Some evangelical leaders around the globe worry that the recent US presidential election has damaged Christian moral witness, and will fuel discord abroad.
In a conference call Tuesday, a week after Donald Trump’s win, more than 70 ministry presidents, pastors, and scholars spoke with concern as they discussed the ramifications of the American election on the global church.
The call was organized by Doug Birdsall, a former top leader of the Lausanne Movement and the American Bible Society, as part of his new Civilitas Group. Participants included evangelical representatives from Asia, Europe, and South America, as well as a diverse span of US church leaders.
“One of the things that America was stood for in the past was moral leadership and character. Over the past few decades, it has slowly dissipated,” said Hwa Yung, longtime bishop of the Methodist Church in Malaysia. “In this election you have produced two candidates, both of whom are deeply flawed in character. The question people around the world are asking is, ‘Is this what America is today?’ The election has done great damage to your moral standing in the eyes of the world.”
The group of global leaders noted that, from a distance, American politics can get conflated with Christian priorities, given that a solid majority of white American evangelicals elected the new president into office.
“There is massive disappointment within Christian communities in most of central and eastern Europe, [and] concern about the loss of credibility of Christian witness—especially the credibility of the evangelicals,” said Peter Kuzmic, an evangelical scholar in Croatia. “If the president-elect represents Christian values, then those values really mean nothing, and truth and character are out.”
Grace Mathews, a Delhi-based leader with the Lausanne Movement, said this year’s election conflicts with the image of virtue associated with American politics in previous decades. Though the American church was seen as split on Trump, conservative Christians did contribute toward his messaging. “The credibility of the Christian witness was damaged, I must say, because truth was not what was pronounced,” she said.
The concerns of these leaders were not confined to the reputation of the US government or the American church. Instead, they viewed Trump in relation to global issues, including autocratic vs. democratic governments and immigration patterns, such as those that led to the Brexit vote earlier this year.
Speaking from Eastern Europe, Kuzmic mentioned that it’s not just Putin celebrating Trump’s victory, but also right-wing, xenophobic leaders in The Netherlands, France, and Hungary. “What will be the damage to the world?” he asked. “These are anti-globalizing tendencies here in Europe, and now obviously in the official politics in the United States, that concern us freedom-loving, pro-democratic, pro-pluralist-society Christians everywhere.”
Foreign affairs experts have made similar observations. The Washington Post recently noted:
The populist wave of 2016 that carried Trump to the pinnacle of international power and influence didn’t start in the United States. And it certainly won’t end there. Instead, the biggest prize yet for a global movement built on a seemingly bottomless reserve of political, economic and cultural grievance is likely to be an accelerant to even more victories for people and causes bent on upending the existing world order.
Calling in from a country shaken by its own ongoing political instability, World Vision International theologian at large Valdir Steuernagel said, “The consequences are there, and they are global. We can feel the effect of it here in Brazil.” He said his country will be paying particular attention to how the democratic process holds up during the transition.
In India, Mathews noticed Trump’s Hindu appeal, with some even displaying his photo in their temples, thanks to his promise to “take care of Muslims.”
Among a Muslim majority in Malaysia—where “the threat of radical Islam is alive”—Yung said he believes that the world would have been “a more dangerous place” if Hillary Clinton had been elected.
Greg Thompson, a scholar at the University of Virginia’s Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture, said Trump’s election represented a “profound crisis of democratic virtue.”
“This is an extraordinary moment when Americans—many, many conservative Christian Americans—have said, ‘We don’t really care about personal virtue that much,’” he said. “Related to this is a general failure of empathy. Democracy requires an empathetic imagination—the ability to make your neighbors intelligible to you and to do that work.”
Several American leaders on the call reiterated the need for Christians to challenge their quest for political power and influence.
“Evangelicals in the past have been very enamored with the possibility of social change via acquisition of power, and yet we are now having to ask ourselves, ‘Is this the way of Jesus?’” said Walter Kim, lead minister at Park Street Church in Boston.
Similarly, fellow Boston pastor John M. Borders III criticized a pattern of Christians—both black and white—putting too much significance on political leaders:
The presidential election this time inculcated messianic undertones with promises of a national idealism that’s unrealistic. I think we put too much responsibility on our United States president. I think the black church didn’t do enough to remove messianic expectations from the presidency of Barack Obama, and I’m concerned that white evangelicals will make the same mistake with the President-elect Trump.
Matthew Watley, pastor of Reid Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, said, “We are in a powder keg moment, and I’m prayerful that the church will lead at this moment; however, I do have grave concerns that our evangelical brothers and sisters on the conservative white side who have yet to find voice and have yet to move forward in speaking against these things.”
Jo Anne Lyon, former head of the Wesleyan Church and a White House advisor on faith-based partnerships, questioned the prevalence of civil religion in American discourse. “I wonder if we may be heading toward a confessing church as opposed to a nationalistic church,” she said.
In the coming weeks, Birdsall will release a summary of the conversation and possible action steps for leaders to take. As he said before the call, “We must chart the way forward in the midst of a divided society, and a divided church. The role of evangelicals is being carefully scrutinized by some, and is being bitterly ridiculed by many, here and around the world.”
In the meantime, participants agreed that dialogue and prayer continues to help. “It’s time to pray for reconciliation in our Christian families, and also in our role in our societies,” said Steuernagel.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly identified Valdir Steuernagel. He is the theologian at large for World Vision International.