When I was in fourth grade, I started attending a public elementary school, leaving behind the Montessori school that I had known since Preschool. For a shy kid like me, entering the public school system felt like I had stepped into the wild unknown. I didn’t know anyone in my class. I was alone and afraid.
I remember an identity project we did as a class early in the year, a get-to-know-your-classmates exercise. We were asked to create a poster with a brief personal history and a few things we liked. When it was my turn to present, I stood up in front of the class and introduced myself as “Jacob Michael Mailhot” and continued with my presentation. No one batted an eye and nor should they have. To their knowledge, nothing was amiss. My full name is Jacob Michael Ngan Mailhot.
Today, I’m very proud of my second middle name. It’s my mother’s maiden name, and therefore my Chinese family name. It represents an aspect of my identity that, as a nine year old, I desperately wanted to hide. I didn’t want to be different. I wanted to fit in. So I tried to hide my heritage from my new friends, as ridiculous as that might seem. I was denying a public-facing piece of my identity because of its social implications.
In light of the results of this election, I’m afraid to claim part of my identity again. I’m not afraid to call myself Chinese-American today. I’m ashamed to call myself a Christian. Not because of the values Jesus stands for but because those values are being twisted by the church that represents Him on earth. I don’t claim to have a perfect understanding of everyone’s position, I’m just a imperfect man trying to makes sense out of a broken world. But when four out of five white evangelical voters chose to elect a man who has shown himself to be morally reprehensible, I’m dumbfounded. Those evangelical voters chose to look past his racist, misogynistic, and homophobic rhetoric and instead looked to the promises he made while on the campaign trail. The amount of moral gymnastics some evangelicals went through to justify their support of Trump was astonishing. It breaks my heart to know there are people out there who believe a Trump presidency is a victory for Christianity.
I feel a dissonance in my heart. There is an identity crisis in the church. The second greatest commandment Jesus gave to the church was “to love your neighbor.” But the politicization of the church has led to widespread support of a candidate who has legitimized and normalized expressions of fear and hate. The amount of arrogance, pride, and hypocrisy in the church is sickening. We traded one kind of evil for another and the response has driven people farther and farther away from the church. It often feels like the church is more interested in righteousness than compassion. What happened to the church’s moral authority?
Whether we like it or not, the church is a political entity because its members are part of the polity. We assume that voting for particular candidates or a particular political party will eventually lead to the ratification of Christian morality. This is simply not how the American political system works. Ross Douthat is a New York Times columnist and author. He recently wrote a book titled Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics where he chronicles the politicization of the American church. (Here’s a talk he gave at Regent College a few years ago based on the book. You should definitely listen to it.) Douthat argues that as the church has grasped for more and more political authority, it has lost all of its moral authority. In the American political system, there will never be a candidate who will align perfectly with Christian values. To engage in the political process, a Christian must make certain moral compromises to rationalize voting for any particular candidate. “This candidate is pro-life, and even though I don’t agree with everything they stand for, they represent the issues I value most.” These types of compromises are a hallmark of democracy—no one candidate can represent every position perfectly. But when the church tries to speak into society from a place of moral authority, these compromises undermine that message.
This crisis in the church isn’t immune to the vast racial, socio-economic, and geographic divisions that are tearing our country apart. The church’s support of Trump is just the latest public outworking of these divisions that have festered beneath the surface for generations. But let’s be clear, a Clinton presidency would not have magically erased these divides either. The cultural and institutional privilege that white evangelicals enjoy is a barrier to showing true empathy and love towards anyone on the outside. But turning inward and separating from society to reconcile these divides isn’t the answer either. Spouting off platitudes like “Jesus is in control” is dangerous and dismissive of the real fears some in the church are feeling.
So where do we go from here?
First, I’d like to apologize on behalf of the church to those who feel marginalized, to those who feel targeted by hate. I’m sorry that the church has misrepresented Jesus to you. I have not forgotten you. I love you. I desperately want to listen to your fears and hopes. I need help to reconcile these divides that have driven us apart.
Second, there are good people in the church doing good things in the name of Jesus, and I’m proud to call them brothers and sisters. Do not stop striving after what is good and right and just in this world. Be encouraged that standing up for those on the margins is exactly what Jesus did and commands us to do.
Third, the church is a broken and beautiful institution. I’m angry and disillusioned with it but I’m not running away from it either. Church, we can do better. We must do better. Reach out to those on the margins. Listen to them. Be compassionate. Show empathy. Do not act out of fear but act out of love for your neighbors, especially when they look, think, or speak differently.
I’m not going to hide from these divides. More than ever, I want to step into the mess to begin this process of reconciliation. I don’t know what that looks like yet. I think it starts with listening and praying.