HOLLAND — Keith Mannes has given his life to the Christian Reformed Church, serving as a pastor for more than 30 years. He’s done so happily and thankfully.
But on Sunday, Oct. 11, Mannes gave his last sermon and walked away from ministry among increasing political tension and divisiveness.
Put simply, he stepped away due to the CRC’s broad support of President Donald Trump.
While Mannes loves the congregation he served at East Saugatuck CRC for the past four years, he says the church as a whole has “abandoned its role” as the conscience of the state in support of Trump, leading Mannes to step away.
“There’s a quote from Martin Luther King where he said, ‘The church must be reminded that it is not the master or the servant of the state, but rather the conscience of the state,’” Mannes said. “That just hit me hard because I think, broadly, the white evangelical community in our country has abandoned that role.
“The question of the church largely and how it’s functioned in this moment has been really disturbing. That’s been troubling enough that I need to lay it all down.”
A divide within the faith
Mannes is not the only Christian feeling the strain. He said he knows several other pastors who are feeling the same things.
Additionally, polls show that while white Christians still favor Trump, that support has decreased.
In a poll conducted by Pew Research Center from Sept. 30 to Oct. 5, Christian support for Trump had dipped since August.
In the poll, published Oct. 13, 78 percent of white evangelical Protestants said they would vote for or lean toward voting for Trump if the election were held that day. That’s down from 83 percent in August.
White non-evangelical Protestants supported Trump 53 percent of the time in the latest poll, while white Catholics sat at 52 percent, down 6 and 7 percentage points since August, respectively.
According to Pew, 44 percent of registered voters are white Christians, making it a key voting demographic.
Why the strain on the faithful?
George Lundskow, a sociology professor at Grand Valley State University who studies the sociology of religion, said support from the religious community is tied to how people view God.
Lundskow said that while some of the president’s actions may not align with Christian values, he has aligned himself with conservative Christians by acting similar to how they see God — judgmental and punitive.
″(His actions) don’t seem very Christian, much less conservative Christian,” Lundskow said. “I don’t think it’s about that. It’s something else about religion — whether you see God as punitive and judgmental or the loving, forgiving version of God. That definitely shapes political views as well.”
Lundskow said this divide between conservative and progressive Christians based on their view of God is a point of division within the faith in terms of political support.
The professor explained that those who see God as punitive tend to support Trump, saying they see him as strong-willed for the way he attacks opponents and “punishes” people for being poor. Lundskow added that Christians who view God as loving and forgiving tend to be more liberal and progressive, welcoming immigrants and “seeking social justice” for the poor.
Years in the making
Mannes has been feeling a disconnect between the teachings of the church and the actions of the political candidate it largely supports for years. It started when Trump announced his campaign in June 2015 while descending down an escalator at Trump Tower.
“From the time he came down the escalator,” Mannes said of when he began to feel an internal struggle. “It’s only been building ever since. From the beginning I thought there’s something about this man and the instrument that he is for a lot of things that are just very not Jesus.”
He said the congregation at his church has “saved (his) faith in many ways,” but what he’s seen from Christians nationally has challenged it.
That includes when white supremacists gathered for a rally in Charlottesville, Va., in 2017 which led to three deaths and dozens of injuries, after which Trump said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Mannes was part of a group of pastors that walked 130 miles from Charlottesville to Washington, D.C., in August, hearing the stories of people there during the 2017 events.
He called Trump’s photo holding a Bible in front of St. John’s Church in Washington in June, following the use of tear gas and riot control to clear protesters from the area, a “tremendous violation of something deep and holy,” and said it was a key moment in his views.
“It just floors me how church-going people who read the Bible and sing the hymns can show up at a (Trump) rally and just do that deep bellow like an angry mob supporting these horrible things that come out of his heart and his mind. It just began to trouble me so much that I am a pastor in this big enterprise.”
While some, like Mannes, may be turned off by Trump’s actions, Lundskow said many look past them because they believe Trump was sent to be a representative of God.
“If I’m somebody who sees Donald Trump as God’s chosen representative, the leader God has chosen to bring the country back to the right direction, I’m willing to overlook his personal failings,” Lundskow explained. ”(Christians think) if he’s good enough to be God’s representative, he’s good enough to be president.”
The decision to leave
As the tension in his heart and the world around him continued to grow, Mannes said his feelings began to show in his sermons, causing discomfort for some parishioners.
Trying to keep his thoughts internalized became more and more difficult as time went on.
“What it was really doing was tearing me up,” he said. “I’ve had to be very careful to not speak about these things directly with members of the church.
“It’s not only me, but quite a number of pastors I know are just like, ‘This is it? All this preaching we did about Jesus and there’s this big of a disconnect?’ I think that’s a real burden on a lot of pastors’ hearts. I love these people, I love God, I love Jesus, I love the church, but there’s something happening here.”
Mannes sat down with the elders of his church in September to express the tensions he had been feeling. After a long and emotional meeting, they agreed it was time to part ways.
“We got down on our knees, many of us wept. It was a really hard decision,” Mannes said. “It was time for me to lovingly and with great peace and loss separate from the church. It was really crushing because I’ve given my life to the church, and thankfully so.”
‘Be the conscience’
Mannes says he understands many Christians will vote for Trump, and he will still love those who do, but implores them to think about what it means to be a Christian before making their choice.
“I would just implore anybody who claims Christ to just look very seriously at the core things Jesus called us to do and be,” he said. “Do some serious soul searching about who you’re serving and how you’re trying to accomplish that purpose in the world.”
He calls on his fellow Christians to be the conscience of the president, whoever it is, and force them to be better than the division that has become common.
“We’re supposed to be the conscience of the president and we have refused to do that,” Mannes said. “I don’t know that a church who believes in Jesus as we do, can abandon its conscience and not say, ‘Mr. President we’re calling you to better than that and you need to call our nation to better than that.’”
A few weeks prior to his last sermon, Mannes spoke with a member of the church, who asked him to reconsider his decision. The person asked him about his plans once he walked away, with no guarantee that the issue will even persist after Election Day.
“He said, ‘What are you going to do? What are you going to have?’” Mannes recalled. “Well, at least my conscience.”