If we ever needed proof, we got it when Donald Trump opened his mouth at Liberty University and made his infamous reference to “2 Corinthians.” After wiping off the drool from laughing so hard, evangelicals knew with certainty that he was not one of us.
Every American evangelical spanning the generations, whether raised on “flannel boards” (Google it) or VeggieTales, knows you say “Second.” Good grief, Hillary Clinton — the antichrist herself, if you listen to some of my evangelical friends — had no problem navigating this basic Biblical concept when she gave her victory speech in South Carolina and quoted First Corinthians. So no, evangelicals are not fooled by Donald Trump’s assertion that he’s a “good Christian.” Those who support him have generally made a hard-nosed calculation that he is their best chance of countering the Democratic Party’s liberal agenda. That’s all.
This is the year of the evangelical, if you listen to the news at all. And it is the year of the evangelical myth.
In April 2016, with Trump and Ted Cruz locked in mortal combat for the Republican nomination, with their respective measures of evangelical support cited and dissected in every primary, readers and viewers of American media would be forgiven for thinking that the vast majority of American evangelicals are white and Republican, marching in lockstep to register their continual alarm at the only two issues they care about, abortion and gay marriage.
As a lifelong evangelical, I’m so used to these myths that I barely register an internal eye roll these days. I’ve encountered few evangelicals among my news media colleagues during a 30-year career, so I get that they miss the nuances of reporting on such an enormous, diverse, worldwide group. (There are hundreds of millions more evangelicals outside the United States than inside, especially in the developing world.)
What I can’t excuse is the lack of curiosity, the default to stereotypes, and the whiff of condescension and religious bigotry that often seem embedded in their reports. Just do your dang job and actually talk to some evangelicals, I find myself saying. Then you’ll discover we’re not some intellectually deficient, exotic sect, congregating with Duggar-like swarms of children at bad church potlucks, secretly plotting ways to institute Old Testament-era theocracy. We don’t plant bombs at abortion clinics, and we’re not all like your racist grandma.
Leith Anderson, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, observes that news organizations “fairly often start with the perspective they want to hear,” seeking evangelical contacts who will parrot a presumed party line. Problem is, there isn’t one.
Evangelicals — theologically conservative, born-again Christians — are united in their respect and reverence for the Bible, their focus on Jesus Christ and their desire to share the “good news” of the gospel; to evangelize, in other words. And that’s about it.
Stumbling around in the fog of suppositions, the media are missing the bigger story about evangelicals: that this year’s presidential election is exposing deep fissures within their ranks, especially among blacks and Hispanics who are profoundly disturbed by their fellow evangelicals’ support for Trump. They’re astonished by the tolerance for his divisive rhetoric concerning immigrants and the various people he categorizes as “losers.” These fissures aren’t new, but they are causing some to question whether “evangelical” will ever be a meaningful term again.
To find that story, though, reporters would have to sit down with evangelicals, great and small, and, you know, listen. And that is what the Dallas Observer and Houston Press set out to do, in a journey through the Texas heartland that proved at least two things: how confoundingly diverse evangelicals are, and that all roads (and conversations) lead to Donald Trump.
“There’s a lot of us,” Anderson says. “And we represent as broad a cross-section of any identity group or constituency in the country.” Consider the reality:
A much higher proportion of black Americans are evangelical than whites. In a recent study by the Southern Baptist-affiliated LifeWay Research, 44 percent of African Americans were defined as evangelical by faith and practice, compared with 29 percent of whites. Even Hispanic Americans registered a slightly higher percentage than whites: A surprising 30 percent are evangelical.
The number of evangelical voters is almost certainly inflated by clumsy polling. Dr. Robert Jeffress, pastor of First Baptist Dallas, put it most amusingly: “A lot of people in exit polls are asked, ‘Are you an evangelical?’ and [they] say yes — as opposed to being a satanist.”
While evangelicals of all ethnic backgrounds hold conservative views on abortion and gay marriage, they are not single-issue voters, nor is their activism confined to these cultural battlegrounds. Evangelicals have been at the forefront of numerous humanitarian and justice issues in the past 15 years, including HIV-AIDS in Africa, human trafficking and the exposure of genocide in Darfur. And few in the media seemed to take notice that the American men and women who stayed behind to treat Ebola patients in West Africa — in some cases contracting the disease themselves — were primarily members of evangelical organizations.
