What Happened to ‘Evangelicals’?
How Politics Seized a Precious Word
ABSTRACT: Many Americans today associate the word “evangelical” with white Republicans, especially the large number who voted for Trump in the 2016 election. How did the word “evangelical” become disconnected from vibrant Christian faith and connected, instead, in popular usage at least, to politics and ethnicity? In part, through the movement’s increasing politicization, ethnic misunderstandings between black and white evangelicals, and the rise of polling data tracking religious demographics. The term’s evolution presents a fresh challenge to American Christians, who cannot afford to mistake this-worldly political affiliations with our heavenly citizenship.
In the wake of the 2016 election, evangelicalism went from being America’s most controversial religious movement to its most reviled one. The overwhelming support for Donald Trump among self-identified white evangelical voters unleashed a wave of vitriol against evangelicals, who (to critics) had thrown off their religious masks to reveal a racist, misogynist, and power-grabbing agenda. President Trump’s election also generated an often-acrimonious debate among scholars about whether embracing “Trumpism” was an aberration for white evangelicals, or instead a natural outgrowth of what the movement always has represented.
American evangelicals are in crisis today. This is not an unprecedented experience (few crises are), but it is a crisis with acute political ramifications. As an evangelical myself, I won’t be taking the Washington Post’s recommendation that it is time for evangelicals to “panic.”1 The Lord is on his throne, and he will accomplish his purposes with or without a healthy, coherent American evangelical community. But pastors and lay evangelicals would do well to reflect on the roots of today’s evangelical crisis, and consider how they can influence their congregations toward a better way and witness with regard to politics.
Origins of ‘Evangelical’
Where did today’s evangelical crisis come from? The crisis did not result from evangelicals just becoming political, as evangelicals have been more or less politically involved since the Great Awakening of the 1740s. And it can’t just be that evangelicals of different ethnicities seem to inhabit different political planets. Racial tension among evangelicals also dates back to the Great Awakening, when some of its leading figures owned slaves. But politicization and ethnic misunderstanding are definitely two of the key components of the problems American evangelicals are facing in this fraught moment.
The evangelical problem in America runs even deeper, however, because of widespread confusion about the meaning of the term itself. Understanding that confusion requires a quick review of the origins of “evangelical.” The Greek word euangelion, many readers will recall, just means “good news” in the Bible, so the Greek root of the term “evangelical” has been with the church since the time of Christ. During the Reformation, the German word evangelisch tended just to mean Protestant. Sometimes the Puritans of the English Reformation were known as evangelical pastors or believers, but in the era before about 1800, “evangelical” was almost always an adjective, not a noun (as in an evangelical preacher, or an evangelical sermon). One of the first instances of the use of “evangelicals” came in 1807, when a British writer referred to the followers of the late George Whitefield as evangelicals.
Still, the term “evangelical” was not usually used as a noun until the time of the founding of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) in 1942. Some evidence suggests that the founders of the NAE chose the word “evangelicals” because it was not used very often, so it could set them apart from the inward-focused “fundamentalists” of the era. By 1958, a young J.I. Packer stated on behalf of his Anglo-American cohort of believers, “We prefer to call ourselves ‘Evangelicals’ rather than ‘Fundamentalists.’” (“Evangelical” was more likely to be capitalized in England than in America. “Evangelicalism” is almost exclusively a scholars’ or journalists’ term employed in the second half of the twentieth century.)
‘Saved, Baptized, and Registered to Vote’
Packer and his English and Canadian evangelical community faced a starkly different cultural landscape than did American evangelicals. The prominence and political ambitions of British and Canadian evangelicals faded during the mid-twentieth century, while white American evangelicals found themselves with increasing connections to national political leaders. This insider GOP trend began with Billy Graham, whose remarkable success as an evangelist brought him to the attention of politicians such as Dwight Eisenhower. Graham helped to convince the former general to run for president in 1952, and Eisenhower enlisted Graham to inject spiritual themes into his speeches. Eisenhower and his vice president, Richard Nixon, had no place for evangelical beliefs in their speeches, such as the need for conversion or the authority of the Bible. They did, however, tout the value of the Judeo-Christian tradition and American civil religion. Graham (as he later conceded) got a taste for the highest echelons of political authority, and that access sometimes blurred his focus on the unadulterated gospel message. It also clouded his judgment about politicians. Graham routinely appeared with Nixon in the 1950s and ’60s, even allowing him to speak at crusades. Graham was one of Nixon’s last defenders before Watergate ended his presidency.
