President Trump is wrong about Evangelicals but he is not to blame

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.” (Psalm 2:7)

 

The necessary divorce

Is this the necessary divorce? The match wasn’t made in heaven. It was a coupling that shouldn’t have been, and yet some leading Christian voices in the United States laid down their theology and ascended the White House. In the last 48 hours, this special relationships has unravelled. Government and Church can be good friends but they make a lousy married couple.

Following an article written by Christianity Today’s Editor in Chief, Mark Galli, President Trump has attacked the magazine and ‘defended’ evangelicals. With what appears to be a sense of betrayal, the President has resorted to his usual public naming and shaming on twitter.

“….have a Radical Left nonbeliever, who wants to take your religion & your guns, than Donald Trump as your President. No President has done more for the Evangelical community, and it’s not even close. You’ll not get anything from those Dems on stage. I won’t be reading ET again!

“A far left magazine, or very “progressive,” as some would call it, which has been doing poorly and hasn’t been involved with the Billy Graham family for many years, Christianity Today, knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call and would rather…..”

“guess the magazine, “Christianity Today,” is looking for Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, or those of the socialist/communist bent, to guard their religion. How about Sleepy Joe? The fact is, no President has ever done what I have done for Evangelicals, or religion itself!”

I’m not writing to comment on the impeachment or to even comment on President Trump’s policies. I’m not here to defend Christianity Today either. My issue relates to the necessary separation of Evangelicalism from the White House (and any single political party for that matter).

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In response to President Trump’s assertion about looking after evangelical interests, it is not the role of Government to guard the evangelical faith. That is beyond the purview of a President’s responsibilities. The Church is not the State and the State does not control the Church.

Government and Church have different spheres of responsibility. The keys of the Kingdom belong to the Church while the Government holds the sword of justice. The different roles don’t mean there is no conversation between the two and that one cannot be of service to the other, but they are not institutions designed for a wedding. This important separation of Church and State is not an argument for the removal of religion from the public square, for all politics is religious. Some pundits argue for the removal of any semblance of religion in proximity to government, but this is neither biblical nor is it ideologically possible. Whether in the foreground and background everyone brings their convictions with them into the public square. We are all shaped by views about God and the world and these beliefs impact political priorities and policies.

It shouldn’t need saying, but just in case, the Government is not tasked with the responsibility of guarding one subsection of society, but caring for all its citizens by upholding the constitution, the law, and working for the good. Christians are part of the constituency, not the whole.

Also, President Trump understands Evangelical Christianity through a political lens that sees everything through a false binary: You’re either Conservative or socialist, you either vote Republican or Democrat. This is to misunderstand the nature of Christianity and the message of the Christian Gospel.

The Christianity Today article has spoken boldly about the importance of character,

“It’s time to say what we said 20 years ago when a president’s character was revealed for what it was.”

Indeed,  too many Christians threw this qualification into the recycling bin for a season. I also remember at the time of the 2016 election, leading evangelical voices were cautioning Christians and reminding them that character matters. Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and Al Mohler were among them. The reality is that some evangelicals wedded Trump while others stood at a distance. By in large, the Australian media ignored all this and instead ran with the preferred narrative of evangelicals supporting Trump. The reality is far more complex than has been reported. This doesn’t take away from the fact that many Christians in the United States, especially with notable names like Franklin Graham and Jerry Falwell Jnr, anointed Trump with a sacred calling that he and no President can hold.

Lest we conclude the problem is all Trump, we would do well to recall remember some of the things that have been said recently by Democratic presidential nominees in the name of Christianity. Pete Buttigieg, for example, takes the identity of Christian while supporting many ethical positions which are irreconcilable with the Christian faith, both politically and personally.

Should we blame the President? He is certainly responsible for what he believes and says. But is he to blame for the marriage with Evangelicals? No.

The greater responsibility lies with the fact that many Evangelicals in the United States fused their hopes and aspirations onto the Presidential bandwagon. They sacrificed integrity for expediency. I am not saying that voting Democrat is the alternative. How can one support a party that advocates the killing of unborn children and the destruction of sexual norms?

Sometimes there is no viable option. Surely this has been the predicament for Christians in many cultures during many seasons in history. The Bible never gives Christians a voting card. We are meant to honour, obey and pray for the Governing authorities, and to keep doing good to all. Some Governments are better than others, and we should wisely decide whom to support.

In none of this am I making a statement about who to vote for; not at all. The issue at hand is far more important and pressing; do not fuse the Christian faith with a political party or leader. Do not give to the State that which belongs to the Church. Do not sacrifice the Great Commission in order to maintain a place in the halls of Washington DC.

