We’ve seen in this election cycle countless spiritual and cultural indicators that starkly demonstrate how the American church (lowercase “c”) is divided. Donald Trump has been a sort of fault line, with a large percentage of his ardent supporters who claim to be “evangelicals” being older and barely attending church, while many of those who oppose him are younger and more devout in their faith.
Despite the parade of horribles we’ve had to endure this election cycle, in some ways, there’s much to be thankful for. The shake-ups in the GOP and the church were probably inevitable and we may be in the midst of seeing God do a miraculous work to bring about a revival in the church and/or prepare her for persecution that could be looming on the horizon.
But before I get to that, I want to highlight what some others have been saying about this divide in the church. Rebecca K. Reynolds penned a piece earlier this month, “7 Requests from a Right-Wing Gen-Xer: Why Boomers are Having Trouble Convincing X-ers to Vote for Trump,” that’s well worth your time if you want to understand why we’re all talking past each other this election cycle. In her thoughtful and irenic piece, Reynolds explains why Gen-Xers, unlike their parents, don’t look up to and admire big-name evangelical leaders:
I was 16 in 1988 when right-wing political preacher Jimmy Swaggart was first caught with a prostitute. (I say “first,” because this happened again a few years later.) In 1987, it had been Jim Bakker hitting the skids. We watched Newt Gingrich lambast Clinton for his affair, then watched Gingrich exposed for his own. We watched Rush Limbaugh snuggled in to the conservative religious right while making ugly, demeaning jokes that belittled women. We listened to him spew rude insults to the indulgent left while living secretly hooked on drugs. We saw Ted Haggard, President of the National Association of Evangelicals, advocate for right wing policies before getting caught in his gay sex scandal. John Ensign, the Christian Coalition darling, taught the sanctity of marriage while having an affair. Jim West advocated against gay rights before being caught in homosexual activity. Lou Beres of the Oregon Christian Coalition molested little girls. In 2006, Mark Foley, rated highly by the Christian Coalition, was caught sending sexual emails and texts to male pages.
Now when we see someone crusading hard for legislated morality, red flags go up instinctively. We think to ourselves, “I wonder what he’s doing in private?” We brace ourselves for disappointment.
It’s a scathing indictment of the so called “religious right” that was supposed to be holding the line against the left’s attacks in the culture wars. Certainly not all religious leaders who got caught up in the politico-religious movement that became influential during the Reagan era compromised their values and failed to practice what they preached, but many did, and many others looked the other way when those in positions of power committed egregious sins while running on “family values” platforms.
Reynolds insists that it’s not a liberal mindset that makes those of her generation suspicious of men and women who purport to speak for Christianity while telling them how they should vote, but rather a skepticism born out of experience. While it seems their parents still look up to and trust these leaders to inform their decisions, the Gen-Xers are not buying it.
Another important point she makes is that Gen-Xers are suspicious of the scare tactics the previous generation is so fond of using:
For years now, Boomers have been filling up social media with internet links from right-wing propaganda sites. These sites are riddled with horror headlines and reactive, end-of-the-world predictions. When we’ve clicked on them, the side bars have been full of advertisements for bulk food and gas masks.
Boomers, we love your generation, and we have wanted your guidance. We’ve tried to be fair and heed your warnings when you have passed them along to us. But so many times when we’ve followed up with research to your check facts, we’ve been burned. Sometimes we’ve even reposted your links and then felt foolish when others have shown us how badly they err.
I don’t mean that you’ve been wrong every time, but your batting average is low enough that we have learned to jump on your bandwagons more slowly than we used to. You’ve cried wolf a few too many times, and we have grown numb.
And here’s the kicker. I think it’s entirely possible that you’re right this time– Hillary is likely to cause serious damage to America. But if the Gen-Xers close to you aren’t listening to your warnings about this, maybe it’s because you’ve told them that the sky was falling when it wasn’t.
She wonders why these Boomers, who have told her generation that God is in control and can be trusted, are now succumbing to hopelessness and declaring that the end of America is nigh.
If you’re bristling at Ms. Reynolds and tempted to dismiss her out of hand, I would encourage you to go and find a Christian Gen-Xer—or ten of them—and then go and find some millennials and ask them if they agree with what Reynolds has written. The answers might surprise you—and they’ll likely be surprisingly consistent. Like it or not, this divide between the generations exists.
David French writes about this phenomenon in the context of the 2016 election at National Review, saying that “young Evangelicals are rejecting the GOP nominee, even as their parents give in.” He says they’re doing what their parents and evangelical leaders raised them to do:
After raising their kids and grandkids to stand for truth in the face of long odds, however, older Evangelicals are failing to practice what they preached. Instead of standing firm in the idea that character matters, and living out the ancient truth that we put our faith in God and not in princes, I’ve seen Christian elders cluck condescendingly and talk about the overriding importance of mid-level bureaucratic appointments and the vital necessity of having a “seat at the table.”
According to French, today’s older, Trump-supporting evangelical leaders are making the same error that post-war Protestants made. Facing pressure from a culture that was becoming increasingly secular, they chose to ride the cultural tide. “With liberal elites demanding conformity to progressivism, they made their churches more progressive. And their churches started to die,” French writes.
