During this year’s Christian Holy Week I have been pondering how the majority of American white Christians have become so deeply enculturated.

“Enculturated” means the views and values of the dominant culture shape how a person thinks, believes, and behaves more than anything else.

White American Christians showed just how enculturated they are when most of them supported Donald Trump’s election and presidency, especially white male Christians.

How did they not understand that in supporting Trump, who he was, what he stood for, what he said and did as president, that they were not only betraying the teachings of Jesus, they were mocking what it means to be Christian?

I’m not talking about evangelicals. They’re a lost cause because they have been inoculated with a distorted gospel that not only contradicts, but undermines the life and teachings of Jesus. They are not the future of American Christianity because that kind of Christianity has no future.

I’m talking about white mainline, main stream Protestants and Catholics, fifty-two percent of whom supported Trump in 2016 and again in 2020 (Pew Research Center).

How did these people get this way, reach the point of being unable to recognize such base hypocrisy in themselves?

I remember wondering the same thing about Christians and the churches they belonged to in my hometown and throughout the South during the days of segregation and evidence of raw racism everywhere. How did these white Christians attend church all their lives and make no connection between the words of Jesus and their racist views?

What accounts for the fact that people can attend church, but never allow the words of Jesus to penetrate their attiudes and actions?

There is, of course, no single (or simple) answer to my question, but I want to suggest one that seems to me to be foundational to all the rest.

I think the root cause of this problem is that their churches have not taught their members that the Christian community is a theocracy rather than a democracy.

They have not learned that the values Jesus taught and lived are not up for debate. They are not discretionary.They are not even difficult to understand, just difficult to live. And living by them is not optional. It is an imperative.

Somehow many church members have come to believe they get to pick and choose what to follow and what to ignore. What is more, they think they have the right to expect the church’s message to make them feel good, make them comfortable, and asks them for no significant sacrifice in the way they live, work, or play.

They also believe the Christian gospel is compatible with the values of American capitalism, the values of the American dream, the values of the American success story. Any teaching or preaching that attempts to stretch them in uncomfortable ways by asking them to examine their social, racial, economic, or political views is both resisted and often resented.

In short, they want a church that for all practical purposes belongs to them much the way corporations belong to stock holders.  

Bishop Oscar Romero of El Salvador once said, “A church that doesn’t provoke any crises, a gospel that doesn’t unsettle, a word of God that doesn’t get under anyone’s skin, a word of God that doesn’t touch the real sin of the society in which it is being proclaimed — ​what gospel is that?”

Sad as it is to say, it’s a gospel white American Christians have been hearing since the founding of the country.  

Today evangelical preachers don’t preach the gospel for which Bishop Romero gave his life because they don’t know anything about it.

On the other hand, mainline preachers do know what Bishop Romero was talking about, but in too many instances don’t have the courage to teach and preach it.

Some do tell the truth to their members and we can be thankful for their integrity and courage, but the fact that the majority of white Christians support politicians with no integrity and policies with no compassion suggests not enough do.

Sometimes these preachers will call people to love, to do justice, to show compassion and the like, but it’s all too general to equip church members to apply the words of Jesus to specific issues.

This failure of white churches to connect the words of Jesus with real life in America is what prompted a Baptist minister named Clarence Jordan to write The Cotton Patch Gospel in the 1960s.

To serve the cause of racial justice he changed the setting to which Jesus spoke from first century Palestine to twentieth-century America in ways that allowed white Christians to make the connection between the gospel and their racial prejudice.

Preachers today need to do the same thing, to connect the gospel to every major issue we face individually and collectively just as Clarence Jordan and Bishop Romero did.

I understand the risks involved. I’ve lived them. I’ve been cursed by church members for challenging segregation. I received letters telling me I should stop preaching politics. Members quit the church because of my sermons.

But I believed then and believe today that if the church’s teaching and preaching are not political they are useless. 

The gospel cannot and should not be partisan, but it must be political. The gospel knows no political party, but it is and has to be political if it has any relevancy in real life.

At the core of a enculturated American Christianity that supports a person like Donald Trump lies a failure of the church to teach its members what Jesus actually said and did in a way that forces them to engage in honest self-evaluation.  

A church member who happened to be a wealthy banker once remarked to me after both of us had sat through a “being stretched in uncomfortable ways” sermon much like what I am saying we need today, “The whole time I sat there,” he said, “I found myself being inwardly forced to re-examine my whole life.”

That, I believe, is the kind of teaching and preaching white American Christians have not heard enough. It is not the only reason they have failed to see the contradiction between the gospel and their own lives, but it is a major one.  

In fact, I would say that until the environment of mainline white church life in America changes so ministers feel free to teach, preach, and apply the actual teachings of Jesus to everyday life, including politics, the future of American Christianity doesn’t really matter one way or the other.