My parents are conservative evangelical Christians. In most ways, they are what you’d think they are. They identify as republican and pro-life. They think being gay is a sin and likely a choice. But something snapped during the 2008 presidential election. When John McCain, who does not identify as Christian, trotted out Sarah Palin as his running mate with the obvious goal of winning over evangelical voters, my parents suddenly saw the light. Or “a” light, anyway. It was crystal clear to them that Palin was, in a word, "dumb." They wondered how anyone could not see this. Most of their beloved church friends thought she was amazing. The ploy worked for those folks. The addition of Palin to the ticket was all most evangelicals needed to turn out to vote. Dumb worked.
My parents voted for Barack Obama. Both times.
If I could bottle whatever magic or science caused my parents to see this one truth in 2008, I could save the world. But as it is, a little less than half of the voters of the 2016 election thought Donald Trump would make a good enough president. Carried by the evangelical vote, Trump eeked out enough electoral votes to overcome a 3 million popular vote deficit to Hilary Clinton, and our world is about as fucked as it’s been in the past 100 years or so.
My parents go to their evangelical church every Sunday, wondering how in the world almost all of their beloved friends, most of whom are educated and wealthy, could think Trump is a great man and president. For them it must be like seeing the Matrix for what it is. Every lie and absurdly stupid remark confounds my parents. They call me and ask me if I saw the latest lie or crazy thing Trump said. They are incredulous. Most of us have stopped being surprised, but to my parents, everything hits too close to home because most of their community doesn’t see what they see.
And here is my point. My parents wonder at how I’m not surprised, both at Trump’s lies and the inability of evangelicals to see them. My answer? For one, they don’t understand the theologically hollow, intellectual vacuum that is their own evangelical world, but also…
I worked at Azusa Pacific University as an English professor for 15 years. Even at a flagship evangelical university, truth is dictated by fleeting feelings and assumptions about the world.
So as not to make this into a book, which I have already written, I’ll give this one example of what I’m talking about.
I had a student in my Introduction to Literature class who came to me early in the semester and told me his mom had cancer, and he had to take her to the doctor often. He said he would be missing some classes. I asked him how many classes, and he said he didn’t know. My own mom had gone through breast cancer treatment, so I was sympathetic to his situation. But the red flag was that he didn’t know what kind of cancer his own mom had. Figuring he was just a typically ignorant 19 year-old, I let that slide. I told him to let me know when he would be missing, and we could come up with plans to keep him up with readings and assignments.
He never showed up or contacted me again until the last week of the semester.
I got a panicked email from the boy right before finals. I basically told him we couldn’t do anything about the semester since he never came to class or turned in a single assignment, which were 2 papers, a midterm, and the upcoming final. Not to mention he hadn’t heard about 12 weeks of my brilliantly enlightening lectures.
Obviously, he didn’t show up to the final. But after finals week, I was notified by the Dean’s office that the student and his mother were complaining about me that I was being unfair during a difficult time for them. I was asked to extend “grace” to the student and let him turn in the missing work. So, I reluctantly did.
A week later, I received the following. The two papers: Each “paper” he turned in were one short paragraph of three sentences summarizing one of the texts. The paper topics asked students to take three of the readings and do various analyses about literary terms and cultural themes. So, a total of six sentences were turned in for the two papers. No sentence came close to addressing any of the paper topics. According to my detailed rubrics I used to grade those papers, he got zeroes on both.
The midterm had two essay questions to be chosen from five topics. Each answer was to be about a page. He wrote two sentences. One for each essay question. One of the sentences was just a word salad which included the title of one of the stories and some random words.
The final had fewer sentences than the midterm.
After “grading” all the semester’s work, I went to work calculating the final grade to be a whopping “0” for the semester. The “F” seemed generous, as “failure” implied some kind of attempt made.
A week later, I got a call from the Dean’s office. The mother, apparently a friend of the school, wanted to meet with me and the Dean to justify my grading. Apparently, she was quite upset.
I went to the Dean’s office with the boy’s work, along with examples of other student work from the semester. It seemed like overkill, but I knew what school I worked at. I knew that at an evangelical university that openly taught the “Prosperity Gospel,” I was the employee and the mom was the paying customer.
The mom came in looking vibrant. I know not all cancer patients lose their hair, but she was fiery and seemed completely healthy. I told her I was sorry to hear about her cancer. She looked confused for a moment and looked over at her son. Then she looked back at me and said, “Oh, um, thank you.”
