The Evangelical Reckoning Begins

Andy Stanley’s evangelical megachurch was empty on Election Night, with only a few cars in the Disney World–style parking lot out front. North Point Community Church and its nine satellites in the Atlanta area have been mostly closed since the coronavirus pandemic began in March. When Stanley decided to cancel in-person worship until at least early 2021, dozens of families were so unhappy that they decided to quit his church. “Never once did I hear, ‘We’re upset because we miss coming to church,’” he told me, leaning back in a heather-gray wingback chair. The vibe of his church offices is tasteful and inoffensive, as if his decorator was trying to channel that magic Fixer Upper quality of looking distinctive while appealing to almost everyone. “What I heard was, ‘We’re upset because you bought into a political agenda. We’re upset because you believe the Democrats’ narrative.’”

Stanley has spent his career in ministry deliberately avoiding this kind of politicization in his church. The 62-year-old pastor is a child of the religious right: His father, Charles Stanley, is a televangelist and former president of the Southern Baptist Convention who wrote the devotional that President George W. Bush used to read each morning. “I grew up in a family that was very, very right-leaning,” Stanley said. “I saw the hypocrisy there.” He yearned to reach people beyond the conservative Christian world, to make the story of the resurrection irresistible to the unchurched. So he rejected his culture-war inheritance and struck out on his own, and now the son has arguably surpassed the father: Andy Stanley leads a congregation of more than 37,000 adults and children each Sunday, second in size in the U.S. only to Joel Osteen’s Houston empire, according to some estimates. He’s written roughly two dozen books, mostly Jesus-y self-help, including one that came out in October called Better Decisions, Fewer Regrets. North Point has a network of about 90 churches around the world, and young Christian leaders flock to the church for guidance on how to expand their influence. Sam Collier, a Black pastor and friend of Stanley’s who is about to open Atlanta’s first branch of Hillsong, the Australian mega-ministry network, told me North Point is like “the Christian Gap.”

The rise of Donald Trump, however, has made it harder than ever to separate evangelicalism from politics. Exit polls suggest that three-quarters of white, self-described evangelicals who voted chose Trump in 2020—a slightly smaller share than in 2016, but still an overwhelming majority. “To his credit, he’s figured out how to leverage that group,” Stanley said. “I mean, he’s not evangelical. But he owns them. And they’ve loved him.” The pastor likened the relationship to a lyric from Bob Seger’s “Night Moves”: “I used her, she used me, but neither one cared.” Soon, Trump will be gone, he said, but the conservative judges and justices he appointed will be in place for a long time. “It’s like: ‘Got what we wanted!’”

Stanley declined to join his friends in ministry on the Trump train, waving them off when they texted selfies from Trump Tower. But neither has he joined the evangelical resistance, remaining notably quiet at times when other prominent conservative Christian leaders have spoken out, including after the deadly 2017 white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville and on the issue of family separation. He maintains that he doesn’t want to be a “headline-news preacher” and comments selectively on current events—this summer, he crafted a message focused on the killing of George Floyd. “It’s not that I don’t have opinions. It’s more that people don’t come to church to hear my opinions.”

But while Stanley and similar giants inside the evangelical world have largely stayed out of politics during the Trump years, other evangelicals have been busy telling the outside world that their faith is completely aligned with Trumpism. This has created a dilemma: Stanley and his allies are now saddled with an image of evangelicalism they don’t want and didn’t create. Before they can reach anyone with a message of faith over politics, they’ll have to contend with the political baggage their fellow Christian leaders created.

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In the Gospels, Jesus calls on his followers to go out, teach his message, and baptize people. Stanley has organized his life around this imperative, called “the Great Commission.” The question for evangelicals, now, is whether the undeniable association between Trump and their version of Christianity will make that work harder. “Has this group of people who have somehow become ‘evangelical leaders’” aligned with Trump “hurt the Church’s ability to reach people outside the Church? Absolutely,” Stanley said. But he’s not overly worried: A year or two from now, he said, “all that goes away.” New leaders will rise up. The Trump era of evangelical history will fade. Stanley chuckled. “And this will just be, for a lot of people, a bad dream.”

