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Quote of the Day: How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church

tim alberta

For generations, white evangelicals have cultivated a narrative pitting courageous, God-fearing Christians against a wicked society that wants to expunge the Almighty from public life. Having convinced so many evangelicals that the next election could trigger the nation’s demise, Christian leaders effectively turned thousands of churches into unwitting cells in a loosely organized, hazily defined, existentially urgent movement—the types of places where paranoia and falsehoods flourish and people turn on one another.

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Beginning in the 1980s, white evangelicals imposed themselves to an unprecedented degree on the government and the country’s core institutions. Once left to cry jeremiads about civilizational decline—having lost fights over sex and sexuality, drugs, abortion, pornography, standards in media and education, prayer in public schools—conservative Christians organized their churches, marshaled their resources, and leveraged their numbers, regaining the high ground, for a time, in some of these culture wars.

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Short-lived victories, however, came at a long-term cost. Evangelical leaders set something in motion decades ago that pastors today can no longer control. Not only were Christians conditioned to understand their struggle as one against flesh and blood, fixated on earthly concerns, a fight for a kingdom of this world—all of which runs directly counter to the commands of scripture—they were indoctrinated with a belief that because the stakes were getting so high, any means was justified.

Which brings us to Donald Trump.

When Trump was elected thanks to a historic showing among white evangelicals—81 percent voted for him over Hillary Clinton—the victory was rightly viewed as the apex of the movement’s power. But this was, in many ways, also the beginning of its unraveling. The “battle lines” Bolin described as having emerged over the past five years—cultural reckonings over racism and sexual misconduct; a lethal pandemic and fierce disputes over vaccines and government mandates; allegations of election theft that led to a siege of the U.S. Capitol; and, underlying all of this, the presidency, prosecution, and martyring of Trump himself—have carved up every institution of American society. The evangelical Church is no exception.

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The nation’s largest denomination, the Southern Baptist Convention, is bleeding members because of ferocious infighting over race relations, women serving in leadership, accountability for sexual misconduct, and other issues. The United Methodist Church, America’s second-largest denomination, is headed toward imminent divorce over irreconcilable social and ideological divisions. Smaller denominations are losing affiliate churches as pastors and congregations break from their leadership over many of the same cultural flash points, choosing independence over associating with those who do not hold their views.

Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising that Christians, like Americans from every walk of life, are self-selecting into cliques of shared habits and thinking. But what’s notable about the realignment inside the white evangelical Church is its asymmetry. Pastors report losing an occasional liberal member because of their refusal to speak on Sunday mornings about bigotry or poverty or social injustice. But these same pastors report having lost—in the past few years alone—a significant portion of their congregation because of complaints that they and their staff did not advance right-wing political doctrines. Hard data are difficult to come by; churches are not required to disclose attendance figures. But a year’s worth of conversations with pastors, denominational leaders, evangelical scholars, and everyday Christians tells a clear story: Substantial numbers of evangelicals are fleeing their churches, and most of them are moving to ones further to the right.

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Many right-wing pastors have formed alliances—with campaign consultants, education activists, grassroots groups, even MAGA-in-miniature road shows promoting claims of an assault on American sovereignty—that bring a steady flow of fresh faces into their buildings. From there, the fusion of new Republican orthodoxy with old conservative theology is seamless. This explains why, even during a period of slumping church attendance, the number of white evangelicals has grown: The Pew Research Center reports that more and more white Trump supporters began self-identifying as evangelicals during his presidency, whether or not they attended church.

— Tim Alberta, The Atlantic, How Politics Poisoned the Evangelical Church, May 10, 2022

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Bruce Gerencser, 65, lives in rural Northwest Ohio with his wife of 44 years. He and his wife have six grown children and thirteen grandchildren. Bruce pastored Evangelical churches for twenty-five years in Ohio, Texas, and Michigan. Bruce left the ministry in 2005, and in 2008 he left Christianity. Bruce is now a humanist and an atheist.

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4 Comments

  1. Avatar
    BJW

    I don’t know how you do it, Bruce. You are a known atheist in this conservative fundie backwater. My husband and I are nobodies, and keep to ourselves. But I’m not interested in making new friends that worship at the Trump/MAGA altar.

  2. Avatar
    ObstacleChick

    Tim Alberta nails it. We have a further radicalization of those on the right who are convinced that it is their God-commanded mission to overtake local, state, and federal government of the US. It reminds me of the scene in the dystopian show “The Handmaid’s Tale” (based on Margaret Atwood’s novel by the same name) in which the Republic of Gilead has replaced the US government and turned the Washington Monument into a giant cross. The completely patriarchal authoritarian nation is almost exactly what Christian nationalists stand for.

  3. Avatar
    Chris Peterson

    That’s terrifying. It makes sense though, as the more moderate members leave, only the most radical are left behind. Seeing the membership numbers decreasing was good, but now I’m wondering if it’s going to cause even more issues.

  4. Avatar
    missimontana

    I occasionally look up the MAGA/RW accounts on Twitter, to see what they are up to lately. There is definitely a split in the movement. Some RW Evangelicals now hate Trump because of his new support for vaccines, and because they see him as a coward corrupted by the Deep State. Others still worship him, believing him to be lying low, planning a next great move. A few are now disliking Trump because his followers are worshipping him instead of putting Jesus first ( Gee, ya think?🤨). Many of the ex-Trump lovers claim they will never vote or participate in politics again. We can only hope this is true.
    Unfortunately, the GOP has embraced Christian Fascism. I believe many more rights will be lost before the average citizen wakes up to it all.

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Bruce Gerencser