“When you surround an army, leave an outlet free. Do not press a desperate foe too hard.” —Sun Tzu
Why would Sun Tzu, the ancient Chinese military strategist who wrote The Art of War, advise generals to leave a means of escape for the enemy when they are surrounded? Because when the enemy feels that the only way out is to fight, they will fight like hell.
When the enemy is completely encircled, as one Chinese commentator put it, they will fight “with the courage of despair.” Another Chinese writer comments: “Birds and beasts when brought to bay will use their claws and teeth.” In other words, when an animal is cornered and frightened for its life, it will fight with far greater ferocity than it would if it had a means of escape.
When it comes to the contemporary political and cultural landscape, I believe a large segment of American Christians feel completely surrounded with no means of escape, and they are fighting like hell against their enemies. To be sure, not every American Christian feels this way — only those who identify America, consciously or subconsciously, as fundamentally Christian in its character and values.
This segment of Christians senses that their power is slipping away, and they are lashing out at those trying to strip away the remainder of it. Hence the rationale given by numerous Christian supporters of Donald Trump that he’s a “fighter” who will “punch back” against the un-Christian liberal agenda.
I write this as an American Christian myself. Not a self-loathing, “woke” liberal Christian, nor as someone jaded and disillusioned by religion. Not at all. Rather, I am trying to understand why so many of my fellow believers seem to be abandoning their previously held principles, standards, and values in exchange for political power. I don’t mean that their political values such as the pro-life cause or religious liberty have changed, but rather all other Christian values have diminished in importance for the sake of those political causes.
- High moral character in a leader? No longer important.
- Competence and experience? Certainly important when judging a one-term senator like Barack Obama, but not important when judging a Republican candidate.
- Moral consistency and integrity? Not as important as getting or maintaining power.
- The danger and immorality of debt? Ah, who cares anymore…
- Saving souls and being a good witness to the gospel is more important than politics? Well, you get the idea.
The above is especially, but not exclusively, true of white American Christians.
More than 8 in 10 white evangelicals (81%) voted for Donald Trump in 2016, and a significant chunk of those also proudly and vocally supported him (rather than merely holding their nose and quietly voting for the “lesser evil”). In the 2018 Alabama senate race, 78% of white evangelicals voted for Roy Moore, against whom there was strong evidence of past pedophilic behavior. But even beyond these voting decisions, which can always be rationalized somehow or another, I’ve noticed a distinct shift in the behavior and temperament of white evangelicals.
Love your enemies? Nah, they say, it’s time to punch back at our enemies! “When a man’s ways please the Lord, he makes even his enemies to be at peace with him” (Prov. 16:7). Nah, we don’t want peace; we want to win! The fruits of the Spirit? Nah, those are only important in our personal lives, not in the “public square.” Put not your trust in princes? Nah, we need a strong “prince” (aka president) to lead us into battle against our political and cultural enemies.
The Decline of Christian America
To be fair, it’s at least somewhat understandable that certain Christians in America would feel threatened at this point in history.
While the U.S. was not founded as an explicitly Christian nation, its roots are undeniably linked to its white Anglo-Saxon protestant (“WASP”) intellectual founding. And that WASPiness shaped the dominant culture that persisted for much of our history. Even if it wasn’t officially a Christian nation, Christianity undergirded the country’s social and cultural institutions. Every city skyline and small town had at least one church steeple towering above other buildings as a symbol of the faith’s centrality. Christian values were ensconced in the national psyche and social mores.
Let me give an example. Up until the early 1970s, no opinion pollster even thought to ask the American public if they viewed premarital sex as immoral. In 1973, Gallup found that 43% of Americans found nothing morally wrong with “sex relations before marriage.” In 2019, that percentage had jumped to 71%.
Throughout the second half of the 20th century and culminating in the 2015 Obergefell ruling (or perhaps 2020’s Bostock ruling) in the Supreme Court, conservative Christian views lost battle after battle in the courts. Meanwhile, during this same period, transfer payments (i.e. welfare and entitlements) exploded as a percentage of total personal income, diminishing the church’s role in meeting people’s material needs. Major health systems, which used to be run by Christian denominations, have steadily become secularized. And physical symbols of Christian cultural influence, such as a Ten Commandments monument in front of a courthouse, have gradually been removed.
But in this case, as with so many others, politics seems to have followed culture. Christian affiliation has waned with each of the last few generations. But even within each generation, fewer and fewer people are identifying as Christian over time. Evangelicals made up around 21% of the American population ten years ago. Today, that percentage has dropped to 15%. Most lost members have been young people.
According to Gallup, religiosity (as measured by weekly service attendance and membership) dipped from the 1950s to the 1970s, largely as a result of the so-called “Sexual Revolution”, but then remained fairly steady until about 2000. But in the last 15 years or so, American religiosity is in the process of taking another sharp dive. In 2019, self-reported church attendance was at its lowest since Gallup polling began:
Millennials in particular exhibit a sharp drop in religiosity. About 40% of Millennials claim no religion, while only 20% of Baby Boomers are religiously unaffiliated. Interestingly, in the U.S., those who are irreligious lean liberal about as heavily as white evangelicals lean conservative. So, generationally, the political influence of Christianity is waning.
