The political challenge for NC evangelicals

President Donald Trump attends the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the White House on Thursday morning, Feb. 7, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times)
President Donald Trump attends the annual National Prayer Breakfast at the White House on Thursday morning, Feb. 7, 2019. (Doug Mills/The New York Times) NYT

Political writers have spilled a lot of ink discussing the impact of evangelicals on politics. Since Rev. Franklin Graham warned the country would “unravel” if Trump is impeached, I’ve started to think about the impact of politics on American Christianity. What will happen, for example, if white evangelicals continue to overwhelmingly support the president after evidence indicates he’s broken the law?

So I reached out to white evangelical pastors of six large North Carolina churches to hear their views. I also called several of the country’s evangelical leaders. A few brave souls were willing to speak with me. In return for the ability to quote them freely, I promised not to use their names.

I was surprised that all expressed concern about the impact of evangelicals’ strong political views on Christianity. Even the most conservative worried some Christians are now so partisan, they’ve “lost the understanding of Biblical loving kindness.” “People are supposed to know us by our love,” one said, not by “demonizing our opponents.”

One Charlotte pastor said he saw a change in his church after Obama’s election. “People in the body of Christ set aside the standards of scripture to align themselves with a party,” he observed. “Racial and political tensions became pronounced.”

Several pastors worried Christians think they must be Republicans or that they can only watch Fox News. Pointing out that both parties are flawed, some worried that making some political issues Christian or non-Christian does God’s kingdom a disservice.

But consensus broke down when asked about Donald Trump. One pastor believed Trump’s unlikely presidential win could represent the “mercy of God,” while another observed that Biblical Israel had been ruled by some evil kings: “Sometimes we get what we deserve.”

And while everyone agreed that Trump must be held to account if he’s broken the law, it became clear that many Christians will have a hard time coming to that conclusion. When asked specifically about Trump’s Ukraine call, one pastor immediately raised concerns about Biden’s son, as if those were a defense for any presidential malfeasance. Possible extortion by Mr. Trump seemed to be less serious than perjury by Bill Clinton. And even after Trump appointees testified to a quid pro quo, one pastor said the secrecy of the impeachment investigation prevented any conclusion.

The national evangelical leader and author with whom I spoke said it is important to understand that evangelicals today feel threatened by an increasingly hostile secular world. They see Donald Trump as their bulwark.

He also pointed out that evangelicals are not the only Christian group swept up in American politics. Christians have historically adopted the “ethical package deals” of the party with which they most agree. Many mainstream Christian churches ascribe to Democratic Party principles even when these contradict scriptural teachings on marriage, while evangelicals tend to agree with Republican values, even when they contrast with Biblical exhortations to welcome the foreigner. And African American evangelicals who are uncomfortable with Democratic policies feel they have nowhere to go.

Still he says that if evangelicals continue to support Trump after evidence indicates he’s broken the law, it will “give Christianity a black eye. Younger people and non-whites won’t want to be Christians.” One North Carolina pastor was bolder: “We’re damaging our witness. We’re causing bigger damage to the Gospel, to see who God really is.”

Dana Ervin is a contributing columnist