Before the 2016 election, Nikki Toyama-Szeto had thought of the term “evangelical” as neutral. “It was about theology,” she told me recently. She had a long history working with evangelical organizations like International Justice Mission and Intervarsity, and as the executive director of Evangelicals for Social Action, she was a well-known speaker and activist in evangelical circles. Her faith had been central to affirming her own racial and gender identities. “For myself, as a person of color, as an evangelical, I would say that I actually discovered my identity as an Asian American woman in the context of my faith,” she told me. “General, secular American society was saying you are invisible, or you can be either a newscaster or you can be the ‘dragon lady.’ It was in the context of my faith that I found out, ‘Oh, God created my gender and my ethnicity to be a gift for me.’”
Then, with the election of Donald Trump and her awareness that white evangelicals had voted for him overwhelmingly, she said, “I became suspicious that we don’t have each other’s back. I thought we did.” She kept thinking of white believers: “If you voted for Trump, then his racism was just not a deal-breaker for you. When push comes to shove, I feel like you threw me under the bus.”
President Trump’s support among white evangelicals remains strikingly strong (with 75 percent voicing their approval in April), but as commentators and the press continue to unpack their dedication to Trump, another set of statistics is getting far less attention: According to Pew Research, almost 25 percent of American evangelicals are not white, and they voted quite differently. (Another poll from PRRI puts the percentages of people of color far higher, saying that 46 percent of U.S. evangelicals are black, Asian, Latino, or otherwise non-white. The poll’s method was to count as evangelical any person who identifies as Protestant and who answers “yes” when asked if they are evangelical or born again.)
Not surprisingly, but importantly, Trump’s support among evangelicals of color is dramatically lower than among white evangelicals. (Only 7 percent of black born-again Christians voted for Trump; 31 percent of Latinx and 37 percent of Asian American born-again or evangelical Protestants did.) Yet the headlines about “evangelical” support for the president and his agenda mean that evangelicals of color can seem to be an invisible community—rarely acknowledged by journalists even when they go to the same churches or claim a similar theology. White evangelicals are numerically dominant—although declining—but their opinions disproportionately dominate U.S. media reporting on how theologically conservative Protestants think, vote, and believe.
At one level, the racial difference is eminently predictable. Surely the whiteness of white evangelicals is crucial to understanding their political beliefs and their voting patterns. As Janelle Wong shows in her new book, Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change, although evangelicals of any given race are more conservative than the general population of that race, evangelicals of color overall are far less conservative than white evangelicals. Indeed, they are less conservative than white people overall.
For Toyama-Szeto, the election results were a kind of violence—an attack on her membership in her religious community. “I mean, you have a name or something for yourself that is an identity, like evangelical. And somebody else actually takes it, and destroys it and changes it. But, really, the tricky thing is that the distortion came from within.”
The very term “evangelical” has become fraught for many people of color, who might never have been that comfortable with the label to begin with. For some time, a crucial reality of evangelical life has been its increasing racial diversity, buoyed by evangelicalism’s growing transnational ties. In the last few decades, U.S. believers have grown more likely to travel on short-term missions, participate in international conferences, or simply watch one of the multiracial and multinational teachers and preachers on Christian television and online. Over the last two years, however, the election of President Trump has created a profound generational, racial, political, and gender divide—one that has shaped U.S. evangelical life so thoroughly that the long-term impact will not likely be known for a generation.
As President Trump and his administration continue racialized policies and rhetoric, the question of how evangelicals of color will identify—how they manage their religious and racial identities—is becoming more fraught. A whole range of issues has divided theologically conservative Protestants of color from white evangelicals, including immigration, refugee resettlement, and Black Lives Matter, as well as differences over the relative priority of abortion or same-sex marriage as key political issues. Many evangelicals of color make clear that the age of Trump has been a time of anxiety, disappointment, and often anger—with the president, and also with the white evangelical community. The day after the 2016 election, Pastor T.D. Jakes, not known for being particularly liberal, described African Americans as “traumatized” by Trump’s election.
That sense of betrayal has remained. Evangelicals of color I spoke to described “wandering” or feeling lost in the evangelical churches in which they have made their lives. As Toyama-Szeto put it: “A lot of folks are saying that ‘If this is what evangelical means, then I’m not that.’ So we are becoming spiritually homeless.”
