As an African-American pastor and teacher, I have observed that the election of Barack Obama to
I wrote the following in an essay for a collection of interfaith pieces on the presidency of Barack Obama:
The election of George Washington in 1789 was a definitive move away from monarchy as a form of government. The election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860 set the course toward the Civil War, the abolition of slavery, and the preservation of the union. The election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president raised the specter that the United States was on its way to becoming a post-racial society. Was it possible that the blood and prayers and pleadings of freedom-loving people, black and white, that stretched from the abolitionist movement of the 1830s through the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s was finally bearing fruit?”[i]
The answer to that question came with the election of Donald Trump as 45th president of the United States. His election has unleashed a revival of racial and regional polarization that the election of Obama either masked or began to ignite. The only thing more surprising to me about the election of the nation’s first African-American president was that it was immediately followed by the election of the very man who birthed the “birther” movement.
It was Trump who said there were “some very fine people” among the Nazis and white nationalists who marched in Charlottesville in August 2017, shouting the 1930s Nazi slogan “blood and soil.”[ii] It was Trump who referred to Haiti, El Salvador and, apparently, to the entire African continent as “shithole countries.”[iii] It was Trump who said that once people from Nigeria came to the United States, they would not return to their “huts” in Africa.”[iv] It should be noted that Nigeria is an oil-rich country that is a member of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries. This is the same Trump who recently stood on the world stage in Helsinki, Finland, stating that he valued the denial of Vladimir Putin about meddling in U.S. elections over the evidence gathered by America’s combined intelligence agencies.
My shock and dismay over the election of Trump
It is clear that white evangelical Christians provided the margin of victory for Trump. A Washington Post poll reported that 80 percent of white persons who self-declare as evangelicals voted for Trump.[vii]
Another sign of the divided church involved the number of black pastors who announced their support for Trump, even speaking on his behalf at the Republican National Convention in 2016.[viii] In other words, support for Trump comes not just from white nationalists such as Richard Spencer and David Duke of the KKK.[ix] The election of Trump was made possible by overwhelming support from people who sit in church pews every Sunday listening to sermons and Bible studies.
Old Testament scholar James A. Sanders reflects on this notion of a divided church when he writes:
The outcome of the national elections has revealed how great the divide is and will probably indicate how influential politicized evangelicalism has become over the last thirty years. … I am greatly disturbed at how politicized to the radical right it has become—to its own detriment, to that of the country generally and especially to the detriment of the American political process.[x]
This support of white evangelicals was not always the case. When the 2016 presidential campaign began, Trump was not the darling of white evangelical Christians. According to Michelle Goldberg of The New York Times, that preferred status fell to Ted Cruz. She writes:
This time a year ago, leaders of the old guard religious right were determined to stop Donald J. Trump from winning the Iowa caucuses. James Dobson, the founder and former president of Focus on the Family, and Tony Perkins, the president of the Family Research Council, joined Senator Ted Cruz as he campaigned in the state. Prominent female anti-abortion activists released an open letter, “Pro-Life Women Sound the Alarm: Donald Trump is Unacceptable.”[xi]
However, when Trump won the Republican Party nomination for president, Goldberg surmises that religious conservatives “realized that their only path to federal influence lay in a bargain with this profane, thrice-married Manhattan sybarite. So they got in line.”[xii] Thus, the challenge for preachers and congregations is not that Trump as an individual is divisive and disruptive of all established political norms and international treaty alliances. The real challenge is that 62,984,825 people in the United States voted for Trump and handed him a 30-state win in the Electoral College.[xiii]
It may well be that “getting in line” with Trump involved their hope that he would provide them with judicial appointments to the Supreme Court and at the federal courts as well—appointments that might result in an attack on the Supreme Court ruling known as Rowe v. Wade that guarantees a woman’s access to an abortion. That “path to federal influence” seems to be working so far with the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch and the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court. It may well be that the issues related to women’s reproductive choice will occupy the American political landscape in the very near future.
As I argue in my forthcoming book, “The Making of a Preacher,” the challenge for preachers across the country who may not support Trump or most if not all of his policies is that there will be people seated in the pews before them every Sunday who are Trump supporters.[xiv] Again, the division is not simply in the country—it is also in the church. To that end, Allen offers a good way to proceed. His advice is to establish oneself as a pastor who cares about the people in the church, and those people may be open to listening to us when we feel the need to direct a prophetic word about the president that they support.
If we sound off as a prophet without our congregation [or members of it] knowing and trusting that we care for them, they will never accept us either as pastor or prophet. If, instead, we first establish a strong pastoral relationship with our congregation [and all of its members], then they will trust us when we claim a prophetic voice, whether they agree with our stance or not.[xv]
Allen reflects on his own boyhood pastor in rural Alabama who took a very unpopular stand in 1955-1956 when he encouraged members of his congregation to comply with the Brown v. Board of Education decision regarding the desegregation of public schools. The pastor was harassed by the KKK and some members left the church, but most people stayed and supported that pastor.
Allen writes: “I suspect that…many sat in the pews with their arms folded and cotton balls in their ears, but they stayed…because he was their pastor before he was their prophet.”[xvi]
Let us hope and pray for a similar outcome as persons seek to do ministry in the age of Donald Trump.
The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.