feeds, scrambling for control over their renegade flock. And I keep hearing it over and over again, online and elsewhere: any evangelical that would support Trump’s presidential bid is by definition not an evangelical. Not a true one, at least.

 

But they were in May, when those big, beautiful numbers came out? Got it. Here’s the problem: You can’t count these folks when it is convenient to you, and then write them off not real evangelicals when over a third of them buck your beliefs and fall at the feet of a megalomaniac. It doesn’t work like that.

 

Maybe instead of score-keeping, evangelicals should be analyzing fruit. Maybe it would be wise to consider conducting a theological inventory, and see where this odd crop of Trump Evangelicalism sprung to life. These are not simply carpet-baggers putting on evangelicalism like a top hat, these are people who have paid attention, taken notes, and have walked where these theologies have led them. These people may be more evangelical than you think.

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Me Too: A Love Letter by Samantha Bender

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Six years ago, I met Sam.

I was living in an apartment in Washington, DC with about eighty other students from Christian colleges around the country, all of us there for a domestic study program. 

These were the days when I wanted to work at a political think tank and develop policies that would promote clean energy. The days when I talked about politics and energy issues until everyone left the room, which I suppose was how I liked it, since these were the days when I was closeted. When I didn’t want people to know me. When I hid myself beneath layers of opinions so no one could see the truth of my soul. 
I don’t remember the exact moment I met Sam, but I feel her in my memory. I hear her voice in the beginnings of things turning well. That semester, I started off in the natural seclusion of an introvert desperately trying to figure out how to make friends, and somewhere in those first few weeks, Sam showed up, and it was like the atmosphere shifted, like I suddenly belonged.

I knew right away I would like her. Her personality was so magnetic, accentuated by a sharp sense of humor and a deep empathy for the world. She was a Christian and so was I. She was a liberal and I was too. And there was something so refreshing in that. Both of us hailed from conservative colleges, places where people often questioned our faith and argued against us with the Bible as if we were had never heard of it before. So, of course, we talked politics nonstop. But we wandered into the other spaces of our lives, too.

Her comedic hero, I learned, was Kristen Wiig (this was big, because at the time, I felt I was the only noticing Wiig.) And her life hero was (is) Sophie Scholl, a German student who fearlessly protested Nazism, fought the darkness that was flooding all around her, and was eventually executed for her courage. And I see that courage in Sam. It makes so much sense that this girl would speak so much to the her heart, because Sam is bold, Sam is strong, Sam speaks up when no one else will.

About me, Sam learned I loved to sketch. Kept a sketchbook in my backpack everywhere I went. And after I showed her some of my favorite work, she asked if I would do her a favor and sketch a picture of Sophie. Of course I said yes.

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Then I spent hours carefully putting it together and she cried when I revealed it to her. It was a beautiful moment in our still young friendship.

By the end of the semester, Sam emerged in our friend group as one of the few people I felt I could talk to, and there were even a few times when we were hanging out downtown grabbing lunch or sneaking a prohibited smoke on the roof of our building overlooking the city, that I thought I was going to do it. I thought I was going to come out to her. But then the fear came, as it always did, and folded it back into my heart, and I just smiled, grateful that I could at least be this known with Sam.

A few years ago, Sam messaged me on FB. She had read my blog. I actually figured she had, as I had been receiving messages from other friends from that semester, all well wishes and thank yous, but when I received this message from Sam, I felt a little breathless as I awaited her thoughts, her prayers, her thank yous. Because it was Sam.

 

And then she told me she was gay, too, and I just about fell out my chair.

 

Did God do this? Perhaps yes. When two or more gays gather, surely He is present. That is gospel.

 

162926_10150105335010992_4326749_n-1Never once did I suspect Sam was gay, but I remember the warm presence I felt in her world. I remember the deep current running between us, one that knew of mystery and confusion and pain, one that knew of held back truths. One that prompted us to layer one another in love, because that was what we were desperate for and that was our gift, to give something so precious we weren’t sure we would ever have.  Someone looking deep into your eyes and seeing you. Someone telling you you’re so very loved.

She was a gift to my life then and she continues to be, but being the terrible friend I am, I’ve been sitting on this Love Letter she wrote for a couple months, because if you haven’t noticed, I haven’t had a free minute to write lately (THANKS GRAD SCHOOL) and I wanted to introduce her to you instead of just posting the letter. I wanted you to see our incredible story and feel the rays of God moving through it.