She then lit into me saying she was once an English teacher who had personally educated her son, who she knew to be very bright. She accused me of having some kind of prejudice against her son and demanded to know exactly how I gave him an "F" for the semester. She looked over at the Dean (who was an interim Dean that semester), and made some accusatory remark about the hiring practices of the school. The interim dean smiled and said he was sure I had a rationale for the grade I gave. But that was all he would say for the meeting. I was on trial, and there would be no support from my administration that day. Not that I needed it in this case.
After the mom was finished, I pulled out the “work” her son had submitted. I showed her the “essays” he had written. I even read them out loud, which took about 15 seconds. I showed her the essay prompts and pointed out the word count requirements, of which he was about 950 short each, and the topics he was asked to consider. She took the single page of the “essays” from me and read them herself. After another 15 seconds, she was done, but she must have sensed that reading two college essays should take longer, so she kept staring intently at the page for another 15 seconds. Then she looked directly at me and said, “This is good work. I don’t know how you can give this an “F.” After I put my eyes back into my head, I pulled out a few essays students had emailed me during the semester. I had crossed out the names, but I showed her how each one was approximately five pages long. They had something called, “thesis statements” and different paragraphs which cited the texts. They also happened to directly address the topics.
I shot a pleading look over to the interim Dean, hoping he could give a ruling and dismiss us. He smiled and nodded for me to continue.
I showed the mom the midterm and final. A total of five sentences, none of which addressed the topics given. Just short, completely wrong, summaries of one short story each. I pointed out that one of the boy’s “answers” didn’t even come close to summarizing the story he had chosen to write about. He had clearly hoped I wouldn’t read his sentence. Or maybe he had hoped that I, too, had not read it before assigning it.
“This is good work,” the mom repeated, though with a little less bravado.
I shot a now angry glance at the interim dean. He smiled and nodded.
I asked the mom, as an English teacher, if she could see the difference between the five page essays that fulfilled the requirements of the assignment and her son’s single paragraphs of three sentences. She started to crack, as I held the papers up next to her son’s “work.”
“Mmm…ok,” she relented. “But don’t you think an “F” is being a bit harsh?”
It took all my strength to not destroy the room and to calmly tell her that, no, I did not think it was too harsh.
After an awkward silence, the interim dean asked if anyone had any other questions. We filed out of his office in silence. I was proud of myself for not swearing, even once, during the meeting. I don’t believe in god, but it’s moments like this that force me to consider the possibility of his existence. I was never able to bring myself to speak to that acting dean again. Amazingly, truth won the day, thanks to my ability to point out and make clear what would have been obvious to a five year-old.
Just so we’re clear at this point: The student's work= Trump, and the mom= evangelical Trump supporters.
APU considers itself a “flagship” evangelical university. I would really hate to see the ships at the back of the evangelical university armada.
This is but one of dozens of similar stories I could tell about life at a APU.
So, when my parents ask me how I can be so unmoved at both Trump’s lies and the evangelical world’s steadfast love and admiration of Trump, I just tell them: I’ve seen it all before, and I’ve come to expect this behavior from evangelicals.
Of course you could argue that we all have blind spots. Bernie can do no wrong to some people. Evangelicals, one might say, are just human like everyone. But no. No one can look directly at a bald-faced lie and see it as truth like evangelicals. Most of them cite their bible for things they haven’t read…because it’s not in there. The recent story about the wedding center that denied an interracial couple their services is an example. The owner made her “biblical” decision to be a racist and lost business based on something that is not in the bible. When it was pointed out to her that interracial marriage is not prohibited by the bible, she changed her mind. She is a middle-aged woman who went her whole life never checking to see if what was being told to her by her racist pastors was actually in the bible. Why? Because it reflected her racist own worldview. And if you try to argue that this woman is some kind of outlier in the evangelical world, I submit the 80% of evangelicals who voted for and continue to support Trump.
I haven’t even brought up the racial components to the student and his mom’s accusations about me. He failed other classes with white professors, but his mom chose to fight me.
“Beauty is truth and truth beauty,” wrote Keats in his poem, “Ode On a Grecian Urn.” And while we may argue that truth should stand the test of time both in form and function, most evangelicals would simply define “truth” as the thing that suits their emotions and needs in the moment. Right now Trump represents and reflects their sense of beauty. But nothing Trump says or does will be reflected in timeless beauty and truth on something like a Grecian urn to be found centuries later. A preserved box of blonde Grecian Formula, on the other hand…
For now, my parents have to learn that truth, however contrasted by their faith and their community, is bigger than the horror they feel. But that will require them to look closely at their faith and their community. I don’t think they are willing to do that. Sometimes, dumb wins.