Ethics & Public Policy Center

Evangelicals: A Review

Published in Comment on May 7, 2020


At the National Prayer Breakfast earlier this year, the keynote speech was given by Arthur Brooks, formerly the president of the American Enterprise Institute and now a professor at Harvard.

Brooks’s speech was titled “Love Your Enemies,” which is based on the words of Jesus in the Gospel of Matthew: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:43–45 NIV).

As Brooks later put it, “My argument at the National Prayer Breakfast was that, if we say we are followers of the teachings of Jesus, we must take seriously this lesson. In today’s poisonous political environment, doing so is the only way to begin to bring the country back together.”

When President Trump rose to speak, he said, “Arthur, I don’t know if I agree with you. . . . I don’t know if Arthur is going to like what I’m going to say.” The president then proceeded to lace into Senator Mitt Romney, who has voted to convict him in his impeachment trial, and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, who was on the dais. An event that heretofore was understood by all to be one whose goal was to promote reconciliation and provide a brief respite from the antipathy of partisan politics had, under Trump, become yet another forum for invective.

Later than day, speaking from the East Room in the White House, the president spent more than an hour cursing and attacking one critic after another. He was a cauldron of vindictiveness, rage, and hate.

This is the man white American evangelicals—people whose identity and behaviour is supposed to be shaped by the words of Jesus spoken at the prayer breakfast—will almost surely vote for in overwhelming numbers in November, some of them reluctantly but many of them enthusiastically. And what President Trump did that day is hardly the worst of what he has done.

To a watching world, this is all rather hard to make sense of. They are asking, and asking again: What on earth are evangelicals all about?

* * * *

At just the right moment, then, arrives a new anthology, Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be. Edited by Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden, three of the most important scholars of evangelicalism over the last half century, this volume includes four parts: (1) “The History of ‘Evangelical History’”; (2) “The Current Crisis: Looking Back”; (3) “The Current Crisis: Assessment”; and (4) “Historians Seeking Perspective.”

Among the book’s virtues is that it puts evangelicals within a historical context, helping readers appreciate its rich, complicated history.

The word “evangelical” comes from the Greek word euangelion, meaning “good news” or “gospel”; its roots in the English-speaking world can be traced to the first half of the eighteenth century and the First Great Awakening (1730s–1740s), with people like John Wesley, John Newton, George Whitefield, and Jonathan Edwards.

Michael Gerson, a Wheaton College graduate who is currently writing a book on religion and social engagement, told me that at its best, the evangelical movement of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries served the new industrial poor and honoured their dignity; called attention to the worth of oppressed Africans and formed the backbone of the abolition movements in Britain and America; and provided the political support for movements of social reform and moral uplift that improved the lives of women, prisoners, children, the mentally ill, and other marginalized groups. Evangelicals founded colleges, organized an amazing profusion of charitable and mission groups, and helped turn rough frontiersmen and frontierswomen into pillars of respectability, family commitment, and community concern. And most of all they called attention to the life-giving power of Christ. As we will see, that is hardly the whole story; but it is an essential part of the story.

Today evangelicalism is a worldwide, transdenominational movement whose number vary enormously, from estimates of roughly 285 million to as many 619 million, depending on how the classification is made (for example, whether one counts or excludes Pentecostals and charismatics). Among the things Evangelicals drives home is just how difficult it has been over the centuries to define precisely what evangelicalism is.

“Perhaps the most interesting component of the word ‘evangelical’ is simply its highly contested history,” according to Linford D. Fischer, associate professor of history at Brown University and one of the contributors to this volume. Even in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, according to Fischer, “the appropriation and application of ‘evangelical’ was surprisingly contentious.” He adds, “There was simply no agreed-upon definition of what ‘evangelical’ was, and a close reading of the sources reveals a robust conversation and contestation regarding the term.” (During a 1987 interview with Billy Graham, Terry Mattingly asked Graham, “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” To which Graham, one of the most significant evangelical figures of the twentieth century, answered, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too.”)

Even so, there are some characteristics and convictions that are broadly associated with evangelicalism. Among the most widely used definitions comes from David Bebbington in his 1989 book Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s, the first chapter of which is reprinted in the anthology. According to Bebbington,

There are four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; Biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together, they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.

