Where Do I Belong?

Rev Tim Costello

Searing insight can come from unexpected places. Take Billy Graham, the most prominent evangelist of the 20th Century, who also turned out to be a prophet for our times. Back in 1980 he was being urged to support Reagan’s candidacy for President by Rev Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority evangelicals. He refused and said, “It would disturb me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it." How true that has proven to be.

The Trump conviction in New York provoked intense tribal responses. And those responses left me asking, what do I believe and where do I belong? 

For those on the right, Trump being found guilty of a criminal offense simply provided proof that the Democrats had weaponized the justice system through a Democrat prosecutor and a Democrat Judge, and furthered their sense that the whole system is broken. For the left, the overwhelming feeling was that finally, 12 ordinary jurors had held Donald Trump accountable, having escaped such censure his whole career. To everyone around the world, on display was the utter polarization of American politics—the contempt each side shows for the other, and even the potential for a civil war in the land of the free.  

As I say, this is leaving me in something of a personal crisis. I have believed all my life that whatever the ebb and flow of history we were moving slowly towards greater justice and more democracy. It was an optimistic faith, some might say a naïve faith. 
But my experience at World Vision and in the Make Poverty History campaigns saw great generosity as the powerful West set goals like the MDG’s and made promises to increase Aid. It made a difference. So much so that this year a million fewer children under the age of five will die in our world from preventable poverty than in 2016. Extreme poverty has plummeted to 8% of the global population. The advances of health care, literacy and education for the world’s poor is equally dramatic and there is reason to celebrate. All of this became grist for my belief in progress. Surely this march to greater justice, accountability and democracy was irreversible. Despite wars and the impact of climate change, I kept this hope alive. 

But now I know that democracy is in deep trouble and there are far fewer full democracies today than a decade ago. What is more, many more nations are in deep trouble in this year of so many elections. 

I feel foolish about a hope in inevitable progress. It underpinned a gospel I preached grounded in the belief that God is at work in energizing greater justice, moderated with a realism that though we will not reach utopia this side of heaven, we are making headway. 

I now see that the global zeitgeist is for more populist authoritarian leaders who want less democracy, justice and accountability. Populist leaders who will never admit they are wrong. To them any reports of their misdeeds are just fake news. They scapegoat others - usually minorities - like Modi with his Hindutva or Hindu nationalism, undermining India’s secular constitution and targeting Muslims, Sikhs, Jains and Christians.  Populists attack the institutions of democracy like courts and the free press. They preach simplistic solutions for the nation’s troubles like cutting immigration to overcome housing shortages or heavy traffic in cities.  Populists the world over know who to blame—it is elites on the left who have rigged the system. The appetite for populism is surging and far right anti-immigration parties like Le Pen will surge in these coming EU elections. 

I recognise now my naivety, as both democracy and multiculturalism essentially cut against the grain of human experience. For 10,000 years we have essentially only known chiefs and kings and tribal loyalties. We long for authoritarian, decisive leaders who will tell us they alone can save us. Typically, they tell us the neighbours who look different from us are to be feared and resisted as an enemy. 

My second crisis is to ask myself where do I belong? As a Baptist I felt that the Christian movement, despite its great imperfections was caring for the widow, the orphan and the stranger as the Bible teaches. Many churches still serve sacrificially and magnificently. 

But the Christian support for Donald Trump has left me scratching my head in dismay. It has shocked me to learn how many Christians here in Australia are barracking for a Trump Victory. I don’t understand. In the US it is much worse. Evangelicals like Mike Johnson the Speaker of the House have massively cut US Aid to the world’s poorest. Republicans and evangelicals deny climate change and cheer Donald’s ‘drill baby drill’. They cheer whenever he demonises immigrants, promising to deport 15 million people. He describes them as vermin, polluting the bloodstream of US citizens. These are people my Bible says are loved and made in the image of God. 

It's important to understand the American context. 80% of White Evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016, but a large number of that group are evangelical in name only. For many of them it’s a political label more than an indicator of church attendance, Bible reading and other markers of adherence to the faith. But it remains the case that a huge block of American voters who identify as Christian have been captured by the political right, and the marriage that Billy Graham feared has come to pass, with disastrous consequences for the church. The politicization of the faith is one important reason young people are leaving in droves.  

In 1800 President John Adams was urged not to hand over the reins after his election defeat to Jefferson. But he taught his side of politics that the fundamental principle of democracy is to hand over power when you lose. Whatever my fellow US evangelicals think about how evil Joe Biden and the Democrats are they condemn themselves by supporting a man who denied he lost in 2020, refused to attend Biden’s inauguration (the first losing President to do this) and continuing the lie of the Big Steal. This man should never be supported by anyone who believes in democracy, where one person one vote is an expression of my faith that everyone is made in the image of God.

I feel I have lost my tribe in its 2024 expression of support for Trump. Where do I belong?

Tim Costello is a Senior Fellow at the Centre for Public Christianity

This article was first published in Sydney Morning Herald and Melbourne Age on 9 June 2024