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White Evangelicals Discuss Intersection of Faith And Political Leadership


This Easter Sunday, we wanted to take a moment to take stock of one of the largest and most influential groups of Christians in American society, evangelicals.

According to polling by the Pew Research Center, people who identify as evangelical make up about a quarter of the U.S. population. Under President Trump, evangelical leaders say they have unprecedented access to the White House, but the movement's apparent alignment with Trump has caused many Americans, both inside and outside evangelicalism, to scratch their heads and ask how can a group of people known for emphasizing family values back a twice-divorced, sometimes vulgar and racially divisive figure like Trump?

So we've gathered a panel of evangelical leaders with a range of perspectives on this issue. And I should note that, today, we're talking primarily about white evangelicalism. As well discuss, evangelicals are often divided along racial lines in their political views. Joining me in our studios in Washington, D.C., is Johnnie Moore. He has informally served as an evangelical adviser to President Trump.

Thanks for coming in.

JOHNNIE MOORE: Really glad to be here.

MCCAMMON: Karen Swallow Prior is an English professor at Liberty University in Lynchburg, Va., and has been critical of President Trump. Welcome.


MCCAMMON: And evangelical activist Shane Claiborne joins us from his home in Philadelphia. Hi there.

SHANE CLAIBORNE: Hey. Great to be with you.

MCCAMMON: You know, a lot of people have asked why evangelicals would tolerate from President Trump some of the same sins that evangelical leaders criticized President Bill Clinton for back in the '90s - for example, the current scandal involving Stormy Daniels, who alleges she had an affair with Trump while he was married. Evangelicals like Jerry Falwell Jr. have defended Trump. His father was a vocal critic of Bill Clinton for many of the same kinds of reasons. How do you square that?

MOORE: You know, I can't speak for everybody else, but I can speak for myself, and I could say in my case, I was never under the illusion that Donald Trump was a saint. I have a set of values that guide me personally. I think evangelicals have a reputation for having certain beliefs on certain things, and we don't believe in a theocracy. We don't believe that our political leaders have to meet the same standards as a pastor of a church. I mean, it's always a type of bargain in the public square. I think the mistake comes when conservative evangelical leaders speak exclusively for issues like religious liberty or their pro-life stance and fail to speak about the broader issues of life. So I just think it's more complex than people want to make it.

MCCAMMON: While we're on that topic, Johnnie Moore, how do you advise the president when issues like - whether it's morality or immigration - you know, potentially fraught issues - when those come up, how do you advise him?

MOORE: Well, I think the key is that we're advising the Trump administration. We're not advising the president of the United States. I mean, this is a government with hundreds and hundreds of employees, you know, within the White House alone. And so, you know, we are mainly committed to privately expressing our concerns and publicly praising the achievements of the administration but not exclusively so. I mean, we were publicly critical of the omnibus spending bill, you know, and the Charlottesville incident. I was on Twitter within moments, you know, condemning bigotry. And I even said the president's press conference - I critiqued it, you know, as being insensitive and the wrong thing at the wrong time. It's just that the nuance of the public discussion, you know, often is sort of lost in the noise of politics in this country.

MCCAMMON: Karen Swallow Prior, you're at Liberty University, of course, a place where the president, Jerry Falwell Jr., is a supporter of Trump. You know, I'm curious. You spend time around millennial and even younger evangelicals. What are their priorities when it comes to interaction with politics and culture?

PRIOR: Sure. I think the students at Liberty University really reflect what's happening with the millennial generation and in general, and that is simply that there is sort of a disillusionment and disengagement from the political process. I think some of that is born of disappointment and from the past election and just distrust of the political process in general. And I see that as probably a healthy counterbalance to the generation that I came up in. I was part of the religious right and part of the culture wars, ethos from a few decades ago where we probably did place too much faith in politics, and we're bearing the fruit of that now. And this is just a counterbalance that I see, and it's healthy and corrective and good.

MCCAMMON: In addition to being more racially diverse, the younger generation, according to the polling I've seen, is, you know, more concerned about issues like social justice, more open to accepting LGBT relationships, for instance, than their parents. How do you think that the church should respond to sort of the differences in priorities that we're seeing from the younger generation?

CLAIBORNE: Well, first of all, I think that it should grieve us that when people hear the word evangelical, they think anti-gay, anti-women, anti-environment, pro-guns, pro-military, pro-death penalty. And we've become known often for what we're against more than what we're for. And Jesus says when you welcome the stranger, you welcome me. When we welcome the immigrant or the refugee, we're welcoming Jesus. And I look at the policies of Donald Trump, and I think that the gospel of Donald Trump looks very different from the gospel of Jesus.

And what has happened, I think, to many evangelicals is they've lifted up Donald Trump above Jesus. I mean, Donald Trump is a symptom of a much bigger disease. And you know, it's been said that Donald Trump did not change America. He just revealed America. And I don't think that Donald Trump has changed evangelicalism, but I do think he's revealed it. And what we are seeing, to me, is very troubling because our Christianity looks very unlike our Christ. And I think young, millennial Christians are seeing that.

MCCAMMON: I hear you all saying that evangelicalism - it's not just about what you think of President Trump. And I hear you there. But at the same time, we are in a moment where President Trump is a divisive figure, and a lot of, I guess, observers of evangelicalism have expressed surprise, and we hear a lot of internal criticism from people within the movement about the alignment with the president.

So I'm curious, for all of you, what does this political moment - what does it mean for the future of the movement? Johnnie Moore?

MOORE: Yeah. I mean, from my perspective, I really think that, you know, the issues are persistent and yet, this current cultural moment doesn't reflect the strength or weakness of the church. It does, however, serve as a reminder of the areas in which the church still has work to do, you know, principally, on issues like racial reconciliation, on advocacy for the poor. It's a huge indictment on the church if evangelicals are perceived as not being compassionate. That's something we have to work on. That has nothing to do with politics. You know, if a church is compassionate in their community and compassion around the world, their reputation transcends all of these things.

MCCAMMON: So where does it - where does all this go? I mean, what does evangelicalism look like in 10, 20 years? We know it looks less white. But what do your churches look like in a decade or two?

PRIOR: Well, I think that this is a moment of revelation for the church, and even more than that, as a moment of refinement. And refinement is hard, and it hurts. Let's not forget that, you know, if 81 percent of people had voted for the other major party candidate, we still would've been exposing hypocrisy of our values because that candidate doesn't represent evangelical values either. So I think that there is much to examine, much soul-searching that is taking place concerning our hypocrisy, our racism, our sexism. It's difficult, but I see a bright future going forward simply because we are grappling with some things that have been hidden for a long time.

MCCAMMON: That was Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University who joined us via Skype. We also heard from Shane Claiborne, an evangelical activist and Johnnie Moore, an evangelical adviser to President Trump. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.