After Donald Trump announced this week that he’s running for president in 2024, many of my fellow evangelical Christians started bracing for more upheaval in their congregations and denominations. The situation is especially troubling because many of us haven’t yet recovered from the first Trump era.
But what if this time around, we don’t see the same levels of contention and division? And what if the potential quiet isn’t actually good news?
Upon hearing about Trump’s announcement, a contact of mine told me about the trouble in his own family. “We’ve already fought about this for seven years,” he said. “How much more can we take?” (I’m not even sure whether this person is a Trump supporter or opponent.)
Y’all know where I stand on this issue. But even many of those who disagree with me lament the fact that families are estranged, churches have split, denominations have been ripped apart, and friendships are gone—all because of politics. And now here we go again.
I wonder, though, whether the most dangerous thing might not be the arguments themselves but rather the absence of arguments.
After all, one of the most traumatic aspects of 2016 to 2021 was the sense of betrayal felt by people on almost every side of the divide. One Black Christian told me that the Sunday after Election Day in 2016, she left a church service in tears because she knew most people in her predominantly white evangelical church had voted for Trump.
“How can they say they are for me and my family and yet be for that?” she asked.
Much of the heated personal conflicts over Trump and Trumpism were caused by the vertigo that happens when people ostensibly in the same “tribe” turn to one another and say, “I don’t even know who you are anymore!”
Trump supporters often turn to Trump dissenters and ask: “Don’t you want conservative judges? Don’t you want a fighter?” Those of us who don’t support Trump say to those who do, “Didn’t you tell us that character matters? Do you really believe he’s fit for office?”
These conversations may still happen this time around, but in smaller circles where former Trump advocates feel they can’t support him anymore or former opponents decide to start backing him.
But most people know what to expect—not just from one another but also from Trump. This will be true in 2024 much more than it was in 2016 or in 2020.
The first time around, I could often assume that people really didn’t see what I was seeing. Maybe they thought that Trump’s worst features were just performative and that he’d govern differently. Or maybe they presumed the “guardrails would hold,” protected by constitutional institutions or by the “grownups in the room” around him.
But we know now how things turned out. We all saw January 6 and everything leading up to and from it. Either we think those events were a threat to the constitutional order, or we don’t.
This time, there will probably be less internal fighting in local churches over Trump because no one really expects the other side to be convinced. Many churches have “sorted” themselves out over political issues (and related questions about COVID-19 precautions, Black Lives Matter, and #MeToo).
Some of the multiethnic churches I saw most divided over these matters aren’t multiethnic anymore. Some of the multigenerational churches I saw wrenched over these issues aren’t multigenerational anymore.
In those situations, the 2024 presidential election might seem much less divisive than the last two elections because those who disagree are now gone from the church. The divisions are already formed, and for many people, they seem intractably permanent.
What’s more significant, though, is how the Trump era has already changed all of us.
Several months ago, I was talking to a college-age evangelical Christian. I mentioned that many pastors are exhausted and discouraged right now and that many of them wrongly assumed the time of upheaval would eventually return to “normal.” The young man responded by telling me he doesn’t really remember national life before it was like this.
“I don’t even know what ‘normal’ is,” he said.
Think about how accustomed we are to personal insults and “trolling”—not just from bad actors on the internet but from people in leadership. The new owner of Twitter trolls his own advertisers, stockholders, and employees. Denominational meetings and church gatherings often operate in much the same way—with leaders making statements meant to cause outrage.
We’re used to it.
Moreover, the Overton window has shifted to the point where some evangelicals can embrace white nationalist viewpoints like the great replacement theory. Their overtly segregationist ideas now result in discipline not for themselves but for those calling out the bad ideas.
Several years ago, during all the world-shaking, an older Christian leader pulled me aside with this advice: “Make sure you deal with your anger.” I responded that I wasn’t angry at all and that I really felt no ill will toward any of the people who had hurt me. He said, “What if you’re just numb?”
What if we’re just numb?
Many are bracing for more political tumult. But what if it doesn’t happen? What if our churches are more tranquil than ever? And what if that’s not so much because we’ve made peace with Donald Trump but because we’ve become like him?
In the recent midterm elections, millennials and Generation Z defied historic precedent and showed up to vote. In overwhelming numbers, they rejected election deniers in key battleground states. If we don’t see these same voters in our churches or hear their pushback in our faith communities, it likely means they’re already gone or they’ve already given up.
Perhaps I’m wrong. Maybe 2024 will be just as church-dividing and family-splitting as 2016 and 2020. Or maybe I’m wrong because we’ve reached a new level of maturity and wisdom in sorting through our divisions. But what if we’ve just adapted? What if all of us—no matter what we think of Donald Trump—are too exhausted and cynical to even be divided?
Asking these questions might be the first step to finding a different way.
Russell Moore is editor in chief at Christianity Today.