In Trump era, what does it mean to be an 'Evangelical'?

For many Christian conservatives, the term 'evangelical' is now more of a political identifier than a doctrinal one – which has led some high-profile religious leaders to question or even abandon the term. 

Jae C. Hong/AP/File
Pastor Joshua Nink, right, prays for then Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump on Jan. 31, 2016, as Mr. Trump's wife, Melania, left, watches after a Sunday service at First Christian Church, in Council Bluffs, Iowa. White Evangelicals have remained among President Trump's most stalwart supporters.

For political pollsters and journalists, the term “white Evangelical Protestant” has been one of most handy demographic labels out there.

White Americans who say that they are “born again” or who self-identify as “evangelical Christian” have for decades voted consistently and overwhelmingly Republican. As a group, too, they reveal some of the most crystal-clear political positions of any subgroup out there. Making up around 25 percent of the population, white Evangelicals are the most worried about the threats posed by immigrants, by far. They are the most suspicious of Islam, by far. They are the most resistant to same-sex marriage, by far.

Which makes it very “useful as a category of analysis in sociology and political science,” notes John Schmalzbauer, a professor of religious studies at Missouri State University in Springfield. “The fact that 81 percent of people in a religious category voted for a single candidate suggests that it is a helpful way of mapping social reality,” he says about the overwhelming support white Evangelicals gave and continue to give to President Trump.

Yet even as the disruptive forces that helped propel Mr. Trump to the presidency continue to reshape American politics, a growing number of Evangelicals themselves contend the term has been both distorted and corrupted during the Trump era – a marker of politics rather than a belief system within the Christian faith.

Lately, a number of high-profile Evangelical leaders, such as Scot McKnight and Peter Wehner, have been questioning or even abandoning the term. Younger Evangelicals are starting to disavow the label. And after 8 of 10 white Evangelicals in Alabama nearly sent former state chief justice Roy Moore to the US Senate earlier this month, despite charges of sexual misconduct involving teenagers, some Evangelicals have been wondering whether the now politically-charged term has become too toxic to even have a future.

“The biggest issue about the word ‘evangelical’ is whether it should be a political identification for an ethno-religious group, or whether, if you look at it from a worldwide or historical perspective, you see that evangelicalism has hundreds of different kinds of expressions,” says George Marsden, emeritus professor of history at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana, and a leading scholar of evangelicalism.

“As a religious designation, it’s become very confusing here in America to use the term evangelical,” he continues. “Every time you do, you have to clarify, well, you don’t mean just white Evangelicals of a particular sort.”

Indeed, as Professor Marsden and other evangelical scholars point out, historical evangelical beliefs span a much wider range of ethnic groups and include those within a number of very different cultural traditions. From staid Calvinists to rollicking suburban megachurches to old-time Baptists in Appalachia, evangelicalism can describe a kaleidoscope of styles and themes. It also describes the faith of most black and Hispanic Protestants, groups who vote Democratic, and who usually don’t emphasize the term. As a movement, evangelicalism is also growing rapidly in developing regions around the world.

For many scholars, the term ‘evangelical’ simply describes a set of traditionalist Christian beliefs, not a political movement per se. Citing a standard set of four core beliefs, described by the scholar David Bebbington in the 1980s, they note that Evangelicals have always claimed the primacy of the authority of the Bible – in contrast to mainline Protestants, who say some parts are obsolete, or to Catholics, who maintain the equal authority of tradition and the church’s magisterium of bishops.

Evangelicals are also characterized by their emphasis on salvation through the death and literal resurrection of Jesus Christ, and the need for a personal conversion experience. This experience, then, should be shared with others for the purpose of evangelism, as well as various forms of social engagement and help for the poor.

“Being evangelical doesn't entail or imply any particular political position,” says Marsden. Rather, evangelicalism is a religious stance on certain doctrinal issues, which could have any number of political implications, depending on the context.

A religious or cultural label?

For some Christian conservatives, the political behavior described by journalists and political pollsters misses the essence of true, church-going evangelicalism. As Russell Moore, president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, the nation’s largest evangelical Protestant denomination, said last year: “Secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of ‘evangelical,’ seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities” – including many of those who comprise Trump’s evangelical advisory board.

