Trump and the Heresy of Christianism

Every four years during presidential elections, the word “evangelical” gets employed a lot by the news media and I cringe every time. The word is assumed to be synonymous with “fundamentalist” and gets applied to every crazy uncle that protests a soldier’s funeral or claims Obama is a Muslim. What gets me most nauseated, however, is the nearly universal assumption that evangelicals are a monolithic block of conservative partisan voters.

Back in 1989, David Bebbington identified four characteristics that defined evangelicalism. Known as the Bebbington quadrilateral, they are:

  • Biblicalism, a high regard for the Bible
  • Crucicentrism, a focus on the atonement of Christ through the cross.
  • Conversionism, a commitment to proclaiming the gospel.
  • Activism, a belief that the gospel should change one’s life and the world.

By this standard, a majority of African Americans in the United States are “evangelicals” as the National Associate of Evangelicals has pointed out, but because African Americans vote heavily for Democratic candidates they escape the “evangelical” label by the media. In other words, the word has become more of a political identity than a theological one.

Why does that matter? Because the evidence shows that more young people are rejecting the Christian faith because of the politics it has become associated with. An eye-opening article in Foreign Affairs by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam titled “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both,” is a must read. Using research among young adults, Putnam and Campbell asked why the next generation is increasingly identifying their religious affiliation as “none.” They write:

“The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right. And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined.”

Their last point is an important one. Those raised in the evangelical tradition under the age of 40 have no experience of Christianity apart from conservative Republican politics. A baby-boomer may have fond memories of the Jesus Movement, Billy Graham, and a pan-political church, but my generation associates “evangelical” with Jerry Falwell, the Religious Right, arguments about abortion and homosexuality, and a combative posture toward “liberal” neighbors. Those younger then me, the Millennials, are now learning to associate “evangelical” with Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and the NRA.

Rather than corrupt a previously admirable theological and historical word like “evangelical,” let’s call this more recent partisan ideology wrapped in a veneer of Christianity what it is: “Christianism.” The word is attributed to Andrew Sullivan. Back in 2003, he said, “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”

Sadly, what Sullivan saw as a fringe minority a decade ago appears to be rapidly expanding to the point of becoming tolerated as mainstream. Consider that the president of the largest “evangelical” college has endorsed Donald Trump for president, and nearly 40 percent of white evangelical Republicans (an admittedly narrow demographic) also support the megalomaniacal mogul—double what the next closest candidate is currently polling. There is almost nothing about Mr. Trump’s character, story, agenda, or candidacy that finds alignment with Scripture, the cross, the gospel, or personal/social transformation (Bebbington’s evangelical markers in simple terms). However, his “Make America Great Again” slogan, along with his maligning of women, immigrants, and all “losers” while triumphantly holding up a Bible, fits Christianism perfectly. Trump, unlike the increasingly unpopular voices of orthodox evangelicalism, is giving the people what they want—a gun wielding, aggressive, capitalist Jesus who builds walls and kills terrorists.

The current presidential campaign is revealing how far popular evangelicalism has drifted from its theological moorings. While there are many thoughtful women and men who remain committed to the way of Jesus—including many leaders of evangelical institutions—the sheep are leaving to follow other shepherds. The fracturing of the flock was recently noted by Daniel Burke, religion editor for CNN, although indirectly. He outlined seven distinct camps within evangelicalism, but still insists on labeling all seven as “evangelical”. The fact that Burke can identify so many camps is a clue that the “evangelical” label has lost all usefulness and shared meaning. (Does anyone really believe that the faith and politics of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Tim Keller belong to the same branch of the ecclesiastical family tree?)

It’s time to acknowledge that large sections of the evangelical movement have devolved into an entirely different animal—a species with seven heads and ten horns, a beast that takes Christ’s name while opposing everything his kingdom stands for. I cannot force the news media to stop using the “evangelical” nomenclature, but going forward I am committed to calling this movement’s by its true name.

It is the heresy of Christianism.

Skye-January-WGD-Ad




Stay up-to-date on Skye's posts, new books, speaking engagements and more.

30 Comments

  • January 28, 2016

    Corey Widmer

    Great post Skye. In light of what you are describing, do you continue to self-identify as an evangelical? Would it be more useful for us to give up using that term altogether and just refer to what we mean by the word?

    • February 1, 2016

      Randy Buist

      I suggest trying this… drop ‘Christian’ altogether and simply say, “I’m a follower of Jesus.” People seem to cringe less.

  • January 28, 2016

    Wade

    Skye –

    Thank you for your thoughts. I agree with your thoughts and conclusions.

