We thought that the culture war was behind us and that we were entering a Brave New World in which Christians would be a harassed minority in a society captive to progressive ideals of personal liberation. November 8 proved that expectation wrong in the Electoral College—but not necessarily on the streets. We still live in a contested environment. The candidate who flouted political correctness won. But his victory does not necessarily represent a victory for religious conservatives—at least, not in the way we’re used to thinking. There are crucial differences between the influential Religious Right of the 1970s, or even that of the 2000s, and the political influence and prospects of religious conservatives today.
Though Trump was elected by a significant margin in the Electoral College, he received slightly less of the popular vote than his opponent did, and significantly less than an outright majority. These numbers tell an important story. The nation is deeply divided. The election result disturbed as many Americans as it elated. Some are outraged enough to march before Trump even takes the oath of office. Such demonstrations are unprecedented, and they give dramatic expression to how divided we are. There is no moral majority awaiting religious conservative leadership. We’ve been at this for more than a generation, and the divisions have become more evident, not less. Our “victory” will be deceiving if we do not attend to all that is going on.
There also exists an important division among those who handed Trump the win. The evangelical Protestant vote, which has played such an important role in the Republican Party’s success in recent decades, came in three parts. Close to twenty percent did not vote for Trump—through abstention, a third party, or a vote for Hillary. Almost eighty-one percent did vote for Trump. Hidden in that large number, however, is a crucial reality: The Trump vote was itself divided, with many ballots cast ambivalently or lukewarmly. The back-and-forth among evangelicals before election day shows this to have been the case—with one magazine laying out seven different options for how to vote. 2016 was not like 2000, when evangelicals warmly embraced George W. Bush’s compassionate conservatism. Trump occasioned among evangelicals much debate as to whether a vote for him was a vote for good or, at best, for the lesser of two evils. Post-election discussion shows the same, with a recent piece in Christianity Today asking whether the term “evangelical” still has value.
I don’t have hard data, but given my experience, I believe the hold-your-nose Trump support constituted a significant minority, if not a majority, of the evangelical vote. Evangelicals were motivated by specific concerns—the Supreme Court, religious liberty, the pro-life cause, maintaining the rule of law, and constitutional limits on government—as well as by a general feeling that the government had intruded on our lives in excessive ways. Evangelicals, by and large, were not voting for Trump the man, nor for his agenda. Their support was targeted and strategic.
This targeted support for Trump suggests an important change in evangelical voting patterns. In the old Religious Right, voters largely adopted the conservative political agenda without exception. We signed on to the agenda of tax cuts and de-regulation, as well as post–September 11 wars, because we saw this political agenda as part of a broader conservative agenda that included our moral and religious values.
Today, that wholesale support does not exist. The internal fragmentation of what looks, from the outside, like solid support stems from the fact that secular conservatism itself is in disarray. This naturally affects the political judgments of religious conservatives, as it undoubtedly affects secular voters. Trump’s ideological profile was, and remains, ambiguous. The same is true of his cultural symbolism, which is authoritarian and yet, in places, quite transgressive. Trump’s initial appointments likewise suggest that the internal debate is not over, even within Republican and conservative ranks. Debate among political conservatives spills over into debates among religious conservatives. Sometimes the line between power politics and faith can get blurry.
There are further reasons for evangelical ambivalence. In 2016, evangelicals are more likely to want to promote racial reconciliation than they were in the 1970s, when the Religious Right burst onto the scene. The attitude then was that racial issues had been mostly solved by the changes of 1960s, a belief that present realities show was premature. Similar changes have come about regarding women’s equality and immigration. Today, many conservative Christian leaders I know will (1) disapprove of any policy changes that divide families through deportation, (2) desire genuine religious freedom across the board as a way to protect the family, and (3) resist generalizations about race as a way to dictate public policy. Families matter deeply to evangelicals, as do the multi-ethnic features of the church.
Thus, for the first time in a generation, overwhelming evangelical support for a Republican presidential candidate coexists with significant misgivings and uncertainty about some aspects of the conservative movement. The internal fragmentation of support for Trump opens the door for conversation across political divides. As odd as it sounds, the divisiveness of this election has the potential to change the static dynamic of the last few decades. The time for imposing solutions on half our country, whether from the left or the right, has passed. Perhaps if evangelicals model a better political discourse among ourselves, the larger society will take note.
So what might this new conversation look like? And does such a recalibration have biblical support?
Talking with those who find President Trump a frightening prospect is a good place to begin. The following are real illustrations of concern, communicated to me by African-American and Hispanic evangelicals who are attuned to what is felt in their larger communities. There is a mother who had to explain to her five-year-old a post-election racial slur that he had heard at school. There are blacks who have been taunted about being shipped back to Africa. There are Hispanics, including native Hispanics, who have received hostile remarks about building a wall. Pro-Trump evangelicals need to confront such incidents—and others, as when a hijab is ripped off of a Muslim woman’s neck and she is told it will be used as a noose for a hanging. We may be opposed to an imposed political correctness, but evangelicals should seek a respectful, multi-ethnic society, not a nativist one. The church is made up of people from many nations, and God’s work was for the whole world.
2016 provides an opportunity to recalibrate how we see and discuss the culture war. For too long we have seen the battle in purely political terms: If we get the right people in power, we can restore America as a “Christian nation.” But that way of seeing the confrontation was never biblical. It is too simplistic, abstract, and impersonal.
Ephesians 6:12 reminds us that our battle in the world is not with flesh and blood, but with rulers, principalities, and powers. Our battle is for the hearts of people who are persuaded by forces that hold them in bondage, sometimes unawares. The struggle, therefore, is not merely for political power, but instead for words powerful enough to bring others (and ourselves more fully) to see the wounds that an excessive, undisciplined, and selfish freedom can inflict. The war Paul asks us to fight is not against political opponents seen as an enemy to be crushed. Our mission is rather to inspire our neighbors’ allegiance to a set of ideas that make society better.
The core of the gospel entails seeking engagement with those who are not yet rooted in the gospel. The gospel depicts Christ’s own sacrificial work on behalf of those who had resisted God and needed to be rescued from brokenness. At its core are efforts of grace, reconciliation, and living with and loving one’s neighbor. There are standards, but they are seasoned with grace.
Paul described himself as an ambassador for God with a ministry of reconciliation. Take a look at 2 Corinthians 5:17-21. An ambassador does not seek war, but represents the perspective of his nation and Savior. His concern extends beyond one nation. He serves the city he loves, reaches out to the marginalized with empathy, and shows his love tangibly by caring for others. He contends for and represents the truth that he believes holds society together and promotes human flourishing.
As we seek, like Paul, to serve the city we love, we will need a recalibration of battle imagery, an introduction of gospel values, and a new kind of conversation across social, racial, and gender divides. The pursuit of truth and flourishing compels us to a new kind of relating. Evangelicals are uniquely placed to aid in this debate and dialogue—provided they grasp the opportunity gospel values offer. To forego a reset risks turning opportunity into retrenchment and mutual defeat. Delicate times require us to reach a different and better place than where we have been.
Darrell L. Bock is executive director of the Hendricks Center, senior research professor of New Testament at Dallas Theological Seminary, and former president of the Evangelical Theological Society. The opinion expressed here is his own and does not necessarily represent the official position of Dallas Theological Seminary.