Derived from an Israelite conflict recorded in Judges 12, a Shibboleth is a belief, person, or practice—or even a word pronunciation—that distinguishes one group from another. A Shibboleth is thus a watershed; it divides.
Evangelical Christianity in America has long been wedded to and has sought to influence culture through political power. In recent years the union of the Republican Party and the evangelical Church has been nearly complete, and evangelical leaders have found their latest champion in an unlikely man: Donald Trump. The support that evangelical Christians offered Mitt Romney—who is a Mormon—made sense. Though not a Christian, Romney is a moral man. The evangelical love affair with Mr. Trump, however, raises the question: When will President Trump cross the Rubicon into territory—political or moral—into which evangelicals will not follow?
Candidate Trump’s two divorces did not dissuade evangelicals from supporting him; his noted philandering and Access Hollywood groping comments did not dissuade them; his compulsive, unrepentant lying did not dissuade them. In the same way, President Trump’s comments on Charlottesville have not dissuaded his evangelical supporters. What will?
Mr. Trump’s own people cringe in visible discomfort during his interactions with the press. He is a proverbial loose cannon whose Twitter account is a juggernaut of self-inflicted reproach. He denigrates members of his party—and his own political appointments—for perceived incompetence, while at the same time prevaricating on the moral evils of racism. While former presidents did not condescend to bandy petty words with a North Korean sociopath, President Trump appears purposefully to taunt Kim Jong Un, openly inviting ill-advised military action. When Mr. Trump is displeased with an unflattering piece of journalism or a fact that might challenge him, he dismisses it as “fake news,” while his own words provide fact checkers with unassailable job security. None of which appears to have lessened his support among evangelicals.
Mr. Trump’s economic advisory council has abandoned him; his evangelical faith advisors have not. Republican Senator, Robert Corker, has recently questioned the President’s competence, while the ghostwriter of The Art of the Deal has predicted that Mr. Trump will resign his office before year’s end; Jerry Falwell Jr., however, is standing firm in his support, spinning the President’s post-Charlottesville comments into a palatable albeit politically incorrect rejection of white supremacy. A recent commentator questioned the President’s mental health, suggesting that he suffers from a personality disorder; evangelical pastor Robert Jeffress, however, thinks that the President is the right man to control a nuclear arsenal.
I do not blame Donald Trump for being Donald Trump. I pray for him daily, as all Christians should. In fact, I am thankful for him. He is exposing the emptiness of the evangelical movement, for he is revealing the lengths to which evangelicals will go to sanitize and support him, and—by extension—to promote their own political interests.
I love the Church and want to see her thrive, and I feel as though I am watching the death throes of American evangelicalism. Donald Trump is revealing the extent to which evangelical Christianity in America is enslaved to the allure of political power. If evangelicals leaders continue to hitch their wagon to Donald Trump—and to hopes of a legislated moral revival through him—they will self-strangle the last vestiges of spiritual authority the evangelical movement possesses at the very moment in time when our nation most needs spiritual leadership. Offering repeated excuses for Mr. Trump’s folly and immorality, while turning a blind eye toward his manifest lack of Christian character, evangelical leaders are sabotaging their own credibility.
If the evangelical Church hopes to represent Jesus faithfully and to promote His Kingdom, then she must forego her political ambitions and return to her spiritual mission of disciple making. Evangelicals have long ceased to identify as a sojourning people—a people who are not at home here—and have sought to transform this land into the Promised Land through political activism and legislated moral engineering. The evangelical Church has traded her birthright for pottage, and it is time for her to acknowledge that her house is a wreck. She has forgotten her first love.
Churches and leaders that continue down the path of political entanglement will eventually die the spiritual death of a thousand moral cuts. Think of Al Sharpton. Who considers him a faithful representative of Jesus? He is a shill for political liberalism. And yet evangelical leaders seem to believe that they will avoid the same perception. They will not.
There is still time to repent, to return to the work of the Great Commission, and to pursue spiritual Kingdom-building as ambassadors for Jesus, but that time is fast fading.
The great evangelical Shibboleth has arrived, and the Church must choose her allegiance.