There is increasing evidence that Trump’s support among evangelicals has been significantly overstated. Historian Paul Matzko, a Pennsylvania State University doctoral candidate, analyzed the results of the South Carolina Republican primary, won by Trump, and found that while Trump did well among self-described evangelicals, he didn’t do nearly as well among those who actually attended church. Evangelicals are, if anything, enthusiastic churchgoers. Matzko’s findings suggest that a good chunk of Trump’s so-called evangelical supporters really aren’t. They just say they are.
“Churchgoing evangelicals are not leading the Trump wave,” says Dr. Russell Moore, one of the most trenchant observers of evangelicalism and president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission. “And most evangelical leaders are not on board with this, either.”
The Reverend Henry Thomas Jr. has built his entire life on evangelical principles, believing that the Bible is his highest authority, that he should encourage non-Christians to commit to Christ, and that devotion to Christ is the only way to salvation. Leader of a predominantly black congregation, True Fellowship Baptist Church of Katy, Thomas was brought up Southern Baptist, trained at the knee of his minister father in northeast Houston and educated at one of the top evangelical seminaries, Dallas Theological Seminary. The pastor and father of four boys started a church from scratch in suburban Katy 10 years ago with his wife, Felicia. Today, True Fellowship has about 150 members on the roll.
Thomas had but one question when an evangelical friend suggested he sit for an interview: “Can I laugh?” And Thomas, who looks younger than his 45 years, laughs often during a long conversation on the front row of his simple but comfortably appointed church, situated in a small warehouse complex. We talk about his sports-crazy boys (baseball is king), the perils of starting a church, his reasons for locating in Katy (not enough African-American churches).
When I ask if he’s an evangelical, there is the slightest hesitation in his voice before he answers yes. Then he turns serious.
“I think the presentation of evangelical has two code words: white and Republican. It is sort of looked at as a misnomer for a person to say they can be Democratic and evangelical.”
Media have done a lot to convey that impression, Thomas says, but “the label evangelical has earned its own black eye.”
Over the years, evangelicals have been “very vocal” about pro-life issues, he continues, but from a
historical perspective, on matters of justice, of civil rights, “some of the most silent individuals when it comes to right and wrong have been evangelicals.”
It is true that only a handful of white evangelical leaders affirmed civil rights for blacks early in the movement, and few took a stand that placed their own popularity at risk. There were notable exceptions: Pentecostal evangelist Oral Roberts, and Billy Graham, who in 1953 personally pulled down the ropes separating blacks and whites before a crusade.
The National Association of Evangelicals, founded in 1942 to counter the drift toward liberal theology, consisted then and still does of predominantly white denominations. Yet black American Christians are remarkably conservative, both socially and theologically, Thomas contends. Two things developed in the decades since civil rights. “The more African Americans have gained, we’ve kind of replaced our God with green gods,” Thomas says. And the divide between those silent, white evangelicals and their brown brothers and sisters has been swept under the rug, to the point where “we’re literally afraid to touch it.”
Then along came Donald Trump and his pronouncements against Mexican and Muslim immigrants, coupled with a pledge to protect the freedoms of evangelical Christians. Thomas sees a contradiction with the teachings of Jesus Christ, who commands us to love our neighbor and not merely protect our own interests.
When deciding how to vote, Thomas says he asks a simple question: “Who do I think will have the best interests of all people?” The answer for him, he admits, has often been a Democrat.
With his boys off playing sports on a sunny Saturday, Thomas gets philosophical about the allure of Trump among evangelicals. “I believe Trump represents the heart of America,” he says.
The America reflected in the image of Donald Trump, he explains, looks like “entitlement, but also the results of historic hatred. The fruit of it.”
When Thomas hears Trump’s slogan, “Make America great again,” he hears a subliminal message. “I think he’s saying, ‘Make America white again.’”
Thomas hasn’t decided how he’ll cast his vote for president. This is the first election, he says, in which he has no level of comfort with any candidate. Anticipating that he’ll be left with “the best of two evils,” Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, Thomas has thought of writing in the name of his son. He laughs.
