“If Hillary Clinton is elected,” began a passionate evangelical acquaintance to me over breakfast, “Christianity in America is over. America is over.” This cheery start to my morning served only to make my already burnt coffee that much more bitter. The anxiety such a statement expresses is common among evangelical voters. A few days later I sat with a woman who wept at the thought of the America that would be lost were the policies of the last eight years continued. Such sentiments served only to depress me, but for reasons that will not be immediately obvious to you.
More than a generation ago, evangelicals, feeling threatened by the world, quit the field and retreated from it. Like a Protestant version of the monastic movement, they built massive Family Life Centers. Coffee shops were added to the church foyers. Workout facilities kept congregants safe from the Y if not trim. In something that might be described as an ecclesiastical arms race, churches, in fierce competition with one another, redirected funds from cultural transformation to cultural comfort. Materialism was not only endorsed, it was modeled. And the word “megachurch” entered the vernacular.
The Christian section of the bookstore was born along with the Christian section of the culture: Christian radio, Christian television, and Christian music. Like a vast country club, a whole world was created, a bubble, where members could speak a language all their own and where there was no need to fear rubbing elbows with people who lived beyond the stained glass. Jesus’ command to “Go into all the world and preach the gospel” was reduced to Tweets and Facebook posts.
Oh, they occasionally sallied forth to flex their muscle in an election or on this or that referendum, leaving no doubt about what they were against, but seldom did they offer a positive vision for the world in which they lived. Status quo and the desire to be left alone were the rule of the day. In due time, they inevitably forgot who they were. Worse, they forgot whom they served. The Great Commission morphed into a misty-eyed Americana. No longer integrated into their culture, they were no longer a relevant part of it.
Now they look down from their steeples on a society that, in so many ways, no longer reflects their values and they wonder where it all went wrong. What they see is hardly reassuring. They see their views mocked, forced from the public sphere, or terminated by judicial fiat. They see a presidential election where the presumptive heir to the Obama legacy, such as it is, makes little effort to hide her hostility to all that they hold dear. Panicked and perhaps only now starting to realize the degree to which they have neglected their authentic Christian duty, they seek the quick political fix.
Enter Donald Trump.
Trump represents a new evangelical strategy: the Hail Mary. Not the Catholic prayer, mind you, but the desperation pass to steal victory from the jaws of defeat at the last second. (If you ask me, prayer is the better option.) That Trump is not a Christian seems obvious. However, many Christians have decided to turn a blind eye to this and to the fact that he has no vision.
Because the few policies he has articulated — more stringent immigration requirements, a tough stance on Islamic terrorism, the complete rejection of globalism, and the preservation of religious freedom — resonate with their fears. They are hoping The Donald will save them since, in the words of Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, “the very thought of [a Hillary Clinton presidency] haunts [their] nights and days.” Christians fear that if she is elected they will face a night of long knives. Many evangelical leaders have tethered themselves to a man who in no way represents their God. He instead represents a world and a life they wish to preserve rather than a Gospel they wish to defend.
In Donald Trump evangelicals have compromised themselves. This compromise is less about voting for him than it about putting the whole of their hope in him. And this is what disappoints me. Is he the one who said, “Let there be light”? Is he the one who parted the Red Sea? Is he the author of their salvation? Some seem to think so. Many evangelicals are all-in on Donald Trump because they think they need Donald Trump. They don’t. If the Christian faith can survive Herod and Caesar, it can survive a Hillary — or, for that matter, a Trump — presidency.
Evangelicals need a newer, different strategy. The American church is a sleeping giant. According to the Pew Forum, Evangelicals still comprise a hefty twenty-six percent of the U.S. population, making them potentially the single largest voting bloc. But that knowledge has only served to make the giant complacent. Even so, it remains the largest (and best) agent for cultural transformation — not top-down, but bottom-up. However, for that to happen Christians will have to stop confusing Christian duty with political action and Jesus Christ with dubious politicians. Voting, while it has much to commend it, is not the same thing as being “salt and light.”
As an evangelical Christian myself, I am less concerned with the election results on the evening of November 8th than I am with how other evangelicals will react should they wake up to a Hillary Clinton presidency on the morning of November 9th. Will they slit their wrists or get on with the mission the American Dream has so long obscured?