Thursday, November 10, 2016

The 2016 election and the scandal of American religious education

Roughly two weeks before Election Day, I submitted a column to the Seattle Times, the paper in my city of residence. The op-ed was rejected simply because op-ed spots are scarce in metro daily newspapers. You will note the percentages of the vote assigned to Catholics and white evangelicals. I left those numbers blank until the results came in on Election Day. 

You will also note, of course, that I presumed Hillary Clinton would win. Well, we all know what happened to that prediction. 

The larger point of the essay would have remained intact even if Clinton had shifted small numbers of votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin her way. It’s one of the points worth emphasizing after a shattering, devastating moment in American history.

Following this original version of the op-ed are some added remarks meant to magnify in-group-versus-out-group tensions.



While this embarrassing campaign is done and Donald Trump lost it, Americans should hardly be celebrating. There’s a big difference between a shining example of conduct and, at the other end of the spectrum, barely avoiding a disaster of massive historical proportions.

Take a look at the election results. Hillary Clinton won, but it should be a point of national embarrassment and shame that people who represent themselves as Christian voted for Donald Trump in the numbers they did.

52 percent of Catholics and 81 percent of white evangelicals pulled the lever for someone who displayed appalling conduct – ugly, bigoted, misogynistic conduct – in dozens of different contexts. Christians, as a large nationwide bloc, might not have supported Trump as vigorously as past POTUS candidates, but they certainly did not abandon him.

Let’s quickly clarify: It’s not (automatically) embarrassing that many failed to vote for Hillary, only that they actively chose Trump. Not liking what Hillary offered – especially from a conservative Christian viewpoint – is understandable in a vacuum. In a similar vein, not voting for either candidate – which many Christians surely did – represents a reasonable response.

Voting for Trump, though, when being exposed to his unquestionably disgusting behavior in this election campaign? There is no defense for it. None.

It’s bad enough that he became a major-party nominee, but once he was exposed to a general election campaign, a sane country – especially after the worst October for a U.S. presidential candidate since radio and television were invented – would have dealt Trump a Reagan-Mondale Electoral College loss, and an 80-20 popular-vote defeat. When four of five citizens speak against a demagogue and a clown, it’s easier to brush off the remaining 20 percent as an irrelevant minority.

Given the election numbers – nationally, and especially among Catholics and evangelicals – we don’t live in that kind of country.

How did we get here, then? How did people who claim to follow Jesus of Nazareth – a champion of the poor and outsiders – actively choose Donald J. Trump in such substantial numbers?

We are left with only one grim answer: The quality of religious education in America has never been worse.


This is not about whether abortion or war should be the central Christian litmus test of politicians. The quality of religious education as conducted in churches and at schools is far more a matter of one basic tension American Christianity is largely failing to handle: the in-group-versus-out-group tension.

Imitating Jesus is extremely difficult. It’s not supposed to be easy. However, this reality immediately reveals where religious education has gone so horribly wrong.

The difficulty of the Christian project leads many Christians to celebrate how “they” have the truth and the rest of the world doesn’t. Christian expression becomes a constant battle to resist the world, which promotes – in attitude, word and deed – a “Christian Exceptionalism” which feeds into American Exceptionalism. Being the “in group” – owning the truth while others don’t – is a badge of honor.

Religion is always supposed to promote the opposite attitude.

Being the “in group” should create a wellspring of humility, connected to the experience of grace and the powerful awareness of the need to share the Good News with others – the “out group.”
Truth before profit and power is the essence of the prophetic tradition. Acknowledging one’s limitations in a spirit of humility – rather than lording knowledge over other supposedly less enlightened groups – is the posture of the properly-oriented religious believer. God is supposed to elicit awe at grace, an increased awareness of one’s own smallness even in the midst of one’s infinite, precious value. Such is one of many paradoxes which lie at the heart of authentic religion.

Yet, any church which values the collection plate over the truth takes the opposite view. Keeping the in-group (the donor base) happy instead of being completely vulnerable in service to marginalized people is not authentic religion. It’s a form of being beholden to the power motive and the profit motive. It’s the linear thought process which goes against the paradoxes and counterintuitive truths which undergird the authentic practice of religion, in which God’s ways are not our ways.