This isn’t an evangelical problem alone. Conservatives and Progressives alike make this blunder with a place too much emphasis on common grace and not enough episodes on the churches mission which centres in particular grace

It has been sad to watch a word which has holds such rich theological and historical significance, being undone in such a short time. Evangelical has been regularly misappropriated not only by political pundits but also by Americans themselves. True evangelicalism has little to do with the political aspirations of right-wing America, and everything to do with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by this Gospel as presented in the Bible, not by the political right or left, not with Democrats or Republicans, and for the Australian context, neither Liberal nor Labor.

Terribly, “evangelical” America supported Donald Trump and have been tarnished for doing so. I cannot see how this association will advance the cause of Jesus Christ. If anything, the word may become irretrievably immeshed in a cause that is not the Gospel.

It is one thing to be part of a Presidential term, but it is quite another to one day stand before the Judge of the earth and give an account for how our lives have adorned or maligned the Gospel of Christ.

This final point is not only true for American Christians but also Australian Christians. When will Christians learn not to place undue hope in Government? The election has exposed a messed up eschatology and misplaced soteriology, which will not only disappoint, but will prevent people from seeing Christ. However Donald Trump decides to build his wall along the Mexican border, it is nothing compared to the wall evangelicals have built-in this election which will block out the wonder of the Gospel. How will true evangelicals work to dismantle this false gospel? What will we do publicly and in our Churches to redress the damage caused by this political misalignment?

American Evangelicals have harmed Evangelicalism

“Therefore, you kings, be wise; be warned, you rulers of the earth.” (Psalm 2:7)

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Eleven months ago a good friend sat on the lounge in my home and told me that the Presidential race would be between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump…and that Trump would win!

I looked at him as though he had had a lobotomy. But over the course of the year my friend’s projection has been rattling in the deep recesses of my mind where I try to leave all the crazy thoughts.

Like the majority of Australians I feel as though I’m floating in a hypnagogic state. How many of us really thought that Trump would trump America?!

According to the latest figures, it appears the main reason for Hillary Clinton’s loss is because Democrats stayed home: 5 million fewer democrats voted yesterday than in 2012; that’s a lot of people. The Republican turn out was also slightly down, which is unsurprising given the candidate.

I have no doubt that there are numerous reasons behind Trump’s win, and I am no expert to decode all these, and neither is it my purpose to explore them here.

After surveying this morning’s twitter sphere, it revealed though how mainstream media, Hollywood, and the self acclaimed intelligentsia still don’t get it; the progressive moral and social agenda is repugnant to many Americans, and also to many Australians.

More concerning, American “evangelicals” don’t get it. I am hearing reports suggesting that as many as 85% of “evangelicals” voted for Donald Trump. Whatever the actual number, it will be a substantial percentage. I appreciate why Christians could not vote for Hillary Clinton; for example, her position toward unborn children is paramount to evil, but so is Trump’s posture toward women and refugees.

I want to reiterate a concern that I have raised in recent weeks, and that is how the evangelical cause will be weakened as a result of a Trump Presidency. The reason is obvious, “evangelicals” have so closely aligned themselves with Donald Trump that in the public eye the two have been aligned.

While there were multiple groups investing in the campaign, “evangelicals” are at least partly responsible for Donald Trump’s ascendancy to the American Presidency. That’s right, without their endorsements, the Republican nominee may well have been a Jed Bush or Marco Rubio.

You will notice my proclivity to use the inverted comma when referring to evangelicals, and that’s because the word has been regularly misappropriated by not only political pundits but also by Americans themselves. True evangelicalism has little to do with the political aspirations of right wing America, and everything to do with the Gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. Authentic evangelicalism is defined by this Gospel as presented in the Bible, not by the political right or left, not with Democrats or Republicans, and for the Australian context, neither Liberal nor Labor.

While never wishing for a Clinton victory, I do think that scenario would have at least given “evangelicals” an opportunity to break with Donald Trump and start afresh, to repent of foolish associations and  to rethink how Christians should engage in the political space. Unfortunately, “evangelical” America supported the winner, and have been tarnished for doing so. I cannot see how this association will advance the cause of Jesus Christ. If anything, the word may become irretrievably immeshed in a cause that is not the Gospel.

I am thankful for the many evangelicals who have stood up to Donald Trump and have copped flack for doing so: Ed Stetzer, Russell Moore, and Al Mohler among them. In Australia, the general public will not be informed of these voices, and instead Australians will time and time again hear how “evangelicals” assisted Donald Trump to the White House. At least in the Australian public square, the 2016 Presidential election will tarnish Christian witness and further perpetrate myths about Christianity. It is for this reason I am calling on my American friends to return to their evangelical roots and think carefully about political associations.

