A Week Later… Evangelicalism

It’s November 15th, and I’m still not quite sure how I feel about evangelicalism — and my place in it — seven days after an election in which 81% of the white evangelicals who cast ballots opted for Donald Trump.

For one thing, we’re getting analysis of the vote more sophisticated than what we saw from exit polls in the heat of the moment. For example, Tobin Grant pointed out yesterday that Trump actually won fewer evangelical votes than did George W. Bush in 2004, John McCain in 2008, or Mitt Romney in 2012. That 81% constituted a bigger share of a smaller electoral segment, with 40% not voting (up four points from 2012). As a percentage of all white evangelical voters, Grant estimates that Trump actually garnered 45%, as compared with 47% for McCain and Romney.

But that’s small comfort. Even allowing for some higher degree of principled non-voting, the fact remains that an indecent and unqualified candidate received roughly the same level of white evangelical support as did his vastly more decent, considerably more qualified predecessors. (And I can’t forget the pre-election surveys showing that significant majorities of white evangelicals found Trump honest and well-qualified, or that so many were suddenly so willing to set aside reservations about the importance of a candidate’s character.)

Will I continue to identify to any degree with evangelicalism? Is that term worth fighting for? I’m not sure, but yesterday four other white evangelicals articulated different aspects of my complicated feelings.

Katelyn Beaty

Beaty, A Woman's PlaceThe former Christianity Today editor wrote a piece for the Washington Post’s “Acts of Faith” page in which she shared her testimony as an evangelical who had worked for a flagship evangelical institution and long defended that label to other Christians. But “[o]n Wednesday,” Beaty lamented, “I woke up to an evangelical family I no longer resembled.” She contrasted the Good News embedded in their name with the failure of evangelicals to stand up against a candidate who is “bad news” for persons of color, Muslims, women, immigrants, and other vulnerable “communities the church is called to stand beside.”

In my least hopeful moments, when I remember how I felt that Election Night, I resonate most strongly with this framing of Beaty’s dilemma:

It’s a very evangelical thing to talk about what is in one’s heart. So: My heart beats even stronger with the faith that I embraced as a teenager. When it comes to the Bible and Jesus and evangelism and service, the 81 percent and I share the same DNA. Although recently I have wished it were otherwise, evangelicals are my people.

But this time, this election, I can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them.

John Fea

The Messiah College history professor got plenty of his attention for this Election Night response to the 81% figure:

But at his blog yesterday, John might as well have been describing me:

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I have been a strong critic of Donald Trump.  They also know that I have been deeply disappointed that so many of my fellow evangelicals have gotten into bed with this monster.

Yet I remain an evangelical in terms of theological conviction.  In this sense I am a David Bebbington evangelical.  I embrace his formulation of evangelical faith, the so-called “evangelical quadrilateral“–biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism.

Will I continue to use the label “evangelical” to describe myself?  Probably.  But I will do so carefully and cautiously.  I have no plans of leaving my evangelical congregation and will continue to work within the evangelical community to help my fellow believers think more deeply about what it means to be a Christian citizen in democratic America.  (And you can bet that the subject of history and historical thinking will play a role in that work).

I realize, now that some of the emotion that has subsided, that to quit evangelicalism is to abandon a significant part of my responsibility and calling as a public scholar.

One difference here is that my congregation and its denomination have long had a complicated relationship to evangelicalism, which is one reason why Covenanters have tended to prefer the language of Pietism alongside, if not instead of, that of evangelicalism. Which suits me well.

Mark Labberton and Rich Mouw

Finally, let me especially encourage you to read this joint statement by the current president of Fuller Seminary and his predecessor. It laments the shortcomings of evangelicalism and acknowledges that some evangelicals feel they must drop the term. In the end, the successors of Harold Ockenga don’t do that, but I appreciate how Labberton and Mouw redefine the meaning of evangelicalism:

Evangelical has value only if it names our commitment to seek and to demonstrate the heart and mind of God in Jesus Christ. This calls us into deeper faith and greater humility. It also leads us to repudiate and resist all forces of racism, misogyny, and all other attitudes and actions, overt and implied, that subvert the dignity of persons made in the image of God. The only evangelicalism worthy of its name must be one that both faithfully points to and mirrors Jesus Christ, the good news for the world, and seeks justice that reflects the character of God’s kingdom.

Because of its non-negotiable commitment to the evangel, God’s good news, Fuller Seminary will continue to identify itself as evangelical. We must understand evangelical not as a self-congratulatory description of Fuller Theological Seminary but as our commitment and aspiration: our deep desire that the daunting and urgent hope of Jesus Christ will transform us so our speech truly proclaims and our life faithfully enacts God’s good news of love, justice, and mercy.

Fuller Theological Seminary
Licensed by Creative Commons (Bill Comstock)

Understanding “evangelical” as “our commitment and aspiration” reminds me of nothing so much as the powerful way that Barack Obama spoke last March of what it meant to be “American.” Standing at the Selma bridge where civil rights activists began their historic march half a century before, the first African American president asked:

What greater expression of faith in the American experiment than this, what greater form of patriotism is there than the belief that America is not yet finished, that we are strong enough to be self-critical, that each successive generation can look upon our imperfections and decide that it is in our power to remake this nation to more closely align with our highest ideals?

Perhaps evangelicalism, too, “is not yet finished”: both in the sense that it has not exhausted its meaning, and that it is a work in progress. No crucicentric evangelical can say that it’s entirely “in our power,” but we can certainly choose to look critically upon evangelicalism’s imperfections and perhaps even decide that it’s worth trying again to align it more closely with its ideals.

I’m just not sure that the succeeding generation — my current and former students, say — will think it’s worth it.

P.S. After you’re done with this post, please take a moment to read this afternoon’s sequel – and answer the one-question survey at its conclusion. Thanks! 

3 thoughts on “A Week Later… Evangelicalism

  1. For the record, allow me to note Richard J. Mouw’s riff on Martin Marty, CALVINISM IN THE LAS VEGAS AIRPORT, p. 20: “First and foremost, I am a human being. But I find being a Christian to be the best way for me to be a human being. And I find being Protestant the best way for me to be a Christian. And I find being Reformed the best way for me to be Protestant. And I find being a Calvinist to be the best way of being Reformed.” And in the next paragraph, he says “for me Calvinism and evangelicalism go nicely together.” He explains the Calvinism in this book, but not the evangelicalism. He does that better (arguably) in his THE SMELL OF SAWDUST: What Evangelicals can Learn from their Fundamentalist Heritage. (Full disclosure: I and my institution identify as Reformed, evangelical, and ecumenical; also, Mouw is an alum of Northwestern Junior College–before he went on to greater glory at Calvin and Fuller.)

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