In a TV clip I watched recently, a reporter is at a barbeque somewhere in the western U.S. It’s an assembly of evangelicals. The camera pans the scene. We see a burly man in a ten-gallon hat with others around him standing in front of a grill. Steaks are on. The men look rugged, outdoor men like farmers or cattlemen. The camera points to the waist of one man showing that he’s packing a gun.
The reporter asks someone in the crowd if, in his Christian faith, he sees any moral conflict supporting a president who is unfaithful in his marriages. The man shakes his head solemnly and says to the effect that nobody is perfect and Christians don’t condone extra-marital affairs. However, he said emphatically that’s a different thing than being homosexual. I understood his point to be that being unfaithful may be sinful, but a misdemeanor compared to being gay.
Even though I’m a life-long Episcopalian, I’m here to say some evangelicals deserve a break today. Since Trump’s ascendency to the presidency, they’ve gotten bad press. I’d like to affirm some of my kinder and gentler evangelical brothers and sisters. If you say there are not any left, you’ve been looking in the wrong places.
Turns out secular evangelicals are less tolerant than church going evangelicals, according to Emily Ekins, researcher at the Cato Institute. Church going Trump voters have more inclusive attitudes toward African-Americans, Hispanics, Asians, Jews, and immigrants compared with secular evangelical Trump supporters. Seeing one evangelical is not like you’ve seen them all. Technically speaking, evangelical refers to a person, church, or organization that is committed to the Christian gospel message that Jesus Christ is the savior of humanity.
Evangelical writer and pastor, Ed Stetzer, writing in Christianity Today, says emphatically, “No! Evangelical does not mean just ‘white Republicans who support Trump.’”
There are African-American evangelicals, Hispanic evangelicals and other church going white evangelicals – many of whom believe that God likes loving us more than judging us. You can tell by how they behave. They seem less strident.
One example is how the National Association of Evangelicals urged Trump to create a better U.S refugee resettlement program and end family separation at the border because it was traumatizing children.
The Southern Baptist Convention passed a resolution urging Trump to consider pathways to citizenship and keeping families together at the border because of the biblical mandate to “act compassionately toward those in need.”
The Mormons, perhaps the most conservative of all evangelical bodies, although don’t consider themselves such) expressed alarm at the harm the administration is doing to immigrant families.
There are evangelicals who have a heart.
To define ‘Evangelical,’ Stetzer says we need to think theologically, not politically. He identifies four religious tenets to which evangelicals hold. They are the following:
The Bible as the highest authority.
Faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior.
Christ’s sacrifice on the cross removes the penalty for our sin.
Only through Jesus can one gain eternal salvation.
The National Association of Evangelicals was formed in 1942. It was a loose coalition, but became organized enough to agree on the four-point definition.
In 1978, some evangelicals took a more aggressive political direction, establishing a movement called the Moral Majority. Founded by televangelist Jerry Falwell the movement was political from the get-go, promoted with a veneer of religious piety. The movement aligned itself intentionally with the Republican party. It foundered over time. In 1989, Televangelist Pat Robertson hoping to revive it, organized the Christian Coalition that was committed as much to serve the Republican party as to serve God. Both movements were considered evangelical.
The movements had a hard edge to them and communicated an uncompromising moral superiority that energized some evangelicals but appalled others.
Jimmy Carter’s ascendancy to the presidency is significant in any discussion of American evangelicals. He put the word evangelical in the public mind as it had never been. Carter spoke of his Baptist faith unashamedly and said he was a confirmed “born again Christian.” I don’t believe any of our presidents made such transparent or intimate disclosures about their religious convictions in such a sectarian way.
I think President Carter brought an inspiring witness to what some evangelism is all about; he practiced evangelism capturing the heart of its spiritual message, one far different from the kind demonstrated by televangelists.
Sadly, Carter had a controversial presidency. On the other hand, he demonstrated what an effective humanitarian heart looks like. He is a model Christian, different from any of our nominally Christian presidents. Most ex-presidents wrote autobiographies, dedicated libraries and made a bundle in speaking engagements.
Carter wrote many books and never worked the speaking circuit. He returned to his roots, in Plains, Georgia, to do works of charity. He lives modestly. His humanitarian efforts working with Habitat for Humanity are well known and, as of the year 2013, the organization (ministry) had built 800,000 homes world-wide for the poor who’d never be able to afford one otherwise. He also has been a tireless advocate for reconciliation and world peace.
Interestingly, he and Rosalynn live in a two-bedroom rancher assessed at one hundred and sixty thousand dollars. Each of the three last ex-presidents have cost the American taxpayers roughly one million dollars a year. A one term president, the Carters cost Americans, less than half as much.
Carter is a principled man. A life-long Southern Baptist, and Sunday School teacher, he could not go along with his denomination’s most recent teaching on gender. He left in protest when the denomination voted to support the biblical and Pauline exhortation that wives should remain subject to husbands.
One of Mother Teresa’s favorite texts in the Bible, which she often quoted to describe her ministry to the poor, is: “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine (the poor and marginalized), you did for me” (Matthew 25:40, 45).
Carter is an evangelical. However, he doesn’t just talk the talk, but walks the walk.
It’s heartening these days to think of a president, maybe a born-again evangelical Christian like Carter, as the kind of president my grandchildren (some Catholics in the mix) might look up to one day and be inspired to greatness.
Know any real evangelicals like Jimmy Carter – Democrat or Republican, it doesn’t really matter?
Make sure you hug one today.
Columnist George Merrill is an Episcopal Church priest and pastoral psychotherapist. A writer and photographer, he’s authored two books on spirituality: Reflections: Psychological and Spiritual Images of the Heart and The Bay of the Mother of God: A Yankee Discovers the Chesapeake Bay. He is a native New Yorker, previously directing counseling services in Hartford, Connecticut, and in Baltimore. George’s essays, some award winning, have appeared in regional magazines and are broadcast twice monthly on Delmarva Public Radio.