So the central pillars of evangelicalism are theological convictions, not political ones. It is fundamentally concerned with a person’s attitude toward the Bible and relationship with Christ, not with this or that political party.

At the same time, throughout American history evangelicalism and politics have been linked, including during the founding of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the American revolution, and the temperance movement; in support for (and opposition to) the abolitionist movement; and in advocating for prison reform and care for the mentally disabled. This evangelical-political alliance can be explained in part by the belief among many evangelicals over the centuries that, as Messiah College historian John Fea has pointed out, America is not only an exceptional nation but also in a covenant relationship with God, the new Israel, John Winthrop’s “a city upon a hill.”

Evangelicals’ political engagement ebbed and flowed in the twentieth century, with periods of political exile—symbolized by the humiliation of the 1925 Scopes “monkey trial”—followed by reengagement, thanks to figures like the theologian Carl F.H. Henry, author of the 1947 book The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism.

But a turning point for American evangelicalism, and what goes some distance toward explaining where we are today, was the mid- to late 1970s, when a whole series of issues— opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment, gay rights ordinances, regulations on Christian schools, the IRS threat to strip Bob Jones University of its tax-exempt status because of its policy against interracial dating, and the Roe v. Wade decision in 1973 legalizing abortion—convinced evangelicals and fundamentalists that they needed to be politically active.

“The critical development in the mid-1970s was mobilization, and on a national scale,” Mark Noll wrote in The New Republic in 2011. “As that mobilization took place, it transformed well-established traditions of evangelical and fundamentalist religions into a political instrument.” This continued up through this present moment, with the election in 2016 of Donald John Trump. And this has led to an ever-deepening crisis in American evangelicalism, specifically white evangelicalism.

* * * *

To their credit the editors of Evangelicals don’t shy away from the crisis. Several essays in the volume focus on the 81 percent of white evangelicals who the Pew Research Center reports voted for Trump over Hillary Clinton in 2016, many of whom remain deeply loyal to him.

Michael S. Hamilton, who served for decades on the faculty of Seattle Pacific University, points out that several evangelical polling organizations have found that theological evangelicals are more, or at least equally, likely to support Trump as are the “evangelicals” identified by political pollsters. He points out that Trump received more white evangelical votes in several early primary states than did much more traditional evangelical candidates Ted Cruz, Ben Carson, and Mike Huckabee.

“Christian nationalism is the engine that drives the vehicle of white evangelical politics,” Hamilton writes. “Christian nationalism is the framework, or worldview, within which their tribalism, political moralism, and antistatism come together, function, and make sense.”

Whether one believes this and other charges are fair or not, what the Baylor University historian Thomas Kidd says is undoubtedly true: “In American pop-culture parlance, ‘evangelical’ now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.”

Timothy J. Keller, the founder and pastor emeritus of the Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City and one of the most influential evangelicals in the world, put it more bluntly in a New Yorker article that is reprinted in Evangelicals: “‘Evangelical’ used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with ‘hypocrite.’”

The crisis facing American evangelicalism goes much deeper than Donald Trump and the Trump presidency. Mr. Trump didn’t appear ex nihilo; he took advantage of the opening he was presented. If during the Republican primary in 2016 evangelicals hadn’t rallied in such large numbers to support Trump when every other candidate was far more deserving of their support, at least based on any previous metric evangelical Christians said mattered to them, Trump would never have won the nomination.

The fact that the president is supporting policies that many white evangelicals also support helps explain their loyalty to him. That is a defensible position to hold. But there is something much more worrisome going on here.

For many white evangelicals, even during the 2016 presidential campaign, there was something about Trump’s cruel style of politics that not only resonated with them but also inspirited them. They have felt dishonoured and disrespected by the elite culture for decades; as a result, feelings of resentment and grievances have grown. Trump’s supporters felt like he would bring a gun to a cultural knife fight—that he would hate his enemies (and theirs) rather than make any effort to love them, to bring us back to the president’s remarks at the National Prayer Breakfast in February. It was time for payback, which seems to be just fine, or at least fine enough, with some significant portion of his evangelical followers.