Not everyone believes that recovering from the Trump era will be so simple for the Church, however. “We Christians have a lot of ground to make up now against those evangelical Trump followers whose devotion to him bordered on the idolatrous,” Mark Galli, the former editor in chief of Christianity Today, told me.

The word evangelical may have lost its usefulness. The media’s political fascination with evangelicals began in the 1970s, as Jimmy Carter declared himself “born again”; it continued through the ’80s, as the religious right consolidated its power under Ronald Reagan. The ’90s continued with coverage of greedy televangelists felled by sex scandals, followed by an evangelical resurgence in the 2000s as faith voters helped carry George W. Bush to the White House. The Trump era’s evangelical icons have made dramatic contributions to this pocketbook history: Jerry Falwell Jr., the former head of Liberty University and one of Trump’s earliest supporters, was recently ousted after posting a picture of himself on a yacht with his pants partially unzipped, followed by evidence of a messy, years-long affair involving his wife and a 20-something Fontainebleau pool attendant. In the past week or so, videos have made the rounds on Twitter of Trump’s spiritual adviser Paula White praying for “angels from Africa” to come to America and carry the president to reelection, along with that of another charismatic Trump adviser, Kenneth Copeland, laughing at the media for reporting that Joe Biden had won the presidency.

At least on Fox News and at Trump rallies, these figures have been granted the authority to speak for the whole of the evangelical world. And yet their version of Christianity reflects only one corner of the wildly diverse expanse of evangelicalism, which includes roughly one-quarter of the American population. Trump’s advisers are “not evangelical leaders. They’re evangelicals who have had their status elevated because they hang around and get invited to the White House,” Stanley said. “Those people were virtually in the marketplace, unknown, until all this happened.” It’s not that Stanley isn’t the kind of evangelical Trump would want by his side. The pastor just didn’t want any part of it. Hang around the White House for too long, “and the next thing you know, you think you’re somebody,” he said. “I just don’t have any business getting sucked into that.”

Andy Stanley, front, with his father, Charles Stanley, who was the longtime pastor at First Baptist Church Atlanta (Raymond McCrea Jones / Redux)

Many of Trump’s most visible backers are Pentecostal Christians who promise their followers health and wealth in exchange for faithfulness and donations. Pastors like Stanley, a fast-talking skinny-jeans fan obsessed with defeating cerebral arguments against Christianity made by New Atheist types, have a vested interest in distinguishing their theology from that of charismatic pastors like White. “They just make stuff up,” Stanley said. “This isn’t the New Testament. This isn’t Christianity. This is just positive thinking.” He dismissed comparisons between Trump and Cyrus the Great, the sixth-century Persian king who liberated exiled Hebrews, as “silly,” along with claims such as the one Eric Trump made before the election, that Trump “literally saved Christianity.” “It’s so unfortunate that all evangelicals get lumped in with the evangelicals that have been mainstreamed or platformed around Donald Trump,” Stanley said.

But Stanley also didn’t try to claim, as some have, that real evangelicals don’t support Trump. He wouldn’t say who he voted for in the past two elections, but he volunteered that he’s a conservative guy with conservative values. His wife, Sandra, watches The Five on Fox News, and their family flips back and forth between the various cable networks. He’s never met the president, but after he told a friend that his foster daughter is a die-hard Trump fan, he received a personalized video from Trump telling her to do her homework. North Point’s original campus in Alpharetta largely leans Republican, he said. He understands Trump’s appeal.

What he seems to take issue with is the mindset that evangelicals should be all in for Trump because of their faith. “It’s disappointing,” he said. “It does not reflect anything in the New Testament. Zero.” Christians should put their “faith filter” in front of their “political filter,” he told me, putting one hand in front of the other before his mouth to demonstrate. “We dare not allow politics to define us as individuals if you’re a Jesus follower,” he said. “But that’s hard to keep straight for all of us, I guess.”

