Voting signs are posted outside Bowden Elementary School. Photo by Scott Ball.
A sign informing citizens of a polling location oting sign posted outside Bowden Elementary School. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

When the Bill Clinton sex scandal broke, I was a freshman in high school. Old enough to get it. Already somewhat restless in my ultra-conservative, small town, evangelical surrounds, I heard the “liberal media” saying that someone’s private life does not affect their ability to govern.

I posed this thought to my various adults, who immediately made the case that a President’s character is as important as his policies. That leadership at that level is too important for moral compromise.

Then they all voted for Donald Trump. There’s no need to rehash the multitude of reasons that this is ironic.

Until 2012, Billy Graham’s website listed Mormonism as an example of a cult. Then, when Mitt Romney, a Mormon, was running against Obama, it disappeared.

I’m not saying it belonged there in the first place, I’m just saying that it was there until it was detrimental to a Republican nominee for president.

I spent my entire life, at least the first 22 years, deeply immersed (and weirdly restless) in the evangelical far right. Planned Parenthood, the Sierra Club, feminism, Hollywood, CNN, Democrats, gay people…these were the monolithic enemy. They wanted to destroy our way of life. They wanted to hear us say that our God was not the only God…which defeats the purpose of monotheism. They wanted to kill all the babies.

Toxic Union

When American churches and political conservatives first linked arms to combat FDR’s New Deal, they formed a toxic power marriage. Christians should have been bound to one unshakeable absolute (the Gospel). Politicians are notoriously fluid in their platforms, since their entire job is to get elected, stay elected, and govern in the 10 minutes between campaigns.

That’s why separation of church and state is so brilliant. It lets everybody do their thing, and do it well.

But the separation of church and state was destroyed when the lookalikes were in power in both spheres. The pastors and elders shared a common interest with the business leaders and career conservatives (keeping money in the hands of tithing businessmen), and motives started mixing. 

Over the next four decades the public meaning of “Christian” diminished to sentimental, tradition-loving, capitalist, God-bless-America-ism. Meanwhile the diverse people who were tired of hiding under rocks (for fear they would be stoned) found their voices. The louder they got, the more panicked this mishmash of conservative politicians and evangelicals became.

Historically speaking, the global Church’s best moments are when it has less power, rather than more. We don’t do well when we try to institution-jump with our lookalikes. Think Holy Roman Empire. Think Colonialism.

So Christians should have been fine in a pluralistic society. Except that we had pledged our troth to the Republican party. We were trusting the politicians to keep Christianity on top in America, rather than trusting in Jesus to keep Christianity pure and true. 

In the 1980s politicians and their lookalike brethren ginned up enough fear to mobilize a voter bloc that was no longer just sentimental. They were militant. The politicians identified the threats and the evangelical leaders justified their exclusion.

You can’t untie this movement from racism, sexism, and homophobia. You can try but you can’t. People with unholy motives mixed in with the scared and confused Christians and muddied the waters even further. Our own biases, and especially our greed, were fostered and baptized.

The evangelical church, sadly, didn’t realize that it was being led around like a dairy cow so that politicians could milk it for votes. Black-and-white thinking is easier to mobilize, so that was how the rhetoric went. Our defensive posture toward the godless academy, sciences, and media didn’t bolster our ability to think critically.

Don’t get me wrong, the cow was happy. Most pastors seemed happy to have powerful men asking their advice, and wealthy businessmen filling their offering plates.

The country was divided into two parties, so Christians started dividing issues into two parties. Environmentalism and homosexuality belonged to the Democrats. And Democrats want to kill all the babies. So saving a tree is essentially killing a baby. That’s how this logic goes.

Going Rogue

Efforts to break up the monolith have been valiant and few. Few, because we were trained to see compromise as being “lukewarm” or heretical. So when we realize that global warming is real, it feels like we were selling out to the godless, promiscuous culture. Next thing you know, we’ll be killing babies.

What prophets like Anne Lamott and Shane Claiborne and others are saying sounds so right…but also kind of deliciously wrong. They are saying that Jesus would have cared more about the poor and needy than about “helping those who help themselves.” We need to steward the environment. We need to protect the human rights of our homosexual brothers and sisters.

