Eyes are locked on Texas. And deep in its heart are white evangelicals who could be part of a blue wave many hope will wash over that red state to carry Ted Cruz far out to sea. In tight race between Cruz and his energetic Democratic Party opponent Beto O’Rourke, New York Times reporter Elizabeth Dias suggests that white evangelical women could be open to Democratic candidates. Her interviews with long-time Republican voters point to an increasing disenchantment that could temper the unwavering evangelical support that Republican incumbents and candidates view as their inalienable birthright.
White evangelical women from Texas, Dias explains, are not poised en masse to bolt from the Republican Party. But Trump’s leadership has down-ticket implications even for Cruz, his bitter opponent in 2016. In this competitive U.S. Senate race, even a slightly depressed turnout among the Republican base combined with a healthy number of party-switching voters could make a decisive difference. The evangelical women whom Diaz interviewed see a “stark moral contrast” between Trump and O’Rourke. They view Trump’s policies and behavior, including banning Muslim refugees, separating children from their parents at the border, and Trump’s disrespect of women, as “fundamentally anti-Christian. ”. When an older white evangelical man said to one of Diaz’s interviewees, Tess Clarke, that she couldn’t be a Christian and vote for O’Rourke, Clarke responded: “I keep going back to who Jesus was when he walked on earth. This is about proximity to people in pain.”
These faint stirrings of discontent among white evangelical women in Texas are connected to larger questions about class and theology. If Jesus really was close to people in pain and suffering in his peripatetic ministry, the transformative possibilities of following that Jesus are revolutionary. Such a Jesus is a human Jesus with whom people can identify. He is also one who cares about the hidden and open injuries of class. For those who suffer with those wounds, the gospel offers the prospect of solidarity and its active healing ministry.
The codependent relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican Party has the whiff of eternal truth to it. But it has not always been so. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was established in 1942 as an effort to gain influence in Washington, D.C. The NAE invited individual churches, whole denominations, and pastors to join in united action to represent evangelicals to a country still dominated by mainline Protestants. What the NAE wanted most of all, though, was to have a freer voice over the radio waves to spread the gospel. The Christian Right had not yet emerged, Moral Majority was two generations in the future, and evangelicals had not yet sold their soul to the Republican Party.
Leading evangelical theologians in the generation after World War II, notably C.F.H. Henry, warned about the dangers of imbuing any economic system or political system with divine authority. Instead, in the spirit of evangelical independence based on a God who transcends all human endeavors, he urged that evangelicals should always remember that earthly economic or political institutions are under the authority of the gospel not the other way around. So the nearly complete alignment between evangelicals and the Republican Party in our time would have deeply alarmed Henry and many evangelical leaders of that era.
Now, however, some evangelicals seem to be waking up to the nightmare of a deeply unevangelical sell-out of the Kingdom of God for a gaudy, earthly imitation. A closed-door consultation of around fifty evangelical leaders convened at Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater, and often called the evangelical’s Harvard) in April to deal with concerns about the future of evangelicalism and concerns that “their movement has become too closely associated with President Trump’s polarizing politics.” According to Katelyn Beaty, editor at large for Christianity Today, the meeting was an attempt to sort out their alliance with Trump and to be engaged in “self-reflection on the current condition of Evangelicalism.”
Contrary to any hopes raised by even the scant possibility of evangelicals looking for a balm in Gilead outside of the Republican Party, we’re not likely to see evangelicals running to join the Democratic Party. What I’d really like to see are evangelicals who follow the Jesus they claim to know as he walks close to people in their pain and their powerlessness. Jesus the Savior meets Jesus the prophet of social change. If evangelicals followed this Jesus, as Tess Clarke suggests, they would be in a position to challenge both Republicans and Democrats when their politics and their policies favor elites who want to preserve power and status. This would be a major theological challenge, and in Texas, at least, it is coming from white evangelical women who are lightyears ahead of their own leadership.
Evangelicals make a particular point of adhering to the Chalcedonian formulation from 451 AD that affirmed Jesus is “truly God and truly man.” Despite the evangelical commitment to this major creed of the Church, they still emphasize his divinity to the neglect of his humanity. Sometimes it seems that they love Paul more than Jesus. It was Paul, after all, in his letter to the Galatians who argued “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Paul underlines the power of Jesus Christ to overcome all human divisions so that a universal human family is possible through faith in Christ.
But many evangelicals have relied on Paul’s teaching about being “one in Christ Jesus” to avoid the sharper divisions that Jesus drew. They shrink from a gospel that cuts against the grain call out the well-heeled on behalf of those who are down-at-the-heels. As Jesus emphasized in his discussion with the rich young man who sought the Kingdom of Heaven, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:21-23). Granted, it is not impossible, but it is hard.
The power of the gospel that evangelicals teach has been diminished by their own sense of limitation and fear – the limits they place on a God they believe to be omnipotent based on a fear that God can’t or won’t act in human history without help from the GOP. Yet when evangelicals return to Jesus and consider the multitude of possibilities inherent in concrete and tangible ministries with those in pain, as some brave souls are doing in Texas, then they start to do the unexpected. Beto O’Rourke is but the smallest beginning. A new generation of evangelicals is emerging. Who can wager what they might do when a gospel informed by compassion and care replaces the one now chained to party and platform?