Will the Trump presidency lead to renewed dialogue between Catholics and Evangelicals?
“Stand up and be counted.” In the lead-up to the 2018 midterm elections, one might find this pithy phrase in the voter guides produced by the Christian Coalition, American Family Association or other evangelical political action groups that compose the “religious right.” These days, such guides do not assess candidates purely on their religious convictions; they are as likely to endorse a Catholic candidate as an evangelical, provided the politician is a reliable vote against abortion.
It has not always been so. “Stand up and be counted” was the slogan the National Association of Evangelicals adopted in its effort to defeat John F. Kennedy in 1960. Letters to constituents were forthright about the place of religion in the dispute: “If a Roman Catholic is elected President—what then?” they wrote. The answer: The United States would “no longer be recognized as a Protestant nation.”
There has been a revolution in Catholic-evangelical relations since Mr. Kennedy was compelled to defend his faith to Baptist pastors that year—a change mostly for the better. By making common cause on religious liberty, marriage and, above all, abortion, evangelicals have become familiar with Catholic ways of thinking and arguing. That familiarity has diminished evangelical contempt for the church of Rome, even if significant theological differences remain.
This revolution, however, has mainly happened among evangelicalism’s “elite,” the middle- and upper-middle-class evangelicals who have sought a respectability the traditional religious right never cared much for. The grassroots consortium of pastors and believers who make up the religious right blur distinctions between church and state, faith and politics. But they do so in a distinctively populist way. Having been jilted, in their view, by the elites on the Supreme Court on issues like abortion and school prayer, the religious right has sought to animate ordinary believers to change politics through democratic means.
By making common cause on religious liberty, marriage and, above all, abortion, evangelicals have become familiar with Catholic ways of thinking and arguing.
By contrast, the visible manifestations of the Catholic-evangelical alliance have taken a more high-brow form. The influence of Evangelicals and Catholics Together, a working-group of Catholic and evangelical theologians who produced a number of statements, remained cloistered in the halls of evangelical universities and seminaries. The now-forgotten Manhattan Declaration, a sophisticated defense of broadly conservative positions on life, marriage and religious liberty issued by Catholic, Orthodox and evangelical Christians in 2009, gave this alliance a public form many suburban evangelicals could happily endorse.
The 81 Percent
It is those suburban, middle-class conservative evangelicals who were most likely to oppose the election of Donald J. Trump. Fifteen days before the 2016 presidential election, the Southern Baptist leader Russell Moore—the most prominent evangelical anti-Trumper—delivered the Erasmus Lecture, sponsored by First Things, aptly titled “Can the Religious Right Be Saved?” The lecture was everything “elite” evangelicals could have asked for. It was a bracing challenge to the “old guard” religious right establishment, who normalized Mr. Trump by either silently acquiescing to him or fervently endorsing him, combined with a substantive articulation of a positive evangelical vision for politics.
The morning after the election, the so-called old guard leaders of the religious right awoke gleeful at their newfound influence.
“The religious right,” Dr. Moore quipped, “turns out to be the people the religious right warned us about.” He repudiated the possibility of finding a “comprehensive common theology” to unite conservatives, rejecting the “least common denominator” approach that often guides political alliances. While Catholics have tied their social action to a distinctively Catholic outlook, Dr. Moore suggested that the problems with the religious right stem from its evangelical wing, which has failed to be properly evangelical; the religious right has pursued a path of entrepreneurial political activism, with at best tenuous theological commitments. The pursuit of power, in short, has eviscerated the movement’s faith.
The Union Club audience in New York City gave Dr. Moore a standing ovation. Sixteen days later, Mr. Trump was the president-elect.
The morning after the election, the so-called old guard leaders of the religious right awoke gleeful at their newfound influence. They had stood with Mr. Trump through scandal after scandal and would now reap their reward. Figures like Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr.—“court evangelicals,” as John Fea, an evangelical scholar and history professor, calls them—carried the mantle of the vaunted 81 percent, an unprecedented percentage of evangelicals who turned out for the president on Nov. 6. President Trump and evangelicalism became inseparable.