HERE’S THE STATISTIC THAT everybody knows: 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016, slightly higher than voted for the Republican nominee in either of the previous four presidential elections. “I think it’s the number, that raw reality. Eighty-one percent is a shocking statistic. It’s an overwhelming number.” This was Jemar Tisby’s observation. Tisby, who is African American, is one of the founders of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective and the author of the forthcoming, The Color of Compromise: The Truth About the American Church’s Complicity in Racism.
Before the 2016 election, Tisby was an activist and Ph.D. student, living in a small Arkansas town and studying at the University of Mississippi. He was active in the Reformed movement, trying to increase the visibility and viability of Reformed theology among African Americans, and also worshipping and participating in a Presbyterian (PCA) church. An intense and soft-spoken father of two, he quickly found himself working on racial issues in the church. In 2014, after Michael Brown was killed in Ferguson, Missouri, and as the Black Lives Matter movement was gaining momentum, Tisby felt that people in the church were willing to talk about racial justice, not just “reconciliation.” It wasn’t easy, because, as Tisby points out and as scholarship has shown, white evangelicals tend to see the world individualistically, to focus on individual behavior rather than on systems and policies. But things were happening; the conversation was moving. Or so he thought.
After the 2016 election, Tisby was stunned. A couple of days later, he spoke on an episode of Pass the Mic, the podcast of the Reformed African American Network (now the Witness) about how he was feeling. “I really, this Sunday, don’t feel safe worshiping with white people,” he said on the podcast. “I go to a church that is predominantly white and Reformed.” He added that he felt betrayed by the church, even as he remained committed to the universal church and to Christ. In churches he had been a part of, he said, “There are folks who were overtly, outright, boldly Trump supporters who are happy right now. And I cannot emotionally bring myself to be comfortable with that and going in on Sunday morning and singing songs and praying with this group of people who seem so out of touch with my experience in America.”
Later, he told me, “I just couldn’t believe that America had elected this man,” given Trump’s description of Mexicans as rapists, and his questioning of Obama’s citizenship, as well as his involvement with casinos and pornography, his moral failures, and racist ideologies. “I remember thinking, not just as an American citizen but as a person of faith, how devastating it was.”
Another turning point was the “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville last August. The event’s racism and violence—including the death of a counter-protester—were shocking enough, but so was the stunning dismissal by Trump, who said in a press conference that there were “very fine people” on both sides of the protests.
After the rally, Tisby wrote an essay for The Washington Post asking, “After Charlottesville, will white pastors finally take racism seriously?” He wondered if white pastors were behaving as Martin Luther King Jr. had described them in a “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” as “more cautious than courageous” in the face of racial injustice. He argued that Charlottesville made clear that it was time—past time—for white pastors and churches to take racism seriously, to acknowledge that racial oppression was a church issue—not (just) a political issue but also an issue of faith. “Black Christians who speak boldly about racism and white supremacy often get muted or silenced,” Tisby wrote. “We can only infer that the sensitivities of white listeners matter more than the pain of black brothers and sisters.”
Nikki Toyama-Szeto also saw Charlottesville as a turning point. She describes the changing landscape this way: “So, a friend of mine lives in New Mexico. She’s part of the Latinx community that, back in the nineteenth century, found that the border had crossed over them. The family never immigrated to the U.S., but the border moved and suddenly they were in a new country.” Something similar, she says, has begun to happen to white evangelicalism. “I don’t know if they know it, but the border has moved. It used to be that you could do nothing about race as a white evangelical church, or a predominantly white evangelical church, and you would be presumed to be neutral, or benevolently ignorant.” After Charlottesville, though, when there was a notable silence from many prominent white evangelicals, she said, “I don’t know if those folks realized it, but the border at that point moved over them.”
Toyama-Szeto says that the presumption that she and other evangelicals of color bring to the table has changed. They are now more likely to use the language of white supremacy. They no longer assume that silence on the issue of race is something they can overlook. “I don’t know how much the leaders realize the liability of staying silent, because they used to have the luxury to say nothing at all.” That’s simply no longer the case. “Now, if you have no deeds done, then you are suspected of perpetuating a deeply racist system.”
