If you work in a church or Christian non-profit, or care about how those organizations function in the midst of such polarizing times, then you need to take a few minutes and read religion reporter Emma Green’s latest piece for The Atlantic:
Donald Trump has divided conservative Christian communities. Most white Christians support Trump, or at least voted for him. Some who have spoken out against his presidency or his policies, though, have encountered backlash. For a small group of people working in Christian ministry, music, and non-profit advocacy, the consequences have been tangible: They’ve faced pressure from their employers, seen funds withdrawn from their mission work, or lost performing gigs because of their political beliefs.
Green shares the stories of theologically conservative Christians like Joy Beth Smith, whose social media posts leading up to the 2016 election led her employer, Focus on the Family, to give her a choice: “She could resign, get a severance, promise not to take legal action, and sign a non-disparagement agreement. Or, she could choose to be fired. She chose firing.” Or Shannon Dingle, who was pressured into resigning from a Christian disability advocacy group after she made a public case for pro-life Christians supporting Hillary Clinton.
Mostly, I just want to point you to the article. (And to encourage you to read anything else that Emma Green writes; she’s one of the most insightful religion reporters now working.) But here are a few things that struck me in reading it:
• The stories “suggest a generational divide in the church,” not only over the tension between politics and religion but the nature of communication in a digital age: “For Millennials used to speaking their minds on social media, institutional rules curtailing their freedom—whether they’re standard policies or not—might be jarring.”
• While Green opens the article with a tweet from a male author, lamenting how many Christians “say they’ve had ministry jobs threatened/been fired for speaking out in some way in this season,” almost everything that follows features women in this situation. Before the election, I wrote about the increasingly prominent leadership of evangelical women, a growing number of whom started to speak out against Donald Trump after his comments about sexually assaulting women came to light. (Green reports that Smith “started getting serious internal pushback” from Focus on the Family not for addressing any controversial public policy issue, but when she wrote about sexual assault in the wake of the Trump Access Hollywood tapes.)
But I’m afraid that the election has actually demonstrated the enduring strength of an older gender dynamic. “It seems,” Dingle told Green, “like there is this silencing of evangelical women if we don’t stick with approved talking points.” (See also my Anxious Bench colleague Kristin Du Mez’s recent piece for Religion & Politics on “militant masculinity” in evangelicalism.)
• As Green acknowledges, these incidents also point to “a tension all nonprofits face: How should they handle political issues that arguably aren’t directly related their mission?” Dingle’s boss emphasized that, despite his own personal admiration for her, he was trying to maintain connections with theologically conservative churches that are already suspicious of mental health professionals: “I don’t want our organization to say or do things that will make it even more difficult for our team to earn the privilege of serving their churches.”
• But I think these cases can point to a larger problem, one I recognized from conversations with family and friends. “Some conservative Christian communities,” observe Green, “seem to have become allergic to political disagreement of any kind, especially when their members speak out about Trump or Republican policies.” In some such communities, “there is space for disagreement on issues like racism, refugees, and elections as long as people agree on the fundamentals, including same-sex marriage and abortion. But in many other places, this does not seem to be the case—it’s Republican politics all the way down.”
The “all the way down” model is especially troubling. For if Christian churches and organizations can’t speak out on issues that merely divide Trump apologists from everyone else, they’re almost certain to stay silent when a riskier, truly prophetic witness is required. It’s not going to get easier.
For this reason, I am encouraged by World Relief’s recent response to the refugee ban, which started with the signatures of leading evangelicals like Tim Keller, Bill and Lynne Hybels, Ann Voskamp, Max Lucado, and Leith Anderson, the president of the National Association of Evangelicals. (Sign it here.)
And fortunately, I work for a Christian nonprofit that grants tenure to certain of its employees, out of an admirable commitment to academic freedom. As I wrote a week after the election, I increasingly “believe it’s incumbent on professors — at least, the tenured ones — at Christian colleges to use that freedom in ways that might raise the hackles of trustees, alumni, donors, and sponsoring churches.”
If nothing else, perhaps we might be able to ask the hard questions that can lose other Christians their jobs.