Righting America

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So Much Good Stuff to Read about Evangelicals, Part Three | Righting America

by William Trollinger

As we have said before, one of the few benefits of the Donald Trump presidency is that many smart journalists and scholars are now writing about white evangelicals in an effort to understand these Christians who make up his most loyal constituency.

The challenge is that so many excellent articles are appearing that it is difficult to keep up. In this post – the third in this series (here’s #1 and #2) – we provide links to and brief comments about three articles that have appeared in the past few days. It is worth noting that these articles provide further evidence that the Times and the Post are publishing a wealth of good material on evangelicalism.

In this compelling article Laurie Goodstein reports on the Red Letter Christians (RLC) – a group of evangelicals who oppose the “toxic Christianity” of pro-Trump Evangelicalism – and their April revival meeting in Lynchburg, Virginia (home of Liberty University). As we noted in an earlier post,  “A Specter is Haunting the Christian Right,” Liberty’s president, Jerry Falwell Jr., threatened RLC leaders with arrest if they stepped foot on campus, and prohibited the school’s student newspaper from covering the event. But Goodstein adds depth to this story by explaining that the revival did not attract the numbers that organizers had hoped, in good part because the residents of Lynchburg (a town where Liberty is the biggest employer) feared antagonizing Falwell and company. As a local minister observed, “’Everyone’s afraid. That’s strong language. Everyone’s very mindful of how they speak and how they deliver the truth. It’s hard to tell the truth in a context like Lynchburg.’”

This powerful article is quite painful to read, particularly when the author is telling the story of gymnast Rachel Denhollander, who was abused as a child in her evangelical church, and then was abused by infamous USA Gymnastics doctor Larry Nassar. Pease compares the level of sexual abuse in evangelicalism with the sexual abuse crisis in the Catholic Church in the early 2000s, the difference being that evangelicalism is radically decentralized, and so it is particularly challenging to gather information. But the evidence is there, including – and this is just one example from the article – a recent doctoral dissertation that reveals that, in 2016 and 2017, 192 leaders of influential evangelical organizations and churches faced charges for sexual crimes involving minors. Appallingly, many evangelical leaders have said little about the problem of sexual abuse and harassment and have done little to prevent it. Why? According to Pease, “the causes are manifold: authoritarian leadership, twisted theology, institutional protection, obliviousness about the problem, and, perhaps most shocking, a diminishment of the trauma sexual abuse creates.”

Using examples from Moody Bible Institute, Taylor University (which we discussed here and here), Calvin College, and Biola University, Worthen highlights the ways in which growing numbers of evangelical college students are raising questions about their school’s policies regarding sex and gender while also resisting the evangelicalism-Trump alliance. Worthen – the author of the terrific Apostles of Reason – observes that while we are some distance from a revolution within white evangelicalism, what is happening at evangelical schools matters: “A culture’s institutions of higher education are canaries in the culture war coal mine: They struggle with ideological shifts before these changes are apparent in the broader community.” So what is the future of evangelical higher education? In response to Worthen’s article a good friend suggested that the enrollment pressures on evangelical schools will force them to admit an increasingly diverse student body that will, over time, change these schools from within.