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The Myth of the Monolith

News & Features | March 6, 2017

“When you open your heart to patriotism, there is no room for prejudice,” said President Trump in his inaugural address on January 20. “The Bible tells us, ‘How good and pleasant it is when God’s people live together in unity.’”

Although the president invoked Psalm 133 in his speech, he previously had difficulty establishing his credibility as a Christian on the campaign trail, infamously misspeaking when referring to “Two Corinthians” at the evangelical Liberty University last January.  One may think that Evangelical Christians would disapprove of Trump’s gaudy celebrity lifestyle, and relate more to Methodist Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton; nonetheless, Christians voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

Because of this, it’s tempting to create a cohesive narrative in which American Christianity is equated with evangelism, and evangelism with conservatism. Yet, in reality, the American Christian experience is not so monolithic. Religion intersects with geography, race, and gender. Still, religion may often impact political opinion and voting decisions. Understanding the complexity of Christianity in the United States and its intersection with American society may help bridge the ideological divide between the left and right.

First, it’s important to understand why Trump’s candidacy garnered such widespread Evangelical support. Evangelism is a form of Protestantism, and is traditionally defined by its close reading of the Bible and its emphasis on conversion of non-believers. A Pew Research poll published in November reported that 58 percent of Protestants and 81 percent of Evangelical Christians voted for Trump. This number generally reflects the trends of the past few elections. According to Pew, 78 percent of evangelicals voted for Romney, 74 percent for McCain, and 78 percent for Bush in 2004.

“As much as we were shocked about the outcome, there were pretty consistent patterns,” Natalie Masuoka, an associate professor of Political Science, said.

“White Christians tend to think of themselves as Republican,” Political Science Department Chair Deborah Schildkraut said. She added that the intertwining of Christian and conservative values often inspires people to vote along ideological lines. “Many Republicans of any kind are closer to any Republican than they are to any Democrat,” she said. She explained, for instance, that many Christians voted for Trump because he had promised to nominate a conservative justice to the Supreme Court.

Indeed, statistics show that faith is increasingly tied to political affiliation. A Gallup poll published at the end of 2016 revealed that 51 percent of Republicans identified as “highly religious,” compared to 33 percent of Democrats. The poll also showed that only 20 percent of Republicans identified as “not religious,” compared to 37 percent of Democrats.

Still, nearly half of American citizens self-identify as Protestant. Though Evangelical Christians adhere ever more strongly to Republican candidates, it is important to recognize that all Christians do not share the same political beliefs.

“Within Christianity there is huge diversity,” Religion Professor Heather Curtis said. She, Masuoka, and Schildkraut suggested that it was a mistake to conflate the identity groups of White, evangelical, and conservative when evaluating American Christians.

“You can’t ignore the racial segregation that occurs in churches,” Masuoka said, adding that Black Christians voted overwhelmingly for Clinton. Curtis also noted that the fastest growing demographic in Christianity in the United States is Latino, which she doesn’t believe fits into the traditional “schema” of American Christianity.

Although the majority of White evangelicals voted for Trump, Curtis added that there were several evangelical leaders who were “vocal on the other side.” She mentioned Russell Moore, the president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention. Moore denounced Trump early in the campaign cycle, accusing Trump-supporting evangelicals of abandoning their values in a New York Times op-ed. He has since been condemned by other evangelical leaders for his bold criticisms of Trump.

Curtis also discussed another movement known as the “evangelical left,” which seeks to apply Evangelical Christian values to politics from a liberal perspective.

“It was a response to a sense of failure in their community to address racism,” Curtis explained. She referred to the magazine Sojourners, which uses evangelical ideas to justify liberal positions. Recent articles in the magazine include “4 Ways to Support Communities Affected by Trump’s Immigration Orders” and “Lord, Prepare Us to Be a Sanctuary City.”

“It’s an interesting landscape right now,” Curtis said. “The face of Christianity worldwide and in the US is shifting.”

As American churches face internecine conflicts over religious and political values, faith leaders struggle to serve a divided country. Reverend Wendy Miller Olapade is the pastor at Sanctuary, a United Church of Christ parish in Medford. Sanctuary has a strong focus on social justice and faith-based activism.

Olapade’s congregation engages in service activities, such as holding “Faith and Film” nights for the community and sponsoring organized outings to local charities. Olapade, who sees herself as a “chaplain to the city,” believes that reconciling the ideological and spiritual divide between Americans of all faiths requires acting with empathy.

“The first step is to make a commitment out of your faith to operate from a place of compassion,” she said in an interview with the Tufts Observer, highlighting the need to act in “an attitude of dialogue rather than debate.”

Olapade believes that Christianity can be an important source of spiritual and political guidance. She said that the Bible offers “moral imperatives” for citizens to adhere to while voting. However, she does not approve of evangelical ministers who “stand in the pulpit and tell people who to vote for.”

“I take the gospel and the morality that comes from faith, and apply it to the world,” the reverend said. She referenced the two most important commandments defined by Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, chapter twelve: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength,” and “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

“This is what Jesus expects of us,” Olapade said. Similarly, perhaps, to the Christians on the evangelical left, Olapade believes that these two commandments are the moral basis for her civic engagement, and her support for policies such as making Medford a sanctuary city.

If Olapade derives her zeal from her faith, so does her congregation. The reverend acknowledged that she is the pastor of an “uber progressive church,” and that she has not had to preach to many Trump supporters. Ministers in rural areas face more of a challenge in encouraging their parishioners to be discerning about the connection between religion and political affiliation.

A Presbyterian minister in rural Pennsylvania talked with the Tufts Observer about the difficulty she faces in serving a congregation filled with Trump supporters. “There are people who are thinking about faith and politics who have come to different conclusions,” she said during a phone interview. As she is politically liberal, but serves a congregation in a county that voted for Trump by over 60 percent, the minister asked to remain anonymous.

Contrary to popular beliefs about conservative Christians, the minister feels that many in her congregation do not fully realize how their faith informs their politics. They are concerned about a degradation of conservative values in the United States, but do not realize how these morals are shaped by their understanding—or misunderstanding—of the Bible.

“Part of the problem is that we’re just talking past each other, and don’t have a shared set of assumptions,” the minister said. “People who support Trump want government to regulate morality. Others, like myself, want the government to protect those who are vulnerable.”

The minister talked about her frustration with being a young, liberal, female pastor serving a conservative congregation in which so many parishioners had voted for Trump. She has discussed this with other clergywomen feeling similarly hurt by the results of the election.

“We are women in a male-dominated field,” she explained. “It was a huge slap in the face.”

However, the minister believes that reconciling the ideological divide is possible, and that it begins with starting conversations from within a shared faith and community. She recalled that the Sunday after the election, she served communion in worship with the Words of Institution, which declare that the Last Supper occurred on the night Jesus was “betrayed.” She realized that as Christ was able to sit and eat with those who would condemn him, so could people of differing beliefs come together despite their mutual fear and sense of betrayal.

Differing concepts of faith can exacerbate the tension between right and left, but perhaps they can also provide a frame of reference for Christians with varying political beliefs.

“If Christians are going to find reconciliation with one another across our political differences, I have a hunch it will begin with us making the choice to sit down and share ordinary meals together,” the minister said.