While 81% of American evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in 2016 for a variety of reasons, others are grappling with how to maintain their faith as outspoken #NeverTrumpers. One such evangelical is Karen Swallow Prior, a professor of English at Liberty University, where one of Trump’s staunchest defenders, Jerry Falwell Jr, serves as president and recently said there was literally nothing Trump could do to lose his support).
For good reason, Prior was recently profiled in the New Yorker by Eliza Griswold. The question at the center of the piece was how Prior, a conservative Christian herself, could maintain her views while essentially working for (and being surrounded by) people who think she still doesn’t go far enough.
She is a conservative evangelical, and a member of the Thomas Road Baptist Church, which is led by Jonathan Falwell, Jerry’s brother. In her twenties, her faith was galvanized by the fight against abortion, and she believes that Roe v. Wade “could and should” be overturned. “I don’t think it’s any more settled law than Dred Scott,” she told me. Prior believes that homosexual sex is a sin. But she is also a committed Never Trumper who has decried the President’s positions on immigration, race, and women. She has called for protections for undocumented youth and defended Black Lives Matter. In May, when Paige Patterson, the former president of the Southern Baptist Convention, came under fire for having counselled women to remain with their abusive partners, Prior helped organize thousands of women to speak out against his leadership; Patterson was later removed as the head of a Southern Baptist seminary in Texas.
To outsiders, these views might seem contradictory, but within conservative circles Prior stands at the vanguard of a new movement of Christians looking to reclaim their faith from the regressive racist and misogynistic politics that have co-opted it. To underscore this distinction, she and others call themselves “orthodox” rather than conservative. Although Prior believes, as most evangelicals do, that the only way to Heaven is through belief in Jesus Christ, she challenges other commonly held positions as cultural rather than Biblical. This includes the Billy Graham rule, a practice followed by male pastors, as well as Mike Pence, which forbids them from being alone with women other than their wives. To Prior, this is encoded sexism.
For many white evangelicals, Trump’s biggest selling point was his promise to overturn Roe v. Wade — an action that would actually increase the number of abortions rather than make them disappear. Trump also won evangelical endorsement by actively harming the LGBTQ community through his policies, moves that were made to appease the Liberty wing of the GOP. Prior’s “progressive” stances don’t mean much when she’s fully behind (or at least silent about) the roots of his regressive positions.
Being a “liberal” when you have no problem swimming in a sea of conservatives doesn’t make you a progressive hero. It’s hard to tell if she’s moving anyone in her direction or if people like Falwell are just using her as proof there’s no official political agenda at his school.
Still, change happens slowly. You can’t expect conservative white evangelicals to just abandon Trump. Maybe the best we can hope for right now is for those in positions of authority to push back against some of his policies. When they see biblical justification for opposing him in certain areas, perhaps it’ll extend to other ones, too.
To put it another way, give Prior some credit for taking unpopular stances, but she has a long way to go before she sees what the rest of us figured out a long time ago.
(Screenshot via YouTube)