HOLLAND — It was going to be a hard day. Keith Mannes prayed he was doing right. He got into his car and drove past harvested cornfields and “Keep America Great!” signs. He parked, walked a few steps and opened the door to his church.
A pastor for decades, he stood before a few dozen congregants. He knew them all, their histories, struggles and joys. That is the way of things here. He told them he loved them and asked for forgiveness. But he couldn’t go on as before.
Most church members supported President Donald Trump, he said, and Mannes could no longer hide his repulsion for the man he considered incompatible with Christianity.
“I am to follow the call of my heart to speak into the world as small as my voice may be,” said the 59-year-old lifelong Republican.
It was a voice, he said, that was too controversial, too divisive, for this small house of God. He gave his two weeks’ notice and quit East Saugatuck Church, south of Holland.
In this conservative region of West Michigan, a GOP stronghold where pastors and party have long united as one, Mannes’ decision rippled through the area in a battleground state ahead of a bitter presidential election.
Mannes became front-page news in the 10,000-circulation local paper. His Facebook page, long inactive, flooded with comments from strangers labeling him a “baby killer,” “heretic,” and a man who was “more worried about the social gospel than the real gospel.” Websites covering his denomination, the Christian Reformed Church, suddenly were plastered with the name of a rural pastor who until then was little known outside of his flock. He received emails of support from some seminarians and ministers calling him “courageous” for speaking the words they couldn’t.
The pastor, long filled by his faith yet fearful of sharing his beliefs as the nation was at a crossroads, felt a freedom like never before, the nervous excitement of a new path taken, and the doubt of a man who wondered if he could make any difference.
But unburdening oneself comes at a cost. After he left church that Sunday a month ago, he stuck a blue “Biden-Harris” sign in his yard. It was a small act of defiance, but it was who he was. He went inside, slumped on the couch, and held back tears.
“There goes early retirement. My pension. My friends,” said Mannes, who had spent nearly 30 years pastoring churches across Michigan and Florida. “Is it worth it?”
Across the U.S., Trump has almost unwavering support from evangelical and conservative Christians like those in Michigan, where he won by 10,704 votes four years ago. With the confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the faithful have cheered the president for delivering on a promise to appoint conservatives who might strike down abortion rights, an issue billboards advertise here as the true sign of a politician’s Christian core. Trump won more than 80 percent of the white evangelical vote in 2016, and is expected to win a similar share this year.
But a smaller group of Christians, many of them Republicans like Mannes, has crossed party and faith lines recently to stand against the president in hopes of persuading believers in places such as Holland – in a county that went 62.2 percent for Trump in 2016 – to vote differently.
Two major evangelical figures, the former president of Pasadena, California-based Fuller Seminary, Richard Muow, and former Orlando, Florida, megachurch pastor Joel Hunter, joined thousands this month to launch Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden. They say the former vice president has a more “biblically balanced agenda” than Trump despite the Catholic candidate’s support for abortion rights.
In an essay published last week, prominent Minneapolis-based theologian and preacher John Piper described Trump as leading to “destruction of more kinds than we can imagine,” though he said he would not vote Democrat, either. Months earlier, Christianity Today, a magazine founded by the Rev. Billy Graham, inflamed tensions after an editorial criticized evangelicals for supporting a man with a “blackened moral record” and “bent and broken character.”
The nature of Trump’s character was becoming more apparent to Americans four years ago, about the same time elders and deacons recruited Mannes to East Saugatuck Church. The delicate pairing of preacher to congregation seemed a good match. Mannes had spent 18 years as pastor to a rural congregation in McBain, a town of 656 in northern Michigan, after shorter stints at churches in Orlando, Florida, and Muskegon, Michigan.
Congregants at East Saugatuck worshipped in casual dress to the rhythm of contemporary music played live on guitars. Yet they believed steadfastly in the conservative traditions that could be traced to the church’s founding 150 years ago. Although those at “E.S.,” as locals call it, faced the same issues roiling other conservative Christians – questions of racial diversity, the role of LGBTQ people and faith’s place in politics – it was not a community that made headlines in Holland, dubbed the “city of churches” for its more than 170 congregations.
The church was a typical member of the Christian Reformed Church, a denomination stretching back to Dutch immigrants who settled in West Michigan and Midwestern states in the mid-19th century. East Saugatuck had a thriving Cadets program – similar to Boy Scouts – a booming Sunday school, and ran a longstanding Wednesday night free dinner series where Dutch apple crisp was always for dessert.
For Mannes, it was also a return to the area where he grew up and went to seminary, where his mother and relatives still lived, and where he could plan to retire with his wife, a mental health counselor, a short drive from the eastern shore of Lake Michigan.
“Trump’s election threw it all into question,” he said.
The president instituted a travel ban that largely targeted Muslim-majority countries. He cut refugee resettlement levels to the lowest in American history. He promised to build a wall to block illegal border crossings and painted immigrants as criminals. He stoked support for white supremacists by retweeting their memes and, at times, seemed to support their causes before backtracking to say he was maligned and misunderstood. He told a trio of Latina, Black and Arab-American congresswomen to “go back where you came from.”
In a church where congregants saw serving refugees and the poor as inherent to their biblical mission, where anti-racism was a core value, and where farmers sent proceeds to anti-hunger nonprofits, the only celebrations of the president were the times he condemned abortion. MAGA hats or shirts were seldom spotted in the building; a church service would never be mistaken for a Trump rally.
As he would with any president, Mannes offered prayers for the nation’s leader each week, as well as for the state’s Democratic governor. He visited the ill and presided over baptisms, weddings and funerals.
