Instead of Accusing Trump-Supporting Christians of Hypocrisy, Aim to Convert Them from the Religion of Politics to True Faith

It’s common to see signs with a political or religious theme on the back roads near Luverne, Ala. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)
It’s common to see signs with a political or religious theme on the back roads near Luverne, Ala. (Michael S. Williamson/The Washington Post)

by Ansley L. Quiros

Few groups have received more intense scrutiny over the past two years than white evangelicals who support Donald Trump. “Judgment Days,” Stephanie McCrummen’s portrait of the struggles experienced by parishioners in the First Baptist Church in Luverne, Ala., shows a community torn between their support for President Trump’s policies and their discomfort with his un-Christian behavior. And it has reignited a national conversation about faith and politics, with predictably polarized responses.

Jonathan Wilson-Hargrove, a preacher and co-founder (with the Rev. William Barber) of the Poor People’s Campaign, cheered the “honest” exposé of “#SlaveholderReligion.” Jemar Tisby, a prominent black historian and evangelical, tweeted that the religion described wasn’t Christianity at all but rather “syncretism: a blending of beliefs that corrupts true religion.” Ordinary citizens, too, reacted. One woman, “an American, a citizen of Alabama, and a Southern Baptist,” claimed she was “astonished at the way these Christians have twisted the teachings of Christ to soothe their hypocritical conscience.”

For many Trump critics, it’s enough to write off these believers as, in H.L. Mencken’s phrase, “immortal vermin” possessing only “theologic bile.” But this would be a mistake. To flatten them as caricatures of ignorance or hate dehumanizes them and, moreover, misses the enduring role of religious belief in American politics. It also misses the pervasiveness of what scholars call folk religion — the lived practice that exists in the spaces between official doctrine, biblical text and personal politics. And while we can dismiss it as nonsense or condemn it as hypocrisy, we might be better off seeing it as an opportunity.

Support for Trump continues a pattern for culturally conservative Christians that dates to the mid-20th century, when rapid, seismic transformations remade the United States. The post-World War II economic boom, the advent of the Cold War, the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating desegregation of American schools, the sexual revolution sparked by available and legal contraception, the 1962 Engel v. Vitale ruling outlawing mandatory prayer in schools — these all created a sense of careening change that left some Americans deeply fearful. As an Alabama congressman put it in 1963, the government had first “put the Negroes in the schools; now they put God out of the schools.”

These changes revealed schisms within American Christianity. For example, after Brown, many Southern denominations urged their flocks to accept the ruling. The Southern Baptist Convention promoted compliance, with its Christian Life Commission stating that the ruling had its roots in the “scriptural teaching that every man is embraced in the love of God.” The Methodist Church, too, issued a supportive statement and later codified support for integration in its 1964 “Discipline,” a publication stating the law and doctrine of the denomination.

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SOURCE: The Washington Post

Ansley L. Quiros is an assistant professor of history at the University of North Alabama and the author of “God With Us: Lived Theology and the Freedom Struggle in Americus, Georgia, 1942-1976.”