I was in St. Petersburg, Florida yesterday with the provosts and student development administrators from schools affiliated with the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities (CCCU). I spoke at a session titled “Christian Colleges in the Age of Trump: Challenges and Opportunities.” Thanks to CCCU Vice President Rick Ostrander for the invitation.
At some point I might post or publish my lecture, but here is a taste:
As Rick mentioned, in June 2018 I published Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump. In that book I tried to explain why white evangelicals voted in such large numbers for Trump in 2016. I argue that they preferred Trump for three reasons. First, they privileged an approach to public life defined by fear over an approach to public life defined by hope. Second, and somewhat related, they privileged the pursuit of political power as a means of bringing change to American society over an approach to civic engagement characterized by humility. And third, white evangelicals privileged an unhealthy nostalgia for a Christian golden age that is never coming back, or may have never existed in the first place, over a hard, honest, and difficult look into the past.
I have been spending a lot of time on the road with Believe Me, mostly at independent bookstores and college and university campuses. When I visit these places, I usually make my case for a few minutes and then sit down to listen to people’s stories. Folks tell me why they think Trump is good for America. Others talk about the spiritual and emotional wounds they have suffered from Trump-supporters in their churches. My wife tells me that listening is not one of my strong suits, but as I tried my best to overcome this social deficiency in places like Lynchburg, Virginia, Charleston, West Virginia, Louisville, Kentucky, and Columbus, Ohio, it brought more nuance to some of the arguments I made in the book. At the same time, my experience with readers in these places and others like them also convinced me that the book’s central message is right. (Not all reviewers agreed!)
We are now two years into the Trump presidency. My task this morning is not to revisit my arguments in Believe Me. Donald Trump is now the President of the United States. I will focus instead on what Trump’s administration has wrought–and how Christian colleges might respond in the next two years and beyond.
Like any good evangelical jeremiad—I have three points.
First, Donald Trump has exacerbated a longstanding American propensity for conflict and incivility. And Christian colleges are ideally suited to enter the breach.
Second, in the Trump administration truth, evidence, and critical thinking are under attack. But Christian colleges must be places where these things are central to our missions.
Third, Christian colleges must not neglect the church.
I shared this session with Justin Giboney, a co-founder of the AND Campaign, an organization committed to educating and organizing Christians for civic and cultural engagement that “results in better representation, more just and compassionate policies and a healthier political culture.
Giboney unleashed a jeremiad of his own. One observer said that he had never seen a standing ovation before at a morning session of chief academic officers! As Thomas Jefferson said about his debate with Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton: The Musical, Giboney “brought the thunder.”
GIboney slammed those evangelicals who claim that the Bible does not teach social justice. He pointed out that we all believe in social justice, especially when it affects us and our loved ones. In other words, the problem is not a belief in social justice, but the failure to apply social justice equally.
He challenged Christians to engage public and political life, but to resist making politics “an ultimate thing.” The political Right claims to be about truth. The political Left claims to be about love. But the choice between truth and love is never a choice that a Christian should be forced to make. It is time to “disrupt” the political arena for the sake of a better Gospel witness in the public square.
Giboney added that attempts to be always conservative or always liberal on all issues is “intellectual lazy.” We cannot be “ideological zombies.” For Christians, “partisan loyalty” is not “Gospel loyalty.” Christians must always be on the right side of history–“redemptive history.”
Finally, Giboney criticized the “mob mentality” that he sees in American politics today. Mobs, he argued, always judge people on group identity. They are successful when they demonize the enemy. Mobs do not want to reconcile with the other side because they believe the other side will never change. Mobs must always be judged by clear thinking and reason.
Check out more of Giboney’s work at the AND Campaign. I would encourage you to invite him to speak on your campus.