Evangelicals, President Trump, and Adventists

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Published:
August 2, 2019

One of the most puzzling aspects of the current political scene is the Evangelicals’ support for President Trump. They form his strongest and most enthusiastic base. Some have even likened Trump to King Cyrus, the Persian king who came to the aid of the Jews after they were taken captive to Babylon.

How can this be? In the past, Evangelicals have issued clarion calls for moral character. In 1998, following the scandals involving Bill Clinton, the Southern Baptist Convention adopted a “Resolution on Moral Character of Public Officials.” It stated unequivocally:

“Toleration of serious wrong by leaders sears the conscience of the culture, spawns unrestrained immorality and lawlessness in the society, and surely results in God’s judgment.”

It seems undeniable that Donald Trump, like Bill Clinton before him, massively fails the test of moral leadership. Without getting into partisan politics, the facts stare us in the face: on June 20, the writer E. Jean Carroll came forward with the disturbing claim that Trump raped her in an apartment store in the 1990s. She is the twenty-second woman to allege that Trump committed acts of sexual misconduct. In addition to these allegations, we should note Trump’s public profanity, lies, and xenophobic comments.

How then could Evangelicals support a leader whose conduct and words are the antithesis of their traditional values? Their conduct, counter-intuitive, deeply puzzles me.

For many years, long before Donald Trump ran for President, I have been interested in Evangelicals, trying to understand them and their relation to Seventh-day Adventists. Accordingly, I shall explore the current phenomenon on a broad canvas, working through the following steps:

1. Who are the Evangelicals?

2. How did they become Trump’s strongest supporters?

3. Evangelicals’ dramatic change of attitude toward Adventists

4. Are Adventists Evangelicals?

Who Are the Evangelicals?

The term Evangelical can be confusing. In Germany, for instance, the Lutheran Church goes by the name Evangelical Church to distinguish itself from the Roman Catholic Church. In America, Lutheranism has split into several different bodies, one of which is the Evangelical Lutheran Church.

Evangelical comes from the Greek word for good news or gospel, euaggelion. When appearing with the lower case, evangelical is an adjective that signifies relationship to the gospel. With the upper case as in this paper, it is a noun that designates a particular expression of Protestantism.

Evangelicalism dates from the 18th century. Three movements exhibited similar characteristics: Methodism under John Wesley and George Whitefield, the Moravian Brethren under Nicolaus Zizendorf, and Pietism in Lutheranism.

Four features denote Evangelicals today:

a) Belief in Christ’s atoning death on the Cross,

b) Conversion, that is the need to be born again,

c) Acceptance of the Bible as authoritative, with belief in the resurrection of Jesus and His Second Coming, and

d) Evangelism — the proclamation of the Good News to the World.

Evangelicals are not a separate denomination. They are found among all Protestant churches.

Worldwide Evangelicals number about 600 million in 190 countries. The World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), a loosely structured organization, coordinates activities.

Evangelicals in the United States differ sharply from their counterparts elsewhere. In America they have become heavily involved in politics, agitating for a clearly defined social agenda.

Evangelicals and Trump

Recently, while revisiting Philip Yancey’s What’s So Amazing About Grace? (Zondervan 1997), I came across materials that opened a shaft of light on the puzzling relationship between the Evangelicals and Trump. In the final section of Yancey’s book, “Grace Notes for a Deaf World,” he takes up developments among American Evangelicals in the 1980s and 1990s. Yancey had interviewed Bill Clinton for Christianity Today; his article, “The Riddle of Bill Clinton’s Faith,” brought a firestorm of reaction. Angry readers attacked Clinton but also Yancey, arguing that he never should have met with the President.

This experience, along with Yancey’s perception that a large segment of the American population viewed Evangelicals as rigid moralists who want to control the lives of other people, caused Yancey to reflect on how far Evangelicals had departed from grace as their primary emphasis. Evangelicals, who ought to be all about grace, had become ungraceful. Feeling under attack in schools, in courts, and sometimes in Congress, they had turned to political means to legislate morality and restore a “Christian America.”

The 1970s had seen the rise of the Religious Right. Jerry Falwell had founded the Moral Majority and along with other Evangelicals like Pat Robertson and Ralph Reed, had mobilized their followers for political involvement at all levels of government. Their goal: to elect conservatives, influence legislation, and appoint to the Supreme Court, justices who held their views. Thus they planned that in time the Court would reverse the hated Roe v Wade decision of 1973.

The Religious Right saw itself as engaged in a culture war. It singled out two areas of emphasis where the stakes were most crucial: abortion and homosexual activity. 

As Yancey was writing his book in the 1990s, he lamented that increasingly Evangelicals were becoming identified with the Religious Right. In doing so they had exchanged grace for ungrace.  In their zeal to change the culture through legislation rather than by the transforming power of the gospel, they had lost their way.

