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'How Did We Get Here?' A Call For An Evangelical Reckoning On Trump

Jan 13, 2021
Originally published on January 13, 2021 1:19 pm

As fallout continues from the deadly siege on the U.S. Capitol, Ed Stetzer, head of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, has a message for his fellow evangelicals: It's time for a reckoning.

Evangelicals, he says, should look at how their own behaviors and actions may have helped fuel the insurrection. White evangelicals overwhelmingly supported President Trump in the 2020 election.

Some in the protest crowd raised signs with Christian symbolism and phrases.

"Part of this reckoning is: How did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories?" he tells NPR's Rachel Martin. "We need to make clear who we are. And our allegiance is to King Jesus, not to what boasting political leader might come next."

In the interview, Stetzer also laments that evangelicals seem to have changed their view of morality to support Trump.

"So I think we just need to be honest. A big part of this evangelical reckoning is a lot of people sold out their beliefs," he says.

Here are excerpts from the Morning Edition conversation:

You write that "many evangelicals are seeing Donald Trump for who he is." Do you really think that's true? There have been so many other things that Trump has said and done over the past four to five years that betray Christian values and their support didn't waver. You think this time it's different?

I think it's a fair question, and I've been one for years who was saying we need to see more clearly who Donald Trump is and has often not been listened to. But I would say that for many people, the storming of the Capitol, the desecration of our halls of democracy, has shocked and stunned a lot of people and how President Trump has engaged in riling up crowds to accomplish these things. Yeah, I do think so. I think there are some significant and important conversations that we need to have inside of evangelicalism asking the question: What happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more.

You write that Trump has burned down the Republican Party. What has he done to the evangelical Christian movement?

If you asked today, "What's an evangelical?" to most people, I would want them to say: someone who believes Jesus died on the cross for our sin and in our place and we're supposed to tell everyone about it. But for most people they'd say, "Oh, those are those people who are really super supportive of the president no matter what he does." And I don't think that's what we want to be known for. That's certainly not what I want to be known for. And I think as this presidency is ending in tatters as it is, hopefully more and more evangelicals will say, "You know, we should have seen earlier, we should have known better, we should have honored the Lord more in our actions these last four years."

Should ministers on Sunday mornings be delivering messages about how to sort fact from fiction and discouraging their parishioners from seeking truth in these darkest corners of the Internet peddling lies?

Absolutely, absolutely. Mark Noll wrote years ago a book called The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, and he was talking about the lack of intellectual engagement in some corners of evangelicalism.

I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many have been brought into — conspiracy theories, false reports and more — and so I think the Christian responsibility is we need to engage in what we call in the Christian tradition, discipleship. Jesus says, "I am the way, the truth and the life." So Jesus literally identifies himself as the truth; therefore, if there ever should be a people who care about the truth, it should be people who call themselves followers of Jesus.

But we have failed, and I think pulpits and colleges and universities and parachurch ministries and more need to ask the question: How are we going to disciple our people so that they engage the world around them in robust and Christ-like ways? — and I think part of the evangelical reckoning is we haven't done that well.

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RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Our next guest says white evangelical Christians need to take their share of responsibility for this precarious moment in American history. The Access Hollywood tapes, immigrant children separated from their parents, the president's incessant lies - through it all, white evangelicals have, by and large, stood by President Trump. During Trump's presidency, they saw three abortion rights opponents seated on the Supreme Court. But at what cost? Ed Stetzer is the director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College. He says after the deadly Capitol Hill riot, white evangelical Christians need a reckoning.

You write that, quote, "Many evangelicals are seeing Donald Trump for who he is." Do you really think that's true? I mean, there've been so many other things Trump has said and done over the past four to five years that betray Christian values, and their support didn't waver. You think this time it's different?

ED STETZER: Yeah, I think it's a fair question. And I've been one, for years, who was saying we need to see more clearly who Donald Trump is and has often not been listened to. But I would say that, for many people, the storming of the Capitol, the desecration of our, you know, halls of democracy has shocked and stunned a lot of people and how President Trump has engaged in, you know, riling up crowds to accomplish these things - yeah, I do think so. Now, I think there's some significant and important conversations that we need to have inside evangelicalism, asking the question, what happened? Why were so many people drawn to somebody who was obviously so not connected to what evangelicals believe by his life or his practices or more?

MARTIN: You write that Trump has burned down the Republican Party. Let's talk about this. What has he done to the evangelical Christian movement, do you think?

