Red State, White Evangelicals, and a Blue Wave?

By Ken Estey
Center for Working-Class Studies

Eyes are locked on Texas. And deep in its heart are white evangelicals who could be part of a blue wave many hope will wash over that red state to carry Ted Cruz far out to sea.  In tight race between Cruz and his energetic Democratic Party opponent Beto O’Rourke, New York Times reporter Elizabeth Dias suggests that white evangelical women could be open to Democratic candidates. Her interviews with long-time Republican voters point to an increasing disenchantment that could temper the unwavering evangelical support that Republican incumbents and candidates view as their inalienable birthright.

White evangelical women from Texas, Dias explains, are not poised en masse to bolt from the Republican Party. But Trump’s leadership has down-ticket implications even for Cruz, his bitter opponent in 2016. In this competitive U.S. Senate race, even a slightly depressed turnout among the Republican base combined with a healthy number of party-switching voters could make a decisive difference. The evangelical women whom Diaz interviewed see a “stark moral contrast” between Trump and O’Rourke. They view  Trump’s policies and behavior, including banning Muslim refugees, separating children from their parents at the border, and Trump’s disrespect of women, as  “fundamentally anti-Christian. ”. When an older white evangelical man said to one of Diaz’s interviewees, Tess Clarke, that she couldn’t be a Christian and vote for O’Rourke, Clarke responded:  “I keep going back to who Jesus was when he walked on earth. This is about proximity to people in pain.”

These faint stirrings of discontent among white evangelical women in Texas are connected to larger questions about class and theology.  If Jesus really was close to people in pain and suffering in his peripatetic ministry, the transformative possibilities of following that Jesus are revolutionary.  Such a Jesus is a human Jesus with whom people can identify. He is also one who cares about the hidden and open injuries of class. For those who suffer with those wounds, the gospel offers the prospect of solidarity and its active healing ministry.

The codependent relationship between white evangelicals and the Republican Party has the whiff of eternal truth to it. But it has not always been so. The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) was established in 1942 as an effort to gain influence in Washington, D.C. The NAE invited individual churches, whole denominations, and pastors to join in united action to represent evangelicals to a country still dominated by mainline Protestants. What the NAE wanted most of all, though, was to have a freer voice over the radio waves to spread the gospel. The Christian Right had not yet emerged, Moral Majority was two generations in the future, and evangelicals had not yet sold their soul to the Republican Party.

Leading evangelical theologians in the generation after World War II, notably C.F.H. Henry, warned about the dangers of imbuing any economic system or political system with divine authority. Instead, in the spirit of evangelical independence based on a God who transcends all human endeavors, he urged that evangelicals should always remember that earthly economic or political institutions are under the authority of the gospel not the other way around. So the nearly complete alignment between evangelicals and the Republican Party in our time would have deeply alarmed Henry and many evangelical leaders of that era.

Now, however, some evangelicals seem to be waking up to the nightmare of a deeply unevangelical sell-out of the Kingdom of God for a gaudy, earthly imitation. A closed-door consultation of around fifty evangelical leaders convened at Wheaton College (Billy Graham’s alma mater, and often called the evangelical’s Harvard) in April to deal with concerns about the future of evangelicalism and concerns that “their movement has become too closely associated with President Trump’s polarizing politics.” According to Katelyn Beaty, editor at large for Christianity Today, the meeting was an attempt to sort out their alliance with Trump and to be engaged in “self-reflection on the current condition of Evangelicalism.”

Contrary to any hopes raised by even the scant possibility of evangelicals looking for a balm in Gilead outside of the Republican Party, we’re not likely to see evangelicals running to join the Democratic Party. What I’d really like to see are evangelicals who follow the Jesus they claim to know as he walks close to people in their pain and their powerlessness. Jesus the Savior meets Jesus the prophet of social change.  If evangelicals followed this Jesus, as  Tess Clarke suggests, they would be in a position to challenge both Republicans and Democrats when their politics and their policies favor elites who want to preserve power and status. This would be a major theological challenge, and in Texas, at least, it is coming from white evangelical women who are lightyears ahead of their own leadership.

Evangelicals make a particular point of adhering to the Chalcedonian formulation from 451 AD that affirmed Jesus is “truly God and truly man.” Despite the evangelical commitment to this major creed of the Church, they still emphasize his divinity to the neglect of his humanity. Sometimes it seems that they love Paul more than Jesus. It was Paul, after all, in his letter to the Galatians who argued “So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:26-28). Paul underlines the power of Jesus Christ to overcome all human divisions so that a universal human family is possible through faith in Christ.

But many evangelicals have relied on Paul’s teaching about being “one in Christ Jesus” to avoid the sharper divisions that Jesus drew. They shrink from a gospel that cuts against the grain call out the well-heeled on behalf of those who are down-at-the-heels. As Jesus emphasized in his discussion with the rich young man who sought the Kingdom of Heaven, “If you want to be perfect, go, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me. When the young man heard this, he went away sad, because he had great wealth. Then Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Truly I tell you, it is hard for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of heaven’” (Matthew 19:21-23). Granted, it is not impossible, but it is hard.

The power of the gospel that evangelicals teach has been diminished by their own sense of limitation and fear – the limits they place on a God they believe to be omnipotent based on a fear that God can’t or won’t act in human history without help from the GOP. Yet when evangelicals return to Jesus and consider the multitude of possibilities inherent in concrete and tangible ministries with those in pain, as some brave souls are doing in Texas, then they start to do the unexpected. Beto O’Rourke is but the smallest beginning. A new generation of evangelicals is emerging. Who can wager what they might do when a gospel informed by compassion and care replaces the one now chained to party and platform?

Posted In: Allied Approaches

Union Matters

Federal Minimum Wage Reaches Disappointing Milestone

By Kathleen Mackey
USW Intern

A disgraceful milestone occurred last Sunday, June 16.

That date officially marked the longest period that the United States has gone without increasing federal the minimum wage.

That means Congress has denied raises for a decade to 1.8 million American workers, that is, those workers who earn $7.25 an hour or less. These 1.8 million Americans have watched in frustration as Congress not only denied them wages increases, but used their tax dollars to raise Congressional pay. They continued to watch in disappointment as the Trump administration failed to keep its promise that the 2017 tax cut law would increase every worker’s pay by $4,000 per year.

More than 12 years ago, in May 2007, Congress passed legislation to raise the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. It took effect two years later. Congress has failed to act since then, so it has, in effect, now imposed a decade-long wage freeze on the nation’s lowest income workers.

To combat this unjust situation, minimum wage workers could rally and call their lawmakers to demand action, but they’re typically working more than one job just to get by, so few have the energy or patience.

The Economic Policy Institute points out in a recent report on the federal minimum wage that as the cost of living rose over the past 10 years, Congress’ inaction cut the take-home pay of working families.  

At the current dismal rate, full-time workers receiving minimum wage earn $15,080 a year. It was virtually impossible to scrape by on $15,080 a decade ago, let alone support a family. But with the cost of living having risen 18% over that time, the situation now is far worse for the working poor. The current federal minimum wage is not a living wage. And no full-time worker should live in poverty.

While ignoring the needs of low-income workers, members of Congress, who taxpayers pay at least $174,000 a year, are scheduled to receive an automatic $4,500 cost-of-living raise this year. Congress increased its own pay from $169,300 to $174,000 in 2009, in the middle of the Great Recession when low income people across the country were out of work and losing their homes. While Congress has frozen its own pay since then, that’s little consolation to minimum wage workers who take home less than a tenth of Congressional salaries.

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A Friendly Reminder

A Friendly Reminder