Donald Trump may “love the evangelicals,” but the feeling is certainly not mutual among a good portion of them.
More than half of the most committed evangelical Christians didn’t support Donald Trump for president in the Republican primary. And although a majority of them have resigned themselves to backing him rather than supporting the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, evangelicalism is changing in ways that may not be apparent to the casual observer.
Trump’s candidacy, in fact, is helping to accelerate the trend pushing some evangelicals away from an automatic affiliation with the Republican Party. Evangelicals oppose Trump for a few reasons: They view his character as repugnant and his temperament as dangerous. And while many of them do not like Clinton, they are not as alarmed by their policy disagreements with her as they are by the idea that the church would align itself with someone like Trump.
Two individuals I’ve encountered over the past few months most vividly demonstrate the changing face of evangelicalism, which is increasingly looking past national solutions and focusing on local activism and community building.
Jim Daly, president of Focus on the Family, oversees an old-guard institution that for decades was part of the religious right and that was known for its reactionary positions and its hostility toward those it disagreed with. Under Daly, that’s changing.
Daly is still conservative on abortion and gay marriage, but he doesn’t emphasize these social issues, and when he discusses them, it’s in far less combative terms than James Dobson, its founder, ever did. He represents a trend that has been developing for nearly two decades of conservative Christians under a certain age realizing that because their views are no longer the cultural norm, they need to adopt a different approach in dealing with those they disagree with.
Michelle Higgins, 35, is a church minister and local activist in St. Louis. Higgins is trying to bridge the very wide gap between theologically conservative Christianity and the Black Lives Matter movement. She identifies both as an evangelical and as a Black Lives Matter activist. She is a part of both groups, but in the minority in each. Conservative evangelicalism is largely white, and the Black Lives Matter movement is mostly secular in orientation.
Daly and Higgins are following a similar path. They share the same fundamental beliefs and want to live them out in the public square very differently from evangelicals of the past. They reject the idea that Christians are at war with mainstream culture, and instead seek to work for the common good.
It’s unclear how this will play out politically, but a growing and active subset of Christians are determined to reclaim the evangelical label, and to reject the idea that they are a monolithic voting bloc that marches in lockstep with the GOP.
In April, Daly sat in Denver on a couch in front of several hundred people next to Ted Trimpa, an attorney who’s been active in fighting for gay rights on behalf of the Gill Foundation, one of the biggest funders of LGBT causes.
Daly and Trimpa have worked together for the last few years to fight human trafficking in Colorado. That’s something that would never have happened at Focus on the Family under James Dobson, the man who founded it in 1977. Dobson turned it into a cornerstone of the Christian right for the next 30 years, but retired in 2009.
“For many years, Focus on the Family was the big evil, and we were in pitched battle over issue after issue,” Trimpa told the audience at Q, an annual conference focused on how Christians can have a positive impact on American culture.
Daly, however, told me that his attitude toward culture is markedly different from Dobson’s, due in large part to their age difference. Dobson, who did not respond to requests for an interview, is 80. Daly is 54.
“All of the culture warriors — Jerry Falwell, Dr. Dobson, Pat Robertson, Chuck Colson — to my knowledge, they were all born in the late ’20s and the ’30s. And I would say, generationally, they were people that were coming out of a social structure that their belief was rather normative,” Daly said. “And when they were losing power, when they were losing that social cohesion, they panicked.”
“I don’t blame them. I think that’s a completely normal reaction,” Daly added. “So they begin to try to call out the poor direction we were headed. … If I were born in the ’30s, I may have been doing the same thing. But I was born in the ’60s.”
Daly’s approach, he said, is more focused on the question of “How do we engage a world that really doesn’t know us and express the heart of God to them? … For me, it’s how do we engage people?”
But Daly has had to fend off plenty of criticism in the process from more conservative Christians, whose views still dominate much of the American church.
“I had some donors who called and said, ‘Look, if you’re going to work with people like him, I’m not going to support you anymore.’ For me, that’s not acceptable. And it was more like, ‘Keep your cash,’” Daly said, on stage next to Trimpa. Daly’s blunt repudiation of what he called a “Pharisee” attitude drew enthusiastic applause from the mostly Christian audience.
“Ted is not my enemy. He’s somebody that Christ died for, just like me,” Daly said.
Gabe Lyons, the 41-year-old founder of Q, who was moderating the discussion, noted that one donor pulled $1 million in funding from Focus on the Family.
Both Daly and Trimpa described ways in which developing a relationship and finding common cause with someone whom they’d viewed with suspicion in the past had changed their perception of the other.
“One of the first things that I learned in getting to know Ted is he has a deep respect for religious liberty. He’s concerned about it. We wouldn’t agree on some aspects of that, on public accommodations and some other things, but I was surprised to hear Ted show deference to religious liberty, because my monolithic view was that everyone in the gay community wants to trump religious liberty. And now I understand that that’s not totally accurate,” Daly said.
Trimpa added: “We spent far too much time in the gay community, and in the left progressive community, vilifying Christianity and looking more skeptically at evangelicals.”
Click here to read more.