If I ever get a tattoo, it will be like my Egyptian acquaintance Amir’s. On the underside of Amir’s right wrist is a small Coptic cross. After the Arab invasion of Egypt in the seventh century, Christians sought to mark their boys who were often taken from families, forced to convert, and serve in the military. Parents wanted their children to remember their identity and origin. Today, Amir and others tattoo the Coptic cross as a mark of pride in their faith and in their solidarity as a minority group.
Assuming Egyptian elections are even free and fair, Amir knows a Christian is not likely to lead his predominantly Islamic nation. 1,400 years of Islamic rule and cultural saturation has depleted the Christian presence in the land; Amir has no expectations other than a Muslim president, and must therefore make a choice based on factors other than a candidate’s religious identity.
American evangelical voters find themselves in a similar situation as the country secularizes. The Barna Group’s list of Top 10 Post-Christian Cities in America include Boston and New York, Providence, Rhode Island, and San Francisco-San Jose. The cities’ history, even their very names, reflect a religious past that no longer exists. Fewer candidates for all elected offices represent the confessional or ethical positions of Bible-based believers. One need look no further than the entertainment and education sectors to see the panoply of voices, worldviews, and perspectives far beyond that of the Christian.
The overwhelming support of evangelical Christians for President Trump, 72% as of July according to Pew Research Center, has been deemed hypocritical by many. A cultural narrative shaped by the press, Democrats, independent voters, and others question the commitment of evangelical Christians who seek to exemplify the ways and teachings of Jesus, and yet align themselves with Trump, a man described by evangelical activist Shane Claiborne as “morally disqualified.”
Calling evangelical voters hypocrites is not surprising. For the last fifty years evangelical voters have featured prominently in national American elections. The Protestant church began to divide along orthodox and progressive branches in the mid-20th century. By the 1970s evangelical Protestants, and Roman Catholics soon thereafter, found common political interests beyond denominational lines. Jimmy Carter strategically tapped their support, and by the Reagan and Bush administrations the Moral Majority, and subsequent Christian Coalition, were a powerful voice. Tim Keller notes in the Faith Angle podcast (#28; 4-22-20) that unlike other western nations, the sheer size of the evangelical population in America lends itself towards being a valuable voting block to both candidates and special interests. Thus, evangelicals both mobilize politically, in addition to being sought out by political candidates and operatives for support.
However, we evangelicals are partly to blame for the hypocritical label that has seemingly stuck for now. We have not championed the evolution of our own political focus that in the late 20th century shifted to include not only moral issues but economic ones as well. Candidates that gained support were expected to meet a moral standard, and those who did not were accosted as such. Gary Hart, Bill Clinton, and Ted Kennedy were frequently identified by the religious right as morally compromised, and could not be trusted as leaders. While these moral judgements may have been correct, they also served to feed a moral arrogance and superiority that developed among many. This combined with an eroding morality makes evangelicals who support Donald Trump, some quite publically while most quietly at the polls, appear to be hypocritical. The appearance is even more glaring with the fact that the opposition leaders who do not receive broad evangelical support, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Nancy Pelosi, are not known for their peccadilloes.
Times have changed, and so too has the place of evangelicals in the public square. Their maturation as both a religious and political movement has changed their approach to moral and economic issues even while the cultural narrative about us lags. The grandchildren of Billy Graham’s generation have now become the leaders of evangelicalism, and bring both a fresh perspective, new agenda, and different cultural location. Unfulfilled political promises and the feeling of a sullied Christian witness inspire many to eschew electoral means for cultural leadership. Evangelicals look at the history of Chrsitianity in America and the current cultural landscape and remark to one another, “We aren’t in Kansas anymore.”
The problem is some of us recognize and acknowledge this while others are pining away for an earlier era—they are stuck in the 80s-90s—and failing to see that the times are changing. Not only has the moral standard for our country been diluted, but evangelicals no longer represent shared values in practice even if we espouse a common theology. The first quarter of the 21st century will be marked by the way in which evangelicals went into cultural exile. Somewhat self-imposed, evangelicals feel this cultural narrative of exile, even if not fully able to cling to this Biblical metaphor or to even fully articulate this position.This feeling is from their waning influence in many places of power they once held along with the weakening of moral commitments that is now present in the evangelical arena. Even beyond the halls of political power, faithful Christians now hesitate to be fully known in many corporate environments, on social media, and in Hollywood because faith is seen as a liability whereas it once was the guiding values system for most American institutions.
Granted, American evangelicals are not oppressed or persecuted as many are in the world. Yet, the metaphor of exile helps for it is both Biblical and tangible. David Brooks, New York Times columnist, notes, “Christians are now learning how to become an exiled minority.” As such, the Biblical accounts of the Israelites in Egypt, and later Babylon, presage the Christian experience today.
No longer calling the shots in New York or Washington, D.C., an exilic mindset has a bottom-up perspective, forms unique coalitions for shared causes, and succeeds more often with a humble and generous approach to the common good. This is best articulated as principled pluralism by University of Virginia sociologist James Davidson Hunter. Evangelicals convictions remain the same; the approach is executed, much like my friend Amir’s, in an acknowledged environment of greater pluralism.
Thus, exilic voting is the average evangelical’s approach to this presidential election. Far from a mere apology to legitimize evangelical support for Donald Trump, exilic voting will extend far into the next half-century of presidential election cycles.
No longer can expectations on a candidate’s personal morals win the day, much less be the societal norm. Rather, as exiles, evangelicals, like the Copts of Egypt, vote for causes, issues, and specific policies they hope will enable the common good to flourish.
The cultural narrative for evangelicals as a whole remains one of hypocrisy. Even if the sociological forces and theological metaphors articulated herein were understood, the hypocrite narrative is far too potent for opponents to abandon. Meanwhile, we vote. We exercise our rights, freedom, and duty as citizens. We gain objective clarity about where we are culturally and we mature our understanding of how to live faithfully in exile. In so doing, evangelicals seek the welfare of the place to which we have been called just as God exhorted our exiled covenant ancestors in Babylon.