Skye Jethani is a relatively well-known voice in the evangelical world. As an author and online content creator, he has contributed in many ways to evangelical public conversations over the years. I have found many of his insights specifically focused on the megachurch movement to be very helpful, though I have always known that he and I do not see eye to eye on a good many issues.
One of my newest disagreements with him centers on an article he published with USA Today titled, Donald Trump’s Bible or George Floyd’s? That’s the choice facing America’s Christians. I would find myself in full agreement with the general thrust of the post if it weren’t for the politically manipulative setting surrounding it. I consider this post nothing more than blatant propaganda.
Jethani is lamenting the fact that many professing Christians are really not Christians at all. Many who claim Christianity really do not hold orthodox views nor take the Bible very seriously. I lament with him. I’ve been preaching that sermon for years, no problem there.
Where the problem is can be found in the subtle way Jethani promotes this sad reality as a means to encourage Christians to rescind their vote for Donald Trump and promote the social justice narrative.
A Brief Pause
Let me be clear: I do not consider Donald Trump a good man or a Christian. I have good evidence to assume that, and no contrary evidence to think otherwise. Donald Trump is my president, but he is not my brother in Christ.
I do not bring up Trump’s immoral character or flaunt his paganism because I fear the backlash of espousing a contrary opinion. Rather, I mention all of this because I am convinced accusations that I am a “Christian nationalist” who “conflates republicanism with Christianity” is the conclusion many will try to take the logic of this post toward, and I would like to get some things on record in order to hold my adversaries accountable.
Along with that, as it pertains to the Bible holding photo-op the article is focused on, I am also in agreement with Jethani’s conclusion that,
The book’s presence is what mattered to Trump, not its message.
I even tweeted such a sentiment. But now that that is out of the way, I would like to resume our regularly scheduled liberal propaganda exposing blogging.
Advancing a Narrative
Skye begins his article with this thesis surrounding Donald Trump holding up a Bible for a photo shoot in a church recently vandalized by Black Lives Matter protesters:
Is the Bible still the foundation of the faith, or has it become a tool of political tribalism?
The false-dilemma aside, Jethani’s political aim is to convince us it’s only white, fly-over state Trump supporters who have this problem. Notice the example he uses for the kind of biblical capitulation the post is criticizing,
“[Some Christians think] Jesus’ words are to be followed up to a point. Once important things are at risk, like elections and federal court appointments, it’s okay to ignore them.
Right… so conservative Christians have a problem capitulating on biblical principles when they want supreme court justices who value biblical principles (E.g. not dismembering and slaughtering innocent babies). How about vandalism? Does Jesus have anything to say about that? I consider it strange that after a church overseen by a female pastor was sinfully and criminally vandalized, Skye’s only expressed hangup was that Trump took a picture with a Bible in it. Talk about capitulation. Talk about not taking all of Jesus’ words seriously. Would Jesus have anything to say about all the Christians who have capitulating on things like due process, abortion, homosexuality, pervs in the wrong bathroom, women fighting in combat, female pastors, abortion, transgenderism, or is just voting for someone who might give us decent supreme court justices giving Christianity a black eye? This is not “what-about-ism.” It is exposing the way political propaganda works, how it intends to mislead. Selectively curating only conservative faults, and associating those under the heading of “people who don’t obey Jesus” is intentional. This is how narratives are advanced.
And in case I have any readers who rolled their eyes when they read that word “narrative,” assuming it is merely a conservative buzzword and talking point, you especially need to stick around.
Trump? Bad. Floyd? Good
Jethani was adamant to portray Trump as the evil man who doesn’t take the Bible seriously, while George Floyd was the righteous Christian trying to change the world.
Unlike Trump and those who use the Bible as a token, George Floyd believed in the power of Christ’s words to transform. He engaged his Bible to heal lives and to bring renewal to one of the poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods in America. Floyd’s Bible mobilized him to alleviate suffering, not inflict it for a photo op.
Donald Trump and George Floyd represent two possible futures for American Christianity. One is a facade, a faith whose power and history have been expunged and replaced with the heresy of nationalism that celebrates Christian symbols but scorns the poor and marginalized with whom Christ identifies. The other is a faith that has inspired personal and social reconciliation for centuries and whose message is needed in America now more than ever. . . Donald Trump sees the Bible as a political prop. For George Floyd, it was a path to peace, justice and healing. America needs that now more than ever.
I have already stated my thoughts on Donald Trump, but perhaps now is the time to mention how strange I find it that Jethani would choose George Floyd as our standard and representative for the kind of faith we Christians need going forward. I certainly wouldn’t be comfortable choosing the man who used fentanyl, methamphetamine, and cannabinoids while attempting to buy cigarettes with counterfeit money as my standard for what biblical transformation looks like.
