Faith to doubt: Faced with Donald Trump, un-Christian evangelicals and political upheaval in U.S., a Christian conservative takes stock.
My longtime best pal, Paul Sauser, a recent conservative-Republican-turned-Democrat and an evangelical Christian now uneasily reassessing his faith (without chucking it altogether), has, like many, Americans experienced somewhat of a religious and political transformation in the past few years.
He and I have always been a bit of an odd couple, as it were—him long an ardent Christian and me, longer, a committed nontheist.
But in my mind, the glue of our camaraderie, besides an affinity for jokey irony, edgy satire and respect for civility (if sometimes unmet), is a fascination with big bright ideas and the requirements of decency and common sense. We even share an interest in religion, though from somewhat opposite poles, but we also seem to uncannily end up far more often than not taking the same fork in the road when weighing moral and ethical dilemmas.
An op-ed Paul wrote on his religious and political journey—’A long, strange trip from right to left’—was published August 9 in the Rapid City (South Dakota) Journal, where we worked together as copy editors in the last millennium’s final decade. Because I believe the piece in many ways mirrors the experiences of a lot of Americans in these morally confusing and troubling times as the populace grows more secular and divided, I think it’s instructive to reprint, with his permission, below:
American evangelicals love Donald Trump, a man who is plainly not representative of Christian principles. I’ve thought of myself as an evangelical and a conservative since 1974. Now, I don’t know.
As someone who has lived most of his life in rural, conservative South Dakota and Nebraska, I’ve had to re-evaluate my spiritual and political ties.
I was raised in the Catholic faith but fell away as a teenager. At the age of 20, though, I made my faith personal, rather than cultural or familial, (by accepting Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior).
US culture transformed in the ’60s and ’70s
Having come of age during the great cultural shift of the 1960s and ’70s, I had always wanted to live life with a purpose beyond my own personal peace and pleasure. I carried that feeling into my new Christianity.
I was drawn to the church by, among other things, the community of Christians described in the book of Acts, “having all things in common,” and by examples in the modern world of Christian community. We fellow believers called each other brother and sister, and it felt real.
Paul Sauser at Higher Ground, his and wife Lori’s acreage in Nebraska.
At first, there was little talk of politics. If it came up at all, it took second place to doing what we thought of as God’s work, and, as they say, His kingdom is not of this world. We talked about whether abortion was right or wrong, but having the right answer was not the badge of belonging that it later became.
In the 1976 presidential campaign, we young believers were excited that Jimmy Carter (I mean, J.C., c’mon) was a born-again Christian. But somehow, by the time of the election, it was clear that God wanted Gerald Ford to win. Conservativism, the consensus went, would better protect our religious freedom. Still, I don’t remember abortion being a big part of the agenda.
Sliding from faith towards doubt
With the late ‘70s and early ‘80s came the culture wars. Christians came to believe that if they did not do battle against the forces of liberalism and “secular humanism” God would rain down judgment on the nation. Though the church at large was more and more engaged, politics was not important to me.
Through my years as a non-traditional college student and 13 years as a journalist, I maintained an adherence to more-or-less conservative politics, voting for Republicans for president and most other offices. There was always a vague notion that liberals might do something that was bad for religious freedom, or jobs, or they preferred squirrels to jobs, or something.
That’s more or less where my head was in 2000, the last year I voted for a Republican presidential candidate, George W. Bush.
Repulsed by the increasingly onerous GOP
Since then, I have been gradually more repulsed by the GOP: the disdain of Cheney and Rumsfeld for anyone who didn’t agree with their two wars and their torture programs, the doubling down of economic dogma post-2008, the determination to destroy Obama, the increasingly racial motivations, the denial of science in global warming and the Covid pandemic, the lies that fueled the billionaire-backed Tea Party movement, the subversion of democratic processes (not a comprehensive list).
All the while the Republican Party was getting more divisive, more fear-mongering, more mendacious, my white evangelical brothers and sisters stayed on board.
It was hard to imagine it could get worse, but then came Donald Trump.
Despite his words, actions and character, white evangelicals have been all in. That has led me to a hard conclusion: If white American evangelicals can be so wrong about this party and this man, what can they possibly have to say to someone who would live a Christ-inspired life? Moreover, if they can’t discern evil when it’s looking them in the face, what else are they getting wrong?
Today, I’m a Democrat, hanging on to hope for my country. Today, I hang on to my faith, but I no longer look to American evangelicalism for a way to live it. I’m not sure where to turn next. The Black church? Mainline denominations? Should I bother with church at all? I don’t know yet.
(Republished with permission of the Rapid City Journal, Rapid City, South Dakota)