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.