    I was a part of the Jesus movement in the early ’70’s. It was a glorious time when it seemed as those Christ had broken free from the bonds that main line churches had tied Him in for so many years. In the years that followed, when Jerry Falwell and the Moral Majority rose out of that wake, I began to wonder if Christianity had left me or if I had left Christianity. The mixture of faith with politics for seemingly purely political power left me perplexed.

    “Christianity” is now tied with how you perceive the IRS, the NRA, immigrants, muslims, etc. You are ‘good’ or ‘bad’ Christian by how you answer those litmus tests. The true tests of one’s faith in Christ, loving your enemies, meeting the needs of those who hate you, losing your life in Him, relinquishing your rights instead of demanding them, etc., are lost in the din around us.

    Would taking a step back by prominent Christian leaders in America by refusing to endorse any candidate be a positive step? Do they have a ‘right’ to endorse someone, yes. Should they endorse anyone, I believe for the sake of Christ, no? I see little positive and much negative by such actions.

  • January 29, 2016

    Gene R. Smillie

    You’re exactly right, of course, Skye, though I don’t know why we keep having to say it. It seems so obvious, to so many, that I don’t know where they’re finding these self-called “evangelicals” to answer polls with the word “Trump” or “Cruz.”

    Of course when someone with the ‘creds’ of President of the largest evangelical university comes out and endorses one of them, that does make it hard to protest that he does not speak for many of us.

    I like your proposal to substitute “Christianism” for this stripe of crazies; but even though it is far more accurate, for the reasons you line out above, the media will not do it . For one thing, behind all this, I believe, is a diabolical strategy that has its own interests in fostering this image of “evangelicals” in the public mind, quite apart from any political consideration whatsoever.
    (Something along the line of promoting to prominence the 16th and 17th century Inquisition in Southern Europe, associated with the highest religious authorities of the day. Why use a Pol Pot or a Stalin to work evil if you can get someone representing what people think are “Christians” and thus kill two birds with one stone: working the evil, and attributing the credit for it to your enemy. Very effective, if you can pull it off.)

  • January 29, 2016

    D

    You guys are way too paranoid,and read way too much into Political Candidate Religious affiliation.

    Every United States President since George Washington has endorsed some type of Christianic Church affiliation….and none of them have been blamed for the demise of Christianity in the USA….yet.

    Show me how many times in the Bible that the word(title) “Evangelical ” shows up in print????

    Your concerns are demented…twisted logic.

    Are you trying to say our Presidential Candidates should all be either Muslim,Agnostic,or Athiest ….so as to protect “Evangelicals” reputation?

    Once again,Evangelicals are never mentioned in either Old or New Testament.

  • January 29, 2016

    Sonia Paquette

    Thank you sky. I was just discussing with a friend this morning about how Christianity is sometimes misused) to support personal point of views. This is so much on point with this discussion. Thank you for allowing us to share on Facebook. I love your devotional which I learned about from my favorite podcast, Phil Vischer, where you words of knowledge and wisdom are a blessing to me.

  • January 29, 2016

    Rick Porter

    Skye,

    I’m a creeper. I rarely (never?) comment on anyone’s blogs or posts. But, as an Iowan hanging on to Jesus through the crazay caucus season here, I celebrate your cogent assessment of the situation. You have given me language to continue live under Christ’s reign in whatever political kingdom I find myself. Thank you.

  • January 29, 2016

    Mike Moran

    Being against Abortion, are evangelicals allowed to support that cause? Is it something that you only are allowed to do in the pew with prayer? Or can you enter the political arena and fight in a way that doesn’t dishonor Christ but tries to get results? The Founding Fathers had faith that for many would fit your Babbington definition and they abhorred big government. Was it Christian heresy to fight against a king who didn’t believe in human rights?

    We all are tired of bickering by the faithful but I believe it is wrong to retreat from battle because it is not pretty with clean lines and heated rhetoric.

    • February 26, 2016

      B Taylor

      Mike Moran, i agreewith your premise, but, respectfully, most of the Founding Fathers had no such faith. They ranged from deists to agnostics to outright atheists. As a prime example, without atheist Ben Franklin and his diplomacy, which kept foreign money, arms, fighters, and other military aid coming, the Revolution would not likely have succeeded. This is especially true of the vast amounts of French money and the French ships that protected Washington’s back at the final battle at Yorktown so that Cornwallis could neither be reinforced nor attack the Americans from behind.

      The same goes for deists Washington, separation of church and state T Jefferson, and others like Adams, Madison, Monroe, and more who were far from evangelical in the sense of belonging to the churches considered evangelical.

      The Founding Fathers were men of wealth, power, and social position. In those days, that almost universally meant Church of England (which latet became the Episcopal Church in America) or at a slightly lower social level Presbyterian and Congregationalist.

      More fundamentalist churches, which became some of our evangelicals today, were considered the religion of the poor, and uneducated, outsiders, and slaves.