Eager to find a scapegoat for Mr. Trump’s unexpected victory, many in the media were happy to draw a connection between the White House and white evangelicals. But the link was there to be made. Evangelicals have long been both a media-savvy and a media-hungry group, who have given politics a central position in their self-consciousness—as the 1968 flyers from the N.A.E. indicate. According to the Pew Research Center, a higher percentage of white Catholics than of evangelicals voted for the Republican nominee in presidential contests since at least the 2000 election. But few Catholic leaders were as visible in their criticisms of Mr. Trump as Russell Moore or in their defenses as Jerry Falwell Jr. Few Catholic leaders were tasked with speaking for or turning out the “Catholic vote.” Dr. Moore and Mr. Falwell spoke not only as evangelicals but for them, jockeying for position as the standard bearers for the movement’s political witness.
The election of Donald J. Trump did not throw evangelicalism into a crisis so much as expose pre-existing divisions within the movement.
The scandalously visible evangelical support for Mr. Trump coupled with the headline number of 81 percent meant evangelicals “owned” the president in a unique way. And they continue to own him or to be owned by him. In August of this year, evangelicals were given what they described as a “state dinner” honoring their contribution to American life. Distinctions among the types of evangelicals—the level of their enthusiasm, their class or racial composition, their reasons for voting for Mr. Trump (or, just as often, against Hillary Clinton)—were all eclipsed in the media maelstrom after Mr. Trump’s election and are still overlooked today. But such distinctions matter for how evangelicals understand themselves—and for how Catholic-evangelical relations might take shape when President Trump no longer dominates our national discourse and consciousness.
The election of Donald J. Trump did not throw evangelicalism into a crisis so much as expose pre-existing divisions within the movement that had been ignored by most everyone. Over the past 20 years, the evangelical commentariat has been locked in a seemingly endless effort to disentangle itself from the pervasively politicized faith of the “old guard” religious right. Much of this effort has been linked to generational differences and, as such, has been tied to education and class. Younger, college-educated evangelicals have either left the movement or sought to promote alternative, less anxious ways of speaking about faith and politics. No figure represents this trend better than Russell Moore.
Such alternatives are partially cultural and aesthetic. Many middle-class evangelicals find the flag-waving, God-and-country ethos of the religious right off-putting. But the discomfort also represents a genuine attempt to ground political engagement on a different theological foundation from the nationalist anxiety that animates much of the old guard religious right. By recovering an emphasis on what they call “Gospel centrality,” middle-class evangelicals have subordinated partisan political expression to other forms of public witness—from rallying in support of undocumented immigrants to protesting abortion and same-sex marriage. Even before the 2016 election, Dr. Moore broke with many on the religious right by criticizing their politicization of the faith and drawing attention to the structural racism evidenced by police shootings of young African-American men.
Practically, this new theological foundation for political engagement has led to the repudiation of the practices that have made religious right institutions so politically effective. Many suburban evangelical churches would resist the idea of allowing voter guides to be handed out during election season, and their sermons rarely tip the scales toward one party or another. In terms of policy, many of the middle-class, suburban evangelicals align with the religious right’s prioritization of the issue of abortion—and therefore begrudgingly voted for Mr. Trump—but are less nationalistic and considerably less anxious about Islam and immigration than many leaders on the religious right.
But this cultural and aesthetic divide has not shown up meaningfully at the ballot box. The enthusiasm for urban ministry that has grown over the past decade in some evangelical circles has frequently been aligned with a focus on racial justice—but this has often taken a localist form and has not often worked its way into these churches’ political engagement. Moreover, despite reacting against the religious right, many more social-justice-oriented evangelicals still prioritize abortion as the decisive issue in elections.
The political fervor of the religious right goes hand in hand with a chronic anxiety about being under assault by practically everyone.