In February, Thomas’ fellow Southern Baptist and Dallas Seminary grad, Dr. Robert Jeffress, had 30 seconds to pull his thoughts together before addressing an audience of thousands at a Donald Trump rally in Fort Worth. A master communicator, Jeffress sounded a bit breathless but handled his moment with poise: “I know three things about Donald Trump,” he said, listing the first two. “He sincerely loves this country … He is truly pro-life.”
Last, he said, punctuating every word with his right fist, “Donald Trump cares about and loves evangelical Christians!”
Jeffress, the popular pastor of 12,000-member First Baptist Dallas, Fox News commentator and preacher of national renown, has emerged as one of the most prominent evangelical supporters of Trump. The trim, 60-year-old pastor was happy to talk about what the media don’t get about evangelicals, and why he’s thrown his weight (but not his “endorsement”) behind Trump, appearing at several rallies to date,
at Trump’s request, he says.
First among misconceptions about evangelicals, he says, is “that we are a monolithic group. I’ve never understood why pollsters refer to white evangelicals,” he says with a laugh. “In my church, we have many black and many Hispanic evangelicals as well.” Another misconception, he says, is that evangelicals are “hatemongers — that we’re angry, foaming at the mouth all the time. They do believe in certain absolute truths, but that doesn’t mean they’re hateful.”
As in every conversation about politics these days, the subject shifts to Trump. How did Jeffress settle on Trump, when another candidate, Cruz, more closely aligns with the presumed evangelical agenda?
“When I look at the four candidates [Marco Rubio had just dropped out], you know, only two of those have actually led something of significance in their lives,” Jeffress said. John Kasich has been governor of Ohio, he noted, and Trump has led “a great business.”
“When I’m looking for a leader, I want someone who has a track record of having led something.”
He admits he is attracted to Trump’s decidedly non-evangelical temperament. Just a couple of weeks earlier, San Antonio pastor and author Max Lucado, a huge name among American evangelicals, had blogged about his disgust for Trump’s belligerent tone. Jeffress was happy to rebut that. “When I’m looking for a leader who’s gonna sit across the negotiating table from a nuclear Iran, I couldn’t care less about that leader’s temperament, tone or vocabulary,” Jeffress said. “Frankly, I want the meanest, toughest son of a gun I can find…”
He makes just the tiniest pause before dropping the word “gun.”
“…and I think that’s the feeling of a lot of evangelicals.”
What about evangelicals of color, and the pain many feel in the face of pronouncements from Trump? Jeffress goes quiet for a moment. “Look,” he says, shifting to a softer voice, “my goal in life is not to convince people to vote for Donald Trump. That’s an issue people will have to come to grips with for themselves. The most important thing for anyone is their personal relationship with Jesus Christ.”
Max Lucado bursts into laughter when told about Jeffress’ “son of a gun” comment. Maybe it’s because evangelical exemplars like him and Jeffress have to watch every word they say, and getting so close to the verbal edge yields a certain sliver of pleasure. Who knows.
The dust has yet to settle from Lucado’s “Decency for President” blog post of February 24, which made it safe for evangelical leaders to criticize Trump publicly. On Lucado’s website alone, the essay has garnered more than 15 million views and hundreds of comments and has elicited supportive calls from other prominent evangelicals. So Lucado, the 61-year-old pastor of Oak Hills Church in San Antonio and a best-selling author, is well-acquainted with the power of words. And he has some choice thoughts about Trump’s.
Trump, he says, talks like a bully. “The language he uses is just full of threats, condescending. I’m stunned at the way he looks down on people and makes comments about rapists and murderers crossing the border, sweeping generalizations … comments about [former candidate] Carly Fiorina’s looks, comments about menstrual cycles. That’s locker-room terminology.”
Middle-school locker rooms, no less, he notes.
“Jesus said, ‘Out of the overflow of the heart, a person speaks.’ So if his rhetoric is this malicious, then I think it’s enough to give us pause and ask about the sincerity of his heart.”
Lucado says he’d have nothing to say about Trump if the candidate hadn’t called himself a Christian. Even so, it took a series of audacious Trumpisms to push Lucado over the edge and into the role of political commentator. “The caution lights started flashing when he spoke at the Liberty University campus,” the school founded by Moral Majority leader Jerry Falwell, “and said, ‘I love the Bible; it’s even better than [Trump’s] The Art of the Deal.’”