Especially telling was Yancey’s argument from Jesus. In Jesus’ time, unwanted babies were thrown out and left by the roadside to be devoured by wild animals or die of exposure. Among both Romans and Greeks, older men openly took young boys to be their sex slaves. Yet Jesus spoke not one word of condemnation of these vile practices, although He must have been aware of them. His message was all about grace.

And there is more. Calling the temptation of the church to join with the state to enforce morality “serpent wisdom,” Yancey quoted Martin Luther King Jr., who warned: “The church is not the master or servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state. It must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool.”

Although couched in gentle language, Yancey’s reflection sounded a rebuke and a warning to Evangelicals in the 1990s. Did they heed his counsel? With some exceptions, they have continued down the path of political action advocated by Falwell, Robertson, Reed, et.al. Evangelicals worked very hard to get George W. Bush elected president. Bush is an Evangelical, but in the White House he disappointed the Evangelicals: he did little to advance their agenda.  Then in 2016, convinced that Hilary Clinton was the epitome of their worst fears, they embraced the unlikeliest of candidates — Donald Trump.

It was a marriage of convenience. In no sense is Trump an Evangelical Christian, but he promised he would appoint justices to the Supreme Court who would support their agenda for society. For their part, Evangelicals would back Trump to the hilt.

This understanding of Evangelicals’ unwavering support of Donald Trump conforms exactly to that of Time columnist David French. In an article titled, “Evangelicals Are Supporting Trump Out of Fear, Not Faith” (June 27, 2019), French writes:

“But in 2016, something snapped. I saw Christian men and women whom I have known and respected for years respond with raw fear at the very idea of a Hillary Clinton presidency. They believed she was going to place the church in mortal danger. The Christian writer Eric Metaxas wrote that if Hillary won, America’s chance to have a Supreme Court that values the Constitution will be ‘gone. Not for four years, not for eight,’ he said, ‘but forever.’

“That wasn’t faith speaking. They were the words of fearful men grasping at fading influence by clinging to a man whose daily life mocks the very values that Christians seek to advance.”

We turn now to sketch Adventists’ relations with the Evangelicals.

Evangelicals and Adventists

For many years Evangelicals regarded Adventists as a sect or cult. We were shut out of participation in events like the National Religious Broadcasters convention. At gatherings of Christians from various faith traditions, mention of “Adventist” usually brought a sudden chilling of the atmosphere and an abrupt close to the conversation. That was the state of Adventist-Evangelical relationships when I came to the General Conference in 1980 and became involved in interactions with other religious leaders. It troubled me: Adventists, I thought, are the most evangelical of Evangelicals.

Today the situation is vastly different. When Evangelicals encounter Adventists at gatherings of Christian leaders, they embrace us as brothers and sisters in Christ. What happened to bring about the shift?

No doubt several factors contributed to the change. First, we have largely cleaned up our expression of what we believe. In an earlier generation critics could point to statements in Adventist publications like Bible Readings for the Home Circle, where Jesus was described in Arian or semi-Arian terms, or to other places that cast doubt on our belief in the complete, once-for-all atonement on the Cross.

Books like Questions on Doctrine and The 27 Fundamental Beliefs adopted by the General Conference Session in 1980 went a long way to removing negative assessments of Adventist doctrine.

Another factor was the increasing involvement during this period of Adventists in meetings of biblical scholars. Theologians like Dr. Richard Rice attracted the attention of prominent Evangelical thinkers through his ground-breaking book, The Openness of God.

A third factor was one in which I was personally involved and concerning which comparatively few are aware. I refer to dialogues between the Evangelicals and Adventists.

Shortly after I became editor of the Adventist Review, I was invited to participate in off-the-record conversations with Evangelical leaders. Kenneth Kantzer, then editor of Christianity Today, requested a private meeting to talk about our teachings. Several Evangelical scholars accompanied him. They were unsure as to how they should relate to Seventh-day Adventists: Are we genuine Christians or not?

The meetings, held at the General Conference, lasted a couple of days. By mutual agreement the deliberations were kept confidential with zero publicity. Neal C. Wilson, GC president, asked me to take notes of the conversation for his eyes alone.

Only Adventist teachings were scrutinized. Kantzer and his colleagues zeroed in on just two areas: Ellen White and the Sanctuary. They probed courteously but relentlessly as they sought to understand our theology.

At the conclusion of the discussions, the Evangelicals caucused for several hours. When we reconvened, Kantzer announced their conclusions: they found no impediment to accepting SDAs as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ!

Twenty years along witnessed another milestone in Adventist-Evangelical relations. By now I had become heavily involved in inter-church dialogues. Dr. Bert Beach was the prime mover in these conversations: he is the father of Adventist dialogues. I was a regular member of the Adventist team, and when he stepped aside in 2005, I replaced him as chair of the Adventist side.

By virtue of cultivating personal friendships, Beach had been able to arrange for official conversations with almost all the main denominations. He dearly wanted to have a dialogue with the World Evangelical Association (WEA), but the WEA confessional statement included belief in hellfire and the immortality of the soul, ideas totally opposed to Adventist beliefs. Then the way opened; under the influence of Evangelical scholars like John Stott and Edward Fudge, WEA dropped the hell/soul immortality from its credo. Conversations with Adventists could at last go forward.