Donald Trump has always been concerned about power and profit above all else. A POTUS candidate could not be less Christian. A POTUS candidate – in actions past and present, in his personal life and his public life as a businessman (and then bigoted candidate) – could not represent a profile more perpendicularly opposed to the life and example of Jesus.

That Christians voted for him to the extent they did is all we need to know about the quality of religious education in America.




The reasons WHY those Christians voted for Trump are politically easy to discern, but the complicated part lies in how no one in their lives ever seemed to tell them that racism, religious intolerance, and misogyny are abhorrent to the Gospels and to the God of all creation, not just some of it. Surely, pastors and ministers tell young kids, then adolescents, then college students that treating others with kindness and respect is essential to the Christian life. How do those general exhortations not translate into the various specific components of ethics, morality and integrity in the modern world?

I carry some blame toward individual Christians who voted for Trump, but with that having been said, only a little. The true focus of my anger today is toward religious leaders and teachers across the country, the people who didn’t do a very good job (and still aren’t) of teaching their flocks how to be responsible citizens in the public square, including and especially at the ballot box.


Briefly consider previous POTUS elections in which the United States Catholic Bishops made a very public display out of condemning Democratic Party nominees such as John Kerry (2004) for supporting abortion rights. It’s not that the bishops were wrong to criticize a candidate who was Catholic and opposed Catholic teaching on that issue; the problem was that the very same bishops didn’t devote anything close to the same level of stern criticism to George W. Bush for violating Catholic just war teachings. Many liberal Catholics, within the clergy and among the laity, developed a firm belief that for Catholic leaders in the United States, abortion was the only relevant issue, the only litmus test of a person’s morality, the only basis for assessing candidates in accordance with Christian principles and values.

That inclination – namely, that American religious leaders care only about abortion – has been thunderously validated in the 2016 presidential election.

Yes, the Catholic bishops and megachurch pastors (remember Rick Warren?) were not up front in condemning Hillary’s abortion rights stance. Some might perceive that as enlightened and evolved.

Not really – not to any meaningful extent.

The genuinely disgusting and appalling content of Donald Trump’s campaign made it hard – virtually impossible – for pastors to trumpet an anti-Clinton message from the rooftops. If any relatively conventional Republican candidate (Ted Cruz possibly being the only other exception alongside Trump) had won the nomination, that lack of silence probably would not have existed.
The test of courage and integrity for American religious leaders in this past election season was to be firm and forthright in denouncing everything Donald Trump stood for. Trump did not hide his appeals to base and savage attitudes. Religious leaders did not have to work hard to voice a simple but authoritative line of opposition to his ugliness.

Yet, they chose not to even try.

Catholic or protestant, megachurch or institutional church, mainline or new age, the relative silence from American Christian religious leaders was deafening.

Those pastors, ministers, bishops and other prominent religious figures didn’t have to avoid mentioning Hillary’s stance on abortion if they personally opposed it. They simply could have acknowledged it but then said – as any religious leader ought to have done – that Trump’s pervasive, sustained and fierce appeals to a large number of prejudices and hatreds had absolutely no place in the American public commons and the nation’s political conversation.

If religious leaders were truly guided by the teachings of Jesus, this was not a close call. It was the easiest decision to make.

Barely any prominent Christian group, pastor or shepherd – especially those in positions of institutional ecclesial power or those with evident media visibility – spoke up. Any that did were not given much of a megaphone by a media collective obsessed with the theater of Trump and the bread-and-circus aspect of the political horse race.

It’s a profound scandal. Religious leaders failed the American people. Again.


One thing has to be said about this idea that Christian leaders bear the unique and substantial share of the burden for what has just happened in America, far more than individual Christians who pulled the lever for Trump.

Human beings are not cookie-cutter creatures. We all came from a unique pair of parents, from a unique set of circumstances. Growing up in Seattle and growing up in Lexington, Kentucky – even if in the same income bracket and with the same ethnic profile – will lead to profoundly different life paths.

Many groups make similar journeys in terms of income, ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender, but the various cross-combinations of those identities instantly add many layers of diversity to the human experience. Even for those who share extended lists of characteristics, however, they do not (with the sole possible exceptions of identical twins who live virtually identical parallel lives and somehow travel very similar paths) possess cookie-cutter thought worlds… because no one does.