When Trump veered into rotten theology, claiming he had no reason to ask God for forgiveness, Lucado couldn’t restrain himself any longer. “Either quit calling yourself a Christian,” he said, describing his thought process, “or let the faith begin to define your life.”
Lucado wrote his blog post, asking, “Decency matters, right?” Before posting, he sent it to the Trump campaign through a friend who guaranteed he could get it to the “inner circle.”
“I never heard back,” Lucado says, “and that’s when I heard the Father’s blessing, like I’d gone through the necessary steps to contact them, because Jesus said that if you have something against your brother, first go to him.” The essay posted on Lucado’s website on February 24, and two days later ran in the Washington Post. It struck a chord with evangelicals all over the country who were struggling with what to tell their kids about Trump, let alone their congregations. It also generated a much smaller amount of negative feedback, with a few commenters employing verbiage as vituperative as Trump’s.
Lucado offers a solution, that Trump simply present himself as a secular candidate. “Then he can rant and rave and be as pompous as Nebuchadnezzar, and who cares?”
Sharifa Stevens, a 41-year-old writer and sometime blogger with degrees from Columbia University and Dallas Theological Seminary, is stumped by the first question: “Are you an evangelical?” Stevens, a wife and mother of two who works for a well-known evangelical ministry, pauses for a moment and gazes at the far corner of the living room in her comfortably disheveled Dallas home. “I don’t know,” she finally says, softly.
I try for an easier question. “What is an evangelical?”
“There are two answers to that,” Stevens responds. “An evangelical is someone who believes in and wants to share the good news of the gospel, because that good news has saved that person, and they want other people to be saved. That’s the purity of the term.
“But that’s not how it’s being used. In popular parlance, an evangelical is someone against everybody who’s not himself. An evangelical is someone who hates abortion and hates homosexuals. Or someone who will always vote Republican. Jesus is like a convenient foil for whatever the political agenda is. I don’t want to be associated with that.”
A daughter of Jamaican immigrants who grew up in New York, Stevens can’t get on board with any of the major presidential candidates touting evangelical values this year. Sharifa is black; her husband, Jonathan, a fellow Dallas Seminary grad, is white. Their young boys are brown-skinned. Life looks different from their front window.
“The country is not a theocracy, and we can’t expect it to function that way,” she says. “I don’t think that alienating people who are at odds with us will bring them to the gospel.”
Stevens moves to the kitchen to mix up pancake batter for her younger son, Zion. She tells how she stopped having political conversations at her workplace after a particular exchange concerning Trump. “Well, love him or hate him,” a male colleague said, “he tells it like it is.”
“I’m like, What is the ‘it’ that he tells ‘it’ like it is?” Stevens asks. “Is he saying that it’s really cool for you not to think before you speak? Is ‘it’ being a racist, a misogynist, a xenophobe? Is this what you want to say but haven’t had the guts to say?”
She flips a pancake while her son absorbs himself in Curious George.
“The evangelical wing of the Republican base has shown itself not to care about the things that Jesus cares about. ‘Blessed are the poor’ never comes out of people’s mouths.”
She stops to laugh loudly. Jesus’ Beatitudes seem so incongruous with the rhetoric of this acrimonious election year.
Stevens goes sober again as she dishes up silver-dollar pancakes. “Trump is just doing blatantly what [other evangelicals] did with dog whistles,” she says. “And I think it’s horrifying and pathological how unfeeling my brothers and sisters can be regarding me. Am I crazy? Does God care about people who look like me? The testimony of love and unity that’s supposed to prove the veracity of the gospel — Does that mean the gospel is not real? I’m literally having that conversation with myself when I see what I see.”
If Trump wins, I ask, will “evangelical” be a tainted label in her eyes?
“It’s already tainted,” she says.
I’m on the way to Houston's Lakewood Church, the biggest church in America. I’m told I’ll find a picture of evangelical harmony here, where Pastor Joel Osteen projects relentless optimism to his congregation, which averages 45,000 a week plus millions of television viewers. Not long before this, I hear from a black evangelical friend whose husband has been researching the parallels between Trump and Hitler. Few of my white evangelical friends, I conclude, have any idea how their support for Trump — or, just as disturbing, their silence — is a cause of great hurt to evangelicals of other ethnicities. I hadn’t discerned the depth of pain myself.
