The 2016 presidential election has been a horror show for most Americans, but for many evangelicals and other social conservatives, it represents the failure of an entire method of political engagement. Despite a superficial claim of party independence, many of the organizations that claim to represent these people have dutifully lined up behind Donald Trump — a nominee who embodies the exact things that the religious right has been condemning for decades. The culture war hasn't just failed; the battle lines have collapsed.
Instead of disengaging from politics or trying to retrench into the old lines, a new group of evangelicals wants to change the terms of engagement. Launched earlier this month, Public Faith, founded by professor and writer Alan Noble and former director of faith outreach for Obama's reelection campaign Michael Wear, is trying to chart a new way forward. Rather than thinking about the public sphere as a battleground to be won or lost — as a culture war — Public Faith wants to see it as the neighborhood commons. It's a change in mind-set, Noble told MTV News. "How we can live peacefully with our neighbor insofar as it's up to us? That doesn't entail denying our core convictions, but it does mean that when we go into conflicts, we're recognizing that our neighbors do not share our fundamental values."
The failures of the old, antagonistic approach have been around for a long time, but the rise of Trump has made them more explicit to many evangelicals. Trump's candidacy has largely dispensed with the topics of faith and family that are central to social conservatives. He rarely brings them up at all, in fact, and when he does, it's obvious that he has no idea what he's talking about. "They've put very little behind faith outreach," Wear told MTV News, "and when he does reach out to evangelicals, it's worse than when he wasn't speaking to us at all."
For the members of Public Faith, the problem is not just a departure in rhetoric and tone, though. It's also about policy. Noble said that Trump's "let's keep them all out" approach to the refugee crisis is "irresponsible, unnecessary, and frankly, unchristian." What makes it worse is that instead of criticizing Trump, many of the public faces of American evangelicalism have instead backed up his Islamophobia and xenophobia. "They've taken this issue and have drummed up fear about Muslims, immigrants, and foreigners, when there's an evangelical, theological basis for advocating for refugees," Noble said.
The issue, though, predates Trump and runs deeper than the fact that many of the public faces of the evangelical movement have gotten behind him. The concept of what it means to even be an evangelical has gotten so entangled with what it means to be a Republican that evangelicals reflexively line up behind Republicans in matters of both politics and policy. A Pew survey this summer found that 78 percent of evangelicals support Trump, which is even higher than the 73 percent that supported Mitt Romney in polls four years ago. And whatever Trump's failures as a messenger of social conservative values, 61 percent of white evangelical voters say that Trump understands them. So if Trump doesn't get what it means to be evangelical, then a lot of evangelicals must not grasp the implications of their own faith. It is as much about the guts of American evangelicalism as it is about its appearance.
Being an evangelical is also intimately tied to both whiteness and the right (most polls even go so far as to measure evangelicals by measuring white evangelicals). This complicates evangelical attempts to address the matters of criminal justice reform and systemic racism, both of which have been main focal points of political discussion for the past few years. Public Faith says they want to change that, too. Citing the work of writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michelle Alexander, the group made a statement calling for an end to for-profit policing, independent investigations into police-involved deaths, and for its members to participate in the elections of prosecutors and judges who have shown themselves to understand racial injustice.
This isn't the wholesale adoption of the sweeping reforms called for by organizations like Campaign Zero and the Movement for Black Lives, but there is some overlap. It's also a far cry from Trump's anti-black posturing and represents the other goal of Public Faith. In addition to being an outward-facing institution providing a different voice of evangelicalism, the group wants to focus inward, on educating evangelicals themselves. In this, they're competing with partisan, secular outfits. "I would love to see us releasing content for the evangelical to compete with places like Breitbart and the Blaze, who are getting evangelical traffic and shouldn't be," Noble told MTV News. "We need to reach the average evangelical, who isn't going to read policy statements."
Given how flawed a nominee Trump is and the complete capitulation of the Republican party to the alt-right fringe, it's a fair question to ask why Public Faith isn't lining up behind Hillary Clinton. For many of Public Faith's members, Wear told MTV News, the answer is Clinton's backing of the repeal of the Hyde Amendment, which prohibits direct federal funding of abortion (except in cases of incest, rape, or to save the life of the mother). For Public Faith, this is a bridge too far. "It's the most extreme stance the [Democratic] party has ever taken on abortion, and it's a very difficult thing for many evangelicals to overcome or push to the side even in light of Donald Trump," said Wear. Indeed, along with their policy statement on criminal justice reform, Public Faith's other statement has been to reject calls for the repeal of the Hyde Amendment.
This stance illustrates the central dilemma of social conservatives' attempts to become more approachable; where they see the Hyde Amendment as a product of bipartisan consensus and an acceptable compromise between groups of people who have a fundamental disagreement over abortion, others see it as an outdated and retrograde impediment to social justice. What looks like an easing of tensions to Public Faith may look like war by another name to many of the people whom they seek to build bridges with.
Nevertheless, Noble says, Public Faith wants to make the overture. "I want people who aren't evangelicals to be able to say 'OK, we can work with this group. Even if we disagree, fundamentally on many issues, we can work with them.'" But the other part of their goal, to rebuild a healthy social conservatism, might be even more important than their outward-facing mission. The rise of Donald Trump couldn't have happened without the collapse of multiple conservative institutions. The evangelical movement didn't just fail to stop him, but many factions of it sanctioned and aided him. Rebuilding institutions from the grassroots level is halting, difficult work, and Public Faith has a long road ahead.