Then, the next month, Pastor Morris preached a message entitled “Still.” It began with a series of qualifications. God is still in control. There is no perfect political candidate. Voting is choosing the lesser of evils. Yes, there is gender inequality. And yes, there is a race problem in the country, though racism, implying hate, is not the right word. Pastor Morris said it was a subtler problem of prejudice.
Then he focused attention on the upcoming presidential race.
“The election,” he said, “is extremely important.”
The country is in trouble financially; a critical Supreme Court appointment awaits; one of the major parties advocates using “taxpayer dollars, your dollars,” for abortion. Evangelical Christians sit at home on Election Days, while “those who are trying to change our Constitution” go to the polls, and look at what happens: Prayer is taken out of the schools.
“We are going the wrong way,” he concluded. “We need to get involved, we need to pray and we need to vote.”
He never said to vote for Mr. Trump. But the implication in the sermon, and in the leaflets that were handed out at church, was lost on no one: that one must vote to uphold Christian values, and that the Republican Party platform reflected those values. And Mr. Trump was the Republican candidate.
Ms. Pruitt sent messages to several white couples she had befriended at the church, telling them she was going to take some time off. She had become uneasy at a church, she told them, that speaks of overcoming racism on one Sunday “and then turns around later and asks me to support” Trump, who she believed was “a racist candidate.”
One of the couples invited her to come to their house. Sitting in the living room over a plate of brownies, Ms. Pruitt explained to the wife how disturbed she had been by the clear inference from the pulpit that she should support a candidate whose behavior and rhetoric were so offensive that she could not bring herself even to say his name.
The woman explained that a Trump victory had been prophesied and handed Ms. Pruitt a two-page printout, which began: “The Spirit of God says, ‘I have chosen this man, Donald Trump, for such a time as this.’” Barack Obama, the woman continued, should never have been president, since he was not born a United States citizen. The visit ended with the woman suggesting that Ms. Pruitt’s discomfort at the church was God telling her it was time to move on.
Ms. Pruitt never went back.
Jeremiah’s family also left for good that summer, though he has heard that pictures of them still show up in church videos. They have not found a church since.
One young black woman who had been going to Gateway for some years said she has begun exploring Ethiopian Christian traditions. Another woman, a former church staff member who still goes to Gateway, cut back her attendance from five days a week to once a month, if that, and is now praying for guidance on whether to leave altogether.
Carla McKissic Smith stayed until one Sunday in March 2017, when a guest speaker, a messianic rabbi from New Jersey, spoke of the 2016 election from the pulpit, saying that it “threatened to seal the acceleration of America’s apostasy,” but that Mr. Trump’s victory was the fulfillment of God’s covenant with Israel. “It was not the Russian intervention that determined it,” he said to a congregation that frequently broke into applause and cheers. “The intervention was a bit higher.”
Three months later, Ms. Smith’s father, the Rev. Dwight McKissic of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Dallas, would introduce a resolution condemning the alt-right at the annual Southern Baptist Convention in Phoenix. Unlike the resolutions condemning gambling and Planned Parenthood, his alt-right resolution didn’t make it out of committee.
Pastor McKissic was told that racism had already been adequately addressed by the Southern Baptists, that the resolution was inflammatory and that sympathy for the alt-right was not an issue in the church. Word leaked, embarrassing the convention, and a new version of the resolution was reintroduced and overwhelmingly passed, albeit with some language changed and with an added tally of the Southern Baptists’ past efforts against racism.
“At that point,” Ms. Smith said, “I was no longer surprised.”
Mr. Trump’s win, which one elder at Gateway described as a “supernatural answer to prayer,” generated a frisson of excitement at the church. Pastor Morris told the congregation that he was one of Mr. Trump’s faith advisers. The church was a sponsor of an inaugural ball in January 2017.
Jelani Lewis, one of the two black campus pastors, knew this was creating unease among many black members of Gateway. A black deacon approached him at one point and asked how he should reconcile his trust in Pastor Morris with “some of the things that I’m seeing from the current president.” We trust in God, Pastor Lewis assured him, and we can trust in the heart of our pastor.
‘A Lack of Understanding’
As a tumultuous 2017 unfolded, Pastor Morris understood that some wanted him to address race directly.
“As I prayed about it as I talked with black pastor friends of mine, I realized I don’t really understand the depth of the pain they feel,” he said. “This is personal to them — it was history to me. I would talk to my friend and it was personal to him because it was his great-grandfather.”
In October 2017, he preached a message entitled “A Lack of Understanding.” Addressing “all the ignorant white people,” and acknowledging his own past grappling with prejudice, the pastor listed reasons that racism was evil — among them that it was an affront to God’s creation, given that Adam and Eve were probably brown-skinned. A video played of a black pastor talking of the racism he experienced as a child in East St. Louis in the 1960s. Pastor Morris concluded by urging people of color in the congregation to spread out and pray with whites in small groups.