The upshot of this is that while many suburban evangelicals find Mr. Trump repugnant, when push comes to shove they are likely to vote as evangelicals have often voted in a national election—that is, for Republicans. A political advocacy that is suspicious of the religious right’s conflation of politics and theology has left suburban churches without the institutional means of expressing their political witness as evangelicals. As such, they are routinely defined by that which is easiest to measure: their votes. There is a kind of political impotence within the new form of evangelicalism. Russell Moore appeared on thousands of TV spots leading up to 2016. But Ralph Reed, as the head of the Faith and Freedom Coalition, distributed millions of voter guides, and those proved the more effective.
‘Embattled and Thriving’
The old guard, meanwhile, has soldiered on with the same attitudes and practices that have made them such a force in American public life. They have not changed their playbook or their theology, which has been described as everything from blatantly theocratic to a civil religion all but denuded of Christian morals. The latter is closer to the truth: The intense anti-Catholicism of 1968 evangelicalism has morphed into a political movement uninterested in the details of theology for the sake of keeping alive the American spirit. While some members of the religious right tried to persuade voters in 2016 that Mr. Trump was a “baby Christian,” in reality, what the candidate believed did not matter: Evangelicals would have fawned over anyone who so blatantly fawned over them, provided that he gave them the access to power they craved.
Such a politicized evangelicalism makes effective use of the urgency that has so profoundly marked the evangelical temperament. Billy Graham traveled the world urging people to make a “decision for Christ” in that very hour. In 2016, his son Franklin Graham recreated these evangelistic rallies in his “Decision America” tour—which was curiously timed around the political cycle, raising questions about which decision was being made by attendees. Despite nearly 20 years of claims by hopeful members of the media and younger evangelicals that the religious right has died, it is difficult to think of a movement in the United States right now that is more effective at harnessing religious vitality for political ends.
The political fervor of the religious right goes hand in hand with a chronic anxiety about being under assault by, well, practically everyone. This has remained true despite the fact that leaders of the movement enjoy unparalleled access to the White House. Mr. Trump told evangelicals at their “state dinner” that they were “one election away from losing everything”—and they doubtlessly agreed with him. For the leaders of the religious right, politics is the concrete point at which a grand cultural struggle takes shape. But this political victory might very well mean cultural losses. The stain of President Trump’s toxicity and vices may be less easy to wash from their hands than evangelicals realize, which will undermine their standing in future elections. Because of this, such leaders cannot enjoy their triumph but have to remain, in Christian Smith’s memorable phrase, perpetually “embattled and thriving.”
Racial anxieties have their place as well: Evangelicalism has at best a troubled history of incorporating minorities. Mr. Trump’s election seems to have motivated many black evangelicals to give up on the label and movement altogether—understandably so. It was not simply Russell Moore’s anti-Trump stance that made him a lightning rod in Southern Baptist circles but also his previous support for immigration reform and his willingness to adopt language about racial justice that is unacceptable to many old guard evangelicals. A movement that had a less divided racial history than evangelicalism and that was less intertwined with its political identity—like Catholicism—might survive being associated with a figure like the 45th president. But Mr. Trump’s election exposed evangelicalism’s own failures when it comes to race relations and seriously imperiled whatever small progress evangelicals have made toward expunging our racial problems.
Yet to the extent that religious enthusiasm intertwines with politics for many of President Trump’s most ardent evangelical admirers, it also tends to overlap with anti-Catholic sentiment. Consider the Southern Baptist pastor Robert Jeffress, whose 10,000-person church brought the world the “Make America Great Again” hymn. Mr. Jeffress has distinguished himself by standing ready to offer justifications for nearly anything Mr. Trump says or does. When he was rewarded for his loyalty by praying before the opening of the Jerusalem embassy, audio resurfaced of him claiming that the Roman Catholic Church is a counterfeit religion that expresses the “genius of Satan.” The ecumenical disinfectant of political respectability quickly went to work on Mr. Jeffress. He made the Fox News apology tour, announcing that he (now) loves his “Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ.”
There is an opening for a kind of dialogue between two constituencies that may have more in common than they have ever realized—politically progressive Catholics and middle-class evangelicals.
