The last twelve months have brought home to me the incredibly diluted sense that the term “evangelical” now holds. The political Twilight Zone of our current presidential race played a central role in that realization. The confluence of presidential politics and evangelicalism led me to see that many so-called American evangelicals are what a CNN Religion Editor, Daniel Burke, labeled as “cultural evangelicals.”
Burke described seven types of evangelicals that ranged from the “old guard” of James Dobson, Tony Perkins and John Hagee, to the “entrepreneurial evangelicals” of Paula White, Kenneth Copeland and Jerry Falwell Jr; and of course the cultural evangelicals (CEs). This last category consists, according to Burke, of individuals raised as Christian, but who don’t attend church or consider religion to be important in their lives. Yet when pollsters ask about their faith, they say they are evangelical. Tellingly, Burke commented how CEs don’t seem dismayed with Trump referring to communion as “his little cracker” or when he could not name a favorite Scripture verse.
During a speech he made at Liberty University in January of 2016, Trump said “2 Corinthians” instead of “Second Corinthians.” He made his biblical ignorance worse by blaming his misstep on Tony Perkins. “Tony Perkins wrote that out for me — he actually wrote out 2, he wrote out the number 2 Corinthians. . . . I took exactly what Tony said, and I said, ‘Well Tony has to know better than anybody.’” Perkins admitted he did exactly as Trump said. Then he remarked how this showed Trump was not familiar with the Bible.
Not surprisingly, in a Pew Research poll on Faith and the 2016 Campaign done in January of 2016, Trump was seen as the least religious of all the candidates. Although conventional wisdom says someone who is not religious cannot be elected president of the United States, both Clinton and Trump were among the three presidential candidates seen as the least religious in the Pew poll. Bernie Sanders was the third least religious candidate. The number of Americans who say Hillary Clinton is not a religious person is sharply higher than when she was seeking the nomination in 2007.
The new survey confirms that being an atheist continues to be one of the biggest perceived shortcomings a hypothetical presidential candidate could have, with 51% of adults saying they would be less likely to vote for a presidential candidate who does not believe in God. Indeed, in the eyes of the public, being a nonbeliever remains a bigger drawback than having had an extramarital affair (37% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had been unfaithful), having had personal financial troubles (41% say they would be less likely to support a candidate who had had financial struggles), or having used marijuana in the past (20% would be less likely to support a former pot smoker).
Another Pew Research poll (Evangelicals Rally to Trump) published in July of 2016, as Donald Trump became the Republican presidential candidate, indicated that 78% of white evangelicals would vote for Trump, including almost a third who strongly backed his campaign. And yet, many evangelical leaders such as Russell Moore, Max Lucado, and Erick Erickson, have said that supporting Trump for president in incompatible with evangelical principles and beliefs. Erickson said he would not vote for Trump. Ever. “Donald Trump has had no ‘road to Damascus’ conversion. He only wants to date the preachers’ daughter.”
There were no differences between evangelicals who say they attend religious services regularly (weekly or more) and those who attend less often. “Fully three-quarters of both groups say they would vote for Trump over Clinton.”
In his article for The Washington Post, Thomas Kidd suggested that what is going on is “a watering-down and politicization of the term ‘evangelical.’” He said that in American pop culture, evangelical now means “whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.” Historically, early evangelical leaders like George Whitfield and Jonathan Edwards were fighting against the idea that Christianity was mostly cultural or political. “Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening of the 18th century preached against the idea of an in-name-only affiliation, declaring you must be born again.”
He proposed three factors that have helped accelerate the corruption of the term evangelical since the 1980s. First was the success of the evangelical movement. In the 1800s, evangelicalism became the de facto religion in many parts of the South and Midwest. By the mid 1900s many Americans grew up supposing they were evangelicals, because the term seemed equivalent to that of Protestant and even “American.” This cultural environment meant people “were now born an evangelical, not born-again as one.”
Second, in the 1970s and 1980s, evangelicals began drifting away from candidates with personal evangelical backgrounds, like Jimmy Carter. This came to a head with the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. “Reagan mastered the art of talking like evangelicals and promising progress on issues such as school prayer and abortion.” From that time on, self-identified white evangelicals seemed satisfied with candidates who learned the lingo and promised good Supreme Court appointments. “This meant that the public could disassociate evangelicals from theology, or affinity with other evangelicals, and link them inextricably with GOP politics.”
