In early January 2001, I was in the kitchen of the church I frequented. It was a wintry day in Rochester, NY and a group of high schoolers — me included — were prepping for a pasta dinner. Our guests were to arrive in the next two hours, and we’d fill the church gymnasium with rows of foldable tables and chairs to serve them our delicious pasta in exchange for donations toward our high school missions trip to a remote coastal village in Costa Rica that summer.
The box set TV in the corner was showing the only TV news station that I’d seen in church, and in the homes of church families: Fox News. On it, Bill O’Reilly had just returned from commercial break to utter the words “we are now just one day away from restoring honor and dignity to the White House.”
“Amen!” shouted one of the church moms next to me. “We’ve waited long enough,” she added, to no one — or everyone — all at once.
I knew what she meant, because the rise of George W. Bush to the presidency was big news among church families. In fact, this election was the first I could recall feeling like I had a stake in. George W. Bush was a Christian, a good, virtuous man. This is the narrative we heard and repeated, and I knew full well what it meant to restore honor and dignity to the White House. After all, Bill Clinton wasn’t like us; he’d gotten a blow job in the Oval Office, and on top of that, he supported a woman’s right to abortion.
And that was all I needed to know. The act of governing, of working with our allies and working for the passage of policy, negotiating health care — all of it was far from my mind. Those issues took a back seat to electing someone with family-value ethics as simple and substantial as marital fidelity and the fight against abortion rights.
I was all in, and everyone around me was too.
That was more than 18 years ago. My political views have evolved, and yet not nearly as much as those of the evangelical Christians I used to count myself among. Less than two years ago, this country elected Donald Trump as president. I was fascinated by it after I was miffed by it. I was curious as to how those I’d seen rally behind the restoration of honor and dignity to the White House just two presidents ago would rally behind someone who’d fight for their view on abortion rights, but whose other moral standards made Clinton look like a church Deacon.
Married three times, caught on tape boasting about grabbing women by the genitals, and paying off an adult film actress for her silence on an extramarital affair just months after his last child was born — surely this fell short of evangelical ‘virtue’ on nearly all levels.
But, it didn’t. In fact, as of today, approval for President Trump among white evangelical Protestants is 25 points higher than the national average. And according to a Pew Research Center survey, during the period from July 2018 to January 2019, 70 percent of white evangelicals who attend church at least once a week approved of Trump too.
It’s a truth that at once upsets me and incenses me. As a teenager, I took great pride in my identity as an evangelical, as a Protestant who’d been told he was on the right side of issues both biblical, specifically, and moral, generally. I loved that, despite the complexity of understanding a mysterious God, there was a simplicity in the message of his son, Jesus Christ: I Corinthians 13:13, which says “And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.”
It was my north star when I wondered deeply about God and what he said — and more often didn’t say — about the moral issues I encountered. At the end of the day, Christ’s default command was to love. Above faith and hope, even. Love — that was the command; that’s what would be left over when there was nothing left.
I remember telling some Christian peers and parents that I’d be moving to Miami in 2004. Clearly they’d seen Scarface and the music video for ‘Miami’ by Will Smith, because you’d have thought I’d told them I was willfully entering the seventh circle of hell. I was warned of the ‘stumbling blocks’ (Christian speak for ‘things’ that can trip you up in your faith) and sinful nature of the city, which seemed a tad arbitrary and ironic, given the youth group’s love of sharing the gospel where it was perceived to be lacking.
I’ll assume their concern for my faith was as well-intentioned as it was ignorant — most of them didn’t know a world other than the quasi-polite working class world we all dwelled inside of in Rochester, and so a city with unfamiliar temptations was cause for alarm.
That was then. 15 years later, every data set available confirms what I’ve known in my heart for a long time now: the majority of the evangelical Christian church is a fear-driven, hate-filled shell of an organization who has dishonored the God it proclaims.
I was drawn to the church in the first place because it promised itself as a beacon of Christ’s redeeming love; a love that would not just speak to a different neighbor, but wash his or her feet as Christ washed the feet of his own disciples. I love that it stood for children in impoverished families, and I love that it took me to three different countries in his name to build orphanages and to serve those who couldn’t serve themselves.
There is no redemption in the evangelical church I see today. There is no washing of feet or service without strings attached. There is a singular, white-tinged path to redemption, and it spits upon the unconditional love of the poor, the sick, the gay. Through one side of their mouth, they signal virtue by protecting fetuses, and through the other side, they celebrate punitive legal measures that prevent the care of those fetuses when they reach term. They scream at a black man’s dismissal of the flag while ignoring their own outright dismissal of the cross. They’re adamant that God abhorred homosexuality in the same book where there are explicit instructions for the stoning of adulterers and the normalization of slavery. They use U.S. law as a crutch when it fits the arbitrary moral high ground they’re proclaiming, and curse it when there’s a compulsion to put their lily colored version of Christianity on a level field with Islam. They shrug their shoulders at the internment of Mexicans and Central Americans despite the Matthew 25:35 imperative of their own God: ‘For I was hungry, and you gave Me something to eat; I was thirsty, and you gave Me something to drink; I was a stranger, and you invited Me in.’
God never left, but his church — at least this one — left him. He isn’t a God that would demonize those he created. He is a God that sat with the ostracized while the religious leaders in gilded towers denied him. He is a God that was a foreigner, and whose message never would’ve reached the world had he been caged and starved at the border.
But I’m sure if any asylum seeker were to recite the sinner’s prayer, or offer an allegiance to this quasi-cult, the tune might change. Because, as Christ said in John 14:16, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father…except through whichever arbitrary interpretation of the bible best suits its self-appointed moral arbiters.”