A University of South Florida faculty member named Christopher Stroop started an interesting and popular Twitter hashtag #emptythepews. See original thread here. His initial tweet on August 16 with the hashtag has gotten more than 1,700 likes as of September 6. #emptythepews is a call for those who remain in white evangelicalism to voice their opposition to churches who maintain a relationship to what Stroop calls “Trumpism,” the full-throated, religiously grounded support of the president. Stroop argues in that initial thread that “Evangelicals won’t respond to much, but they will respond to declines in church attendance.” So when you leave, he says, “make sure Evangelical family members and everybody in the church knows why – you are protesting their Trumpism.” In that manner, #emptythepews has become a powerful rhetorical tool that highlights the impact Trump is having in and on white evangelicalism.
The hashtag usually accompanies short vignettes of those who have suffered from what has been labeled many experts as “spiritual abuse.” The stories are not only heartbreaking but scary in that they publicize private scoldings, threats, and damnations from pastors, lay leaders, and other spiritually influential people to individuals suffering from or pushing through different life crises or identity issues. Many people have posted they have left churches after Trump-related events, both during the campaign and presidency. The stories point to a kind of authoritarianism that mirrors the demagoguery of Trump. This, along with a distrust of the media, a persecution complex that is grounded in an apocalyptic outlook, and relishing in “fights” over culture (most recently over religious liberty) are all reasons 81% of white evangelicals voted for Trump and why 65% still support him.
But #emptythepews also points to a divide between Christian leaders – both locally and nationally – and those in their pews. While Trump has suffered from a significant drop in support from white evangelicals since taking office (about 15%), only one member of Trump’s evangelical advisory board as resigned since that moment, and then only after Trump’s divisive and incoherent remarks about Charlottesville. The one who resigned noted his leaving the board was in the works long before those remarks but added “there was a deepening conflict in values between myself and the administration.” This resignation is an anomaly, compared to the growing number of CEOs who have left White House advisory councils.
Yet the pews have spoken back. After Trump’s remarks about Charlottesville, USA Today notes “Christians on social media attempted to pressure faith advisory council members to respond and resign.” The newspaper highlighted one council member, Johnnie Moore, who responded on Twitter: “No, I am not pulling out as an evangelical adviser to the White House. It’s not our job to take advice but to give it. I will keep giving it.” Another, Mark Burns, has tweeted more than once that he has been “called by God” to be one of Trump’s advisors and he would never abandon the president. For example see his August 18 tweet.
#emptythepews argues that to remain silent within a Trumpian church is complicity with, among other things, the president’s moral vacuity and an accompanying toxicity in the house of worship. Some mainline (a term usually associated with Methodists, Episcopalians, and some forms of Presbyterians) church leaders are paying attention. Glendale United Methodist Church in Nashville tweeted on August 17: “We stand on the right side of history & the right side of human rights. We talk & we walk. #emptythepews of those who don’t. #loudertogether.”
As an example of hashtag activism, #emptythepews gets high marks. It is short (only 13 characters), it is action-orientated in message, and it hits at an opportune time. Yet there are limits to any activism of this sort, the clearest being the tendency of anyone who might use it once and forget it. It is identity-making, but is it community-making or even change-making? This is why Stroop posted on his personal website a list of resources including discussion boards where further community can be organized.
The impact of #emptythepews on white evangelicals may be to harden them even more, pushing them ever further toward victimhood and support of the one who they see as their ultimate and only defender, Trump. This is why Stroop mentions that such churches “won’t respond to much.”
Or it may force a reckoning in that arena, if indeed white evangelicals want to evangelize. Or, in the words of Stroop, if they want any chance of having those who use #emptythepews as a group for evangelization, though Stroop makes clear he is never going to be in that group.) To do that, those who remain “in the pews” will have to reckon with how their identity is wrapped up in and warped by Trump. They will have to address on its terms the larger public, the democratic body that continues to question not only the president’s fit for office, but his fit in evangelical circles. In short, white evangelicalism will have to consider #emptythepews as a judgment upon itself.