STETZER: Yeah, and that's my greater concern, too. You know, he's burned down the Republican Party, emboldened white supremacists, mainstream conspiracy theories. But for me, you know, as my particular concern as an evangelical, as someone who's really committed to evangelical beliefs about the gospel and sharing Christ and more, to see how evangelicals have rallied in some cases - not everybody, but in some cases - regardless of what the president could do, there were evangelical enablers and there were evangelical participants. And I think, ultimately, that's not what we're supposed to be about.

If you ask today what's an evangelical to most people, I would want them to say someone who believes Jesus died on the cross for our sin and in our place, and we're supposed to tell everyone about it. But for most people, they'd say, oh, those are those people who are really super supportive of the president, no matter what he does. And I don't think that's what we want to be known for. That's certainly not what I want to be known for. And I think as this presidency is ending in tatters, as it is, hopefully more and more evangelicals will say, you know, we should have seen earlier, we should have known better - we should have honored the Lord more in our actions these last four years.

MARTIN: As you have indicated, you've been critical of Donald Trump from the very beginning. But you are in conversation on a regular basis with people, I assume, for whom Donald Trump represented a champion in the White House for evangelical causes. Can you explain how evangelicals convinced themselves that character didn't matter when it came to Donald Trump?

STETZER: Yeah, and that's literally what happened. They changed their minds, and it happened between the Clinton administration or President Bill Clinton. And there's actually a poll - I wrote about this years ago - and the poll said that white evangelicals at one point were the highest group of people who said that the private morality of public figures is essential. It's important - the highest number. And then in and around the 2016 campaign, they became the group of people who held that at the lowest number. And to change your view of morality in order to elect a presidential candidate I think is the definition of selling out your beliefs.

And so I think - I mean, let's just be honest - a big part of this evangelical reckoning is a lot of people sold out their beliefs. I do think there's a time and a place that people said, you know, I'm not voting for a person or there are things that he supports that I support or I really struggled. It's, you know, the lesser-of-two-evils arguments. I think there are good people who get into a voting booth who make difficult decisions, that may have made difficult decisions or different decisions than you and then I would have made.

But at the end of the day, when you change your view of morality in order to make that decision, you're doing it in a way that undermines the very beliefs that should be the foundation of your life.

MARTIN: So what does the reckoning look like? Do evangelicals, in your opinion, need to untether themselves from the Republican Party?

STETZER: I think evangelicals need to untether themselves from people who have consistently shown who they are. When people show you who they are, believe them. I think evangelicals need to untether themselves from conspiracy theories like QAnon and others that really - as you watched some of the things that took place on the Capitol building, there was a distinctly religious overtone in some of those things. And not everyone who was there for a march, protesting what's kind of an untrue, you know, assertion that the election was stolen, but not everyone rushed the Capitol, either. But there's too many people who named the name of Jesus or who carried a flag with Jesus' name on it that participated in wrong, sinful actions.

And I think we need to ask the question - part of this reckoning is how did we get here? How were we so easily fooled by conspiracy theories? Why are religious people disproportionately engaged in QAnon? Why does QAnon's language sound like religious language, which thus makes it appealing to religious people? Those are the kind of things that, I think, a reckoning needs to come. People need to ask hard questions. We need to get back to who we are, which not everyone who listens is going to value and appreciate, who evangelicals are, what they believe about God and the Bible and Christian living in the world. But we need to make clear who we are and our allegiances to King Jesus, not to what boasting political leader might come next.

MARTIN: Do you think that needs to happen from the pulpit? I mean, you talk about people needing to disavow themselves of conspiracy theories. I mean, should ministers on Sunday mornings be delivering messages about how to sort fact from fiction and discouraging their parishioners from seeking truth in these darkest corners of the Internet peddling lies?

STETZER: Absolutely, absolutely. Mark Noll wrote years ago a book called "The Scandal Of The Evangelical Mind," and he was talking about the lack of intellectual engagement in some corners of evangelicalism. I think the scandal of the evangelical mind today is the gullibility that so many have been brought into conspiracy theories, false reports and more. And so I think the Christian responsibility is we need to engage in what we call in the Christian tradition discipleship.

Jesus says, I am the way, the truth and the life, right? So Jesus literally identifies himself as the truth. Therefore, if there ever should be a people who care about the truth, it should be people who call themselves followers of Jesus. But we have failed, and I think pulpits and colleges and universities and parachurch ministries and more need to ask the question - how are we going to disciple our people so that they engage the world around them in robust and Christlike ways? And I think part of the evangelical reckoning is we haven't done that well.

MARTIN: Ed Stetzer leads the Wheaton College Billy Graham Center. Thanks for your time.

STETZER: Thank you.

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