Evangelical Christian Racial Identity Development and Theology in the Age of Trump

Social psychologists speak of multi-stage processes of racial identity development among People of Color and conscientious white allies.  I have experienced this process myself (indeed it is continual), and it can be complicated, exciting, joy-filled, painful, and non-linear—all that same time. That being said, here are some common patterns:

  1. Conformity to dominant culture.  A POC like myself who grows up in a predominantly white community will first conform to white cultural norms and try to fit in.  

  2. Dissonance.  After reflection and further cultural exposure, a POC may grow an awareness of their cultural distinctiveness and begin to question their previous beliefs.  At this stage, a person starts to get “woke.”  

  3. Resistance and Immersion. Following a period of dissonance, one may reject dominant culture altogether and develop a sense of activist militancy. We immerse ourselves in our distinct cultural heritage(s), perhaps for the first time. It can be a beautiful rediscovery of our cultures of origin. The social justice journey is exciting!

  4. Introspection: After a period of resistance to the dominant culture and immersion in our unique cultural heritage(s), we come to realize the need for personal autonomy in our identity.  E.g.,”Yes, I am proud to be Chinese and Mexican, I love my culture and am profoundly committed to social justice, but I am also an individual with many layers of identity.” This is an introspective stage.

  5. Integrative Awareness:  in this phase, we realize that cultural identity and participation is not a binary.  We can appreciate the value of multiple cultural systems, and become cognizant of their respective strengths and weaknesses. Though perhaps we live our lives mostly in one cultural framework, we can come to navigate both with integrity.   

Among conscientious whites, a similar process takes place, one in which “white guilt” often occurs.  

To be certain, these are not definitive models, and I am no social psychologist. They do, however, offer some valuable insight into the current process of racial identity development being experienced by many young adults who have shirked the evangelical religious label.  

In the current Trump era, I have observed many evangelicals of Color, as well as conscientious white evangelicals, proceed through this process of racial identity formation—some for the first time.  Some are at the stage of dissonance. They ask things like: “How can I be an evangelical Christian when most white evangelicals seem like they want to deport my mom and dad?  How can I be an evangelical Christian when most of my fellow students at my Christian college conflate Trumpism with being a Christian? How can the members of my church not “get” the reality of police brutality and the prison industrial complex?”

These are extremely valid questions, to say the least.  And such dissonance is in fact very biblical!  More than 2,000 verses of Scripture speak of God’s love of justice and concern for immigrants, the poor, and all on the margins of society.  Something is extremely wrong with U.S. evangelicalism when the vast majority of its adherents view Donald Trump with resounding approval.

While many young adult evangelicals are currently in this phase of questioning and dissonance, some have moved on to resistance and immersion…

This resistance and immersion takes many forms. For some it means attending an immigrant church, a Black Church, or connecting with Native American Christian expressions. It can also include exploring, for the first time, Black theology, Latina/o theology, Asian American theology, or Native American theology. This is fantastic! Reading authors such as Justo Gonzalez, Elizabeth Conde-Frazier, Oscar Garcia-Johnson, Juan Martinez, J. Cameron Carter, James Cone, Willie Jennings, Kathy Kang, Soong Chan-Rah, Alexia Salvatierra, Richard Twiss, Randy Woodley, Sandra Van Opstal, Dominique Gilliard, (and many others), transforms our theological and ecclesial imaginations and gives us an expanded vision of what Christian evangelicalism can be.

For others, resistance means not attending any church for months and opting for “spirituality” instead of formal church participation. In other words, cutting off all ties to institutional evangelical Christianity of any kind.  

From my perspective as a theological (though perhaps obviously not a political) evangelical, I am observing some deeply troubling patterns among many formerly evangelical young adults. To underscore, I believe that the intentional decoupling of evangelical Christianity from current partisan politics is important, healthy, and necessary. That being said, I have one major concern:

In appropriately rejecting the evangelical political identity which surrounds them, many are also rejecting the crucial evangelical theological foundations which are allowing the immigrant church and the church of the Global South to thrive in the face of the emaciation of white, western Christianity. We are cutting off the theological branch upon which our families and communities of Color are seated. We are throwing the baby out with the bathwater because of the traumatic association of evangelical political identity with evangelical theology.

Here is where I show my cards (for those who know me this will come as no surprise). Jesus radically transformed my life when I was a law student at Berkeley in 1996. Nothing has ever been the same.  My life has forever been made new over the past two and a half decades by the love and mercy of Christ. Central to my transformation has been my personal journey with Jesus, my immersion in Scripture, and my participation in the local church. This adventurous journey of discipleship has brought me to this place of being an activist Christian professor of Ethnic Studies and pastor. In sum, I am an evangelical and I can’t shake it.  

My process of dissonance, resistance, and immersion—i.e., the detangling of my Christian faith from the racial politics of evangelicalism—has been difficult, complicated and continual, and yet, of ultimate value. I have been the recipient of much grace from God, my family, my local church, and the wider Body of Christ along the journey. In the present moment, I am deeply concerned because I observe many of my fellow sisters and brothers struggling through this same process of spiritual reconstruction, but not knowing where to look for guidance.  

To where do we turn? 

It won’t take long for a former evangelical to discover that many of the theological options out there are even “whiter” than those they may have left. There’s a straight line which points from the Enlightenment era of old white men in whigs in Germany to many of the theological alternatives which we will encounter.  After spending just 5 minutes listening to a podcast in Biblical Studies from a white male professor from Stanford or Yale, I find myself revolted by a deep intellectual hubris and whiteness which is enough to offend every theological bone I have inherited from my mother, father, abuelita, PoPo, and Gung-Gung. My grandparents did not face death in China for preaching this Christian message of white, male academic elites. It’s a crazy theological world out there. It leaves many deeply confused and spiritually fractured.  As a UCLA professor for more than a decade, I’m not trying to be anti-intellectual, and of course there are important things to be learned from the world of religious studies, as well as other theological traditions. That being said, to put it plainly, not everyone believes that Jesus was the Son of God who loves us and came to transform every aspect of ourselves and the world. Nor do most people find it credible that the Bible is God’s inspired Word and love letter to us. That is certainly their prerogative, but I could never deny the personal transformation I have experienced in Christ, nor the power and authority of the loving Word of God which has been my guide.

Another danger I see is the romanticization of secular activism on the part of many erstwhile evangelicals.  I have lived in the world of secular activism on a daily basis long before Donald Trump was ever elected president. There are many good things about it, and I have friends who are amazing organizers (Christian and otherwise) in this realm. I have learned so much from them, and secular activism has been the conduit of many incredible social justice wins like DACA.  That being said, as any seasoned organizer will tell you, this world of activism can be brutal and extremely divisive.  Indeed, I have been personally attacked by it because of my faith in Jesus. Love of enemy and non-violence of heart and action is not a method for many,  nor is the beloved community of all peoples and cultures usually the stated goal.  

I recently spoke to a friend of mine about the romanticization of secular activism which I see happening on the part of many Christian young adults. This friend is one of the leading Christian organizers in the nation, and this is what they told me (to paraphrase):

“What can sadly happen is that Christians go to the world of secular organizing, spend a short time there, and then get burnt out. They quickly learn that it was not all they expected and that it is even more brutal than the religious world they left. Then, at the end of the day, they are left with nothing. They have neither their Christian faith, nor social justice.”  Qué pena. My heart is grieved. What a tragedy before us.