Members disillusioned by support for the president-elect can more easily effect change if they stay put.
In October 2000, Jimmy Carter publicly bid farewell to the Southern Baptist Convention. He said he had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with the Baptist body’s beliefs for years, but then the denomination adopted a “rigid” and conservative statement of faith that asked wives to submit to their husbands and prohibited women from serving as pastors. That was a bridge too far for the former president.
“My grandfather, my father, and I have always been Southern Baptists, and for 21 years, since the first political division took place in the Southern Baptist Convention, I have maintained that relationship,” Carter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I feel I can no longer in good conscience do that.”
The announcement was shocking—it’s not every day that a former U.S. president publicly forsakes a Christian denomination. But there was one glaring problem with his decision: The Southern Baptist Convention is a voluntary collection of congregations, not congregants. Because Carter continued attending and teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia—which was a member of the Protestant group—he was still very much a Southern Baptist, despite his gesture.
I remember this announcement well because my father, James Merritt, was president of the denomination at the time. As he told Christianity Today, “No individual can disassociate himself from the SBC. He’s still a member. He will remain a Southern Baptist until he moves his [membership] letter or Maranatha Baptist Church leaves.”
Sixteen years later, other prominent evangelicals are now behaving like Carter once did. Sickened by so many evangelicals’ support of President-elect Donald Trump, many leaders are threatening to leave their movement or pretending that they already have. But as with Carter, these moves are less about substance and more about making a statement. These leaders and pastors are still very much evangelical—and thank God. Their dissenting voices can act as a check on those who’ve used their faith to justify backing Trump.
The impetus for Moore’s departure was, in part, the manner in which his comrades had supported Trump for president: “I have watched as some [evangelicals] who gave stem-winding speeches about ‘character’ in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”
For decades, evangelicals have overwhelmingly voted Republican, but Trump’s flaws made him an unlikely choice for the group. Trump gathered evangelical support early in the primaries, which continued through July’s nominating convention and through the election—despite multiple high-profile scandals, including his 2005 comments about women on an Access Hollywood tape, that would ostensibly offend conservative people of faith. In November, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for the Trump ticket—a higher percentage than voted for George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney.
On election night, as the results rolled in, evangelical author Preston Yancey tweeted, “So I guess I’m not evangelical. Because I’m not whatever the hell this is.” His message received more than 1,000 likes and retweets.
The following day, prominent evangelical activist Shane Claiborne grieved how evangelical patriarchs such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham, and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. had “overlooked Trump’s anti-Christian values.” This, he said, left many feeling like religious orphans. “Trying to mix Christianity with a political party can be sort of like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It might not harm the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream,” Claiborne said in a blog post. “For evangelical Christians in this election, manure and ice cream got mixed together in a catastrophic way. As a result, many evangelical Christians will need a new home.”
On November 10, evangelical scholar John Fea began a post-election article for Religion News Service identifying himself “as someone who once called himself an evangelical.” The previous night he tweeted, “If this is evangelicalism—I am out.”
Evangelical blogger Skye Jethani followed a day later, publishing an open letter “to the term ‘evangelical’” itself that claimed he would no longer accept the label as his own: “What was admirable about your name has been buried, crushed under the weight of 60 million votes. … I can no longer be called an evangelical.”
And on November 14, one more shoe dropped. Katelyn Beatty, former managing editor of Christianity Today, wrote in The Washington Post that she could no longer defend her fellow evangelicals, describing how “the faith that has been my home for 20 years seems foreign, even hostile.”
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