Recently, someone who presents himself as “religiously unaffiliated” asked: “Aren’t you evangelicals really just the Republican Party at prayer?” We are good friends, so I responded: “Who’s ‘you evangelicals,’ you none?”
For those readers who don’t have cable TV or Internet, don’t read newspapers, or who live in West Texas, “none” is a sociological designation used by pollsters like Pew and Gallup, or by fretful pastors explaining the huge sucking sound from Sunday worship to Sunday soccer, delineating those Americans who consider themselves to have no involvement with organized religion. Right now “nones” top out at one in five Americans overall, and one in three millennials, ages 18 to 35. There are about as many U.S. “nones” (21 percent) as there are white evangelicals (23 percent).
But enough about the “nones.” What about “you evangelicals?” For myself, I’d testify to keeping my distance from the word in describing my own pilgrimage of faith. The reasons are perhaps more pragmatic than theological. From my earliest memories, the words Christian and Baptist have shaped my life considerably and are about as much of a gospel label as I can handle. Some days they are blessed sources of faith, hope and love — heartwarming encounters with grace. On other days, I run from those two words like the plague, fearing I’ll never live up to their prophetic challenges, or because they provoke a lover’s quarrel I can’t seem to reconcile. For better or worse, adding evangelical to my historical-theological-ecclesiological (and political!) identity would simply wear out my already weary soul. So, where the three terms — Christian, Baptist, Evangelical — are concerned, I’ve decided two out of three ain’t bad. Or at least that will have to do at this stage of my spiritual life.
This election year, the term evangelical has lots of evangelicals in a quandary. At times it seems more problematic than beneficial, if for no other reason because in the media and the culture the word evangelical seems less a theological conviction than a political brand. In much print, cable and social media, evangelical is closely associated with a religious subgroup in one particular political party, fueling my secular friend’s view that all evangelicals represent the “Republican Party at prayer.”
While that’s a gross generalization, truth is, some evangelicals have been going steady with the GOP for years, dating at least from the 1980s with certain “new religious political right” groups like Religious Roundtable and Moral Majority. Even then intra-evangelical debates regarding conviction and expediency arose over whether to support divorced actor Ronald Reagan or Sunday-school-teacher-incumbent-President Jimmy Carter. Those debates continued through the 2012 election when Franklin Graham removed Mormonism from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association list of “unchristian” communions, a sign of support for Mitt Romney.
This year the Trump candidacy has created a considerable tremor in the evangelical force, with Jerry Falwell Jr. endorsing and introducing Trump at the RNC, and Southern Baptist ethicist Russell Moore disgusted enough with such culture-compromise to advise eschewing the word evangelical altogether. A new CNN/ORC poll suggests 76 percent of “white evangelicals” have decided to vote for Trump.
So who is an evangelical? Historian David Bebbington proposes a widely recognized “quadrilateral” for understanding the movement, including: 1) Biblicism, devotion to the authority of Scripture; 2) Cruci-centrism, commitment to the centrality of Christ’s cross; 3) Activism, evangelization and response to human need; 4) Conversionism, calling for personal experience of God’s grace through Christ. Bebbington describes evangelicals in general but not in particular. His helpful traits are broad enough to drive a church bus through, so others are divvying up the differences.
Ethicist David Gushee adds specificity to Bebbington’s list with another quadrilateral, including: 1) Doctrinal, evangelicals stressing theological orthodoxy (Spokesman: Al Mohler); 2) Missionary, evangelicals promoting global evangelism (Billy Graham, et. al); 3) Lifestyle, evangelicals concerned for social engagement (Shane Claiborne’s urban ministry); 4) Political, evangelicals pressing their agendas in the public square (Operative: Ralph Reed).
Writing for CNN, Daniel Burke lists seven subgroups with diverse, even contradictory, evangelical visions: 1) Old Guard Evangelicals promoting America as a Christian nation; 2) Institutional Evangelicals connected to megachurches and conservative denominations; 3) Entrepreneurial Evangelicals with television ministries, many advocating a prosperity gospel; 4) Arm’s Length Evangelicals hesitant about direct political engagement; 5) Millennial Evangelicals offering new generational approaches to social/theological issues; 6) Liberal Evangelicals leaning left of center theologically and culturally; 7) Cultural Evangelicals reared in the tradition, but increasingly disengaged from it. Clearly evangelicals are no monolithic socio-political movement.
Perhaps the Trump candidacy creates a powerful if awkward moment for evangelicals to take stock of the relationship between their political affiliations and their theological non-negotiables. When I read that Falwell Jr. and Trump shared affinity for the music of Elton John, I knew that “conservative evangelicalism” had renegotiated itself considerably. At one time, just listening to Elton’s music would have gotten Junior “churched” (thrown out) by his father’s Bible Baptist Fellowship fundamentalist-evangelicalism, for succumbing to “hellywood” corruption.
Whatever else, conservative Christians who vote Republican, and other evangelicals who don’t, have their work cut out, if only because popular perception increasingly links their entire movement to a specific religio-political sphere. Recent Trumpian alignments seem to call the entire evangelical witness into question. Speaking only as a Christian and a Baptist, I think evangelical ideals are worthy of such a debate. And soon.