Pastor Rick Scarborough has spent 20 years traveling the country to politically mobilize evangelical voters and knows better than most just how un-monolithic they are. In recent years, those differences have just gotten more pronounced, said Scarborough.
“In the past when we’d talk about abortion, 90 percent said: ‘You’re right.’” Now half seem to have experienced it or know someone who has, he said. And “when Falwell spoke against gay marriage there was unanimity. Now half the congregation has a niece or brother who is impacted.”
But the Texas Baptist says he’s never witnessed the bitter divisions among evangelicals that this GOP primary season has unleashed.
Every day, Scarborough fields calls from distressed pastors who don’t know which candidate they’re supposed to support. Many, especially the conservative ones, are floored that candidates seem to show little interest in gay marriage, abortion and religious liberty issues. Some Trump supporters are threatening to leave their churches if their pastors preach against the Republican frontrunner. Arguments have broken out among prominent evangelical leaders about whether the Biblical mandate to love the sinner should include Donald Trump.
“Evangelicals are so divided….It’s because we are living in a growing age of secularism that is forcing itself on people who hold traditional values,” Scarborough said. “Along comes a champion to the common man, a guy who says to Christians: ‘I’m going to take care of you.’ Now it’s a numbers game and I don’t know if he can be stopped. People are confused.”
How do you define an evangelical Christian?
Evangelical divisions over Trump –53 percent of white evangelicals have a favorable view of the magnate, a recent Public Religion Research (PRRI) poll found – appear to be a stand-in for a deeper identity crisis. Negative comments about Muslims and Mexicans, for example, are revealing the extent to which self-described evangelicals are split in their belief that racial and ethnic equality is a core Christian value. Trump’s support of torture reveals a similar rift over what an evangelical means by saying he or she is “pro-life.”
The debate over whether evangelicals can legitimately support Trump without betraying their beliefs “may be shaping the very nature of evangelicalism,” dividing evangelicals between those who are able to reconcile their support of Trump with their Christianity and those who view his ideas and language as blasphemy, Mark Galli, editor of the flagship evangelical magazine Christianity Today, wrote last week.
“I mean that literally: “The act or offense of speaking sacreligiously…about sacred things.’ Racial and ethnic justice has become a ‘sacred thing,’ an item that defines what it means to be an evangelical Christian to many,” Galli wrote.
The embrace and endorsement of Trump by evangelical leader Jerry Falwell Jr. – son of a founding father of the religious right – led to a recent public break with one of Falwell’s father’s closest confidants: Mark DeMoss, now an influential public affairs executive.
“The bullying tactics of personal insult have no defense – and certainly not for anyone who claims to be a follower of Christ. That’s what’s disturbing to so many people,” DeMoss told the Post, chastising Falwell Jr. The spat was major news among evangelicals as DeMoss chairs the executive committee – the governing board — of Liberty University, the massive Virginia evangelical university Falwell Sr. founded and Falwell Jr now heads.
If Fox is conservative Christianity’s flagship media institution, Liberty is its academy.
But Becki Falwell, wife to the university president, expanded the public argument, saying there is nothing remotely unevangelical about Trump, or his behavior.
“Dr. Falwell was outspoken with his politically incorrect statements and embraced sinners,” she wrote March 2 on her Facebook page, in a rebuke to DeMoss. Then she went further. Not only did Falwell Sr. embrace sinners, she suggested, but they were his more loyal friends. “When he first had his heart problems in 2005, the only national figures who wrote him letters of well wishes were Jesse Jackson, Larry Flynt and Ted Kennedy. He supported a divorced and remarried Hollywood actor over a Southern Baptist Sunday school teacher and now, suddenly, Liberty has changed because its leader has embraced Donald Trump. Jesus was called a friend of publicans and sinners and called the religious elite of his time hypocrites.”
Falwell, president of the world’s largest Christian university, responded back on Facebook: “Thank you sweetie! Glad you are on my side!”
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