 

Now, pull up a chair, and listen. Sit still and take in these life-giving words from Sam, to you, the still closeted or the out and outcasted, to anyone questioning their worthiness of love and belonging. Listen. Sam wants to tell you something true.

~~~

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Dear brave one,

I’ve been wanting to write a “love letter” for a long time, I just couldn’t quite muster the strength, or energy, or afford enough wine to get through it. If I’m actually honest, I didn’t want to write this because I would have preferred to just walk away from the fire and focus on my own scars. I needed to run away clinging to the little I still had left instead of jumping back into the flames to find survivors. But I can’t do that anymore, I don’t want to run anymore. All I want to do is shout from the hilltops the anthem that has always kept me going, the only thing I can give to you…

“me too”

———————–

I came out almost 3 years ago. First to myself, then to a few friends over several glasses (See also: bottles) of red wine. It was summer and to say those words, as terrifying as they were, was like taking off a parka in the 90 degree heat and feeling the cool breeze for the first time.

After that summer I returned to finish my last year of grad school at a Christian college. The same Christian college I had graduated from just a few years before. It was home but now, with one foot out of the closet, it was hostile.

But it was just 9 more months, I could do this.

So I rushed to be okay with my sexuality as I sat in chapels, and lectures, and student conversations about “the sin of homosexuality”, how it was pervasive, how those people were separated from God, that they were inherently less then. I rushed to form tough skin. I kept my secret hidden and chided myself for being wounded by the words of others. I drank cheap gin with my roommate instead of dealing with my wounds from staff meetings where we all discussed how to “love gay people” which were rarely loving and often dehumanizing…a subconscious chorus of “good thing we’re holy and straight you guys!”

I leapt for joy alone when my former employer, World Vision, decided that I was human enough to work for them again and took myself to dinner after triumphantly turning in an application for a job I had had my eye on. 30 hours later I sobbed alone when they reversed their decision, when I saw 10,000 sponsorship’s of children dropped because so many would rather let a child starve than admit I had worth as a gay woman. I kept my head down and counted my days because my job, my degree, and my credibility depended on me keeping my mouth shut.

And all that hiding, lying, silence nearly killed me.

———————–

We’re not meant to be alone. That’s not how this works. I’m not referring to romance or friendship even, but a deep guttural need to share our experiences with others. We were created to thrive by the mutual exchange of “me too”. The thrill of a shared joy or a shared sorrow, even from strangers is, in my humble opinion, what makes us human.

I know what it’s like to lay in your bed at night and somehow feel both suffocated in a small locked box while also feeling like you’ve been left out in a wide field alone, vultures circling above. I know what it’s like to feel as though a simple sentence could destroy everything you’ve come to know. I know what it’s like to cry so hard you literally think your chest may break open. And while I can’t fix it, I can remind you “me too”. I’ve felt that way too. I’ve been there too.

It’s easy when you’re in the valley to look up to the mountain top and feel as though you’re the only one who slipped, the only one in the bottom of a pit while everyone else looks down from above. A reverse Who-Ville and Mount Crumpit situation where the songs of celebration feel like symbols on your ears.

It sucks. Plain and simple…but I can promise you that you are not alone in the valley.

I know you’re tired but do yourself a favor crawl around in the dark, dig and claw until you find others. Because we’re down there and you needs us as much as we need you.

Some people you will not be surprised to find, old friends and close family who are not planning on leaving your side. Their love will continue to be constant. And while you will painfully search for some who have vanished, there will be others who you won’t expect to find. Those you thought for sure would climb up that mountain leaving you in the dust but are instead holding your hand in the dark. People will surprise you, let them.

This is not an easy journey, but it’s an incredible one. Trust me when I say there are people in there with you, who will be there when it gets worse, and when it gets better. In the face of the “getting worse”, remember my dear friend that God does not feel this way. When pastors and priests talk about the incarnation and Jesus walking on earth they speak of its beauty not because the bible tells them so, but because the ability for the God of the universe to stand beside you and say “me too, they persecuted me too” is life changing.

There is no rush or timeline to pull yourself from the valley, to feel better, to proudly wave your rainbow flag beneath a shower of glitter and champagne. You are enough as you are and you are not alone. Let every “me too” wrap around you like a warm blanket. Let the shared sacred space give you peace and rest. And trust that one day you will be able to give back the “me too” to someone else and in that moment know that this journey was all worth it.

For me that day is today, in this letter.

“I think I cry because it strikes me as sacred all those people going by. People who decided to simply live their truth even when doing so wasn’t simple. Each and every one of them had the courage to say, this is who I am even if you’ll crucify me for it. Just like Jesus did.” – Cheryl Strayed

All my love,

Sam

photo credit: Avery Milo (another dear, dear friend)