In October 2000, Jimmy Carter publicly bid farewell to the Southern Baptist Convention. He said he had grown “increasingly uncomfortable” with the Baptist body’s beliefs for years, but then the denomination adopted a “rigid” and conservative statement of faith that asked wives to submit to their husbands and prohibited women from serving as pastors. That was a bridge too far for the former president.
“My grandfather, my father, and I have always been Southern Baptists, and for 21 years, since the first political division took place in the Southern Baptist Convention, I have maintained that relationship,” Carter told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “I feel I can no longer in good conscience do that.”
The announcement was shocking—it’s not every day that a former U.S. president publicly forsakes a Christian denomination. But there was one glaring problem with his decision: The Southern Baptist Convention is a voluntary collection of congregations, not congregants. Because Carter continued attending and teaching Sunday school at Maranatha Baptist Church in Plains, Georgia—which was a member of the Protestant group—he was still very much a Southern Baptist, despite his gesture.
I remember this announcement well because my father, James Merritt, was president of the denomination at the time. As he told Christianity Today, “No individual can disassociate himself from the SBC. He’s still a member. He will remain a Southern Baptist until he moves his [membership] letter or Maranatha Baptist Church leaves.”
Sixteen years later, other prominent evangelicals are now behaving like Carter once did. Sickened by so many evangelicals’ support of President-elect Donald Trump, many leaders are threatening to leave their movement or pretending that they already have. But as with Carter, these moves are less about substance and more about making a statement. These leaders and pastors are still very much evangelical—and thank God. Their dissenting voices can act as a check on those who’ve used their faith to justify backing Trump.
It’s difficult to trace the evangelical “exodus” back to its origin, but one of the earliest defections came from Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the political arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. In a February Washington Post article, he announced that he had stopped describing himself as an “evangelical,” opting for “gospel Christian” instead.
The impetus for Moore’s departure was, in part, the manner in which his comrades had supported Trump for president: “I have watched as some [evangelicals] who gave stem-winding speeches about ‘character’ in office during the Clinton administration now minimize the spewing of profanities in campaign speeches, race-baiting and courting white supremacists, boasting of adulterous affairs, debauching public morality and justice through the casino and pornography industries.”
For decades, evangelicals have overwhelmingly voted Republican, but Trump’s flaws made him an unlikely choice for the group. Trump gathered evangelical support early in the primaries, which continued through July’s nominating convention and through the election—despite multiple high-profile scandals, including his 2005 comments about women on an Access Hollywood tape, that would ostensibly offend conservative people of faith. In November, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for the Trump ticket—a higher percentage than voted for George W. Bush, John McCain, or Mitt Romney.
Moore’s fiery column set him apart when he wrote it. But after the general election, he was followed by numerous other evangelicals disillusioned by Trump’s staggering victory.
On election night, as the results rolled in, evangelical author Preston Yancey tweeted, “So I guess I’m not evangelical. Because I’m not whatever the hell this is.” His message received more than 1,000 likes and retweets.
The following day, prominent evangelical activist Shane Claiborne grieved how evangelical patriarchs such as Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, Billy Graham’s son Franklin Graham, and Liberty University President Jerry Falwell Jr. had “overlooked Trump’s anti-Christian values.” This, he said, left many feeling like religious orphans. “Trying to mix Christianity with a political party can be sort of like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It might not harm the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream,” Claiborne said in a blog post. “For evangelical Christians in this election, manure and ice cream got mixed together in a catastrophic way. As a result, many evangelical Christians will need a new home.”
On November 10, evangelical scholar John Fea began a post-election article for Religion News Service identifying himself “as someone who once called himself an evangelical.” The previous night he tweeted, “If this is evangelicalism—I am out.”
Evangelical blogger Skye Jethani followed a day later, publishing an open letter “to the term ‘evangelical’” itself that claimed he would no longer accept the label as his own: “What was admirable about your name has been buried, crushed under the weight of 60 million votes. … I can no longer be called an evangelical.”
And on November 14, one more shoe dropped. Katelyn Beatty, former managing editor of Christianity Today, wrote in The Washington Post that she could no longer defend her fellow evangelicals, describing how “the faith that has been my home for 20 years seems foreign, even hostile.”
A recent survey of evangelical church leaders by Christianity Today showed that these negative sentiments might not be limited to these prominent leaders. While 70 percent of those surveyed felt comfortable describing themselves as “evangelical” to other Christians, only 52 percent felt comfortable using the label with non-Christians. Most notable, nearly a quarter of respondents feel less comfortable using the term with non-Christians since Trump’s election.
Many Christians, myself included, can empathize with the discomfort evangelicals feel right now. Some of the movement’s conservative leaders provided head-scratching moral backing to the campaign of an arrogant, sexist, thrice-married casino mogul who, until about a half-second ago, was pro-choice. And Trump won, in part, because of the millions of evangelicals who voted for him. So it’s not difficult to understand why anti-Trump evangelicals want to fly the coop. But as with Carter, their actions are largely symbolic.
The root of the word “evangelical” is evangel, which was passed down from Greek to Latin to Middle English. It translates to “good news,” a phrase Christians use to represent the belief that Jesus’s life, death, and resurrection provide a way for people to commune with God. Since anti-Trump evangelicals presumably still hold that belief—some leaders even reaffirmed it as part of their protests—then, on the most basic level, nothing has changed.
But in American religious life, the meaning of “evangelical” exceeds its etymology. Since 1989, most scholars have accepted that the word refers to anyone who holds four beliefs: a high regard for the Bible, an emphasis on Jesus’s crucifixion, the need for people to be converted, and a connection between faith and public life. There has never been a political test for the term.
Again, defecting evangelicals still hold these views, so nothing has changed. In fact, these leaders are claiming to leave because of these views, not in spite of them. So evangelicals who claim that Trump’s victory has forced them out are, in effect, still evangelical. A tiger may claim to be a lion, but its stripes are a dead giveaway.
Carter’s renunciation of the Southern Baptist Convention is illustrative of what might happen next with evangelicals who reject the movement. In 2007, Carter founded the New Baptist Covenant, an effort to gather various Baptist groups to work toward unity and heal theological and political divides. The former president convinced 30 Baptist organizations representing more than 20 million Americans to join his collective. The glaring exception was the Southern Baptist Convention. Whatever sway Carter held over his fellow Southern Baptists was significantly sapped the moment he declared he was no longer a part of the group. The same fate faces anti-Trump evangelicals who pretend to leave.
Even if a National Department of Evangelicalism existed allowing individuals to revoke their membership, there is a very good reason for them to stay put. By claiming to leave evangelicalism, these leaders are creating a vacuum of blind Republicanism within the movement and they compromise their ability to induce the change they wish to see. As with most movements, evangelicalism is more easily changed by inside pressure than outside protests.
Trump keeps his friends close, so it’s likely his evangelical base will hold some level of influence over his policy and behavior. This sizable religious group needs as many principled dissenters as it can muster to hold the Trump administration’s feet to the fire on protecting minorities, immigrants, and the poor as the Bible commands.
If evangelicals give into their frustration and disassociate themselves from their religious community, countless people may suffer the consequences of their absence. Anti-Trump evangelicals must, instead, stay put. Their community needs them. And so does America.