Still, the evangelicals most worried about the purportedly Marxist underpinningsof social justice, about the tyranny of global governance and about the withering away of white American culture also tend to be the most suspicious of Catholicism. It is a distinctively Protestant America many of President Trump’s most ardent evangelical supporters are aiming to promote—perhaps everywhere except on the Supreme Court.
Many outside observers of evangelicalism presumed these tensions and dynamics had been settled in favor of the Russell Moore crowd. Yet institutions die hard, and while it is possible, because of shifting cultural dynamics, to seek common ground with Catholics and other groups, the old guard has maintained their hold on the movement’s public reputation. Mr. Trump’s election was simply the most vivid reminder of that fact. It was a revelation that changed nothing within evangelicalism. The sorts of churches and communities that Robert Jeffress and Jerry Falwell Jr. lead are getting older and not replacing their numbers with like-minded younger members. A renewed evangelicalism is still a long way off, and the exodus of many faithful black Christians from its midst has made it farther away than before. But the new crop of evangelicals has always been too eager to believe their own good press and too willing to believe that the hold of the religious right over evangelicalism’s inner life would be easier to break than it has been.
A New Coalition
Still, insofar as evangelical-Catholic relations over the past 50 years have been warmed by political collaboration, the public conflation of evangelicalism with President Trump presents an opportunity to reconfigure such ties and form new bonds. In some ways, traditional allies in the conservative Catholic and elite evangelical worlds seem to be moving in two different directions. Russell Moore remains a steadfast never-Trumper. Meanwhile, Dr. Moore’s host at the Union Club, R. R. Reno, the Catholic editor of First Things, has expressed his support for the president as a nationalist disruptor of the postwar consensus of globalization, free trade and mass immigration.
The divide between Catholics like Mr. Reno and anti-Trump evangelicals, though, means there is an opening for a kind of dialogue between two constituencies that may have more in common than they have ever realized—politically progressive Catholics and middle-class evangelicals. The vast majority of evangelicalism’s life is intertwined in issues and places that have nothing to do with the religious right or the tumult of our politics. Ten thousand evangelicals will gather for a conference about living faithfully as Christians, and nary a religion reporter will appear; 1,500 will gather in Washington, D.C., at the Values Voter Summit and be given the lead story on Fox News. The vast and diverse network of evangelical social relief agencies, like World Vision and Compassion International, provides a practical point of contact with Catholicism that is often overlooked.
In April 2014, Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute suggested Pope Francis might rupture the evangelical-Catholic alliance that the religious right had forged because he would require them to consider issues beyond the narrow scope of culture-war politics. While that might be true, Francis’ election was met with optimism in the pages of Christianity Today, a centrist evangelical publication. In an interview with the magazine, the evangelist Luis Palau lauded Francis for cultivating friendship with evangelicals. The enthusiasm for the pope has permeated many sectors of evangelicalism, especially those actively engaged in the work of poverty relief, which has long marked institutional evangelicalism but may be less visible to the commentariat. As with anything in the movement, the theoretical reflection about such work is scattered in bits and pieces amid the winds of a vast number of institutions. There is no codified “evangelical social teaching” comparable to what Catholics have. But in some ways, the practical theology at work provides a plausible opportunity for dialogue all the same.
In one way, then, nothing has changed in the evangelical landscape—except that the long-expected transformation is now further off than it once was. Whether evangelicalism survives Donald J. Trump depends upon whether it has leaders who are able to disentangle its political witness from the dimensions of Mr. Trump’s presidency that have so clearly scandalized the Gospel witness. Such a task is for conservative evangelicals in a way that it is not for Roman Catholics. Whether Catholics will be up to it remains an open question.
Even so, Mr. Trump’s degeneracy and the old-guard religious right’s defense of it provide younger conservative evangelicals an opportunity to clarify the nature of their witness in the political realm. In the coming years, they will need to look for new avenues to proclaim the truth of God’s word in a fractured and broken world. Necessity, as we have long known, is the mother of invention. Thankfully, few movements have been as adaptable or as willing to reinvent themselves as those who call themselves evangelicals.