In 1976, evangelicals helped to elect Jimmy Carter, one of their own, as president. Carter began a streak of presidents who either were evangelicals, had an evangelical background, or knew enough evangelical lingo to speak comprehensibly to them. Democrats largely gave up on this evangelical-friendly model after Carter, although both Bill Clinton and Barack Obama did know how to speak in evangelical-sounding cadences. Ronald Reagan’s courtship of white evangelicals secured their allegiance for the GOP in 1980. Partly this was because Democrats’ increasingly extreme social liberalism squandered their potential support among evangelicals. A constellation of issues — such as anti-communism, abortion, the Equal Rights Amendment, and the threat of federal retaliation against private Christian schools that did not admit non-whites — galvanized most white evangelicals’ support for the GOP. In 1980, they defected en masse from Carter to Reagan. Reagan was affiliated with the evangelical-leaning Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Hollywood. Even though Reagan had supported liberalizing access to divorce and abortion as California governor, he charmed evangelical leaders such as the Moral Majority’s Jerry Falwell Sr., who told pastors that they needed to get their people “saved, baptized, and registered to vote.”
By 1980, certain Republican evangelical insiders were conveying to their followers that to be evangelical was to vote, and to vote Republican. The ubiquitous voter guides provided by the Moral Majority and other evangelical advocacy groups suggested that not voting, or voting for Democrats, was sinful. Some of the motivations of the Republican evangelical insiders, such as the pro-life cause, were (and are) morally right and admirable. But white evangelicals and certain well-connected religious leaders also had begun to harness the historic meaning of “evangelical” to an ephemeral, this-worldly, and often disappointing entity: the Republican Party. Strangely, the Republican nominees of 2008 (McCain), 2012 (Romney), and 2016 (Trump) did not fit Reagan’s evangelical-speaking model of a candidate. Republican operatives increasingly figured they could assume the white evangelical vote would be there for them, no matter the nominee. White evangelicals kept voting for the GOP anyway.
Distance Between White and Black
While this transformation was occurring from the 1950s to the 1980s, evangelical people of color took another path through American culture and politics. Especially for African American evangelicals, the journey looked quite different from that of whites. (Hispanic, Asian, and other evangelical ethnic groups would take on an increasingly salient role after dramatic changes to American immigration law in 1965.) African Americans had begun the long process of converting to some form of Christianity during the Great Awakening. Revivalists such as George Whitefield eventually embraced the institution of slavery, but the Great Awakening preachers also took African Americans’ spiritual needs seriously in ways that few white Christians had done before. By the time of the American Revolution, thousands of African Americans were coming to faith, even though they often wished their white brethren would give more attention to social and economic concerns such as those exacerbated by slavery. The great African American evangelical pastor Lemuel Haynes responded to the Declaration of Independence with his essay “Liberty Further Extended.” In it, he argued that the principles of equality and liberty applied more forcefully to the plight of America’s slaves than they did to the American Patriots’ fears about political tyranny.
African American evangelicals’ pleas on behalf of slaves fell largely on deaf ears, especially in the American South. Major Protestant denominations, teeming with evangelicals by the antebellum era, broke into northern and southern branches in the 1840s. These breakups heralded the nation’s schism in the Civil War. African American Christians were overwhelmingly evangelical in beliefs and piety, but they grew weary of the white-dominated, proslavery congregations of the South, where most blacks lived. As soon as the Civil War ended, blacks began creating thousands of new independent Baptist and Methodist congregations. This development set white and black evangelicalism on basically different paths for much of subsequent American history.
Moments of possible white-black evangelical cooperation appeared periodically, such as the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the early twentieth century. Many African American pastors shared white fundamentalists’ desire to defend the authority of the Bible against the teachings of liberal higher critics. But white pastors and theologians remained reluctant to include blacks in fundamentalist advocacy. Blacks further noted that white Christians who were staunch opponents of theological modernism, and of social sins such as drunkenness, were conspicuously silent when it came to the great epidemic of racist lynchings that ravaged the black South from Reconstruction to World War I.
Similar dynamics kept white and black evangelicals at some distance during the Civil Rights era. Some northern white evangelicals did support the Civil Rights movement, but most white evangelicals said little about Civil Rights. Fundamentalist and evangelical leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr. and First Baptist Church Dallas’s W.A. Criswell vociferously defended segregation until after the Civil Rights leaders had already achieved some of their greatest political reforms in the mid-1960s. African American evangelical leaders, including Fuller Seminary graduate William Bentley, founded the National Black Evangelical Association in 1963, due to the white-led National Association of Evangelicals’ reluctance to take a stand on racial integration and other Civil Rights concerns. By the 1980s, the political gulf between African American evangelicals and their white counterparts had become deep and wide. African Americans in general supported Democrats, a pattern dating back to the New Deal, while even white southerners, formerly a staunch Democratic constituency, backed Reagan’s GOP. Evangelicals, both black and white, followed broader regional and ethnic voting patterns. Blacks who seemed evangelical by belief and piety increasingly tended not to identify with the term “evangelical.” The term seemed to carry too much Republican baggage.
