Politics and What It Means to Be an ‘Evangelical’

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The election of Donald Trump has elicited a great deal of frustration and dismay among non-Trumpian evangelicals. Some have suggested that the “court evangelicals” who unapologetically support Trump will drive many anti-Trump evangelicals into the fold of the mainline churches or other traditions. Trump’s election, in this line of thinking, has created in some “a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.”

I have long been on record as being opposed to Donald Trump (though Hillary Clinton was not an acceptable alternative). But this idea of people leaving their evangelical church because the majority of self-identified white “evangelicals” support Trump seems out of whack to me.

What did you start going to your evangelical church for in the first place? For me, and I suspect for most churchgoing evangelicals (in the age of Trump, we have to contend with the fanciful category of “non-churchgoing” evangelicals), the reasons to choose a church had nothing to do with electoral politics. My church choices have to do with a belief that

  • the church and its pastor adhered to the Bible as the Word of God; and proclaimed that Jesus Christ is our only hope for salvation
  • the church was dynamic, growing, outreach- and missions-oriented
  • the church had a polity and a view of baptism that accorded with my convictions
  • the church afforded opportunities for my family to get to know, and live life with, like-minded believers
  • the church was effective at helping me raise my kids in the faith

Sure, there were occasional “voter guides” around at election time in my church a number of years ago, and we pray for the nation and for our elections, but not by assuming the political commitments of our attendees. Electoral politics is hardly the center of my evangelical church life; it is rarely even on the periphery.

If politics is not and never has been the center of my life in church, why would I leave my church (for what else can “leaving evangelicalism” typically mean?) because lots of self-identifying evangelicals, including some at my church, voted for Trump? I find the political support for Trump among white evangelicals dismaying, but it doesn’t undermine my identity as an evangelical.

I understand, by the way, that the question of staying in or leaving your denomination, especially for African-American and Hispanic church leaders in the age of Trump, may raise more difficult challenges. But for most rank-and-file evangelicals, their weekly identity as evangelicals is tied to their local church far more than a denomination (if they are part of a denomination at all).

There seems to be a huge disconnect between the way that many people view evangelicalism as fundamentally political, and the way that many evangelicals experience church life, which has little to do with electoral politics. I was reminded of this point when reading reviews of Frances FitzGerald’s The Evangelicals.

I have not read FitzGerald’s book, but the general consensus seems to be it is an excellent overview of evangelical history, if what you really want to know about is the rise of the Christian Right. The book has left reviewers like Neil Young and Barry Hankins (my Baylor colleague) dissatisfied with the impression created by FitzGerald that evangelicalism is fundamentally about politics. Consider these passages from their reviews:

Young: “In the hallway just outside the sanctuary of the midsize Southern Baptist church I grew up in hung a small cork board for posting announcements and other information. Every now and then, someone would pin a voter guide from the Moral Majority or, a few years later, a pamphlet from the Christian Coalition. But most of the time the board filled up with the more pressing concerns of a church body: sign-up sheets for the women’s retreat, the month’s deacon-on-call schedule, pictures from a youth group service project, prayer requests for missionaries in Kenya or the Philippines, an advertisement for a revivalist passing through town.

A hundred years in the future, a historian finding one of those boards preserved from the 1980s or 1990s might thrill at the rich religious lives she could reconstruct from such materials, envisioning more clearly what it meant to be an evangelical in the late twentieth century. Yet the temptation for those writing about evangelicals today is to allow the political part—like the fact that 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump—to stand in for the whole. It is to make the great mistake of reaching only for that Christian Coalition handout tucked into the corner of that cork board in order to account for all of the diversity and variety within a religious tradition to which one in four Americans belong.

That is the weakness at the heart of the journalist Frances FitzGerald’s new book, The Evangelicals.”

Then there is Hankins:

“I’ve always maintained that the typical evangelical isn’t all that political. Rather, the important things for most evangelicals are: (1) living godly lives; (2) raising their children to be committed, evangelical Christians; (3) being active in their local churches; and (4) evangelizing their neighbors. They talk about issues like abortion and gay marriage in Sunday school, and on Election Day about 75 percent to 80 percent of them dutifully vote Republican, even if a pagan like Donald Trump is at the head of the ticket. They may even put a sign in their yard for the Republican congressman in their district. But the vast majority of evangelicals don’t march in the street, write letters to their congressmen and senators, run for the local school board, or attend Christian Right rallies. They’re too busy being Christians, so they leave that to the Falwells, Roberstons, and Dobsons of the world.”

Today, we might add, white evangelicals are too often represented in the political arena by the likes of Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffress, and Jerry Falwell Jr., who have decided to go “all in” with Trump and have scored many Fox News appearances by doing so.

That representation by the court evangelicals is part of the reason that outsiders have the wrong idea about what being an evangelical is mainly about. And in our controversy- and scandal-driven media, there’s little reason for a reporter or writer like FitzGerald to tell the world about evangelicals and their sermons, mission trips, vacation Bible schools, baptisms, and other rituals and routines of church life. But the fact is, those practices (and the vital presence of God in our lives and our churches) are what make us evangelicals.

If that’s what makes us evangelicals, it should pose no existential threat to our evangelical identity if, in 2016, many whites who tell pollsters that they’re evangelicals made a very poor choice for president.

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