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Stanley has a theory about why evangelicals were so eager to back Trump, both in 2016 and 2020. Most evangelical traditions teach that Jesus is going to come back, judge people, and send everyone who doesn’t follow him to hell. “Unfortunately,” he said, “there’s a group of evangelicals that are so excited about that”—he slapped his hands together and rubbed them eagerly, waggling his eyebrows for effect—“they can’t wait!” As evangelicals get older and realize that Jesus is likely not going to return in their lifetimes, “they get a little bit desperate,” he said, wanting to use policy and legislation to bring the world closer to the time of Jesus’s return. “That kind of thinking makes you vulnerable when somebody comes along and says, ‘By golly, all of your dreams are going to come true.’”

This armchair psychologizing may or may not hold up. What’s notable is that a guy as cautious as Stanley is willing to talk about it. Perhaps he believes that a little rewriting of history will help with the headwinds the Trump era has created for those who care about spreading Jesus’s message beyond the Church. Pastors’ willingness to publicly align with the Republican Party pulls “the curtain down [on] the group that you’re convinced is the furthest from God,” Stanley said. “It’s anti everything they got into ministry for. If you’re going to pull down the curtain, you should be on the dark side, right? You should be living among them, if you’re trying to reach these people.”

In Stanley’s view, the biggest way in which Trump has damaged the reputation of the Church is in his penchant for name-calling and belittling people: mocking a reporter who has a disability during a campaign rally, for example, or calling people from Mexico criminals and rapists. He believes that the president’s attacks on journalists were “a terrible move”: “The first thing totalitarian leaders or governments do is they silence the media,” he said. When high-profile evangelical leaders publicly align themselves with Trump, “the perception is unavoidable” that they believe that kind of rhetoric is okay, especially among the young people Stanley cares most about reaching. Trump’s language “should undermine his credibility with Christians. It certainly undermined his credibility with the generation that, again, has low to no tolerance for any of that,” he said.

And yet, Stanley is still unwilling to assign blame to Trump for all of America’s problems. “If you’re asking me, ‘Did Donald Trump inflame, or make worse, or stir up racial tension?’—I don’t know the answer to that,” he said. “I don’t know that I would place that on the shoulders of Donald Trump.” Many Black Christians have expressed pain over Trump’s racism. But Stanley wants to tread carefully: “I’m always hesitant to assign or accept simple, broad-brush explanations for anything. Especially events I have no personal involvement in or firsthand knowledge of.” He firmly supports the sentiment “Black lives matter,” but like a number of other prominent pastors, he says he’s uncomfortable with the organization behind the slogan. In a time of such intense political anger, putting faith before politics seems to involve grasping uncertainly at the line between speaking prophetically and making everybody mad.

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While some pastors around the country spent the days leading up to the election praying for Trump to win, Stanley scored his biggest victory of the election season before the returns had even started coming in, joining Oprah for a prime-time special on faith and politics. “I assure you: I am the most conservative person on that list of people who she had,” he said. “But I got invited. So they weren’t afraid of me.” Meanwhile, others in the evangelical world have been leaning into political division. A couple hours north of Atlanta on I-75, a black billboard near Dalton, Georgia, declares that “every tongue will confess Jesus is Lord, even the Democrats,” a red pitchfork at the end serving as an exclamation point.

The secular world may believe “evangelicals” are nothing more than people who love Trump. Stanley happily uses the term Jesus follower instead. People within the Church, especially those who are Black or part of other minority groups, may be grieved over the way their brothers and sisters embraced Trumpism. Stanley has faith that they’ll stay in the fold. “This isn’t going to have long-term adverse effects on the Church, I’ll say that,” he told me. When I asked him why he was so confident, he pulled the ultimate pastor move, eschewing the earthly concerns of today for a heavenly long view. “Once upon a time, a handful of disenfranchised Jews crushed between an empire and a temple maintained their faith in a resurrected savior and changed the world,” he said, leaning back in his chair again. “So we’re good to go.”