[This Tuesday an estimated 800-1000 evangelical leaders and activists will converge on New York City for a behind-closed-doors meeting with the presumptive Republican nominee for president, Donald Trump. Prominent evangelicals helping to orchestrate the gathering include Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council; Penny Nance, CEO of Concerned Women for America; and former presidential candidate Ben Carson. Trump will deliver a prepared address and then take questions. Some in the audience will have already made up their minds, but many will be coming to New York still uncertain about whether, or how strongly, to support the real estate magnate and TV celebrity.]
Brothers and Sisters:
Tomorrow you will be in the audience when Donald Trump makes a case for why American evangelicals should support his bid for the highest office in the nation. You will surely be traveling to New York City with honorable motives and high ideals, as well as a solemn appreciation of the magnitude of the task before you. My prayer is that God will grant you wisdom and discernment and courage and faith. Here perhaps I should stop, but I will be bold to offer two exhortations that I also pray you will take to heart.
Know that I offer these pleas sympathetically. I am a committed evangelical: born and raised in the Bible Belt, connected with evangelical churches for the past half-century, currently on the faculty at an evangelical college. In terms of political convictions, I have been a life-long conservative. If we could sit down and talk together, I think there’s much we would agree about. And in the end, I hope that we could agree on the wisdom of two simple principles as you determine how you will report to your organizations and congregations after Tuesday’s gathering.
First, be honest—with us and with yourselves. If after meeting with Trump you are convinced that evangelicals should support the presumptive Republican nominee, tell us that, without minimizing the monumental risks of such a step. Don’t encourage us to have faith in the meaningless assurances he will undoubtedly offer. Don’t tell us that, after hearing him “share his heart,” you now believe in him. Above all, don’t paper over his faults or dismiss them as trivial. Look us squarely in the eye and candidly acknowledge his misogyny, his religious bigotry, his adulation of power, his contempt for constitutional constraints, his multiple marriages, his questionable business practices, and his casino empire. Then make your case as to why should support him anyway.
Second, understand that you must be teachers as well as leaders. Like it or not, many of us will learn what it means to be responsibly engaged Christian citizens from your example. The religious groups that peopled this country in the 17th and eighteenth centuries generally had well developed theologies of political engagement. But few evangelicals in America today have such historical resources to draw from. The Christian traditions that have given evangelicalism its vitality in recent generations have been individualistic, pietistic, and theologically unreflective in their approach to politics. Consequently, we need to know how to think more than what to think. In the long run, finding out who you will vote for in November is less important than uncovering the scriptural precepts and theological principles that guide your decision. Tell us what those are. And if you can’t identify any, concede that your decision is personal and pragmatic.
But it is not only other Christians who will be scrutinizing your response carefully and learning from it. The rest of American society will be studying you as well. They have already witnessed Republican leaders closing ranks around Trump in the interest of party unity, brushing aside his numerous moral failings as inconsequential eccentricities. They are now looking to see how the Church of Christ will respond. Will we come across to them as just another interest group jockeying for political advantage, a voting bloc offering to exchange political support for political favors? Or will they see something strange and different—patient, principled, persevering, and loving, seeking the good of our neighbors but understanding that our citizenship is in heaven?
All of which is to say that the most important thing at stake in evangelicals’ response to Donald Trump is neither the future of the Republican Party nor the prosperity and power of the United States, although both may be in jeopardy. Each of you is poised, inescapably, on the cusp of a teaching moment. As you listen to Donald Trump and consider how best to advise your congregations and organizations about his candidacy, ask yourselves this question: what will my honest reasoning teach to the church and about the church?