We met twice, first at a Baptist seminary in the Czech Republic, and the following year at Andrews University. The dialogue that ensued was, I think, one of the most important of all the inter-church conversations of the preceding 25 years. It was also the most tense and explosive.

At the Prague meeting Adventists spent the first few days setting out our beliefs as Bible-based believers in Jesus Christ. One of the WEA delegates, a Swiss pastor, sat across the table without saying a word. Each morning he brought along two heavy folders of material that he plunked on the table in front of him. His body language radiated his discomfort with the meeting.

At last he exploded. Drawing upon the material from the folders, which, it transpired, he had gathered from websites hostile to Adventists, he in effect accused us of being liars. He contended that our beliefs were based on Ellen White’s writings, not on the Bible.

It was a wild close to the Prague meeting. I foresaw a lively time when we reconvened a year later at Andrews University.

All too true. The Evangelicals brought with them a draft statement to be jointly adopted at the close of the dialogue. The statement was totally unacceptable to us: it asserted that Adventists base our beliefs and practices, including the Sabbath, not on the Bible but on Ellen White.

Both sides argued back and forth. Eventually, Bert Beach in his inimitable manner spoke up: “Well, if you insist on stating that Adventists base their beliefs on Ellen White, we insist that the statement include the fact that your Sunday keeping is based on tradition, not on the Bible!”

Touche!

The dialogue had reached an impasse. At last the Evangelical chair, Dr. Rolf Hille from Tubigen in Germany, suggested that we Adventists prepare a draft for consideration. We handed over the task to Dr. Beach and he went to work immediately.

His statement was short. It laid out areas of agreement, areas of disagreement, and areas where we might cooperate in shared Christian witness. After extended discussion and amendments the statement was adopted by the entire group.

The Evangelical delegation took the joint statement to the WEA leadership with a recommendation that henceforth Seventh-day Adventists, though not members of the WEA, should be regarded as true believers in Jesus Christ. That message went around the world and Adventists, so long pariahs, soon found themselves accepted by Evangelicals everywhere.

A final question remains to complete this study. Are Adventists truly Evangelicals?

Are Adventists Evangelicals?

The answer, in my judgment, isn’t straightforward: it is both Yes and No.

If one limits understanding to the four characteristics that define Evangelicals — Christ’s atoning death, conversion and new birth, authority of the Bible, and evangelism — the answer must be an unqualified Yes. Adventists are evangelicals of the Evangelicals.

As our investigation has shown, however, Evangelicals in America are driven by two impulses outside these four defining markers. Their focus has moved away to a fixation on fighting abortion and homosexual practice. With regard to these twin concerns, Adventists by no means fall into line.

Some, perhaps most, Adventists in America would agree with the Evangelicals’ strictures against abortion and homosexual practice, but they are uncomfortable with attempts to enforce morality through legislation. Separation of church and state is an idea deeply rooted in the Adventist psyche.

Adventists are a people with high regard for adherence to biblical norms, but our ethics are informed by a major consideration outside the purview of Evangelicals — our involvement in health care. For us, truth is derived from two sources: Scripture and the natural world. We take both avenues seriously: we consider data from the Bible in conjunction with what we learn through the large network of Adventist physicians, scientists, and others employed in the healing arts. We own and operate many hospitals and clinics; we aim for excellence and cutting-edge care.

Because of the major impact of our medical emphasis, we cannot and do not address ethical issues like abortion and homosexuality divorced from the truth that our health practitioners encounter in real-life situations.

Thus, while Adventists hold a high view of life, we do not jump on the pro-life political bandwagon. We realize that in this broken world, many ethical decisions cannot be reduced to simple Yes or No answers (as in the case of an 11-year-old girl who has been impregnated by her grandfather). Similarly, awareness of prenatal factors that influence gender preference causes us to view the complex issue of homosexuality on a much broader canvas.

Because of our strong biblical basis along with our passion for healing of the whole person, Adventists are uniquely positioned to contribute to the vexed bioethical issues of the day. Adventist ethicists, like the late Dr. Jack Provonsha and Dr. Gerry Winslow, have had and have a major impact.

Are Adventists Evangelicals? From a European perspective, definitely Yes. (In the dialogue with the WEA, issues of abortion and homosexuality were not mentioned.) From an American perspective the answer has to be Yes — and No.

 

William G. Johnsson is the retired editor of Adventist Review and Adventist World magazines, and the author of numerous books including Where Are We Headed? Adventism after San Antonio (2017) and Authentic Adventism (2018).

Image: President Donald J. Trump, joined by Vice President Mike Pence, is seen [in] prayer with members of his Cabinet Tuesday, July 16, 2019, in the Cabinet Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead.) Flickr.com / Public Domain.

Editor's Note (August 5, 2019): The spelling of Eric Metaxas' name has been corrected. We apologize for the error.

  

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