IN EARLY SEPTEMBER 2017, the Trump administration announced that it would phase out the DACA program, which had protected approximately 800,000 undocumented people who had been brought to the U.S. as children. Trump insisted that some version of immigration reform could protect the so-called DREAMers, but the legislation would also have to fund the border wall that he had long demanded, along with other provisions.
The outrage from many people of color, including evangelicals, was intense and immediate. Gabriel Salguero, founder of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, said that he and others supported the Dreamers, not only because it was the right thing to do, but because they saw many of them as fellow believers. “These are our brothers and sisters, worshipping in our churches, going to our Sunday schools,” Salguero told NPR. “They’re the playmates of our sons and daughters.”
Salguero has long been outspoken about the need for what he described to Christianity Today as a “non-partisan” agenda, one in which Latino evangelicals (and others) focus on an “evangelicalism that does not prioritize pragmatism or winning. Instead, we want to have a faithful public witness.” But Salguero also defines himself as a progressive: He spoke at the Democratic National Convention in 2016 and he was one of the co-chairs of a meeting held at Wheaton College this past April that was designed to provide an alternative voice to the white pro-Trump evangelical leadership. Attendees included A.J. Bernard, the African American pastor who was the only person to resign from Trump’s evangelical advisory council over Charlottesville. According to reports from the meeting, there was something of a divide, with the largely older, white contingent stressing unity and a need to reach beyond partisanship, while the largely younger contingent of people of color were more likely to ask for repentance from white evangelicals. Some, like New York pastor Tim Keller, bemoaned the divisions, the “red evangelicalism” and “blue evangelicalism.” But Salguero said that the meeting made him hopeful: He appreciated the diversity of the group, the willingness to disagree. “As evangelicals, we struggle with a whole host of issues,” he told Religion News Service. “Maybe we can do better together in conversation.”
Over the course of last spring, Trump continued to dangle the possibility of a deal for Dreamers, and even some conservative white evangelicals began to insist on a deal for protecting DACA. The members of the Evangelical Immigration Table, as well was leaders of many of the major evangelical organizations (the National Association of Evangelicals, World Vision, World Relief, etc), offered recommendations for a path to citizenship for Dreamers.
Then, in May, the Trump administration began enacting its “zero tolerance” policy of separating migrant families at the US-Mexico border. The Evangelical Immigration table issued a letter of protest, asking Trump to reverse the policy. Even Franklin Graham, a staunch Trump defender, said he found the policy “disgraceful.” Attorney General Jeff Sessions quoted Romans 13 to defend the separations, saying that people were to obey the government because God has ordained it. Christians from a broad variety of backgrounds cried foul over Sessions’ mobilization of Scripture that had been used to defend both slavery and apartheid. Salguero was among them, saying that a fuller reading of Scripture brought one to a different conclusion. “Overwhelmingly Scripture causes us to defend families,” Salguero told The Washington Post. “The Bible calls us to be pro-family, and I personally find it deeply lamentable that we are separating children from their parents at the border or anywhere.”
Salguero and other Latinx evangelical leaders often described Latinx voters as “the ultimate swing vote,” saying that neither Democrats nor Republicans should take them for granted. But it is clear that Trump’s aggressively hostile policy toward migrants is making it challenging for someone like Salguero to remain politically ambidextrous. During the Wheaton meeting in April, according to Katelyn Beaty writing for The New Yorker, Salguero had denounced (white) evangelicals who were overly focused on civility and safety. “We have to change our tone, yes,” he said. “I submit that silence is a tone that speaks volumes.”
MANY COMMENTATORS HAVE OBSERVED that white evangelicals in particular often justify their support for Trump on the grounds of his potential Supreme Court picks. After Justice Kennedy’s announcement opened up the way for the Trump administration to nominate another conservative, Brett Kavanaugh, for the Court, the white evangelical community seemed suddenly unified.
As Tisby pointed out in a tweet, for some white evangelicals, this pick and the direction of the Supreme Court led to a sense of triumph: “With regard to #politics, many conservative #evangelicals probably feel like they are #winning right now. Ok. Just be aware that many historically marginalized people groups (black folks, women, non-European immigrants, the poor) don’t feel that way. Interrogate that discrepancy.”