I believe those things with my whole heart, yet when I cast my first vote for a Democratic candidate, I felt like I was up to mischief.

The meat of our religion has gotten so stringy that you regularly hear conservative aphorisms confused with Bible verses. I know this, because they are quoted constantly during election season. Some evangelical voter in Iowa says, “The Bible says, you gotta take care of your own before you can help others.” That is not the Bible. That is a flight safety announcement.

Many evangelical voters haven’t the first clue what the Bible says, except that they’ve come to assume that, as Lamott observes, “God hates all the same people you do.”

Ultimately the bulk of the evangelical American church, which needs an absolute in order to make any sense at all, traded messy Jesus for whomever the tidy Republicans told them to vote for. They traded Christianity for expedient political deism.

When the no-compromise Tea Party rose up within the Republican party, the evangelicals were already on board, often leading the charge. After all, that kind of “let’s all die on my principles” thinking was the logical conclusion of their cocktail of politics and religion.

The evangelical voters backfired on the establishment that had, like a bad boyfriend, gotten them hooked on political power.

The Donald

I know evangelicals struggled this year. They didn’t love The Donald. They were hopeful for a better candidate to come out of the primaries. Many were sickened, even as they voted for him.

Yes, there were some who cheered. There are a lot of evangelicals on the rural side of the rural/urban divide. There are some who somehow believe that the no-plan-plan is going to work. That the government is something you can “shake up” like it’s a vending machine that won’t let loose your honey bun.

There were racists too, sadly.

But those aren’t the ones I’m talking about. There aren’t enough vitriolic hate mongers in America to elect a president. There aren’t even enough disenfranchised steel workers. There was a voting bloc Trump had to get, a majority of the mainstay of the Republican party for decades. 

To ease evangelical’s discomfort, someone wisely advised Trump to play the Abortion Card. The trump card, if you will. When he described what is commonly called partial birth abortion in gross, sort of medically inaccurate terms, he was actually doing something brilliant. Those who were squeamish about his morals, his lack of policies, his temperament…they were reminded that they “cannot vote for a candidate who is okay with killing babies.” 

Hillary Clinton backs abortion. Now you can vote against her, no matter who you have to vote for. I think the emails and the scandals and the insider-ness of Clinton would have been surmountable if she hadn’t had to talk about abortion. 

While other areas (justice, mercy, hospitality, etc.) may demand nuance and require some discomfort as we soul search, abortion is the deal breaker. Abortion has no nuance for most evangelicals. It has no pragmatic considerations. While many Republican evangelicals were squirming about the festering racism and sexism in their party, they slept at night on the abortion card. Because you can’t kill babies.

Single Issue Voting

To my single-issue friends, of whom I used to be one, I need to say this: If saving unborn children is your issue, then voting for every candidate who is “pro-life” might not be your best course of action. Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and no one is changing it any time soon. If you want to save babies, you have to deal with the reality that leads women into abortion clinics.

If you want to save babies you have to get real about high-quality birth control. You have to get serious about financial and social supports for single mothers, students, and struggling families.

That’s only if reducing real numbers of real abortions is your real goal.  If your real goal is to live in a place where the law of the land reflects your personal morals, regardless of the consequences, may I suggest Uganda?

Conclusion

On the whole, I’m reminded of Good King Asa. Good King Asa led mighty reforms in his early career. Then he started making alliances with other powers who shared his enemies, but not his allegiance to God. He didn’t trust God to protect the kingdom of Judah. And it ruined him.

“Because you relied on the king of Syria, and did not rely on the Lord your God, the army of the king of Syria has escaped you. Were not the Ethiopians and the Libyans a huge army with very many chariots and horsemen? Yet because you relied on the Lord, he gave them into your hand. For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to give strong support to those whose heart is blameless toward him. You have done foolishly in this, for from now on you will have wars.” – 2 Chronicles 16: 7-9

Bekah McNeel

Bekah McNeel is a native San Antonian. You can also find her at her blog, FreeBekah.com, on Twitter @BekahMcneel, and on Instagram @wanderbekah.