Trump, White Evangelicalism, Immigration, etc.
There is a lot to say about this new essay from Tara Isabella Burton at Vox. The key quote to focus on:
“This willingness to define seemingly straightforward passages in the Bible along politicized terms — reimagining what it means to be someone’s “neighbor” — speaks to a wider issue within white evangelicalism. The degree to which white evangelical identity is increasingly predicated on politicized whiteness — and on an insular and isolationist vision of community — reveals the extent to which white evangelicalism has become synonymous with Christian nationalism under the Trump administration. And, increasingly, white evangelicals are willing to selectively reinterpret the Bible to justify this.”
What disorients me is that I have experienced little of what TIB has described. The pastors of my parents’ church and my own current church have forcefully denounced Nationalism from the pulpit in messages on 1 Peter 2 (the church is “a holy nation, a royal priesthood”), on Revelation 5&7 (People of every nation will worship around the throne), on Ephesians 6 (that the Devil is our true enemy, not political or ethnic opponents) and Romans 14 (politics as disputable matters). My church is currently doing a series on politics and political engagement as a Christian, and the tone is nothing like an “evangelical identity predicated on politicized whiteness.” I go to the largest EFCA school in the country, and the rhetoric spoken around campus is always pro-refugee-life, pro-aid, pro-humanitarian. All of the Christian leaders who I pay attention to are similarly oriented when it comes to immigration topics — including the editorial staff for The Gospel Coalition, which is not a platform for liberalism.
But TIB’s description is still true. I see tastes of it at conferences, or from across the Christian blogosphere, or from individuals in small group settings in-person or being interviewed on television. And the polling numbers don’t lie, at least, significantly outside the margin of error. Here’s what I am wondering: in the same way Conservative and Progressive voices online get locked into echo chambers where only supporters see their content, could something similar be happening even within evangelicalism? I am not suggesting that we have carved out sectors of the larger Conservative-Progressive social mediaspace, but that within the Christian mediaspace certain niches have been carved to accommodate each perspective.
In an essay from earlier this month TIB pointed out that White Evangelicals are the only religious group in the country who supports President Trump. Which is true. But what she does not acknowledge is that there have already been longstanding breaks between Mainline and Evangelical protestants, and even longer, historic breaks between Catholics and Protestants. Those breaks happened at the level of whole countries (e.g., Germany vs. Italy, England vs. France), whole denominations (e.g., PCA vs. PCUSA), whole universities (e.g., Princeton vs. Westminster), whole ideologies (e.g., Modernism vs. Fundamentalism). But what is really new, what is really damning, is that now, in this current transition, there is not much of an institutional shift. The separation between politically conservative Evangelicals, on the one hand, and politically moderate or just leans-conservative Evangelicals, on the other hand, is happening at the grassroots level. President Trump has galvanized something like a grassroots split within Evangelicalism proper, mirroring broader concerns over the “Death of Truth” or “Post-Truth” society we inhabit in the information age.
But regardless of the existence of a niche, politically-moderate voice within Evangelicalism that happens to surround me, here is what TIB nails: the new hermeneutic at use that subverts Jesus’s calling to care for the helpless. By redefining “neighbor” to be only fellow Christians (which is bogus), or to be only those who have not broken the law, Christians in the age of Trump are buying into an inward gaze. This inward gaze is the concrete result of Nationalist rhetoric, yes, but I would also say it is a result of Rule-of-Law thinking that became really popular during Black Lives Matter protesting a few years ago. Of course, of course, of course, the Rule-of-Law mindset is completely irreconcilable with Christianity. With Jesus’s rendering inoperative (katargeó) the Old Testament Law. But that doesn’t seem to be a problem these days, since the Old Testament laws about refugees and immigrants are also being ignored. TIB refers to Isaiah 10, Matthew 25, Leviticus 19:33–34, Jeremiah 7:5–7, Ezekiel 47:22, Zechariah 7:9–10, and the flight to Egypt by Joseph and Mary as Biblical precedent for a pro-refugee-life stance. Ultimately she employs Galatians 3:28 to say that the power of Christianity subverts political and ethnic identities.
(The gross mishandling of Romans 13 by Jeff Session and Sarah Sanders, which I didn’t know about until reading this piece, is also important. Can you imagine Nero quoting Paul’s words back to the Christian community and saying, “Yes, you heard the man, now offer sacrifices to me”? When Rome quotes Romans, we have a problem.)
On that count, TIB is spot on. But what about the specific policies we support? What about the particular ways the federal bureaucracy maneuvers through these topics? Those are important, but disputable questions. However, we need to keep in mind that the most shocking statistic TIB cited was not about a specific policy: “more than half of white evangelicals report feeling concerned about America’s declining white population” is not a policy position; it is a generally racist sentiment. Such racism, obviously, has no place in Christian community. If not specific policy, when we focus on the topic of ethnic nativism: let’s not condemn ethnic nativism because “the Bible says that” you should care for the helpless and those who are fleeing persecution. Worse, let’s not default to citing “these Biblical writers who say that” we must be pro-refugee-life. If our doctrine of the Inspiration of Scripture informs our thinking on this topic, we can comfortably and boldly say that “God himself has said.”