It is one thing to be part of a Presidential win, but it is quite another to one day stand before the Judge of the earth and give an account for how our lives have adorned or maligned the Gospel of Christ.

This final point is not only true for American Christians but also Australian Christians. When will Christians learn not to place undue hope in Government? The election has exposed a messed up eschatology and misplaced soteriology, which will not only disappoint, but will prevent people from seeing Christ. However Donald Trump decides to build his wall along the Mexican border, it is nothing compared to the wall evangelicals have built in this election which will block out the wonder of the Gospel. How will true evangelicals work to dismantle this false gospel? What will we do publicly and in our Churches to redress the damage caused by this political misalignment?

We need much prayer. We need much repentance.

As the political shape of America turns, may Christians return to our true hope:

“For to us a child is born,

    to us a son is given,

    and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called

    Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

    Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

 Of the greatness of his government and peace

    there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne

    and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

    with justice and righteousness

    from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty

    will accomplish this.”

(Isaiah 9:5-7)

Evangelical! Who me?

When is it time to lay a word to rest? When is it appropriate to find an alternative name?

Stephen McAlpine is among a growing number of Evangelicals who are admitting we have a word problem, an identity problem. The term evangelical has become synonymous with a branch of American politics, and more recently, with a key group of Donald Trump supporters. Yes, there are notable evangelical voices repudiating Donald Trump, and recent polls suggest the majority of evangelicals would no more vote for Trump than they would Kylo Ren, but it is difficult to fight a bushfire with a garden hose.

McAlpine writes,

“The “Evangelical” brand is well on the way to being trashed in the US.  Time to think of a new word to describe ourselves I reckon, not just in the US, but across the West.

If it’s true financially that “when America sneezes, the world catches cold.”, the same appears to be true of American evangelicalism. The US arm of the brand has caught a pox from which it may not recover, and that pox is at risk of spreading to us.

It’s actually worse than a pox.  It’s gangrene. It has the whiff of death about it. Exxon, Union Carbide, Enron, Lehman Brothers. Perhaps we can add the “Evangelical” brand to that sorry pile. Time perhaps to cut ourselves off from the descriptor before we start to smell. Time for a new word

As he laters explains, the problem didn’t start with the rise of Donald Trump, it goes back to the 1980s when Christians hitched their wagon with the Republican movement.

The issue is even broader than North America. In Europe many denominations continue to use evangelical, as a eulogy to the past, although their theology often bares little resemble to that of their forefathers.

In Australia, evangelical has had branding kudos, at least in Christian circles, so much so that even many anti-evangelicals embraced the word: ’we don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ but the label works for us.’ To be fair, those who were slightly more ingenuous inserted adjectives, such as ‘broad’ or ‘progressive’, as a hint of their not so evangelical beliefs. This mass branding has not helped.

Language is situational, or least in part. When I describe my Christian faith in the community I refer to myself as a Christian, and sometimes I add that rarified name, Baptist! Rarely do I use words like evangelical or reformed, not because the words are getting a bad press, but because they hold little meaning to most Australians. Within ecclesiastical conversations I am happy to speak of my evangelical and reformed convictions, as they often help to build bridges of understanding, and at other times they clarify differences. But the reality is, when I’m chatting with my neighbours, evangelical doesn’t add anything.

If using the word inside churches is sometime confusing, McAlpine is right; outside of churches and theological institutions, identifying as an evangelical is becoming a herculean challenge, largely because our media lacks nuance. While it’s been trashed in the USA, at least American media acknowledge alternative evangelical viewpoints. Here in Australia, he only time evangelicals are mentioned is when there is a sniff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. For example, our news outlets have not been reporting Al Mohler on CNN or Russell Moore in the Washington Post, as they speak out against Donald Trump.

Has evangelical become unusable in Australia?

The Age newspaper now contains dozens of references to evangelicals, and almost without exception they associate these people with right wing American politics, or with ‘extreme’ Christian ideology in Australia.

ABC’s program, Planet America, regularly refer to the evangelical vote, and especially of their alleged support for Donald Trump.

It is clear that evangelical has become a by-word for religious right wing politics. While the media are responsible for selective reporting, they can hardly be blamed for tying at least some evangelicals with Donald Trump. After all, millions of Americans identify with evangelical and with the Republican movement.

There is an important lesson for us to learn, and that is, we must not bypass theology. We must resist making our identity a political ideology or social cause, we must begin with the Gospel and work out from there.

