“One death is a tragedy; a million is a statistic,” so said Jozef Stalin in a moment where he seemed to achieve the perfect bastardization of empathy and cynicism. The first statistic that The Liberator Today reported in our current series is that 81% of those who identified themselves to Pew Research pollsters as “white evangelical/born again,” voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election. Here are a few other statistics: fourteen percent of church attenders report leaving their church after the election, mainly doing so because of politics. Ten percent of American evangelicals report leaving.
But what does “leaving” even mean? Some have seemingly left the faith altogether, although hopefully just for a season. (I still remember a line that Garrison Keillor once wrote about a character in one of his short stories: “She no longer believed in God, but there was plenty of evidence to suggest that God still believed in her.”) I know people who still attend church on Sunday mornings but who no longer call themselves evangelicals. Or inversely, they are still evangelicals but they haven’t been in the church building for months. Others have told me that they attend, but that the offering plate now comes and goes by them without their tithe. They now give instead to other Christian ministries, many which serve the refugees and the immigrants which they believe 81% of white evangelicals have abandoned. Some sit in the audience where the worship leader may as well be playing an organ grinder’s box, and the preacher may as well be Charlie Brown’s grade school teacher: the sermon sounds to them like “wah WAH WAH wah wah.” You may think that I am referring to jaded Millennials, or to those we used to call naturally-prone “backsliders,” but every example in this paragraph is of someone who we used to call “pillars of the congregation.” They taught Sunday School. They built the new wing on the building. They added four-part harmony to the old hymns.
As a million-person statistic, these “leavers” are targets of cynicism and shame-throwing: “How dare you stop attending church or stop tithing just because you lost an election?” “Shut up and start being obedient.” And then there’s this vibe: “Good riddance. If you can’t get with the [Republican] program then we are better off without you”—a case of white nationalism applied to non-conforming white evangelicals as well.
By contrast, one death is a tragedy. Your story is important. On a recent Sunday morning after a church service I was met in the foyer by a tearful friend. A few years ago, when they were either uninsured or underinsured, Jackie’s husband Roy contracted cancer. (Note: all names changed.) “Obamacare saved my Roy,” I heard her once say. They were able to pay for the chemotherapy. But on this Sunday--maybe because the Republicans were trying to sneak through a healthcare Repeal and Replace that week, or maybe because she had just stepped out of a church service that reminded her of past fellowship --Jackie was thinking of an old and mutual friend of ours, Dorothy. “I don’t understand why Dorothy voted for Trump. Doesn’t she know that she voted to kill Roy?”
If Jackie had said this directly to Dorothy—a genuinely kind, godly, and discerning woman—Dorothy would have reserved whatever offense she may have felt for private. She would have instead been taken aback, a little bewildered, scrambling to make this all compute. Dorothy loves Roy. Of course she didn’t vote to kill Roy. And if then Dorothy sought consolation with her circle of Trump-voting evangelical friends, some might have elided the possibility of Dorothy’s being implicated by a Trump vote: “Dorothy, you were one vote in a thoroughly Red State. You aren’t responsible for Trump’s victory.” Others might take the policy approach: “There is no way that Obamacare is responsible for Roy’s healing. And actually this new Graham-Cassidy healthcare bill is way better than Obama’s socialism.” In the end however, you still have. . . Jackie, Roy, Dorothy, cancer, insurance, the fellowship of the saints, and a vote which meant one thing to Dorothy and another thing to Jackie. There’s been a death in the family. We’ve never had an election where everything felt so personal.
This is the third installment of a The Liberator Today series about reconciling with the fact of, and the relationships in, the evangelical church’s support of Trump. I want to reveal my strategy. Since I’m writing exclusively for those who didn’t vote for Trump but feel confused or betrayed by those who did, I hope to write pastorally, not rhetorically. I can imagine ending up with three concluding articles: one about grieving what you must grieve, one about forgiving what you perceive must be forgiven, and one about exercising the freedom that is yours in Christ Jesus. Perhaps you already match one shade in the category of “leaver.” The ambassadorship that I hold in Christ Jesus would certainly seek to draw you closer to him while professing that I am under no obligation to woo you back to your white evangelical tribe nor to your particular local evangelical church. Nonetheless, I’ve held it as an adage that, except in cases of threat or abuse, if flee you must, it is always better to flee TOWARDS something (new and better and glorious) than to run away FROM something. If leave you must, can you claim to have made a conscious exercise of your freedom to do so? And if you chose to “stay” (in all the shades of meaning in that word too) can you stay with new footings, new hopeful perspectives, new positive relationships?
Before we get to grief, forgiveness, and freedom, there will be a handful of articles that tries to carve out some breathing space. In the first two articles, I spoke of how the headline “Evangelicals Support Trump” doesn’t have to be as biting to us as first felt. Not as large a percentage of total evangelicals voted for Trump as is commonly reported. You are, in essence, not in the minority. Secondly, the “evangelical leaders” who provoke such headlines were self-appointed leaders long before they were Trump-appointed. You yourself can discount them as “not my elders.” Today we now turn to those of our pastors, elders, family, or friends (your “Dorothys”) who did vote for Trump. We first seek to release them from our worst projections. What were they thinking when they entered the voting booth? We’ll likely never know, but it probably wasn’t “I want to kill Roy.” This edition of The Liberator Today is entitled:
Part 3: Voters Without Pathos
What were they thinking when they voted for Trump? Some weren’t thinking at all.