“The churches that thrived refused to bend. The Southern Baptist Convention actually tacked toward orthodoxy, rejecting its former pro-Roe position and reaffirming its commitment to biblical Christianity. It went from a religious also-ran to by far the biggest Protestant denomination on the planet. Meanwhile, many of the former mainline titans are on a glide-path to extinction.”
If you want to see how this played out in real life, watch this video about Dr. Albert Mohler’s tenure at Southern Seminary (associated with the Southern Baptist Convention), as he and a handful of others courageously battled to realign the school with biblical doctrine and teaching.
Russel Moore, the 45-year-old president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, cut to the heart of the issue in his Erasmus Lecture for First Things last week (watch it here), an address that Rod Dreher called a “eulogy for the Religious Right” and a “generation-defining speech, a line in the sand between the Old Guard and the Next Generation, as well as a line in the sand marking the end of an era and the opening of a new one.”
Moore said he understands those who, after weighing this election in the balance, have decided to take a lesser of two evils approach, but explained that the problem with the “religious right” will endure beyond this election because Christian leaders have “waved away some of the most repugnant aspects of immorality.”
Some Christian political activist leaders said that those who could not in good conscience stand with either of the major party candidates this year were guilty of “moral preening” and of putting our consciences before the country, sometimes even putting the words “conscience” and “witness” in scare quotes worthy of an Obama Administration solicitor general.
Moore shared how as a young Christian in the South he experienced a deep spiritual crisis that had its root in the politics that entangled itself in the Southern Baptist churches of his childhood. He said the hypocrisy of the “cultural Christianity” he saw around him was sometimes jarring—Christians who preached against profanity while uttering terrible racial slurs against racial minorities and men with compromised sexual ethics who led worship in church. And increasingly, he saw pastors gaining an audience by saying “crazy and buffoonish things” to “stir up the base” and gain attention from the world: prophecies about natural disasters, misrepresentations of Christianity in our nation’s history, unhealthy obsessions with predictions about the end times—and all the selling of books and tapes and emergency survival kits that went along with these cottage doomsday industries.
Are you starting to see a pattern here?
Getting back to my original point, there are signs of hope. Dr. Moore explained that he sees a bright future for Christianity in America:
There are no 22-year-old John Hagees. This is not because of liberalization. The next generation of these evangelicals pack orthodox confessional universities and seminaries, are planting orthodox confessional churches with astounding velocity. The evangelicals who are at the center of evangelical vitality are also the least likely to be concerned with politics. Again, this is not because they are liberal but because they keep a priority on the gospel and the mission that they do not wish to lose.
If you’ve not yet encountered this next generation of evangelicals check out The Gospel Coalition, 9 Marks, or do a Google search for New Calvinism. Or visit Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., where you’ll find nearly 1000 people on any given Sunday, a good percentage of them millennials and Gen-Xers. They come every week for a two-hour traditional service that includes an hour-long expository sermon. My son and daughter-in-law attend one of CHBC’s daughter churches with the same format and I can attest to the fact that these folks take their doctrine, Bible study, and worship very seriously. And although some of them are very into politics—in fact because of their proximity to D.C. many work in politics—their business at church is to meet with God and to worship Him, not to plan a political revolution. It’s not a Republican church or a Religious Right™ church, simply a biblical Christian church—and a vibrant one at that.
Moore said that the evangelical commitment to the Bible “means the possibility of the shaping of the consciences of the people, not just by the doctrines and propositions of the Scripture but also by experiencing the world through a sense of place in the biblical story.” He said, “We need public arguments. We need philosophical persuasion. We need political organizing. But behind that, we must have consciences formed by a prophetic word of ‘Thus saith the Lord.'”
In other words, while political movements and organizations have their place, they can never take the place of the gospel in transforming a nation. Moral edicts from the government will never cure the ills of society if the hearts of the people are not changed by the gospel of Jesus Christ. But a church that is following the Great Commission to make disciples, on the other hand, will naturally have a transforming effect on the culture.
And that is our challenge going forward, whether our next president is Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. If we can love our neighbors by making our government and our nation better along the way, all the better, but we must never let a focus on the things of this world become more important than reaching people for Christ.
If our nation keeps rushing headlong down the road to progressivism, it’s likely that Christians will lose a lot of the freedoms we’ve enjoyed and we may even have to endure persecution. Some of us may lose our jobs, our businesses, and may even end up in jail for refusing to renounce our Christian beliefs. This has been the normal state of Christians throughout history, so we shouldn’t be surprised if this happens. Jesus told us that the world would hate us because it hated Him. Why should we expect better treatment than our Lord received?
If that happens, we’ll likely see a great shaking out of the church. Cultural Christians—Christians in name only—will drift away as the persecution comes, and what remains of the church will be stronger and better able to endure what is to come. The emergence of a younger, more doctrinally solid generation in the church could be an important foundational element in that revival. This election, as terrible and divisive as it’s been, may have jumpstarted that process. It has caused Christians to think more deeply about what is important and it’s made very evident the fact that some are more interested in building the kingdom of man than the kingdom of God. In the end, I think that’s a very good thing.