Faith over fear
But he noticed the Trump bumper stickers in the church’s lot, and the Facebook banners of congregants hailing the president as a hero. As the COVID-19 pandemic hit and Trump initially resisted wearing a mask and tweeted to “LIBERATE MICHIGAN!” Mannes saw “faith over fear” signs go up around town, a message that belief in Jesus alone was enough to protect from the virus. This summer, as he watched protests in response to George Floyd’s killing engulf the nation’s streets and the Secret Service pepper spray crowds so the president could be photographed with a Bible in front of a Washington, D.C., church, Mannes decided to speak up – in biblical code.
One Sunday, he contrasted Trump to a part of the Heidelberg Catechism, a pillar of the church’s faith, which expanded on the Sixth Commandment against murder: “I am not to belittle, hate, insult, or kill my neighbor – not by my thoughts, my words, my look or gesture.”
Some in the crowd scoffed at the mention of the president.
In a sermon on “Christian unity,” he told the church he knew most were Republicans who supported the president. Democrats, Mannes said, were “brothers and sisters in Christ, too, as Christ is bigger than us, and bigger than party.”
A couple quit church via text message, upset that a pastor believed a Christian could be a Democrat.
In another sermon, he told the story of the prophet Jeremiah, who argued with God and lamented the mockery he endured for sharing the Lord’s message. “His word burns in my heart like a fire. It’s like a fire in my bones,” the prophet said.
Mannes, unable to avoid speaking out on how his faith spurred him to oppose Trump, knew how Jeremiah felt.
In late August, he made an agreement with church leaders and deacons to go on “vacation” and travel solo to Charlottesville, Virginia, to take part on a 10-day walk to Washington, D.C., with Vote Common Good, a group of progressive evangelicals who aim to persuade the faithful to vote against the president. The pilgrimage marked two years since the nation saw white supremacists with torches converge on Charlottesville, chanting, “Jews will not replace us,” and “Blood and soil.”
Mannes promised church leaders to keep his attendance at the event a secret, and tried to block his face in photos. Walking 15 hours a day on rural Virginia roads, it was his first protest, his first time holding a sign that said “Black lives matter.”
When he returned, a member of his congregation confronted him.
“You’re supporting a terrorist organization,” he said to Mannes.
“I disagree,” the pastor replied, later feeling cowardly for not saying more.
The man and his wife quit the church.
Agree to part ways
At a tense church meeting not long after, Mannes knelt to pray with the elders and deacons who had hired him. They agreed to part ways.
Mannes wrote a letter to the congregation that was sent to each person’s home.
“For the past four years, I have felt deep concern in my heart and soul over our current political situation. My views differ, powerfully so, from those of most of the people in our congregation. ... Though we love and respect each other, it does get difficult sometimes for all of us. Also, my views flow out into my sermons, and sometimes that is discomforting to people. ... It has everything to do with what I believe the Bible teaches about Jesus and what it means to live before Him as the Lord, and what it means to advance His Kingdom.”
The elders and deacons wrote their own letter. Their president, Cindy Brink, read the words aloud on one of Mannes’ last Sundays, praising the pastor who had “served our church with integrity and honor” and promising to “always speak well of him.” She declined an interview request.
Since Mannes said his goodbyes, he has begun to share his opinions. He penned an essay for a blog, Reformed Journal, titled, “Why Are Christians So Mean?” He wrote another for the Banner, a newspaper covering his denomination, called “Conduct Becoming the Body of Christ,” about the “abysmal stories” he’d heard of other congregations turning against their pastors. He no longer looks over his shoulder when he describes the president as “evil.”
He meets with a group of pastors like him – ones who left their churches or have considered it.
There is the man from a rural Zeeland church, the nearby city where Mannes was born, who quit his job because congregants refused to worship with masks. There is the Holland pastor who faced backlash after writing a letter to the local paper saying, “No matter how many people are murdered by white supremacists, the Republican Party always chooses to defend guns over God.”
A former minister who years ago left the denomination to join the United Church of Christ is now running in a long-shot race as a Democrat for Congress. He had acted as a guide of sorts to others facing the same transition. Mannes would often text him and his wife for advice.
“I love our people; they are beautiful Christian people. But I could never get to them,” Mannes said recently while meeting with those pastors, reflecting on their journeys. “It’s like in the story of the Titanic – the orchestra that played as the ship was going down,” he said of the church in America. “I feel, in this case, like I’ve been playing a violin as the ship is heading to the iceberg.”
At East Saugutuck, they still pray for Mannes and his wife, for God to “guide them and direct them,” as a service leader said the week after his departure.
“We may not see eye-to-eye on political values but both see eye-to-eye with the Lord. I wish politics could have been left out of the church and we could have just praised the Father as a loving congregation,” one churchgoer, Kenny Shelton, recently wrote on Facebook.
At home, Mannes – who is taking a chaplaincy class and recently interviewed for a part-time job to counsel younger, less experienced pastors – also prays. He asks God to take care of the congregant who had hip surgery, the couples in church struggling to find jobs, the elders and “the extra burdens they now carry.”
Sitting in his basement with his face to the ground, Mannes reruns Acts 9 in his head, the story of Saul, who was blinded after persecuting Jesus’ followers. As he repented, the scales fell from his eyes so he could see again. He later became the Apostle Paul.
Mannes thinks of the church in America that has aligned itself with the president.
“I pray that it will separate itself from Donald Trump,” he said. “I pray that the scales will fall from its eyes.”