Sleeper Agents

Here’s a plot idea for an action-packed summer blockbuster: A quiet suburban housewife lives on a tree-lined street with her clean-cut husband and a pair of well-groomed kids. She drives a station wagon, attends the school PTA meetings, and occasionally bakes casseroles for her elderly neighbors. Anyone who drives past her house while she’s outside tending her flower beds is greeted by a friendly wave and a reliably enthusiastic smile. But what nobody knows is that this innocent-looking woman is actually a foreign spy, a sleeper agent secretly playing her part in a diabolical plot to bring down American democracy. When the day finally arrives for her handlers to activate this well-disguised asset, the neighbors are shocked to discover her true identity. All hell soon breaks loose in their peaceful neighborhood, resulting in an adrenaline-pumping series of dramatic heists, high-speed car chases, and intricately choreographed fights.

If that sounds familiar, it’s probably because it’s an unoriginal idea. I’m fairly sure something like that has been done before, maybe even several times over. So to make it interesting and amplify the novelty factor, let’s add a fun little twist: Instead of the quiet suburban housewife turning out to be a sleeper agent, let’s say that she ends up being the only person in the whole neighborhood who isn’t one. That’s right. Every other person on that tree-lined street is a secret spy, and when they’re finally activated for their mission, it’s this one solitary woman who finds herself alarmingly out of place.

Welcome to my experience of evangelicalism in 2016, the single year that has probably had a more significant impact on my faith journey than any other I’ve lived so far. I know I’m not alone in saying that few events have so drastically revolutionized my relationship to the church as the ones that transpired that year resulting in the election of Donald Trump.

Having grown up in evangelical Christianity, I’ve always been aware of the church’s strong leaning toward politically conservative platforms and candidates. (And as a teenager and college student, I did my own strong leaning in that direction as well.) But I’ve also known that evangelicals are traditionally people who emphasize the importance of integrity and character when it comes to the political arena and the individuals chosen to lead us. They did, after all, form a movement known as the Moral Majority.

I was 13 when Bill Clinton was impeached, coming of age in the shadow of his infamous assertion that he “did not have sexual relations with that woman.” That public contortion of the truth shaped the political imagination of an entire generation of Christians like myself. Time and time again, we were taught that a leader with no moral compass posed a grave danger to our entire nation. And we assumed that the people teaching us that principle actually believed it themselves.

Which is why the emergence and subsequent evangelical support for Donald Trump in 2016 was so disorienting to me as a part of the church. Here was a bombastic, xenophobic, hate-spewing, pussy-grabbing, self-aggrandizing, lying, racist demagogue – basically, everything I thought a leader was not supposed to be. Yet he was being received with unbridled enthusiasm by overwhelming numbers of faithful church-goers. The same people who had been so quick to point out each and every character flaw in other elected leaders turned out in droves to support a candidate who mocked people with disabilities, empowered white supremacists, and bragged about being able to shoot someone in the middle of a busy street without losing any supporters.

But I guess to 81 percent of white evangelicals, none of that really mattered. So long as James Dobson vouches for the fact that you’re “born again,” so long as you assure Christians that you’re a fan of “Two Corinthians,” so long as you dangle the carrot of pro-life Supreme Court justices in front of single-issue evangelical voters, you’ve got the golden ticket. To hell with all the rest. 

In sweeping up so much Christian support, Trump inadvertently tore apart the facade of American evangelicalism, revealing it for what it truly was: a vassal of the Republican party more concerned with political expediency than Christian faithfulness.

As a Christian and a pastor, this realization was immensely disorienting.  It was like spending all day in the kitchen toiling over a savory and nutritious meal for one’s family, only to have them announce at dinner time that they’d rather go out for fast food instead. I had given my life to the work of spiritual formation. I had sacrificed money, time, career ambitions, and personal relationships so that I could help lead people to love God and love their neighbors, embodying the kingdom of Jesus in their communities. But apparently what people really wanted was a pompous bigot who would give them permission to hate immigrants and scapegoat minorities for all the country’s problems.

The swelling support around me for Donald Trump – even in my own church – seemed like a total racket. Like a betrayal. Like I had woken up on my quiet, tree-lined street one day to discover that all the neighbors were in fact undercover operatives. 

Up until that point in time, I was naive enough to think the church was something different. That the way of Jesus actually meant something. But as the political presence of Donald Trump legitimized hatred, dishonesty, and the lust for raw power, my illusions were painfully exposed. My faith was fractured. My confidence in the moral authority of the American church was irretrievably lost. 