      As for their alleged abhorrence of big government – have you forgotten the obvious fact that they created our government? It has grown as the nation has grown, but its form and function is theirs.

  • January 29, 2016

    Bridge

    Skye, thank you for so eloquently stating something I’ve felt for a long time. I want so much to make a stand for Christ, not by fitting in and going along but by standing firm for what is good and noble and true. Loving others as Christ loves me and seeking truth without bashing people over the head.
    What I find so frustrating is all the off handed labels people use to identify one another shutting down any real conversation or freedom to disagree. Our culture has ironically become a bully’ing one. “If you don’t agree with me, I’m going to label you and boot you from the conversation.”
    Glad to have some calm reasonable voices in the fray.

  • […] SkyeJethani […]

  • January 29, 2016

    Mark

    This author seems to want all evangelicals to hold his political views. He seeks to condemn other political views by using many of the tired out phrases of the political left. The authority of scripture and applying it in our lives is priority.

    A number of the candidates are obviously strong believers and some are obviously clueless. BTW, I would include the Media on the clueless side.

    Obviously any of the Republican candidates policies are for more in line with our countries founders and values than the current President or his candidates.

    I want a candidate with good character. But I don’t want one who talks like a Christian but goes out and duress great harm. I.e. Jimmy Carter hurt the Christian reputation tremendously.

  • January 30, 2016

    Neil James Angove

    To apply labels – to categorise – is so compelling, yet ultimately self-limiting. We become transfixed by such dehumanising ‘partisan-encampments’. I agree with Skye’s indignation and share a similar passion, but to add another label – whilst admittedly adding distinction at one level – merely adds to the melee of “categories” which detract us from a simple fact – we are all humans who bear the core identity, the image, of Elohim – Love. After all, Jesus wasn’t even ‘Christian’.

  • January 30, 2016

    William

    I enjoyed reading this thanks Skye. As a Aussie Christian living in Europe, I couldn’t feel further away from US politics currently. This was a helpful insight and has brought to mind for me how I’ve always found it very bizarre how various Christian (or not) leaders in the US endorse certain candidates. This is a million miles from Australian politics, where most Christian leaders would never dream of exposing their political preferences. I’m not saying this is necessarily a better way, but it’s certainly very different! No more to add than that. Thanks again.

  • February 1, 2016

    Mike Beckner

    Wade . . . As a Southern Baptist pastor I exhort those entrusted to me by the Lord, to choose the candidate they are going to support based on the candidate’s conformity to the image of Christ and how biblical the candidates policies are on the so-called “social issues.” There are no sinlessly perfect candidates, or candidates who have a biblically informed position on every issue, but there are those who come closer than others.

  • February 1, 2016

    Bob Robinson

    I’ve wanted to hang onto the identity of “evangelical” for a long time. After all, I graduated from Trinity EVANGELICAL Divinity School! But it no longer means what Kenneth Kantzer believed it meant back when he founded the seminary. With the political baggage that is the heresy of Christianism, it’s time to move on.

    • February 27, 2016

      Adam Tauno Williams

      This. Make a new flag. “Evangelicalism” has been Owned; clinging to the label when you no longer fit the description is only confusing. History does not define what a term means, usage does.

  • February 1, 2016

    Darrell

    This is right on. How can anyone even pretending to be a Christian consider supporting a man like Donald Trump? This election cycle is revealing the depth of our national depravity. It’s very sad.

    • June 23, 2016

      Dave

      The same thing could easily be said on the other side: How can anyone even pretending to be a Christian consider supporting a woman like Hillary Clinton? This election cycle is revealing the depth of our national depravity. It’s very sad.

      • December 3, 2016

        Dennis

        This is exactly why all voters had to go to the booth with their nose plugged and seem to the las couple decades. What is sad is how it always comes down to who voters think can do the most for their particular ailment/want; skin color, low salary, medical need, sexual preference, college tuition, etc.

  • February 1, 2016

    Tloft

    No different than the liberals who called Obama the messiah. There’s a load of hypocricy in the liberals too. They point fingers as much as the conservatives. Being against abortion and homosexuality is not wrong either. Being a supporter of Trump is no different than supporting Obama. They are both the same ego maniac narcissism people. Ironically attacking those questions Obama’s faith yet attacking Trumps faith is hypocritical. In my eyes both are far fromChristian

  • […] particular problem is not limited to this topic). But last week a good friend of mine forwarded me an article written by Skye Jethani that does it very […]

  • February 2, 2016

    Peter Hartgerink

    I’m a Canadian, not an American, and even though I’m usually on the conservative side politically, I try to think of politics through a Biblical lens rather than a partisan one.

    I agree with many of your points and I appreciate the proposed distinction between Christians and Christianists.