“Part of the problem with the political identity of evangelicals is that typically the questions that pollsters ask are, ‘Are you a born-again or evangelical Christian?’ ” says Marsden, “and you have all sorts of people who say, ‘I guess so.’ ”

“That makes it seem that groups of Evangelicals are bigger than they actually are,” says Marsden. “And it also invites all sorts of people who aren’t very deeply religious to say that they are in this cultural group.”

With a more ethnically diverse and theologically-focused definition of evangelicalism, the movement may not seem so politically uniform, scholars suggest.

“The crisis over the ‘evangelical’ label is a crisis for the 20 percent of white Evangelicals who did not vote for Donald J. Trump, as well as the lion’s share of nonwhite Evangelicals,” says Professor Schmalzbauer. “White Evangelicals who sympathize with Trump’s rhetorical defense of white Christian America and his religious nationalism are not worried about the future of the evangelical brand.”

“The soul searching and agonizing is among moderate to progressive Evangelicals, Latino and Asian-American Evangelicals, and evangelical scholars – especially those who do not ‘pray Republican’ or who reject the Trump takeover of the Republican Party,” he continues.

Impact of cultural anxieties and threats to power

Even so, a number of other thinkers reject the move to limit the definition of evangelicalism to faithful churchgoers or an exclusive focus on doctrine and beliefs.

Cultural change and perceived threats to political power, in fact, have long defined the anxieties of many white evangelical Protestants. After the Scopes “monkey” trial in the 1920s, many Evangelicals began a withdrawal from the country’s political and intellectual life as “modernist” ideas and Darwinian science became cultural norms – leading to the emergence of a separatist fundamentalism.

“In the 1920s, ‘respectable Evangelicals’ were distancing themselves from the fundamentalists,” says Tim Gloege, author of “Guaranteed Pure: The Moody Bible Institute, Business, and the Making of Modern Evangelicalism.”

A similar dynamic occurred in the 1950s, he says, when a group of “neo-Evangelicals,” including figures like the theologian Carl F.H. Henry and the evangelist Billy Graham again tried to distance themselves from their fundamentalist peers.

But both movements converged in the 1960s when it came to politics. Historians such as Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer, also a leading scholar of American evangelicalism, point out that the rise of the religious right, especially in the South, was a reaction against the desegregation of the public school system and the rise of the private Christian academy.

And since emerging as a particular political force with the election of Ronald Reagan, who many still revere as a virtual saint in American presidential history, white Evangelicals have also for decades voted consistently and overwhelmingly Republican, using terms such as the “moral majority” with a particular “focus on the family,” even as many became aggressively active in various culture wars over abortion, prayer in public schools, and vouchers for private school choice.

“It’s hard to talk about modern, 20th-century American evangelicalism without putting race at the center,” says Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich. “And so it’s not just a pure doctrinal matter.” 

If people identify as being born again or as an evangelical, this means something to them, she says. And in addition to faithful church attendance, there’s also what she calls a “culture of consumption,” in which popular evangelical media, books, movies, and music, often promoted by the television personalities other evangelicals like Mr. Moore of the Southern Baptist Convention dismiss as buffoons and heretics.

“I look at the last half century of American evangelicalism, I find as a defining feature the desire to claim cultural power,” says Professor Du Mez. “And along with that comes a Christian nationalism.”

It’s a political emphasis that has driven scholars like Bill Svelmoe, chair of the history department at St. Mary’s College in Indiana and a former Evangelical and Republican, to reject both identities.

“If you don’t know these eternal truths of evangelicalism, or you commit to other beliefs, it’s not that you’re just foolish or mistaken,” he says. “No, you’re wrong, you’re in error, and this error will likely cost you eternally.”

“If you move with that approach to the world, and wholeheartedly embrace one side of all political arguments, then what happens is, as you plant your flag over the Republican Party as the party not just with the right ideas about abortion, or even ideas about the economy, it becomes the moral party, God’s party,” Professor Svelmoe continues. “And now you have to defend everything with a religious fervor. And the folks on the other side are now your enemies, they are on the Devil’s side.”

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