Beyond Hashtag Activism: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age
Mae Elise Cannon
The separation of private faith and spirituality for evangelicals and political interests in the public square has had one of the most devastating effects on the gospel of Christ as a witness in the US context. Many churches strongly believe Christians have “no business” talking about politics and government policies related to social issues in the context of church life and ministry. This “wall” between the church and politics within the evangelical world has negatively impacted Christian influence in the public square. Because of many churches’ silence on politics, Christians who do engage politically often do so without consideration of how our theology and witness impacts our political perspective and compels our engagement.
Over the past several years, I have grown in my understanding of how politics and the church might healthily intersect. And I’ve come to understand more about why and how the conservative evangelical community has viewed political engagement as peripheral to the core tenets of the gospel, despite the direct correlation between the rise of the New Right and conservative Christian support of the Republican Party during the Bush era and under the presidency of Donald Trump.
The personal life of our current president has included abundant indulgence and decisions made in self-interest, the gaudy display of the accumulation of individual wealth, braggart diatribes about exploits against women, and other morally questionable life choices. He also regularly denigrated women during his 2016 campaign, such as when he accused journalist Megyn Kelly of asking inappropriately pointed questions because she was menstruating. “You could see there was blood coming out of her eyes,” Trump said. “Blood coming out of her wherever.” How could such a person—one who claims he never asks God’s forgiveness (the implication being that forgiveness is not needed, because he doesn’t ever do anything wrong)—so win the hearts and minds of the vast majority of white evangelical voters?
Evangelical historian John Fea argues in his book Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump that the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump—a higher percentage than voted for George W. Bush, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—overlooked all of his indiscretions because of his conservative Republican policy commitments. Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign (a slogan borrowed from Ronald Reagan) included promises that appealed to the conservative voter, such as pulling the United States out of the Paris climate agreement, moving the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, electing a conservative to the Supreme Court, building a wall between the United States and Mexico, “bombing the hell out of ISIS,” and protecting and defending Christian heritage “like you’ve never seen before.” Fea argues that the evangelical road to support of Donald Trump has been “marked by the politics of fear, power, and nostalgia” and should have been predicted based on previous evangelical political engagement related to moral issues.
Trump’s rise to power is only symptomatic of the real underlying issues that remain prevalent in our society: racism that has been buried just underneath the surface like a dandelion whose roots have never been adequately torn from the ground; sexism, which allows for the perversion and distortion of loving and mutual relationships between men and women; bigotry, which demands the “othering” of people who are different or outside of the elitist norm; and classism, which loves wealth, power, and control and uses them as means to exert influence and self-protect against inner feelings of inadequacy and fear.
Donald Trump has given voice to white American fear that has been buried and undiscussed for decades—for example, fear that foreigners will take white Middle American jobs, fear that Arab militants will attack and destroy the democracy of the United States via terrorist attacks, and fear that the cost put on US society for immigrants will be paid on the backs of white Americans. And these fears are just the beginning. In my opinion, the majority of these fears are unfounded, but regardless of what we think of them, it is important to understand that they exist. Trump tapped into these fears of white Americans and manipulated them for his benefit in his rise to power.
The same fear motivated the rise of the New Right, which emerged during the Reagan and Bush eras and increasingly linked white evangelical Americans to the Republican Party. But the roots of this trend developed much earlier:
In the decades following World War II, evangelicals, especially white evangelicals in the North, had drifted toward the Republican Party—inclined in that direction by general Cold War anxieties, vestigial suspicions of Catholicism and well known evangelist Billy Graham’s very public friendship with Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon. Despite these predilections, though, evangelicals had largely stayed out of the political arena, at least in any organized way.
In large part, following the civil unrest in the United States during and after the Vietnam War era, including but not limited to civil and women’s rights, the politics of white evangelicals increasingly became motivated by fear. Fea describes the primary motivators of these fears as “nativism, xenophobia, racism, intolerance, and an unbiblical view of American exceptionalism.”
Despite clear and strong associations between conservative American Christians and the Republican Party, white evangelicals have held a long and firm belief in the separation of church and state. Even today, few white evangelical churches hear sermons from their Sunday pulpits on citizenship and the role Christians should play in the US political system.
The separation and isolation of theology, biblical study, and practices of the church from addressing political questions of the day does not mean American evangelicals are not incredibly engaged in politics outside of Sunday morning. Rather, white evangelicals have shaped their political engagement based on a few moral issues such as abortion, the death penalty, and gay marriage. For this demographic of evangelicals and conservatives, politics is “off limits” when it comes to religious piety, except for around a few specific issues that have been cherry picked by those in political power.
As public society has become increasingly liberal, American conservative Christians have increasingly become isolationists and retreated while developing even more stalwart convictions around these issues. In other words, white conservative Christians vote on a few select moral issues and convictions, but they neglect to engage in the political square when it comes to other social justice issues like the treatment of minority communities, racial disparity and white supremacy, and discrimination based on gender or sexuality.
It is important to note that while the church on Sunday is largely silent about politics, there is a plethora of the church “showing up” on Capitol Hill and in the halls of power in Washington, DC. Consider events like the National Prayer Breakfast, which every president has attended since Eisenhower, and weekly prayer meetings on both the Senate and House sides of the Capitol. These dynamics of Christian influence over the powerful and elite in politics are addressed significantly, albeit critically, in the book The Family by Jeff Sharlet and in a Netflix documentary by the same name.
What should the relationship between the church and politics look like? Different theories have existed since the time the early church was born at Pentecost.
I am arguing for a more nuanced approach in the way the church engages in political activism. I believe it’s critically important for us to not put US nationalism on parallel with our allegiance to God and the kingdom. US exceptionalism is the idea that God favors the United States, and specifically white Americans, more than people of color within our own borders and people who live in other countries around the world. I believe one can love and support the United States and maintain patriotic ideals, while also being critical of certain US interventions around the world and while simultaneously being critical of the treatment of people of color and minority groups within US borders.
Mae Elise Cannon
Rev. Dr. Mae Elise Cannon is author of several books including the recently published Beyond Hashtag Activism: Comprehensive Justice in a Complicated Age (IVP, 2020). She also serves as executive director of Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP). Find her online at: MaeCannon.com