Now consider the overall drift away from the Republican party in recent decades. Since 1994, blacks, Hispanics, and Asians have become some degree more Democratic.
Generational trends further strengthen the political affiliation trends among the various ethnicities. As far out as we are currently able to look, younger generations are increasingly less white, and non-white people are increasingly more liberal-leaning. Per Pew Research:
Nearly half of Gen Zers (48%) are racial or ethnic minorities. Socially and politically, their liberal-leaning opinions on key issues are similar to those of Millennials.
It’s important to note that conservative white Americans’ discomfort with the changing racial landscape of the nation is not about race per se. At least, not for most of them. I don’t believe Jim Wallis was correct when he asserted in a recent Sojourners piece that “racism is the paramount religious issue in this election.” True racism (conscious or subconscious disdain for other races) is only a minor side show — a distraction from what racial tension is really about. That is, it’s about what the changing racial landscape of the nation signifies. It’s about tribalism and identity. It’s about shifting cultural and political dominance.
In short, it’s about a tectonic clash of world views.
Now consider one more trend unfavorable to conservatives/Republicans: urbanization. Quite simply, there is a strong correlation between population density and political affiliation. Democrats tend to live in cities, while Republicans tend to live in more rural areas. The flip side of that also appears to be true: people who live in cities tend to take on more liberal views over time, while people who live in rural areas tend to take on more conservative views over time.
The U.S. has been urbanizing since the mid-1800s, with a rapid burst of urbanization from the end of World War II to 1970. The country jumped from 56% of people living in cities in 1940 to 74% in 1970. Currently, about 83% of Americans live in cities, and the United Nations projects that percentage to grow to 89% by 2050. To be fair, the UN defines “cities” by some threshold of population density that might include suburbs and exurbs, but the point is that people increasingly live in denser areas. And denser areas tend to correlate with more liberal cultural and political views.
So you’ve got three demographic trends that make those who identify with “Christian America” or even “white Christian America,” broadly speaking, feel surrounded and desperate. In this dire situation, I think many Christians felt that their “last stand” was coming. If they didn’t do something big and drastic to turn the tide and reverse these unfavorable trends, then the point of no return would be passed and the “old America” that was defined by Anglo-Saxon protestantism would be gone forever.
Enter Donald Trump, a brash and egotistical philanderer-businessman who embodies nearly all of the non-Christian values that evangelicals became politically active to combat. At face value, Trump seems a strange standard-bearer for conservative Christians, but then one considers how this group felt backed into a corner and on the verge of their ultimate political/cultural demise. And then it makes sense. Trump is a fighter, and they were ready to fight. The other segment of Trump’s base — rural, mostly white working class people who have lost a lot of good manufacturing jobs and whose standards of living have stagnated — also felt backed into a corner and were looking for a fighter.
Hence why Trump’s slogan of “Make America Great Again” struck such a chord. The country was great once, back when Anglo-Saxon protestantism was a culturally dominant force, and when standards of living in rural areas were rising.
Hence why Trump’s authoritarian tone — “I am your voice” — only increases his appeal among his base. Trump comes off as strong, not like the polite and amicable but ultimately weak and ineffectual Republicans that came before him. His base feels trapped and surrounded, and they sense that their only hope is to fight like hell. “Birds and beasts when brought to bay will use their claws and teeth.”
Will The Real “Christian Nation” Please Stand Up?
As this tectonic cultural and political shift continues in the U.S., my hope is that the church everywhere would remember that their primary citizenship resides in God’s Kingdom. I hope we will come to remember that the gospel, the good news that Jesus came to bring, is the breaking in of this Heavenly Kingdom. This Kingdom is the sphere of life in which God, rather than any human politician, reigns. It is the extent to which God’s will, rather than any sinful and selfish human desire, is carried out in this imperfect world. It is the realm, co-existent with the one we see around us, in which God’s standards and statutes, rather than any human-written law, is followed. It is the sole organization of humanity in which all its members enjoy spiritual, material, and communal abundance of life.
With that in mind, we must remember that the demise of Christian America does not equate to the demise of God’s Kingdom in America. In fact, God’s Kingdom knows no borders, no age, no race. It exists equally in the city and in the countryside. And it cannot be enforced through the channels of government. It is and will always be utterly separate from human politics.
This is not to say that political issues like abortion and religious liberty are unimportant. It is simply to say that we American Christians need to gain some perspective. God’s Kingdom is not backed into a corner. It is not surrounded and on the brink of demise. In fact, globally, the number of Christians continues to grow. Having cultural influence is nice, but it isn’t necessary to advance the Kingdom of God. How much cultural (or political) influence did Paul and the early church have in the Roman Empire? None. Yet this period witnessed some of the fastest growth through conversions (rather than childbearing) in all of church history.
Perhaps, rather than focusing so much on the fading “Christian nation” of America, we ought to turn our eyes to the one true “Christian nation” — the global, all-inclusive, everlasting Kingdom of God.