Am I saying George Floyd deserved what he got? Of course not. Am I saying he isn’t in heaven right now? Of course not. How could I possibly know that? Am I saying that he didn’t have a life changing encounter with the Gospel after living a criminal lifestyle? Again, not in the slightest. I am saying that to not even interact with the realities stated above while declaring George Floyd our model Christian citizen is intentional.
I would also like to add that Jethani does not give Trump credit where it is due. It’s interesting that Jethani would add this bit of information during his criticism of Trump’s photo shoot,
Unlike previous presidents who referenced the Scriptures in times of national crisis, Trump did not. He offered no prayer, no words of peace or comfort, no heavenly perspective.
Though President Trump did not do these things on this particular occasion, he has in fact referenced the God of Scripture and has quoted the Bible on many other occasions. Related, he is the only president to speak at the March for Life. Many believers are convinced that, even as an immoral pagan, Trump has done more good for Christian principles in America than any president in living memory. This statement is misleading and is demonstrative of the kind of political manipulation of the entire article. Not only is Jethani using Trump as the representation of how many Americans have stopped using the Bible as the foundation of the faith, he is using Trump to villainize conservative Christianity. His aim to is make Trump the poster child of an anti-biblical worldview, and then all things associated with Trump are dragged through the mud with him. The article’s additional aim is to exalt the movement for which George Floyd (against his will) has become the symbol as the standard of biblical justice. This is political, and it is propaganda. It is a narrative.
So What is the Narrative?
The main argument of Jethani’s post was the idea that black Americans largely take the Bible more seriously than white Americans, with George Floyd and Donald Trump being the symbols of these groups. Trump is white, and like most of us whites, he doesn’t really care about the Bible even though he claims he does. Floyd is black, and unlike Trump, he truly did believe and act on the Bible.
This narrative is powerful. After all, the black community will overwhelmingly not vote for Trump in 2020. And if it’s that community which truly values the Bible, than it would seem to indicate voting against Trump is the biblically informed action. Jethani has essentially tried to associate the entire movement which has gained so much steam since George Floyd’s death as having biblical foundations behind it, while those redneck Trump supporters who merely claim Christianity are not operating from a biblical worldview.
Numbers Do Lie
The argument was established by citing data from two studies with identical results. One by the Pew Research Center, the other by Lifeway who partnered with Ligonier. Jethani claimed the results of the studies showed that,
African Americans were more likely to hold orthodox Christian beliefs and biblical ethics than white Americans. Simply put, more African Americans take the Bible seriously.
This is accurate. The studies do show this. The problem is that there was a lot of detail left out which drastically impairs the overall agenda of the post.
When you go to the source and actually read the data, it will show that blacks do take the Bible more seriously than whites. But the study looks at more than mere ethnicity. Both studies broke the results down to more specific denominations. Specifically, separating evangelical protestants from black protestants, Catholics, Mormons, Jehovah’s witnesses, and most important, mainline protestants. When you focus on the results that narrow the comparison down to the mainlines, evangelical protestants, and black protestants, the numbers reveal that evangelical protestants actually take the Bible equally seriously as black protestants. In fact, in most cases the evangelical protestants actually poll better results than black protestants.
So what does this tell us? If one compares whites vs blacks, one must include progressive liberals-who are largely white. And when they are included, black Americans blow the white Americans out of the water. But when you take the anti-Trump progressive mainliners out of the picture, whites do exceedingly well. To put it bluntly, blacks do take the Bible more seriously than whites, until you remove all the white liberals from the equation. Once you take out all the progressives bringing the whites down, you’re left with a bunch of white evangelicals who take the Bible just a little more seriously as “historically black protestants.” What this means is that whites only take the Bible seriously when you remove from their group those who will not vote for Trump. Apparently, Jethani thinks that following the black vote is the biblically informed option, even though we would be simultaneously following all of the white voters who do not take the Bible seriously.
Please do not misinterpret my point. My point is emphatically not to make this a competition between whites and blacks, and claim whites win. I am actually greatly encouraged to know that evangelical protestants, black and white, take the Bible equally seriously! The point I am attempting to make is that Jethani is misleading the reader with the stats. When the studies are put in context, there is no reason to assume a white Christian who plans to vote for Trump takes the Bible less seriously than a black Christian who would never vote for Trump.
Mr. Jethani felt comfortable sharing an anecdote from his own life about a small group of Christians at a Bible study resisting the obligation to obey the commands of Jesus’ sermon on the mount, and so I would like to begin wrapping this up with an anecdote of my own.