Human beings are powerfully individual. We share experiences, but how we process them – and instructively, when those experiences come to us – are different. Some people learn life-changing lessons at age 12, some at 18, some at 23. There is no one speed or setting for human life. Many people can and do live a long time without grasping lessons others understood very early on.
Leaders – preachers, priests, pastors – entered the ministry knowing what they wanted to do and knowing the enormity of the mission they undertook. THEY bear supreme and profound responsibility for the education of their flocks.

The individual people in those flocks – say, for example, a low-education 27-year-old white woman in rural Tennessee who was raised by very conservative parents – might never have had a family figure or a pastor who modeled authentic Christianity and stressed the need to be compassionate. For this (hypothetical) person and many others like her, Christianity was very likely framed as a purity test, a measurement of doctrine and owning the truth other (inferior, unchosen) people lacked. Christianity was a point of pride to be held against the rest of a heathen world, not as a source of humility which leads to a life of serving the vulnerable, frail and marginalized.

As a liberal Catholic, I feel sorry for this person. My heart breaks for this person. Hatred is not felt. Empathy is.

This is not easily arrived at, but I have been fortunate in my life to receive good religious teaching from my parents and religious leaders such as Franciscan priest Richard Rohr. They taught me about humility and the accordingly profound need to realize that if I was that 27-year-old evangelical white woman in rural Tennessee – who received a very different line of religious education from the one I received – I might have voted for Donald Trump, too… and thought I was doing exactly what I should be doing: opposing abortion, valuing the Supreme Court, and opposing those “heathen godless liberals.”

It is not to my credit or honor that I got a great education or hit the jackpot with my parents and had some remarkably thoughtful religious voices in my life through books and retreats. Being equipped with the resources to not vote for Donald Trump and to be in a position to serve the less fortunate (I worked at a soup kitchen for several years before becoming a full-time sportswriter and editor) is not my virtue, but a product of life circumstances I did not earn. In the parlance of Christian faith, I received a lot of grace.

This grace, though, comes with a realization of gratitude... not with hatred toward those in very different circumstances who participated in forces which oppose justice and goodness and moral courage.

The very white evangelicals who put Donald Trump into office largely think that liberals such as myself are wayward souls, enemies of change and morality. The idea of embracing them might seem abhorrent at first glance, but their immersion in an entrenched “us-versus-them” mentality, in which “we are good and THEY are evil,” is what enabled Donald Trump’s politics of resentment and anger to triumph. White American evangelical Christians view religion – Christianity – as a religion of the in-group. Those outside the in-group are hostile forces not worth time, care, service or investment.
The solution to this horrifying event – the way to ensure it won’t happen again – is not to throw hatred back at Trump voters, but to soften those rough edges, to take away the ferocity of the anger of those who voted Trump in the misguided belief that it was the Christian thing to do.

Someone has to model empathy – embracing the out group, not just the in group – to those people if Donald Trump (or anyone who campaigns in the manner he did) is to be refuted and silenced at the ballot box in America. Religious leaders have to teach American Christians in churches and schoolhouses throughout the country that if a “we’re good, they’re evil” mentality exists when one party or group is in power, the other group will be equally inclined and motivated to throw it right back in the face when that party reclaims the presidency, as Trump and the Republicans have.

The cycle has to be broken.

Feeling that “the other side” is an enemy perpetuates the resentment-fueled identity politics which led so many people on one side of the American divide to rebel against the other. When those (white evangelical women) lose their resentment and anger, though, what will the Republicans have left as a motivating reason to inspire their voters? What happens when the sting of in-group Christianity is removed, and “out-group Christianity” – based on the welcoming and embrace of the alien, the foreigner, the LGBTQ person, the mixed-race couple, the Muslims – becomes ascendant?

American Christian religious leaders have not stood up against hatred and bigotry and sexism and misogyny. As a result, it is no surprise that individual evangelicals and Catholics failed to exhibit moral courage. That’s a little bit on the individuals, but it’s profoundly and predominantly on the leaders. It’s reason to be very angry at leadership structures, powerful pastors, and entrenched religious institutions.

It’s reason to be empathetic toward individual Christians who have not been given the guidance and help they need.

This is the full extent of the scandal of American Christian religious education in the year of 2016, the year which elevated a bigot to the United States presidency.

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