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Trump's election support from evangelicals shows we're the biggest obstacle to racial justice

I pray for a change in these attitudes and a time when the operative word in "white evangelical" would be "evangelical" rather than "white."
Image: A white cross against a black background has a shattered red shadow
Support for Trump despite his incendiary comments indicates that anti-immigrant and anti-Black sentiments are not deal breakers for the white evangelical community.Anjali Nair

As we look to the future in the wake of the presidential election, the prospects for healing the soul of the nation hinge on understanding the cultural forces that will survive President Donald Trump's exodus from the White House. One of the most daunting problems we face as a nation is the legacy of systemic racism, a problem exacerbated by a president who has denied its existence and fanned the flames of racial animus.

White evangelicals have proven ourselves to be demonstrably less compassionate, empathetic and hospitable, and clearly less committed to racial reconciliation and justice, than our fellow Americans.

The election results — in which 76 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump — along with pre-election research showing how white evangelicals' political behavior is animated by racial resentment, indicate that the white evangelical community will be the most powerful force in hindering this work for racial justice and reconciliation and the efforts to achieve the promise of a multiracial democracy at this time of reckoning in our nation.

I was born into the world of white evangelical Protestantism, where we were taught that our community was the salt of the earth, a beacon of light and an exemplar of what is best about America. In earlier times, our community quietly asserted that the moral foundations of the nation were moored to white Christian culture, and when a changing country made that claim untenable, prominent leaders aligned with the Republican Party declared it to be the "moral majority," a force to save the country from its apostasy and ruin. But these last four years, culminating with white evangelicals' continued enthusiastic fealty to Trump in the presidential election, have revealed the opposite.

Such self-congratulatory narratives, of course, have never been true, or at least not the whole truth. Alongside whatever good white evangelicals have done for the nation, we have also failed spectacularly, and no more so than in our community's role in upholding and legitimizing white supremacy from the beginning of the republic.

Most recently, the vast majority of white evangelicals have given their unflagging, indeed exuberant, allegiance to a president who began his political career by promoting racist birther conspiracies to undermine the nation's first Black president, a president who referred to immigrants as criminals and rapists in his opening campaign speech and a president who has refused, on multiple occasions, to condemn white supremacist groups, preferring to equivocate that there are "very fine people on both sides," even in the wake of deadly demonstrations in Charlottesville, Virginia.

White evangelicals' indifference to such remarks and behavior by a sitting president is damning testimony that, at best, such anti-immigrant and anti-Black sentiments are not deal breakers for the white evangelical community. Moreover, public opinion surveys reveal a more deeply disturbing truth: that the lie of white supremacy — that white people's lives are more important than those of others — continues to be one of the primary ties that bind Trump and the white evangelical world.

As the country is finally evolving to hold more welcoming views of immigrants and to see the realities of systemic racism, white evangelical Protestants have hung onto their old prejudices, placing the community increasingly at odds not only with the country as a whole but also with our fellow Christians and other religious Americans. According to data from the Public Religion Research Institute's American Values Survey, 6 in 10 (59 percent) white evangelicals agree that immigrants are "invading our country and replacing our cultural and ethnic background," a view shared by only 30 percent of all other religious Americans and 31 percent of the country.

Today, 7 in 10 white evangelicals continue to see the killing of unarmed Black people by police as isolated incidents rather than part of a pattern of how police treat African Americans. Among all other religious Americans and the country as a whole, only 43 percent agree with this assessment. Over the last five years, broad and diverse protests for racial justice and police reform have resulted in a 10-point drop in the percentage of Americans who deny racial bias in policing, but white evangelical Protestants remain unmoved.

Perhaps most tellingly, 6 in 10 Americans, including 6 in 10 of all religious Americans who are not white evangelicals, believe Trump's decisions and behavior have encouraged white supremacist groups across the country, a view shared by only one-quarter of white evangelicals.

At this moment of reckoning, it is important to bear witness to the destructive role white evangelicalism has played not just in the past, but also in the present, propping up the last desperate gasp of white supremacy. I personally am still deeply drawn to Jesus' definition of "evangel" as a message that delivers good news to the poor, liberates the captives and lets the oppressed go free — a vision of the gospel that has courageously been preserved among many Black and brown Christians in America and around the globe.

Far too often, however, those who call for such a conversion within the white evangelical community find themselves attacked, ostracized and far too often declared "the enemy," causing many faithful leaders and congregants to reluctantly walk away from a tradition they otherwise cherish.

Overall, white evangelicals' enthusiasm for "making America great again" has been rooted in a white Christian nationalism that has always been inconsistent with a multiracial, religiously pluralistic democracy. The heartbreaking truth is that, without white evangelicals, the primary issue that has rent the soul of America since our beginnings — the struggle for racial equality and justice — would suddenly become much more manageable.

And the shameful evidence suggests that this is primarily the case because white evangelicals have proven ourselves to be demonstrably less compassionate, empathetic and hospitable, and clearly less committed to racial reconciliation and justice, than our fellow Americans.

Going forward, only absolute repentance from the sin of white racism and solidarity with our Black and brown brothers and sisters can create a constructive place for white evangelicals in America's future. Only with such a conversion will the operative word in "white evangelical" be "evangelical" rather than "white."