In 1989 David Bebbington first offered his now famous quadrilateral definition of evangelical. He understands evangelicals as holding four main qualities: biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, activism. There is much to like about his quadrilateral, however I also agree with Don Carson’s reservations (read “The Gagging of God”). Carson notes that even a Jesuit priest could put his hand up to this quadrilateral definition. As such, Bebbington has perhaps done evangelicals a disservice. 


To be evangelical is nothing less than being someone who holds to the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The the very word from which we get evangelical is euangelion, which means Gospel.

I agree with Carson, who in turn follows John Stott, in taking us to 1 Corinthians 15:1-8. This is far from the only Scriptural place that explicates the gospel , but it does give us one of the fullest treatments of the Gospel, and we can’t overlook Paul’s introductory remark,

Now, brothers and sisters, I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you, which you received and on which you have taken your stand. 2 By this gospel you are saved, if you hold firmly to the word I preached to you. Otherwise, you have believed in vain.

For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance:

What is the euangelion?

that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, and that he appeared to Cephas, and then to the Twelve.  After that, he appeared to more than five hundred of the brothers and sisters at the same time, most of whom are still living, though some have fallen asleep. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles,  and last of all he appeared to me also, as to one abnormally born.”

Both Stott and Carson summarise 1 Corinthians 15:3-7 with these 6 points: the Gospel is Christological, Biblical, Historical, theological, apostolic, and personal.

The problem is of course, people are no longer defining evangelical by the Gospel.

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While I’m in large agreement with McAlpine, I’m not giving up on evangelical just yet, because rightly understood it is a word we should cherish and defend. But should the waves of malcontent persist, and an alternative is necessary, I think I’ll begin follow in Russell Moore’s footsteps and refer to myself a Gospel Christian.

Gospel Christian has the same meaning as evangelical Christian, but without the unhealthy socio-political connotations. Interestingly, both in the United States and here in Australia, among the larger Christian networks we don’t find the Evangelical Coalition, but rather the Gospel Coalition.

Some Christians prefer to known as orthodox or classical. I warm to both of these words, although Stephen McAlpine criticises ‘orthodox’ as a group who don’t affirm the real and physical return of Jesus Christ. Perhaps I’m ignorant, but I would have thought belief in the parousia is basic to anyone claiming orthodoxy.

The reality is, many of our Christian labels are disdained. I wish it was suffice to say, I’m a Christian. After all, that’s what I am, I am a Christian. But sadly Christian is frequently associated with all manner of social ills and evils (sometimes warranted). And when I fess up to being a Baptist, I’ve more than once had to qualify it by saying, no, we’re not like the JWs or Mormons.

McAlpine suggests we call ourselves, ‘eschatological Christians’,

“Eschatological” springs to mind. If someone asks me these days I’ve taken to saying that I am an “Eschatological Christian.” Sure it’s not catchy, but it’s not toxic either. Sure I will have to spend a bit of time explaining what it is, but hey, I’ll have to spend virtually no time explaining what it is not.

“Eschatological” is more likely to elicit an eyebrow raise than a nose wrinkle.  It is more likely to raise a question than rule a line under an answer. Most importantly it will distinguish me – and us – as those whose hopes -and energies – are not grounded in the political machinations of this age, but in the politics of the age to come lived out in the church today, and overflowing in practical, loving and humble ways into the community.

“Eschatological Christian” also distinguishes orthodox Christians who actually believe that there is a parousia coming in which King Jesus will usher in a new kingdom and judge the world in righteousness, from those who view that as an outdated notion beneath our modern sensibilities. A view that won’t get them respect in the academy.

The name has a certain Fitzroy living single-origin drinking indie-rocking listening feel to it, but I am unconvinced. First of all, few people know what eschatology means,  and second, it is  defining our identity by one area of theology, rather than the whole.

What do others think? How do you describe your Christian faith? Do you identify as an evangelical?

Misappropriation and misunderstanding shouldn’t surprise us; is it not the expectation given to us by the Lord Jesus? Does not the history of the church give us multiple examples of culture trampling on or deconstructing the church? In a world that is constantly confusing and even hijacking the Christian message, and doing so for all manner of social and political ends, we though can be responsible for how we represent the Lord Jesus Christ. Indeed, the more faithful we are to God’s word, the more useful we will be to society. So whether we call ourselves evangelical, Gospel, orthodox, or just plain and simple Christian, let’s do it with a growing sense of clarity, humility, grace, and winsomeness, in order to display the reality of Christ and of the hope held out in his Gospel.