New Cultural-Religious Establishment
Another key component of today’s evangelical identity crisis came in 1976, when Jimmy Carter’s candidacy spawned a burst of secular media attention for evangelicals. Newsweek declared 1976 the “year of the evangelical,” and most critically, Gallup pollsters began asking people that year if they considered themselves evangelical, or born again. In one sense, this was just the next step in the evolution of news on religion and politics. In America, polls often substitute as seemingly hard “data” in the long months between actual election results. Overall, most modern polls are good at predicting electoral outcomes. Even the much-maligned 2016 election polls were not as far off as many suggested immediately after election day.2
Polls are terrible, however, at capturing the meaning of group identifications such as “evangelical.” The primary reason for this is that typical polls depend upon self-identification to determine who is an evangelical. This implies that the people polled have some common understanding of what the term means, but discrepancies in the polling data show what a faulty assumption this is. For example, in the minority of polls that do ask more probing questions about religious preferences, certain non-Protestants (Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and others) will identify as evangelicals. Moreover, it has become so common for people who do not attend church to identify as evangelicals that pollsters routinely include a substantial category for “nonchurchgoing evangelicals.” That phrase should seem oxymoronic, but it doesn’t to many religion writers.
The depth of confusion about the term “evangelical” becomes clear when people (especially whites) who don’t go to church, or who are not even nominally Protestant, will still tell a pollster they’re an evangelical. One wishes you could get into these people’s heads to see what they’re thinking. At a minimum, the erratic use of “evangelical” shows that the term has become profoundly connected to politics and ethnicity, in popular parlance. In this way, evangelicals have become victims of their own success. By the time of the Civil War, evangelicals largely controlled the Baptist and Methodist denominations, which had become the two largest Protestant denominations in America. And by the 1960s, the Southern Baptist Convention had become the largest Protestant denomination. The mainline churches also stood at the edge of a half century or more of cataclysmic decline. In terms of adherents, evangelicals and Pentecostals became the primary Protestant churches left standing in America (in spite of the mainline’s ongoing influence in elite culture-making institutions).
With “evangelical” becoming the new politicized Protestant mainstream, the term has come to represent cultural Christianity itself for millions of Americans. Especially in “flyover” country, in suburbs and small towns from Texas to Michigan, evangelical has become the new cultural-religious establishment. Establishments are perfect engines for generating nominal Christianity. Nominal Christianity is what Whitefield, Wesley, Edwards, and the other leaders of the Great Awakening were fighting against. Historically, we seem to have come full circle. “Evangelical” is at real risk of becoming code for a red-blooded, Fox News-watching white Republican who likes to think of himself as religious. He may love civil religion, but he knows nothing of the new birth.
Our Heavenly Citizenship
Don’t get me wrong: millions of real, practicing white evangelicals in America also voted for Donald Trump, with varying levels of enthusiasm. The real evangelical Trump-voter is hardly a mirage. Once the Trump presidency is over, whether in 2021 or 2025, white evangelicals will need to revisit their political commitments and their decades of attachment to the GOP. Hopefully they will do some soul-searching about what has been gained and lost. But for pastors, a more pressing concern may be the legions of Americans — some of whom are your congregants — who have the impression that something other than regeneration by the Holy Spirit has made them an evangelical. Addressing and awakening nominal Christians has always been a challenge for the church, going back at least to the Great Awakening. What is especially challenging in our day is that some of our nominal, unregenerate neighbors think that they are, in fact, evangelicals.
Pastors face a related challenge in that some in their congregation — even some regenerate believers — have placed inordinate value on the American nation and an American political party, at the expense of the global church and their heavenly citizenship. Pastors should look for every opportunity to identify with the world church — through praying for the persecuted, highlighting global-missions opportunities, and telling the stories of church members who are immigrants. Demographics suggest that immigrants will be increasingly common figures in white-majority evangelical churches in the coming years. Believers will undoubtedly have differing views about immigration policy or a southern border wall. But white American evangelicals must understand that they have a deeper commonality with a Guatemalan believer trudging through northern Mexico than they do with their unregenerate neighbor who votes Republican. We want to be good neighbors to both, but we will worship the Lord forever only with the true believers, whatever their temporal citizenship. Heaven won’t be a Republican Party reunion. Our churches should be crystal clear about that spiritual reality.
Should we keep fighting to redeem the term “evangelical”? Or is it time to put it on the shelf as an unfortunate casualty of Religious Right politics? As a biblical term, we can’t dispense with it. We will always be people bearing “good news” of Christ’s mercy for sinners. As a historical term, it points to a cloud of witnesses from every tribe, tongue, and nation who have proclaimed that good news. But as a contemporary label, Christian leaders should be judicious about how and when they employ “evangelical.” If we’re not careful, our hearers may think that the news we’re proclaiming has more to do with GOP strategy than the fate of their souls.