The third issue and the most serious one in understanding “evangelical” political behavior is in letting respondents define their own religious affiliation. One example he pointed to was the evidence suggesting that evangelicals who did not attend church were likely to support Trump. “For those who have a deeper understanding of the term’s historic meaning, there can be no such thing as a non-churchgoing evangelical.” African American, Hispanic and other evangelicals of color are often excluded because of how the term evangelical has been associated with being white and Republican.
These vague associations have turned “evangelical” into a term that luminaries like Edwards and Whitefield would not recognize. And, more problematically, they represent a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization. That is a gospel that certainly cannot save.
Cultural evangelicals are not true evangelicals. But then what is an evangelical? The Institute for the Study of American Evangelicals at Wheaton College observed how the term “evangelicalism” is a wide canopy that covers a diverse number of mostly Protestant traditions. Originally adapted by Martin Luther as the name of his movement, in the English-speaking world, it describes the religious movements that were associated with a series of revivals in America and England during the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries.
By the 1820s, evangelical Protestantism was the dominant expression of Christianity in the U.S. Historian Martin Marty referred to a largely-evangelical “Benevolent Empire” that attempted the reshape American society in the decades before the Civil War. Cultural hegemony began to diminish after the war as American society changed from urbanization, industrialization and immigration. Millions of non-Protestant immigrants also came to America in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
Nonetheless, evangelical Protestantism remained a powerful presence within American culture (as evidenced by the success of evangelists like Dwight L. Moody and Billy Sunday). Going into the 20th century evangelicalism still held the status of a pervasive American “folk religion” in many sectors of the United States, particularly the South and certain areas of the Midwest.
Today, there are three ways in which the term evangelical is used. The first is to see evangelicals as all Christians who affirm a few key doctrines and practices. British historian David Bebbington identified four specific hallmarks of evangelical religion: 1) conversionism, 2) activism, 3) Biblicism and 4) crucicentrism. Conversionism means there has to be a change in how the person lives. Activism means effort is made to express the gospel. Biblicism has to do with a particular regard for the Bible. And crucicentrism means you stress the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.
Criticisms of Bebbington’s approach see his categories as too broad and inclusive. Yet it has become the baseline used by most scholars. Refer also to the work of the Barna Group or my discussion of it within “What is an Evangelical?”
A second sense is to see evangelicalism as an organic group of movements and religious tradition. Here, evangelical denotes both a style and a set of beliefs; an attitude which insiders “know” and “feel” when they encounter it.
A third sense came from a coalition of individuals and organizations that arose during the Second World War. Individuals like Carl F.H. Henry, Billy Graham, and Harold Ockenga; and organizations like the National Association of Evangelicals played “a pivotal role in giving the aider movement a sense of cohesion” to the movement as a reaction against the fundamentalist movement of the 1920s and 1930s.
The National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) also reviewed Bebbington’s summary of evangelical distinctives. They indicated evangelicals were a diverse group that cut across denominations, churches and nations. “Our community brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions.” There is a link to the NAE Statement of Faith on their website linked above.
The NAE commented how evangelicals are often the target of research. But the outcomes vary because of the differences in how evangelicals are identified by the researchers. Along with LifeWay Research, the NAE developed a tool as a consistent standard for evangelical belief. Respondents must strongly agree with the following four statements to be categorized as an evangelical:
- The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
- It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
- Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
- Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
When evangelicals are self-described, then someone who would refer to Paul’s second epistle to the Corinthians as “2 Corinthians” could easily say he was an evangelical, and have his responses in the research codified as “evangelical.” A true evangelical is something more than just a person who is considered to be an evangelical just because he or she says they are. Evangelicals need to self-consciously work against the watering-down and politicization of the term “evangelical.” We have to remember that the term comes originally from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “the good news” or the “gospel.” When we dilute the meaning of evangelicalism, aren’t we in danger of diluting the gospel itself? Remember that a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism and politicization does not save.