Festival of Faith and Politics

Right now our country is in a season of grief, and most white evangelicals are in denial about that grief.

“I LOVE WHITE EVANGELICAL PEOPLE,” said one panelist. “But right now our country is in a season of grief, and most white evangelicals are in denial about that grief.” After more than a year of President Trump, many Americans are angry, and identity politics governs both the public square and a recent Christian writers’ festival at Calvin College in Michigan.

“Still Evangelical in the Age of #MeToo” was a raw, tense and at times electric panel discussion for a standing-room-only audience of nearly 200 people (the majority of whom were white). The all-female panel, speaking directly from their ethnic and racial locations as one Korean, one Latina, one African American and two Caucasians, tackled the question: “What does it mean to call yourself an evangelical in the wake of the 2016 election?”

The discussion was framed by the shadowy figure of 81 percent – the percentage of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. Chicago Latina Christian Reformed pastor Sandra Maria Van Opstal spoke first, declaring, “I am incredulous, frustrated and sad that fellow evangelicals would vote for a man who dehumanizes the members of my congregation, calling them ‘criminals,’ ‘thugs,’ ‘rapists’ and ‘animals.’ The worst of the matter was this: THE CHURCH SAID NOTHING!”

Some described their experience on election night 2016. Kathy Khang is a Korean-American writer connected with InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, and spoke about her disillusionment as the election results came in that dreadful night. “Watching the TV, I said to myself, ‘Thanks a lot, Iowa. Thanks a lot, Michigan.’”

She added that she has white evangelical brothers and sisters who have said to her, “That’s not me.” Khang said her immediate response is uncompromising: “Yes, it is you. It is your community, because when one of us does something that makes the news, it represents all of us.” She added, “I’m sorry, I could not be around any white evangelical friends at that time.”

‘Why were you silent?’
The first words from African American author Deidra Riggs (who self-identified as mainline Baptist) were blunt: “2016 is a response to 2008.” She said that while media were cluttered after 2008 with chatter about how Obama “wasn’t really black” and “he wasn’t born here,” after Trump was elected whites would not talk. “Eighty-one percent was almost a deal breaker for me.”

“Why were you silent?” asked Riggs. She recounted the shooting of black men by white police without penalty. “Your silence says we don’t matter. Your actions say we don’t matter. We know it’s not all white people, OK? But we need answers.”

Karen Swallows Prior is a white evangelical from Liberty University (of Jerry Falwell fame). She spoke quietly about how evangelicals had helped bring an end to the slave trade and how they have brought the gospel, technology and literacy to the world. “But now we need ‘missionaries’ to bring the message back to us, to evangelize us now.”

The Public Religion Research Institute reports that 75 percent of white evangelicals view Trump in a favourable light today. Christianity Today editor Katelyn Beaty (also a white evangelical) functioned as moderator, and she noted that while minorities are not responsible for “waking us up,” she wondered, “What gives you women the strength to keep engaging?”

Van Opstal quickly replied, “Death and resurrection. We are dead. This is not Christianity, and I’m hoping for conversion. Not different kinds of worship to make the Hispanics feel at home; music will not resuscitate you. Only repentance and change. My prayer is this: O God, if the Christianity here is not your gospel, let it die and let your leftover remnant build it up again.”

Pull up another chair
Beaty tried to turn the focus towards the #MeToo movement, but there seemed little sympathy for it. Khang said, “Why would you white women be believed now? You didn’t believe us when we spoke up.” Van Opstal added, “If you have the privilege of speaking out it means you have the privilege of going somewhere else. Most of the women I know can’t go somewhere else, and they suffer from PTSD.”

A white male asked a question that he said might come from a hypothetical white Trump supporter. A white woman in the audience who did not understand that he was taking on the persona of a Trump supporter jumped up and shouted, “I’m offended by your question! I can’t believe that after these women have torn open their chests and shared their hearts that you would dare ask that!”

A nervous energy filled the room and it seemed that many were poised to give or take offense. I felt conspicuous as white Canadian male reporter – shocked, guilty and yet still some distance apart as an outsider to the fate of American politics. How does one faithfully respond to such passionate testimony?

“There is a brokenness,” said Swallows Prior, “that I hope we can work together to repair.”

The final question for the panel from the audience was this: “What can white evangelical writers do?” The response: “Invite us as guest writers to your blog. In general, step back, put another leaf in the table, and pull up an extra chair.”

  • Peter is Executive Director of Global Scholars Canada, a transnational guild of Christian scholars. He preaches, teaches and writes – having written columns, editorials, news and features for CC since 1997. His book The Subversive Evangelical: The Ironic Charisma of an Irreligious Megachurch (McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2019) is an ethnographic journey into the life of a megachurch and its “irreligious” charismatic leader. He loves stories that cross boundaries while maintaining integrity.

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