During my undergrad, my school put a presentation on for the public. It was a conversation about homosexuality. It consisted of two panels, one was made up of university professors, and the second panel was made up of religious leaders from the community. There were four religious leaders, and all but one were white (one Hispanic woman). Among these religious leaders, all of them affirmed homosexuality but one man (a Mormon). Additionally, one of the women on the panel was a “female pastor” of the local United Methodist church. I had the opportunity to ask her publicly how she, as a “Christian pastor” handled the texts of Scripture which so clearly identify homosexuality as a wicked sin. Her response was,
Well, I am a female pastor. Obviously I think Paul got a lot of things wrong.
What side of Jethani’s false dilemma would this disposition fall into: political prop or foundation of the faith? More to the point, what are the odds this female pastor wears a bright red MAGA hat when it’s time to go casual? The Oneness Universalist on the panel who expressed emphatic disdain for the Bible and who loves homosexual relationships, which direction do you think he will vote this year? The Hispanic woman representing Roman Catholicism, the one who admitted the Roman Catholic Church stands against homosexuality, but also admitted she believed her church is wrong on the issue, and anticipates it changing soon, for whom do you think she will vote? To ask the question is to answer it.
The picture Jethani has painted is far more simplistic than the reality he is attempting to represent. He has painted the picture that black Americans who take the Bible seriously also despise Trump, so Christians must follow in their footsteps if we want to be faithful. The problem is that the only people who fear a Trump reelection more than the black Christian community are the liberal, progressive whites who absolutely detest the Bible. Liberal white progressives, as we have seen, are also the ones leading the charge to bring down Trump. They also make up a large portion of the movement Floyd has come to represent. Yet, they are the ones who will proudly deny the Bible as the ultimate authority of our faith- they find the contrary utterly grotesque. They are the ones who deny the infallibility of Scripture. They are the ones who believe the biblical authors are sometimes, if not often times, immoral, ignorant, and bigoted. How does that factor into the cultural equation for us Christians looking to take the Bible seriously? Why is Jethani, who supposedly takes the Bible so seriously, taking me to the exact same destination as the white progressive liberals who barely tolerate the Bible? Who exactly am I following here? How is it that the people who take the Bible more seriously than me have come to the exact same conclusions, and march in the same protests, with people who despise the Bible?
I think the narrative is broken…
Here is, after examining all the data above, my chief complaint with the post. If you’ve made it this far, don’t turn back now. This is key: As I see it, Jethani is subtly doing with his article the very thing he is criticizing Trump, and the rest of conservative Evangelicalism- of doing. This hot, steaming pile of hypocrisy is Jethani’s way of holding up the Bible in burnt down church. It appears the Bible is nothing more than a political tool for his tribe.
Trump was using Christianity as a symbol to win affection, to win votes. Articles like Jethani’s are also leveraging Christianity to win votes the other direction. But make no mistake about it, like Trump, he is merely leveraging Christianity. Trump doesn’t care about the Bible’s message, but neither do most of the people flaunting the fact that Trump doesn’t care about its message. For them, the Bible is still a prop. Leveraging the Bible is sinful, but it’s sinful in both directions. It’s wrong for Trump, but it’s also wrong for the anti-Trump crowd to pretend like the Bible’s sanctity is a prop for taking down Trump.
The unfortunate reality underneath all of this is that the majority of those who make up the group most passionately against President Trump’s reelection are ushering in a new way of life so bad that we will actually miss the days when a president was willing to hold up a Bible he didn’t believe in as an attempt to rally Christians to his side.
Appendix: Will the Real Evangelicals Please Stand Up?
One thing slightly unrelated is the definition of “evangelical.” By my interactions online, it seems that many black Americans do not consider “evangelical” a good word. Some even are using the term “evangelical adjacent” to describe themselves.
It is beginning to seem that evangelical is becoming a term to describe white Christians who do not belong to mainline denominations. While I see the term “white evangelicalism” on Twitter constantly, it’s hard to imagine how that term isn’t a redundancy at this point. I think the studies in Jethani’s article support this hypothesis, as they distinguish “black protestants” from “evangelical protestants.” It seems the difference between a black protestant and an evangelical is merely skin color, as their foundational beliefs would be incredibly similar. It is possible some black Christians were included in the studies under “evangelicals” if they are not affiliated with a historically black church, but I could not find a definitive answer on this.
Ironically, the studies themselves reflect that black Christians almost exclusively agree with evangelicals on theological issues, so why they would be excluded from “evangelicalism” is difficult to know. On Twitter, it seems to the distinction is motivated by politics. Black Christians by and large do not want to be associated with political conservatives. In other words, while the word evangelical has been difficult to define ever since it was made popular, it seems that is evolving to only include whites, even if the theological parameters of the term are held by a black Christian.
If this is the case, that seems incredibly… racist.