For irreligious evangelicals, Christianity is about politics—not God

Progressive evangelicals fear the brand has been irrevocably tarnished.
Progressive evangelicals fear the brand has been irrevocably tarnished.
Image: Reuters/Thomas Peter
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Growing up, I was what today you’d call an evangelical Christian. As a child, I went to Bible camps; as a young adult, I attended a Christian college. Today I teach psychology at a science-supportive college that identifies with an “ever-reforming” religious tradition—but also with an evangelical tradition, albeit one free-spirited enough to defend my co-authoring a book titled The Christian Case for Gay Marriage.

Despite my roots in evangelical Christianity, I no longer claim that identity. I don’t want to be associated with the prejudice and intolerance that the word “evangelical” now, alas, so often connotes.

To understand how the meaning of evangelical Christianity has changed, it’s useful to consider the broader evolution of religious language. In early 20th century America, Darwin’s theory of evolution was being taught in US schools, and historical criticism of the Bible was on the rise. Some Christians responded to the social changes of the time by identifying as “fundamentalists”–their term for affirming fundamental Christian beliefs such as Christ’s virgin birth and bodily resurrection.

Over time, however, word connotations evolve. In the century’s latter half, “fundamentalist” became a pejorative term referring to people—whether Christian, Muslim, or secular—with extreme views, an absence of humility, rigid literal understandings, and a tight in-group mentality. Many devout Christians therefore shifted their identity from the hardening fundamentalism to the gentler idea of “evangelicalism”—with its proclamation of “the good news” of God’s accepting grace. (“Evangelical” derives from the Greek euangelion, meaning “good news” or the “gospel.”)

Evangelicals have always been a cultural mix. The identity has included conservatives who campaign against abortion, gay rights, and the teaching of evolution. It also has included progressives who, in a 1973 “Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern,” condemned militarism, racism, and rising inequality. Evangelicals have led the British anti-slavery movement, founded hospitals, welcomed refugees, fed the poor, and preached environmental stewardship. Today’s evangelicals all profess biblical roots. Nevertheless, they encompass both anti-science “biblical counselors” and peace-loving Mennonites. Jerry Falwell, Jr., is an evangelical; so is Jimmy Carter.

But in the Trump era, “evangelical” has come to connote not a good news message of grace, but “cultural conservative.” In exit polls, 80% of white evangelicals reported voting for Trump. Their approval of his presidential performance has been double the national average.

On the surface, evangelicals’ loyalty to Trump is mind-boggling. Why would self-described “values voters” support a biblically illiterate, thrice-married philanderer who models the antithesis of humility and Jesus-like compassion?

Consider also the astonishing results of two recent polls by the Public Religion Research Institute. In 2011, the institute asked voters if “an elected official who commits an immoral act in their personal life can still behave ethically and fulfill their duties in their public and professional life.” Only 30% of white evangelical Protestants agreed that a politician’s personal life had no bearing on their public performance.

But by July of 2017, 70% of white evangelicals said they would be willing to separate the public and personal. It was a “head-spinning reversal,” said the PRRI CEO—with white evangelicals flipping from being the least to most likely group to agree that candidates’ personal immorality has no bearing on their public role.

The results suggest that many self-described evangelicals no longer embrace a spirit of humility, sexual fidelity, and care for those whom Jesus called “the least of these.” Rather, God is invoked to justify preserving the social order or, as in the recent evangelical leaders’ Nashville Statement, to condemn same-sex attractions and marriage. As William James wrote a century ago, sometimes, “Piety is the mask.”

Social psychologist Nicholas Epley and his colleagues have studied this human tendency to make God in our own image. Most people, they reported, believe that God agrees with whatever they believe. When the researchers persuaded people to change their minds about affirmative action or the death penalty, they then assumed that God believed their new view. As I am, the thinking goes, so is God.

People also project their social beliefs into their religious texts—a phenomenon that enables partisans on both sides of culture war issues, such as marriage equality, to read their Scriptures as supporting whatever belief they bring to them. As a British evangelical white paper on faith and science notes, people of faith often “are not really listening to the Bible, but simply hearing [their] own voices echoing off the pages.”

It’s no secret that many self-described “evangelicals” are actually not religiously engaged. During the Republican primaries, Donald Trump’s base was substantially non-church-going “evangelicals.” In a January 2016 American National Elections Studies survey, barely more than one-third of evangelicals who attended church weekly supported Trump, as did more than half of “evangelicals” who rarely attended. These non-attenders were also more likely to agree with racist and anti-Muslim views.

Today’s irreligious “evangelicals” are reminiscent of Northern Ireland’s once-warring “Protestants” and “Catholics”—terms that were ethnic markers rather than indicators of actual religious devotion.  I once asked the late Ed Cairns, a social psychologist who led the University of Ulster’s Peace and Conflict Research Group, whether survey data indicated that religious devoutness predicted hostile attitudes. His answer: “If anything, the more people believed or went to church, the less prejudice they showed.” His finding coincides with 20th century US prejudice studies, which revealed that, among “Christians,” those who seldom or irregularly attended worship expressed more racial prejudice than did faithful attenders.

Ergo, in today’s polarized culture, “evangelical” has come to be associated with Trump-supporters and intolerance. Small wonder that this image of religion has helped drive a record 27% of Americans to tell Pew they are “spiritual but not religious.”

Progressive evangelicals view the debasing of their identity with dismay. They say the media fails to portray the prosocial, good-news side of evangelical Christianity. But like it or not, word connotations change. “I am doubtful that the term ‘evangelical’ can be rescued,” lamented a Christian philosopher friend. “The brand may be irredeemably tarnished.”

So is it time for a new label for this progressive branch of evangelicalism? “I guess I will just call myself an orthodox Christian or historic Christian,” my philosopher friend decided. Another friend, a theologian, now calls himself “a serious Christian” (as distinct from a religiously inactive “Christian”). And without changing its theology, the campus Princeton Evangelical Fellowship has rebranded itself the “Princeton Christian Fellowship.” Yes, maybe just “Christian” is most apt.

Or maybe it’s time for a new Reformation, or at least for resistance to the cultural right’s takeover of evangelicalism. British Christians provide a possible model for their US counterparts. In the UK, the white nationalist, anti-Islam “British First” movement appropriated Christian rhetoric and symbols. In response, every major UK Christian denomination has denounced the far right’s co-opting of their faith.

“Britain First’s use of the cross and claim to support Christianity is actually a kind of blasphemy,” observed Clive Gregory, the Bishop of Wolverhampton. “Jesus’ way is always the path of peace and reconciliation, of self-sacrifice and costly love.”