    However, I’m not sure I can agree with your assertion that Islamists do not represent true Islam. I know this is not a politically correct thing to say, and may cause me to be perceived by some as one of those “religious right bigots”. However, I say this as someone who is active in sponsorship of Syrian refugees, and believes that it is important for Christians to love and reach out to our Muslim neighbours, But in doing so, it doesn’t help to be naive about their religion. Though some Muslims may find this abhorrent, especially many Western ones, the reality is that Islamists – ISIS for example – are actually very faithful to the example of Muhammed. By contrast, “Christianists” – to use the proposed label – are very far from the example and pattern set by Jesus.

    This is not to take away from the many excellent points in your blog, which would perhaps have been stronger without this unfortunate analogy.

    As I see it, the real problem you are addressing is the tendency of Christians to forget that the New Testament gives us no mandate to dictate how any society in this age should be governed. When Islamists claim the right to rule the world in this age, they do so with the full support of the example set by their founder and his early followers. When Christians claim that right, we do so in opposition to the example and teaching of our founder and his early followers. That is where Christianism comes from (draw a straight line back to Constantine).

    • July 5, 2016

      HB

      But Jesus said “Love your enemies” and “Do unto others what you would have them do to you”. It’s a fact that most Muslims are cultural Muslims, just like how most Christians are cultural Christians. If Christians truly lived like Christians Muslims would find it hard to hate Christians and might convert. But Christians have been living like antichrists, bombing countries, stealing resources and hating the people they rob. They only worship Jesus, not obey Him.

      Jesus loves Muslims and therefore Christians should too. If Christians lived like Christ the world would convert to Christianity. Study the history of colonialism, imperialism and racism and see how Christians have scandalised non Christians and resurrected radical Islam. The more cruelty Christians show Muslims the stronger Islamism becomes.

  • February 3, 2016

    Paul Keeble

    Nice to read some sense from a Christian across the Atlantic. The antics of Trump, Palin, Cruz and co., whose Christianism dominates the news pages here in the UK, have got many of us somewhat worried for y’all. I seem to recall Jim Wallis and Tony Campolo among others some years back dropping the term “evangelical”, because of its negative connotations, in favour of “red-letter Christian”.

  • February 5, 2016

    Doug McLean

    Here we go again; someone gets their Political feelings hurt and we cook-up a new label for the seeming offender, ‘Christianism’. Reading your post and comments, you are excellent at the Chameleon game (are you a ‘Pro-Sodomy, gun control lobbying, ProChoice ghoul?) so I have a quote for you: ‘All that is necessary for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.’ It’s easy to stand back at a safe distance and pitch those rocks, but (thankfully) the beam in your own eye will keep you from coming anywhere near a target. When you sit at your keyboard and ‘…do nothing.’ in the name of ‘passivism’, you make yourself part of the problem. It takes guts to put yourself out there and take a stand politically. YOU blame the brave soul for being labelled by his enemies. So, I have label for you: Luke-warm: and (like the ‘Salt’ that has lost its savor) good for nothing but to be cast-out and trampled under foot. Better to stand up and offer solutions than to sit idly by and curse the darkness.

  • […] Related Article: Trump and the Heresy of Christianism  […]

  • March 14, 2016

    sheerahkahn

    Skye,

    I should point out that non-Christians are seeing the truth of the two-types.
    The one claiming to be Christian, and the other type being similar to Christ.

    I’m still amazed at how clever G-d is.

    He has given the World permission to judge us, Christians, and they are.

    Sure, Trump is claims, as well as his followers, are making our collective skin crawl, and our spirits sag from the sheer temerity of their hypocrisy…BUT…the beauty, the unexpected joy is to see the non-christians literally call bullsh*t on Mr. Trump and his followers claims.

    I never expected that. Granted, this is not a tidal wave that garners news worthy headlines, but it is there. And it gives me hope that Christ’s name isn’t totally tarnished by the antics of a few people with visions of imperial grandeur clad in the name of our savior.

  • April 1, 2016

    DLE

    Problem is, a lot of the leaders of the “correct” flavor of evangelicalism helped create this Christianist sect. They too participated in “sky is falling” laments and spent more time debating finer points of heresy than actually reaching out to the weirdos, flakes, and “bad” people. They pushed their fringe elements to the brink with all the labels and warnings about this group or that, and it instilled fear. Poke a dog long enough with a stick, and soon the dog thinks the world consists of nothing but a nasty stick.

    Sad thing is, the Christian notables who made this mess may have done so with the best intentions, but that excuses no one from the fallout.

  • December 3, 2016

    Dennis

    It’s really not up to us Christians what moniker we go by. The media and body politic will do all the pigeon holing as they see fit. We can all choose the path we want. It doesn’t matter in the end to anyone but you & God.