It is Saturday night, and Osteen will preach tieless. I take a seat with a bird’s-eye view of the stage and audience, watching the people file in. I’ll just cut to the chase: In 50 years of churchgoing, I have never seen such a diverse congregation. I watch their interactions, their seating choices, because these are telling to me. I see blacks sitting next to Indian women in saris and chatting cordially, and Hispanic ladies giving sisterly hugs to white people.
Among my evangelical friends, I’ve heard plenty of gripes about Osteen over the years. He doesn’t talk about sin; he barely cites Scripture; he’s preaching a self-help, prosperity-tinged gospel. Some or all of that might be true, but he must be doing something right at Lakewood. Diversity never happens by accident in evangelical America.
It helps to have God’s sound system. Precisely at 7 p.m., a stage rises amid flashing lights, revealing a multiethnic crew of musicians and singers. The bass is powerful enough to straighten your teeth.
Afterward, Osteen preaches a simple message about hope, telling how his father was raised dirt-poor in Paris, Texas. An encounter with Jesus Christ turned a cotton-picking teen in a nowhere town into a man of great dreams who went on to found Lakewood Church.
When the service ends, I make a beeline for a Hispanic couple seated in the top row of the former home of the Houston Rockets. Osteen has just extracted himself from a social-media controversy; it was reported that he had endorsed Trump for president. Not true, Lakewood insisted, though Osteen has called Trump a “friend” of his ministry.
Crystal Gamboa, 26, is unconcerned. “We’re not really political,” she says. “Our truth is God, and for us, as long as you have him in the picture, everything is well. I don’t put my belief in Donald Trump. I don’t put my belief in Ted Cruz. I put my belief in Jesus Christ. I hold onto his truth and his word. That’s where we put our life.”
Why is this church so diverse? I ask.
“They make you feel welcome,” says Julius Garcia, 27, her boyfriend.
A lot of churches try to make you feel welcome. What’s different here?
Martha Lockett walks over and joins the conversation. “I’ve been going to Lakewood since 1978,” she says. “I just watched it for years, and it’s always been consistent. The [Osteen] family has always reached out to people no matter your race, your color, creed, gender, whatever — they just wanted to show you love. And you feel that.”
Another woman, Chandel Loy, joins in as well. “I feel a calling to vote for Trump, actually,” she says. Loy is white; Lockett is black. Both women pause to acknowledge that there are many viewpoints at Lakewood. “But I definitely felt a spiritual draw [to Trump],” Loy says. “I know it’s gonna sound kind of crazy, but I felt a spiritual connection with Christ on that.”
Lockett listens politely with what seems like the patience of her 63 years. Loy’s sense of a “calling” to back Trump is a topic of some discussion, especially among Pentecostal and charismatic evangelicals. As some see it, God has chosen Donald Trump as his human agent to carry out divine purposes, much as he chose, in Biblical times, vessels as varied as a pagan king (Cyrus, who gave the exiled people of Israel permission to return to their homeland) and a donkey that stopped in its tracks, opened its mouth and verbally rebuked the false prophet Balaam. If God can speak through a donkey, the logic goes, he can speak and act through Trump. God’s use of a human vessel doesn’t imply his endorsement, though a good number of evangelicals extend that as well to Trump.
“My vote’s not out yet. The jury’s not out,” Lockett says. “I feel more of a calling to pray. I listen to as much of it as I can tolerate, and I just start praying that God would give us a candidate who reflects his heart. And I don’t know who that candidate is.”
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Loy responds with equal courtesy. “Well, I’ve prayed about it, and I feel I have an understanding of [Trump]. I think he’s a good man. I feel like he’s misunderstood a lot, actually.”
Just about then, Lakewood personnel ask us to make our way to the doors. The church is closing up for the night. Loy exits with her husband, and Lockett and I walk to the lobby, where Joel Osteen has just finished shaking the hands of hundreds of people.
“Look at [the apostle] Peter — he was impetuous, hotheaded. Look at Paul — he was learned, a writer, thoughtful,” Lockett says. “And look at Luke. They all had different assignments, but they all had the same Lord.
“And God doesn’t call us all to be the same. But he brings us all to the cross.”