Following his victory in the Indiana primary, Donald Trump is the presumptive nominee of the Republican Party for president of the United States. In upcoming days, many of us in the evangelical community will be tempted to be despondent, maybe even to detach ourselves from the political process out of a feeling of helplessness. And yet, we should not despair. Although we have lost the nomination contest, at the same time we surely have won an opportunity to regain our evangelical witness.
We must regain our witness. Even if Trump were to have lost the nomination in a contested convention, Evangelicals had already slipped up by supporting the rise of a primary candidate whose campaign is characterized by overheated ethno-nationalistic aggression, who wants to curb free speech, who did not immediately and decisively distance himself from David Duke’s support for his candidacy, who seems only questionably committed to the pro-Life and religious liberty causes, who regularly demeans those who oppose him, and whose rallies have been punctuated by violence and civil unrest. In spite of these things, a certain sector of the Evangelical world—let’s call them Trumpangelicals—support his candidacy.
But what about the rest of us, those of us who are Evangelical but cannot countenance the thought of an Evangelical-supported Trump nomination? How do we recover from having allowed within our ranks the rise of Trumpangelism? How should we evangelicals reposition ourselves in order to regain our witness?
The 2016 election cycle offers an almost-irreplaceable opportunity for evangelicals to redefine ourselves and regain our witness. The redefinition and regaining must include at least three planks:
First, it offers us the opportunity to do something we should have been doing all along: by criticizing both the Democratic and Republican front runners, we can show that Christian wisdom often defies traditional social and political categories such as Democratic and Republican. This type of Gospel-centered Christianity will diminish our culture’s ability to classify and dismiss the church as the religious special interest wing of any one political party.
Second, we now have the opportunity and responsibility to speak with a clear voice on a broader array of policy issues. Instead of applying our moral exhortations to the Clintons alone, we can apply them also to a GOP nominee whose words and actions cause us a great deal of moral concern. Instead of applying Jesus’ command of neighbor love exclusively to the unborn, we can demonstrate our love for other persons—immigrants, refugees, those who are financially destitute—by making and stating our policies in ways that are both convictional and compassionate.
Third, we can help provide healing for the unhealthy and even toxic nature of American politics and public life. Over the past decade, our public discourse has become increasingly uncivil. For our part, Evangelicals can show the world what it looks like to speak and act with conviction while at the same time doing so civilly. We can take tough stances on issues while refusing to misrepresent, demean, or demonize those who oppose us. We can treat our political opponents as people with whom we disagree rather than as people who should be demeaned and degraded.
If we evangelicals are going to regain our voice in upcoming years, we must reposition ourselves as something other than the religious special interest arm of the Republican Party. I am a registered Republican. I’ve voted Republican in every election. But first and foremost, I am a Christian. My allegiance to Christ and the gospel transcends my allegiance to the Republican Party; if and when the GOP’s platform or politicians are at odds with my Christian convictions, I will leverage my Christianity to criticize the party.
Let us remind ourselves that these are things we should have been doing all along. We’ve failed to do so consistently or recognizably, and the rise of Trump’s candidacy offers us remarkable and irreplaceable opportunity. The moment has come to seize it.
Bruce Ashford is the Provost and Dean of Faculty at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, where he also serves as Professor of Theology and Culture. He co-authored the recently-released "One Nation Under God: A Christian Hope for American Politics" (B&H Academic, Dec. 2015) with Chris Pappalardo. Follow him on Twitter @BruceAshford.