Indeed, even some quite conservative evangelicals of color raised questions about how white evangelicals who had been critical of Trump seemed to be willing to trade anything for a Supreme Court win. Thabiti Anyabwile is pastor of a Southern Baptist church in Washington, D.C., and a member of the Gospel Coalition, a popular blog as well as a network of Reformed evangelical churches founded by New York pastor Tim Keller and theologian D.A. Carson. An outspoken social conservative, Anyabwile has nevertheless been critical of Trump and of white evangelicalism’s embrace of him. In June, he wrote an essay for The Washington Post that argued that evangelicals should beware of using Roe v. Wade as their political bottom line. Anyabwile argued that, although he is opposed to abortion, evangelicals should still not compromise their opposition to Trump. “I’m for overturning Roe,” he wrote, “but I’m also for protecting black and brown lives from racism and the kind of criminalization that swells our prisons and devastates communities or separates families at the borders.”
His insistence that the Supreme Court could not be the bottom line was one that specifically positioned abortion and other social issues dear to white evangelicals as part of a package of issues that needed to include challenging the zero-tolerance immigration policy, travel bans, maximum sentences for drug offenses, and other racialized policies. “We are going to give an account to God for our complicit silence before the immoral policies and actions of the Trump administration,” Anyabwile wrote.
It’s not surprising, perhaps, that Anyabwile was attacked by many people for his essay, both in the article’s comments and on Twitter. “This fake Christian pastor does not represent Trump’s base or Christians,” announced one not-atypical comment on the Post site. One person wrote on Twitter: “Your tweet appears to reveal a deep rooted idolatry. If you don’t consider the potential of a conservative justice at the helm to protect lives, yes millions of black lives as well, you have lost your objectivity. It’s truly been sad to watch you slide into identity politics.”
In fact, it seems that the story of multiracial evangelical politics today cannot be fully understood without at least some appreciation for how social media is changing the conversation. Like many other public figures, leading evangelicals often have large Twitter followings, which can both amplify their voices and lead to a sense of embattlement. Tisby said that Twitter was sometimes just another space where race often made conversations hard. “It’s always been a negotiation for black people in whatever context: higher ed, business, neighborhoods, and especially churches. It’s always been a negotiation … That’s nothing black people aren’t used to.”
But social media brings an intensification of such negotiations: the interactivity and public access means that strangers can make angry comments, in soundbites, where snarky tones and the questioning of others’ motives are ways to get likes and followers. As Tisby pointed out, it allows anyone to question and attack a person’s orthodoxy or commitment without having to be accountable themselves. Twenty-first century communication could make multiracial evangelicalism even harder as a lived experience, even as it also makes it possible to create communities in which evangelicals of color might support each other and educate their white fellow believers. The power of social media to help construct communities is valuable for minorities of many types, but the nastiness found there is unraveling the tenuous sense of multi-racial possibility that existed before the recent election. This has led to questions about whether being an evangelical of color, especially one committed to multiracial ministry, might mean something like near-permanent dispossession.
In thinking about the disorientation and disappointment of the last two years, Nikki Toyama-Szeto finds a point of comparison with the genocide in Rwanda—not in terms of the levels of violence or suffering, but in terms of the question Rwanda raised for Christians: “How is it that people of such a Christian nation could turn on each other?” With Rwanda, she said, “In my circles, people see that as the failure of an integrated and robust theology—so that [theology] was trumped by tribal affiliation.” She’s seeing something similar among U.S. evangelicals, with race as a dividing line.
Whether or not evangelicals of color can feel at home in U.S. evangelical life today is unclear. Of course, the global evangelical context will still be multiracial, and the ownership of the term “evangelical” is likely to be increasingly contested. But, for many evangelicals of color, the politics of white supremacy is now the dominant reality associated with a multiracial faith identity that they once comfortably (if not always enthusiastically) claimed. And that trumps everything.
Melani McAlister is professor of American studies and international affairs at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. She is the author of, most recently, The Kingdom of God Has No Borders: A Global History of American Evangelicalism.