My daughter was serious when she asked, "Dad, what do you think about all of the small churches in our country that are struggling to exist and lift up Christianity?" It was a good question, and I replied that I thought the problem was much larger than just certain churches, that there was a disconnect in our country that was causing too many people to lose their identities and sense of purpose. Little did I know that Peter Wehner, a contributor to the Atlantic Monthly magazine, was thinking about the same thing. He is the author of "The Death of Politics: How to Heal Our Frayed Republic after Trump."
Likewise, John Avlon, writing for CNN, recently commented on President Biden's meeting with the pope. He pointed out that normally white evangelicals overwhelmingly back Republicans politically, often in opposition to abortion and LGBT rights. Donald Trump actually won a higher percentage of their votes in 2016 than George W. Bush, an actual evangelical. He also had more votes from them than Joe Biden, who undeniably is a man of faith who attends church each week, although Biden easily won the black evangelical vote. Biden has been criticized by various Christian groups because of his stand on abortion, but the pope has repeatedly said that it is important to keep politics out of religion. Good point. But it is interesting how many evangelicals have supported Trump for his Christian stance when he does not go to church and his language suggests a neglect for the teachings of the Bible.
While I have heard from numerous Christians about how they feel Donald Trump has strongly supported their churches, there also is another side to what has been going on in our churches since Trump took office. This article is the first of a three-part presentation utilizing the insights of recognized evangelical leaders in our country about the changing shape of religion in America. The second part will be presented next week. Admittedly, it tends to present only one side of the issue, but it is an important one that should not be ignored.
Peter Wehner reached out to dozens of pastors, theologians, academics, and historians, and all of them expressed a deep concern about what is happening. Of course, the pandemic affected churches by preventing a church's fellowship and gathering, sharing communion together, performing baptisms, and taking part in rituals and liturgy; but what is happening began long before the pandemic. Wehner says that the "root of the discord lies in the fact that many Christians have embraced the worst aspects of our culture and our politics. When the Christian faith is politicized, churches become repositories not of grace but of grievances, places where tribal identities are reinforced, where fears are nurtured, and where aggression and nastiness are sacralized."
At the McLean Bible Church in Northern Virginia, a megachurch, three of the elders did not receive the necessary two-thirds vote for confirmation, normally a done deal. According to the pastor, church members had been misled and told, among other things, that these three candidates would advocate selling the church to Muslims who would then turn the church into a mosque. Now, where did that accusation come from? They were later approved, but a small group in the church has filed a law suit claiming that the details of their election violated the church's constitution.
What happened at the McLean Bible Church is happening all over the evangelical world. Consider that influential figures like theologian Russell Moore and Bible teacher Beth Moore felt compelled to leave the Southern Baptist Convention when right-wing elements within the SBC targeted them as being too far left. Other conservative leaders also have been targeted, and too often have either changed their affiliations or resigned their positions of leadership. It is obvious that if a church leader does not adhere to the strict right-wing teaching of their church, they are no longer welcome.
Wehner says, "It is unfortunate that when many Americans look at the church today, THEY DO NOT SEE THE FACE OF JESUS, but the style of Donald Trump." Yes, I think he is probably prejudiced, but he certainly has a point. When you look at your church these days, do you see the face of Jesus? Next week, we'll look at what others have to say.
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Robert Box has been a law enforcement chaplain for 29 years. He is a master-level chaplain with the International Conference of Police Chaplains and is an endorsed chaplain with the American Baptist Churches USA. He also currently serves as a deputy sheriff chaplain for the Benton County Sheriff's Office. Opinions expressed in the article are the opinions of the author and not the agencies he serves.