VOICES: Understanding the evangelical commitment to Trump

I once asked my First Baptist Dayton congregation to remember that the Dayton that matters in this country is Dayton, Ohio – the home of innovation, invention, and, of course, the Wright Brothers. I asked them to not confuse Dayton, Ohio with Dayton, Tennessee where the Scopes Trial revealed the deep flaws in the evangelical arguments against evolution. Dayton, Ohio doesn’t ever want to be the reserve of white supremacy, racism, narrow-mindedness, bigotry, hatred, and division. During my thirteen years at Lead Pastor at First Baptist Church of Dayton, Ohio, I gave everything I had to articulating a progressive Christian message to our city. I was always aware of the tension between progressive Christians and evangelical Christians, and I was frequently on the opposite side of evangelicals in our area. I believed then, and I believe now that evangelicals have been misunderstood, mischaracterized, and maligned as a bunch of dummies, a multitude of misguided Christians easily conned. I continue the work I did in Dayton to this day. I wrote The Immaculate Mistake as a response to the wholesale commitment of evangelicals to Donald Trump.

Dayton, Ohio, with its commitment to scientific and technological genius and innovation, is now threatened by an anti-science, anti-evolution, anti-abortion, anti-mask, anti-vaccine, anti-climate change movement that is pushed by a number of Ohio’s own representatives and a host of evangelicals.

The media often don’t seem to have the theological or historical perception necessary to explain evangelicals. The media, like all institutions and individuals, can be wrong, and the castigation of evangelicals as a bunch of dummies and suckers was dead wrong. These are smart people, and they are on a mission to control the nation and the church. A liberal media piled on the stereotypes, and added that evangelicals were mostly poor, uneducated, angry white working-class folk overlooks the danger.

The Immaculate Mistake’s originating idea was born in the heat of a hot-blooded insistence that evangelicals are being criticized for the wrong reasons. I make the case that evangelicals have been in the business of giving birth to Donald Trump for more than a century of resentment, mistrust, and anger. These Christians are not dummies; they are fierce culture warriors willing to do anything, say anything to win. I wrote this book as a warning to the pernicious influence that the evangelical/Trump alliance has in our democracy. In fact, democracy faces immense dangers in the lead-up to the 2022 election. Members of the Ohio congressional delegation voted to undermine the results of a fair election. The majority voted not to hold Steve Bannon in contempt. These actions strike at the core of democracy. This debate deserves the attention of every American, especially in states like Ohio were the percentages on each side still make Ohio a competitive state.

We must recognize the danger that Trump branding, braggadocio, and demolition rhetoric creates for democracy. This means that the most positive strategy is the rhetoric of real democracy plus the Black prophetic tradition. These two traditions are the best hope for democracy. When Trump scapegoats, we name and shame. When Trump uses hateful, hurtful rhetoric, we show empathy and compassion to all Others. When Trump preaches revenge, we proclaim reconciliation. By showing our nation the vitality and energy of real democracy, by engaging in empathy and compassion, we not only contrast with Trump’s rhetoric of hatred - we offer a viable alternative.

Frank and honest speech is an important part of our democracy. By realizing this, perhaps more rhetors will be willing to engage in American democracy as truth tellers. There is no better place for the ascension of empathy and compassion to take place than the home of invention, imagination, and ingenuity – Dayton, Ohio. On Monday, Nov. 1 at noon I will make a presentation at Temple Israel that expands on my case.

Rodney Kennedy is the homiletics instructor at Palmer Seminary and interim pastor at Emmanuel Friedens Church, Schenectady, New York. He was lead pastor at First Baptist Church Dayton for 13 years.

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