We apply the term “voter apathy” to those people who are eligible to vote, but who never bother to register, who never bother to show up at the polls. America’s voter turnout rate is between 56 and 58 percent, putting us behind at least 58 other countries including Uruguay (the highest at 93% in 2009), Venezuela (78.9% in 2012) and Russia (63.4% in 2012). But who says that apathy is left at the door of the polling station? Some people made it inside the voting booth, but once inside, didn’t give their vote much thought at all. We shouldn’t underestimate the power of ritual, disconnect, and paralysis at work among some of our Trump voting friends.
One Trump-voting friend listened to my post-election angst and said, “You know, I don’t think about these things as much as you do. I think about doing my job, about raising my kids.” He didn’t necessarily follow the news leading up to the election. For many people, I suspect that voting on the first Tuesday of November is as ritual an action as putting flowers on a grave on Memorial Day. This is not to say that the act of voting is unimportant to them, but rather that the act of voting is more meaningful to them than the actual person for whom they voted for or against. Showing up feels like a sufficient act of patriotism. They cast their vote and proclaim their affection for America and Democracy. Why did they vote for Trump? I don’t know, and they might not either. You may as well ask why they bring the same raspberry jello salad each year to the Fourth of July family picnic?
Others I suspect voted for Trump from a sense of disconnect. There is a Chinese proverb: “The mountains are high and the emperor is far away.” Some voters genuinely feel the same way about national politics. “What’s the president of the United States have to do with ANYTHING that concerns me on a day-to-day basis?” They voted for Trump in the same way that the Rabbi in Fiddler on the Roof prayed for the Czar of Russia: “May the Lord bless and keep the czar. . . far away from us.” Unfortunately the actual history of serfdom and pogroms proved to the Jews of a thousand Russian villages that there can be a big difference between an Alexander II (generally good) and an Alexander III (consistently deadly.) “One-third of the Jews will convert, one-third will die, and one- third will flee the country,” it was announced at the beginning of Alexander III’s new regime.
A final set of apathetic voters seemed to have voted for Trump out of paralysis and weariness. “I just want to get this election over,” some of them told me. They were tired of the debates, tired of the scandals, and—perhaps most of all—tired of being put between the rock and a hard place of what they were convinced was an inviolable Two Party System. I and others tried to show them that there were other options, that they didn’t HAVE TO vote for Trump, but they were too weary to listen, too exhausted to follow any new line of reasoning. To reconsider their default reaction to Hillary Clinton seemed like a thorny, rocky uphill climb. To explore third party candidates felt like backtracking on the trail. Leaving the presidential ballot blank for the first time in their voting history—well, even that felt like a rigorous bushwhack into unexplored territory. They only had enough energy left to stumble into the voting booth, close their eyes (possibly even their noses), vote the old familiar party line, and hope for the best.
None of these people particularly brought much conscious choice to their vote for Trump. Next week, we’ll consider those who did bring some thought to their vote, including the person who reasoned with me, “I’m not voting for Trump; I’m voting for the Supreme Court.” This week however we want to recognize that some Trump voters voted without logos, without conscious logical argument. We might also say that they voted without pathos. They didn’t care. They didn’t particularly care about Trump one way or another. Unfortunately, they didn’t do the innovative, engaged, and rigorous work of extending their em-pathy out beyond their own comfort zones, their own disregard, or their own weariness. They didn’t think about how a Trump victory might affect Roy, or DREAMers, or refugees, or how it might affect the witness of the evangelical church. They didn’t think how their vote might affect their relationship with you.
The troubling question is whether these Trump voters voted also without ethos—whether they voted so as to require your forgiveness. I hope you can find some “breathing space” in allowing that some of your friends voted without logos. They made no conscious choice for Trump and no real conscious choice against you or against black people or against women or against the witness of the evangelical church. Voting without pathos, however, is more problematic. Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel said, “The opposite of love is not hate; it's indifference.” Psychologist M. Scott Peck said, “Laziness is love’s opposite.” The difference between “I didn’t care about the election” and “I didn’t care [period]” is just a prepositional phrase away from causing you pain. I’m so sorry. Your pain is real. Your story is important. The “death” that you experienced in 2016 is a tragedy. One hope we have is that there are many Trump voters who are like Dorothy—they are genuinely kind, godly, and discerning. What if you scheduled a conversation with him or her? The great missionary to India, E. Stanley Jones, used to organize his Interfaith Dialogues around one central question. Participants weren’t allowed to debate the tenets of their faith; instead, they each took turns answering the simple question: “What has been YOUR experience of religion?” Similarly, tell each other your experience of the 2016 election, your experience of deciding, your experience of learning the results, your experience of how the evangelical church voted. Don’t tell each other your analysis. Tell each other your stories. You do run a risk: maybe Dorothy cares more about other things than you or your values. But maybe you will find that she can hold you in her heart at the same time. And maybe you will hear her say, “I certainly intend to be more mindful the next time around.”