The Silencing of Conservative Christians Opposed to Trump

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and non-profit advocacy, the consequences have been tangible: They’ve faced pressure from their employers, seen funds withdrawn from their mission work, or lost performing gigs because of their political beliefs.

Joy Beth Smith
Joy Beth Smith
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.

3 thoughts on “The Silencing of Conservative Christians Opposed to Trump

  1. 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.”

    This is good for you. Unfortunately, according to O’Sullivan’s Law, that door does not swing both ways.

    Charitable foundations are worse but harder to see.

    One of the reasons for this is leftist intolerance versus right-wing tolerance. Right wingers are willing to hire openly left-wing employees in the interest of fairness. Left-wingers, utterly intolerant, will not allow a non-Liberal near them, and will harass them at every opportunity. The result over time is that conservative enterprises are infiltrated by leftists but leftist enterprises remain the same or get worse.

    That American academia as a whole leans overwhelmingly left should not be a controversy at this late date. This explains why.

    As for Joy Beth Smith of Focus on the Family, as an explicitly traditionalist socio-political organization–concordant with the US Catholic Bishops’ pronouncements on pro-life issues as non-negotiable*–it’s entirely reasonable for such Christians to find accommodation with the Democratic Party impossible and thus find themselves in bed with Trump. The problem was indeed exacerbated in 2016, with Hillary Clinton’s extreme position of supporting late-term abortion rights, and one well beyond mere laissez-faire “choice” to an active promotion via her condemnation of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits government funds from financing abortions.

    I would also point to Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School v. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, where the Supreme Court ruled unanimously [against the Obama administration] that an employee of a religious organization may be fairly seen as representing it, and may be terminated if they’re flouting the beliefs and principles of that organization. Although Focus on the Family is only quasi-religious, the same principle surely holds.

    * Such as Bishop Thomas J. Tobin of Rhode Island:

    “As the primary election draws near in Rhode Island, I encourage faithful Catholics to vote pro-life – and never to vote for any candidate, of any party, who supports abortion.

    And don’t be fooled by those who say they “aren’t pro-abortion, but are just pro-choice.” It’s a smoke screen for what they really believe, but are afraid to admit. After all, what kind of choice are they promoting? They’re not talking about choosing a favorite ice cream flavor, are they? And it’s not about so-called “reproductive freedom or women’s health care” either. Clearly, politicians who support abortion are encouraging a choice that ends the life of an innocent human being and ultimately harms the mother, personally and spiritually!

    As Pope Francis has reminded us: “It is not progressive to try to resolve problems by eliminating human life.” (EG #214)”

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