The world is paying attention.

* * * *

When I was just starting out on my Christian journey at the end of high school, a journey during which I have mostly identified as an evangelical, I recall being unsettled by the writings of the apostle Paul, though not quite in the way many others are.

One of the things that stood out to me from Paul’s writings is how transformative the Christian faith was supposed to be, in ways that I didn’t think were all that achievable. There was more to what Paul was saying than merely wishful thinking; there was an expectation inherent in his words, or so it seemed to me. After all, we are told, Christians are a “new creation”—present tense, not future tense. The old things have passed away. Having been raised with Christ, we are to be transformed into his likeness. In this world.

Paul seemed to assume that there would be an undeniable inflection point for those of us who are followers of Jesus, and that the world would see it and be unable to deny it. In a broken world, we were to stand out—humble and gentle, kind and compassionate to one another, expressing our faith through love and bearing with one another in love. We were to put on the “new self,” one free of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Those of us who claimed to follow Jesus, it was assumed, would be ministers of reconciliation. We were to “shine like stars in the universe.”

There are certainly people I have met who shine in such a way, whose lives have been transformed and have been a beautiful gift to me. But I must say that such transformed lives are a good deal less common than I expected to see, individually but also corporately.

The church, the “bride of Christ,” has been on the wrong side of justice when German Catholics and Protestants embraced many of the nationalistic and racial aspects of Nazi ideology. The Dutch Reformed Church supported apartheid in South Africa until near the end. In the Rwandan genocide in 1994—when upwards of a million people were massacred in around one hundred days—the nation was 90 percent Christian, making it one of the most Christianized nations in the world. But a “theology of genocide” allowed the ethnic violence to occur.

In each of these instances there were people of the Christian faith who stood out for their courage and compassion, who spoke truth to power, who were instruments of justice. But they were rare. They were remnants.

For far too many people of the Christian faith, including American evangelicals, Jesus is a “hood ornament,” to quote a friend of mine who is a prominent figure within evangelicalism. We are much more tribal than we care to confess, and far too quick to manipulate faith to support our worldly desires. Rather than having our sensibilities shaped by the ethic of Jesus, too many of us use Christianity to validate our preexisting attitudes, what we already believe, what we already want to do. That is even true, and maybe especially true, in politics.

In her book From Politics to the Pews: How Partisanship and the Political Environment Shape Religious Identity, Michele Margolis of the University of Pennsylvania shows how it’s not simply our religious beliefs that shape our politics, but our politics that shape our religious choices. It turns out partisan identity can have an overpowering and pernicious effect.

In his book A Severe Mercy, Sheldon Vanauken wrote about his days in the anti–Vietnam War movement. “I was one of those caught up in the mood and action of the 1960s,” Vanauken wrote:

Christ, I thought, would surely have me oppose what appeared an unjust war. But the Movement, whatever its ideals, did a good deal of hating. And Christ, gradually, was pushed to the rear: Movement goals, not God, became first, in fact—not only for me but for other Christians involved, including priests. I now think that making God secondary (which in the end is to make Him nothing) is, quite simply, the mortal danger in social action, especially in view of the marked intimations of virtue—even arrogant virtue—that often perilously accompany it. Some may avoid this danger, perhaps. But I was not obeying the first and greatest commandment—to love God first—nor it is clear that I was obeying the second—to love my neighbour. Hating the oppressors of my neighbor isn’t perhaps quite what Christ had in mind.

Right now there’s a good deal of hating that characterizes the evangelical world, by those who claim to represent it, and by the political leaders so many evangelicals have decided to rally around. People are quick to weaponize Christianity in the name of Christian values. The result is that the good news of the gospel is being undermined by some of the very people who insist that Jesus is their first love.

But what we are is not what we have to be; repair and regeneration are always possible. We have not been perfected, but we press on, as Paul wrote in his letter to the church at Philippi. If we do—if those of us who are followers of Jesus embody for a broken and alienated world more of the grace, calm trust, joy, and justice that are hallmarks of authentic faith—then the flame will be lit, our love will abound, and countless lives will be changed.

Peter Wehner, former Deputy Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Strategic Initiatives, is a Senior Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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