This week there has been a rash of stories describing white evangelicals’ conflicted feelings about the term “evangelical.” Many are fretting that the label is hopelessly politicized in the age of Trump.
On Tuesday the editor of Christianity Today wrote:
No matter the outcome of today’s special election in Alabama for a coveted US Senate seat, there is already one loser: Christian faith. When it comes to either matters of life and death or personal commitments of the human heart, no one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.
The New York Times:
Will Hinton, a web developer in Atlanta, said he knew hundreds of politically conservative evangelicals who had grown increasingly repulsed by the religious right’s leaders, the tone they take and some of the causes and candidates they promote.
Mr. Hinton grew up in the movement as a politically active high school student who spoke at conferences and worked on Pat Robertson’s presidential campaign. Now, at 45, he said he was still an evangelical, still a conservative, but without a political party or movement.
“I have dozens of conservative evangelical friends who were so happy that Roy Moore did not win,” he said, “because the evangelical support for Trump and Roy Moore is ruining the witness for Christ for generations in this country.”
The Washington Post:
Jen Hatmaker, a Texas-based author with a large evangelical following, sees “a mass exodus” from the label in her community. “The term feels irreversibly tainted, and those of us who don’t align with the currently understood description are distancing ourselves to preserve our consciences,” she said…
“I think when we start throwing around terms like ‘evangelical’ to the outside, it can be really ostracizing,” said Peter Heilman, a 29-year-old pastor-to-be leaning his tattooed elbows on his ripped blue jeans. He grew up labeling himself lots of ways: conservative, Republican, evangelical. But interning in a more politically and racially diverse church has convinced him to drop those words — he’s concerned people won’t listen to him preach if they disagree with his politics.
“You have to understand the people you’re speaking to and what’s going to allow them to keep open ears,” he said. “When it comes down to it, labels can be a dangerous thing.” …
“Shorthands have always been helpful,” said Ed Stetzer, the executive director of the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton, in Illinois. “The question is, ‘Do I want to be affiliated with that?’ when terms have been redefined, either when it’s been hijacked or misunderstood.”
If you are on the inside of evangelicalism and take it for granted that Christianity is a force for good in the world and evangelicalism in particular is lifegiving, then it matters a great deal if our “Christian witness” is being harmed. If Jesus really does rescue people and the tarnished evangelical brand turns people off from Jesus, then this is a disaster. I understand these concerns and in many ways I share them.
But the preoccupation with the evangelical brand fails to seriously account for the lived experience of the people evangelicalism harms. Too many white evangelicals seem more bothered by the toxicity of the brand than the underlying reality of what evangelicalism does to real human beings.
The problem with mainstream white evangelicalism is not that it’s misunderstood or has some unsavory connotations. The problem is that it’s a movement determined to oppress people. It’s allied with political forces of unusual cruelty and nihilism. Yes, that hurts Christian credibility, but more importantly, it hurts people!
The white evangelical mainstream is crouched in a defensive posture of fear and grievance. Evangelical leaders counseling love and hope and winsome engagement with society are generally ignored. Instead, most ordinary white evangelicals embrace the politics of Trumpism and refuse to admit what that politics actually does.
They oppress immigrants and drive them from their homes; they load new burdens on the poor and withdraw care for the sick; they single out LGBT people for scapegoating and special forms of discrimination; they cast Muslims as religious enemies; they support racism, sexism, police brutality and voter suppression. In their reckless pursuit of power, they reject what is best in the American tradition: liberal democracy, religious freedom, and freedom of the press.
The vast majority of white evangelicals do not recognize this description. They don’t feel like they are oppressing people. They feel like they are an embattled minority struggling to hold their own in a hostile culture. This isn’t exculpatory, however. It only means that white evangelicalism shares a common feature of oppressive political mobilizations, where oppression is driven not so much by hatred of the other but by the insecurities and tensions within the community. Indeed, a politics of grievance and fear is characteristic of genocidal movements.
The point here is not that white evangelicalism is genocidal (it’s not!) but that white evangelicals’ lived experience as embattled minority and their political mobilization as oppressors are not contradictory. The two are linked; it is precisely white evangelicals’ preoccupation with their own lost power that makes them so indifferent toward human suffering outside their community.
Trying to rebrand evangelicalism or disassociate from it is an insufficient response because it doesn’t address the underlying reality of oppression. The Post talked to a black evangelical who gets it:
Emmett Price, a professor who focuses on African American studies at the prominent evangelical seminary Gordon-Conwell in Massachusetts, said he worries that white Christians who are abandoning the term are only looking to avoid the negative associations, not to reform their communities. If they’re concerned that politics have tarred evangelicals as racist, he said, they ought to be focused on making evangelical churches less racist — not on calling themselves something else.
“There’s a desire to detach from the political landscape right now. If one wanted to go and essentially fight somewhere for inclusivity, one would stay in that space and invite others in,” he said. “Ditching a term is simply ditching a term.”
For those of us who are heartsick over the state of evangelicalism, rejecting the label or discarding difficult relationships with evangelicals may actually be a selfish choice.* The harder task is to take ownership of what our communities have become and seek reformation from the inside.
*I’m not speaking here of people who have suffered spiritual or other forms of abuse in evangelical settings. By all means, get out! And I’m not speaking of Christians of color who find their very identities assaulted in evangelical spaces. I’m referring specifically to people like me!