Follow Eric

Get Eric's Latest Thoughts

Donald Trump and the Rise of the Moral Minority

Sunday, September 27th

In this New York Times Op-Ed, writer Molly Worthen mentions Eric Metaxas in an article about Donald Trump and the Christian "moral minority." To read the article on the New York Times website, click here.

***

DONALD TRUMP’S high poll numbers among evangelicals have preoccupied the media for months. But the most interesting thing about his Christian fans is not their willingness to overlook the sins of a casino playboy. Evangelicals happily voted for a divorced man of uncertain faith once before: Ronald Reagan. What is most striking is that Mr. Trump’s campaign has exposed a rift within evangelicalism — a split between those calling for culture war as usual and those who say Christians must adjust to life as a minority in American Babylon.

Some evangelical leaders are content to follow old models. They promise, as Jerry Falwell and his colleagues in the Moral Majority once did, that Christians are destined to lead the nation in “a moral and conservative revolution.” David Barton, the activist and pseudo-historian who helped vandalize Texas textbook guidelines, promises that “America can reclaim greatness” if its citizens recover their Christian heritage. He now runs a super PAC backing Ted Cruz, but his pledge echoes Mr. Trump’s vow to “make America great again” — a slogan that resonates with evangelical voters who feel the country slipping out of their grip.

Yet some evangelical elites are rebelling against this vision. They have not shifted leftward, but they disown both the legacy of the Moral Majority and the populist demagogy of Mr. Trump in favor of a softer, more sophisticated approach to activism. They note the shrinking ranks of American Christianity but say that evangelicals shouldn’t kick and scream. They should embrace their new role as a moral minority instead.

“We don’t see ourselves as a cultural majority,” Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, told me. “Change doesn’t come from a position of power, but a position of witness.” Dr. Moore assured me that when he brings this message to churches around the country, “most are responding well because they see what’s happening in the culture.” But he is disappointed that so many evangelicals favor Mr. Trump.

How do you convince evangelicals to temper their political ambitions? You teach them to rethink their own identity. “Our end goal is not a Christian America, either of the made-up past or the hoped-for future,” Dr. Moore writes in “Onward,” his manifesto for the moral minority. “Our end goal is the kingdom of Christ.” He and his allies are trying to persuade evangelicals that the Gospel thrives when being a Christian is a difficult, countercultural position.

These leaders are rejecting the aggressive style and narrow agenda of activists of the old Christian right without revising their essential objections to modernity. David Platt, a megachurch pastor who recently took over the leadership of the Southern Baptist International Mission Board, has a crew cut and the conscientious manner of an Eagle Scout. But he has warned evangelicals that too many of them follow “a nice, middle-class, American Jesus.”

In books titled “Radical” and “Counter Culture,” Dr. Platt urges evangelicals to reject Christian nationalism, “cap” their materialistic lifestyles and give more to charity. He also offers an “unapologetic yet winsome call” to resist the temptation to forsake grueling crusades, like the fight against abortion, for less controversial causes, like opposing human trafficking. “We’ve chosen to be passionate about issues that have been the least costly to us,” he told me. “Countering culture” means recognizing the ways American Christians have mistaken both material and social comfort for spiritual rewards.

Who are the heroes of these countercultural warriors? They have assembled a selective genealogy that omits evangelicals who once used the language of martyrdom and resistance to defend white supremacy. They trace their heritage from Paul and the Apostles (contemporary America reminds Dr. Platt of the fleshpots of first-century Corinth, “a city filled with sexual immorality”) to the Christian reformers of the 18th and 19th centuries, especially William Wilberforce, the evangelical politician who helped end slavery in the British Empire.

“Wilberforce abolished slavery over many years by working with Christians in different industries,” said Gabe Lyons, who runs a conference and media organization called Q, a Christian version of TED (the Q stands for “Question”). “We want to be a counterculture for the common good,” he said. “A counterculture can be antagonistic, lobbing grenades, but that’s not how Christians should be engaging.”

When these evangelical leaders scan recent history for role models, they choose Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German theologian who died in 1945 at the hands of the Nazis. “A lot of good Germans looked the other way,” said Eric Metaxas, a Christian author who has written popular biographies of both Wilberforce and Bonhoeffer. German Christians “didn’t see that sirens need to go off when the state — any state — starts crossing a line, interfering with the freedom of churches.”

Scholars might raise an eyebrow at comparing the Obama administration’s contraception mandate to the policies of Nazi Germany, but Mr. Metaxas stands by the analogy. Evangelicals “have God-given freedoms to do so much,” he told me. “But the window is closing. Right now we have tremendous freedoms, and we need to use them, to be a loud, humble, bold, gracious, winsome voice.”

Conservative evangelicals cherish the word “winsome.” They use it frequently in sermons, books and blogs. (One translation of Colossians 4:6 reads: “Your speech should always be winsome, seasoned with salt.”) It is the key to their political strategy, a signal that they are not the barefoot bumpkins whom H. L. Mencken mocked, nor foaming white supremacists, but a new generation of educated, genteel activists — who still retain their saltiness.

“Winsomeness” is an aesthetic and an ethos, a cheerful and worldly self-presentation meant to disarm secular opponents. Mr. Metaxas sports tortoiseshell glasses, well-cut suits and a Yale degree. Mr. Lyons’s organization, with podcasts and conferences packed with talks on subjects like “Redemptive Entrepreneurism” and “Going Glocal,” is the epitome of this combination of glossy sophistication and orthodoxy.

Yet many evangelical voters don’t seem to want a gracious, cultured leader or a future of subtle minority influence. “Winsome” is certainly not the first word that Mr. Trump brings to mind.

Mr. Trump’s claim that illegal Mexican immigrants are “rapists,” and his insistence that “we have to be less politically correct,” have vexed evangelical leaders, many of whom favor the liberalization of immigration policy. His tirades remind some observers not of Wilberforce’s “silvery cadence,” but of the fulminations of George Wallace, the hot-tempered segregationist.

Mr. Trump sees himself as a prophet, too, but he is not interested in minority status. “The silent majority is back, and we’re going to take our country back,” he told a crowd in Phoenix in July. Jeremiah Johnson, a minister in Florida, wrote in the Christian magazine Charisma that God told him that “Trump shall become My trumpet to the American people.” Mr. Trump, he added, “does not fear man nor will he allow deception and lies to go unnoticed.”

After all, a prophet can’t be courteous and good-humored all the time. “Being winsome has its limits,” Rob Schwarzwalder of the Family Research Council wrote during the debate over Indiana’s bill on religious freedom last spring. Mr. Trump’s popularity among the evangelical rank and file suggests that even if his Christian critics can offer appealing models for a new “moral minority,” they may have hit a political dead end. On the campaign trail, anger and xenophobia play better than repentance and grace.

Molly Worthen is the author, most recently, of “Apostles of Reason: The Crisis of Authority in American Evangelicalism,” an assistant professor of history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and a contributing opinion writer.

Get Eric's Latest Thoughts

From the Blog

Latest Tweet