In 2017, I wrote about the sense of alienation I was feeling. There was a part of me that was still optimistic back then, stubbornly hopeful about the future of the church and my role within it. But my disillusionment was clearly growing. Even then, I confessed that “I look at my extended relatives within the evangelical tribe, and I honestly wonder just how much longer I can keep going to the family reunions.”

Well, after four more years of Trump’s antics, another repulsive presidential campaign that perhaps drew even more evangelical support than the first one, and an insurrection in the very halls of our nation’s government, I have since answered my own question.  I’ve joined the line of people headed for the exits. 

Donald Trump didn’t drive me out of evangelicalism. But he did expose it. If there was any credibility in the institution before Trump’s rise to power, there certainly wasn’t any left after. If there was any place for me in the evangelical church then, there certainly isn’t now.

And the reasons for that are so much bigger than politics.

At the heart of the church’s political identity has been the idea of a “biblical” worldview, the notion that God has clearly revealed through Scripture how we are to think and act as voters and citizens of our country. But Trumpism showed us that there isn’t very much that’s “biblical” about any of it. It’s partisan, self-serving, convenient, pragmatic. But biblical? Not so much. 

Once a domino like that falls, others are bound to fall with it. And for me, this is precisely what happened. I started to look around at everything I was told was “biblical” – biblical gender roles, biblical church leadership, biblical worship, biblical parenting, biblical sexuality, the biblical view on the gospel, the atonement, heaven, hell, social justice – and I started to wonder: How much of all this is just a sham, as well? How many of these things are nothing more than cultural values disguised in religious jargon? If the church could theologize its fixation on Republican politicians, couldn’t it also theologize its fixation on patriarchy? On capitalism? On eternal retribution? On heterosexual marriage?

These questions are dangerous ones to ask. And they’re an important part of my journey away from the Christianity I grew up with. Once I saw how the integrity of the church had been compromised in the political arena, I began to see how it might be compromised elsewhere. This isn’t to suggest that one issue defined my entire outlook on the church. Instead, one issue prompted me to look more closely at other issues, and when I did that, I realized that perhaps the original issue wasn’t as much of an anomaly as I would like to think it was.

Quickly, the certainty of our rightness and everyone else’s wrongness began to erode. The convenient answers grew less intellectually and existentially satisfying. I could no longer believe that we had unique insight to truth when we were the ones so easily deluded by a populist politician pandering to us for our votes.

This waning of confidence struck a painful blow to my spiritual identity. But it also offered a much-needed invitation to openness, curiosity, and rediscovery. In seeing how conservative Christianity had got it wrong, I was finally able to start seeing how other forms of Christianity (and indeed, other expressions of faith entirely) had something corrective to offer. I suppose the bright side of finding out that most of your neighbors are sleeper agents is getting to relocate and explore the many wonders of a new neighborhood.

Looking back on how Donald Trump has reframed my relationship to the church, I can’t deny the deep disappointment that it has produced. But even in the midst of that disappointment, I’m enjoying a growing appreciation for the pursuit of new horizons that it has generated. 

Encountering the deconstruction stories of others has helped me see that although there is great pain in seeing our illusions shatter, there’s a peace and joy that couldn’t be experienced any other way. I’m hopeful that in time, my own story will validate this. 

In re-evaluating what is and isn’t “biblical,” I’ve changed my position in lots of ways. I’ve grown to believe that one’s gender doesn’t disqualify them from leadership, that people won’t be tormented unendingly for having different religious beliefs, that the assertion “black lives matter” isn’t some sort of unforgivable heresy. These are just a few of the many shifts I have made in the last few years, shifts that I believe are positive and healthy for my spirituality. And in a strange, roundabout way, I suppose I have Trump to thank for all that. 

The events of 2016 pulled the rug out from under my feet. And to be honest, there are days I wish it hadn’t. Life would be so much simpler with the old mirage still plausible, the old certainty still intact. But the most beautiful things are never simple. They’re textured and troublesome and tinged with loss. So even as I fear the uncertainty of what lies beyond evangelicalism, I’m glad to be on my way. Even as I grieve the departure from the neighborhood I once called home, I’m thankful to have left.

This was part 2 of my story of faith evolution. See the previous part below:

Next up in this series: Getting burned by ministry and the church


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