The Fragmentation of Evangelicalism

first baptist church

Sunday service at First Baptist Church, Dallas Texas. June 25, 2017.

Evangelicalism is splintering. And Trump’s presidency is hastening the process. John Fea, professor of history at Messiah College (and an evangelical himself) has a perceptive column in the Washington Post this week about the people he calls “court evangelicals” and how they’re changing evangelicalism:

If you want to understand white evangelicalism in the age of Trump, you need to know Robert Jeffress, the pastor of First Baptist Church in Dallas.

Jeffress is not a household name in the United States, known mainly in Southern Baptist circles. But he has recently gained national attention as a “court evangelical” — my term for a Christian who, like the attendants and advisers who frequented the courts of monarchs, seeks influence through regular visits to the White House.

The court evangelicals are changing the religious landscape in the United States. The Trump presidency is only six months old, but it is already beginning to alter long-standing spiritual alignments. It seems as though Christians are not changing Trump, but rather that Trump could be changing Christianity.

Historians will write about this moment in terms of both continuity and change. On one hand, court evangelicals are part of a familiar story. For nearly half a century, evangelicals have sought to influence the direction of the country and its laws through politics. But Trump has forced them to embrace a pragmatism that could damage the gospel around the world, and force many Christians to rethink their religious identities and affiliations….

[Trump’s] campaign and presidency has shed light on a troubling wing of American evangelicalism willing to embrace nationalism, populism, fear of outsiders and anger. The leaders of this wing trade their evangelical witness for a mess of political pottage and a Supreme Court nomination.

Not all evangelicals are on board, of course. Most black evangelicals are horrified by Trump’s failure to understand their history and his willingness to serve as a hero of the alt-right movement.

The 20 percent of white evangelicals who did not vote for Trump — many of whom are conservative politically and theologically — now seem to have a lot more in common with mainline Protestants. Some in my own circles have expressed a desire to leave their evangelical churches in search of a more authentic form of Christianity.

Other evangelicals are experiencing a crisis of faith as they look around in their white congregations on Sunday morning and realize that so many fellow Christians were willing to turn a blind eye to all that Trump represents.

Read the whole thing. Fea provides additional historical context for thinking about how we got here.

When I say that evangelicalism is splintering it’s not to say that evangelicalism ever was unified. But the Trump presidency is intensifying longstanding fault lines.  A huge swath of evangelicalism is increasingly acting as if it’s a state-established church here to give divine sanction to state policy (that is, when Republicans lead the state). The false gods of nation, prosperity, and safety are held up as proper objects of worship alongside Jesus Christ. Evangelicals who seek to turn their backs on these false gods are often accused of being less mature believers, or perhaps not even true Christians at all.

There is a divide between evangelicals who see “God and country” as comfortable bedfellows and those who see the same phrase as shorthand for heresy. In the age of Trump, as we see just how far God and country evangelicals are willing to go, the divide has become a chasm.

The deadly embrace of nationalist evangelicals and their president is likely to intensify a curious phenomenon:  there are growing numbers of people of color in historically evangelical denominations, but they do not claim the label and feel no affinity for its heritage. Then there are white evangelicals who do not embrace the cultural trappings of the movement and are tired of being treated as less-than because of it. They may seek a home elsewhere.

What all this means for the future of evangelicalism is not yet clear. These are fascinating and troubled times.

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