How Trump Is Remaking Evangelicalism
A new book shows the fracture lines the 45th U.S. president has created within American Christianity.
This fall, Christian students at Princeton dropped the word “evangelical” from the name of their fellowship. They felt the term is increasingly “confusing, or unknown, or misunderstood,” the director, William Boyce, told The Daily Princetonian. In the year since Donald Trump became president largely thanks to the support of white, self-identified evangelicals, this kind of quiet marketing shift has been happening in many elite Christian circles. As Allen Yeh, an associate professor at Biola University, wrote in a recent collection of essays called Still Evangelical?, “Evangelical Christianity has a PR problem.”
Under President Trump, the word “evangelical” has been tossed around a lot, used interchangeably with other broad terms like “conservative Christians” and “the religious right.” Evangelicals are portrayed as cohesive, all-powerful, and monolithic; they are almost always discussed in the context of politics, and the unspoken assumption is that they are white. This is a regrettable failure of description, since it does not remotely cohere to reality. But more importantly, this way of talking about evangelicals papers over significant disagreements among those who claim the label—fractures that will fundamentally shift how evangelicalism is perceived and expressed in the coming years.
Still Evangelical?, a new book from InterVarsity Press, captures the way a certain segment of Christian leaders are thinking about this moment of evangelical identity crisis. All of the writers hold prominent positions in the worlds of ministry, seminaries, and religious advocacy, but none are household names outside of the Christian world. This is part of the point: Many highly respected evangelicals with significant influence are basically ignored by the mainstream press, creating a skewed view of what evangelicalism is.
Yet this group is also arguably at odds with many Americans who call themselves evangelicals. They write from elite perches. Many are unabashedly progressive, and at least one is a female executive pastor of a church—a controversial role for women in some evangelical denominations. Although some are bona fide conservatives, none seems to be a full-throated Trump supporter. For the most part, these are Christians who feel disoriented by their brothers and sisters who supported Trump in the election. That fact alone means they sit in the minority.
But these leaders are worth listening to for two reasons. First, as many of them write, they show the diversity of evangelicalism. Their stories add range and depth to an often flat portrait offered by the media. Second, their reflections on evangelicalism provide a road map of what may lie ahead. Each writer agitates for some kind of reform in churches and institutions; each sees the current state of affairs as unsustainable. If the term “evangelical” survives the turmoil of Trump—if, after everything, these Christians agree that they are “still evangelical”—his presidency may be looked back on as a crucible for change. Having redefined politics with evangelicals’ support, Trump may redefine expressions of evangelicalism as well.
Evangelicals are a notoriously difficult group to define. Many political exit polls determine who is evangelical by asking a single question along the lines of, “Do you consider yourself to be born again or evangelical?” This often confuses more than it clarifies: The answers may mix Protestants and Catholics together, obscure vast cultural differences among denominations, and downplay the distinctiveness of historically non-white churches. The most recent Pew Religious Landscapes survey goes into more depth, using “evangelical” as an umbrella term for churches and denominations that share certain convictions, practices, and origins. Pew puts their number in the U.S. around 62 million, a figure that includes people who identify as everything from Southern Baptist to Pentecostal to non-denominational.
Most of the writers in Still Evangelical? rely on a definition first published by the scholar David Bebbington in 1989, called a “quadrilateral” for its four distinctive qualities. According to Bebbington, evangelicals place the truth of the Bible at the center of their faith; they focus on Jesus’s atonement for sins on the cross; they emphasize a personal experience of conversion or salvation; and they believe they must actively share the gospel and do good in the world.
But evangelicals are also defined by how the world sees them, and this has become particularly complicated in the wake of the 2016 election. The statistic that 81 percent of the white evangelicals who voted chose Trump has been cited constantly over the last year and a half. All jokes about conservative Christians supporting a thrice-married, foul-mouthed casino owner have become canned. Non-Christians weren’t the only people who were shocked. “Most evangelical Christians like me exclaimed, ‘Who are these people?’” wrote Mark Galli, the editor in chief of Christianity Today, in his essay. “‘I know hardly anyone, let alone any evangelical Christian[s], who voted for Trump.’”
In trying to understand Trump-supporting evangelicals, journalists and commentators have often smoothed over the vast diversity within evangelicalism. “Many of us shake our heads at the ‘evangelical leaders’ that the news media anoints for us,” wrote Tom Lin, the president of InterVarsity Fellowship, in his essay. The movement is, by definition, difficult to capture with a single spokesperson’s voice: Evangelical churches are often reflexively independent, decentralized, and hesitant to be labeled in a particular way. The image of 1980s-era Christian power players has endured in the media’s imagination, and people who don’t fit that narrative rarely get a platform. “Evangelicalism, like many things in our society, has been shaped, defined, and dominated by white, male culture,” wrote the activist Shane Claiborne in his essay. “Despite the fact that there are massive numbers of evangelicals of color—African American, Latino, Asian, native, young and old, women and men—the media continually erases these voices.”
And yet, the stereotypes often associated with evangelicals in the press aren’t entirely fiction: “It’s as if [the media] had a gun, and we gave them the bullets,” Claiborne wrote. The roughly 62 million Americans who fit under the umbrella of “evangelical” are actually deeply fractured along theological, racial, and political lines. These divisions were around well before Trump, but the current political environment certainly hasn’t eased them. “Evangelicals on the left and right are utterly embarrassed about one another,” wrote Galli. “Each wants to disassociate itself from the other because of attitudes about the sitting president.”
Many of the authors of Still Evangelical? were eager to distinguish evangelicalism from what they called fundamentalism—a term for Christians who resist assimilation to the modern world, reject authority outside of their local congregations, and often prize strict social codes, including bans on dancing, drinking, and gambling. While the religious right led by figures like Jerry Falwell and James Dobson had a distinctively fundamentalist bent to it, many evangelicals felt—and feel—alienated by that flavor of Christianity. “The evangelicalism that attracted so many of us in the 1960s and ’70s presented itself as an alternative to fundamentalism,” wrote Mark Young, the president of Denver Seminary, in his essay. “Evangelicalism wanted to be known as a movement that was as intellectually vibrant and conversant with contemporary cultural trends as mainline Protestantism. Fundamentalist churches and denominations have not shared that desire.”
Fundamentalism, argued Mark Labberton, the president of Fuller Theological Seminary, is the driving force behind the hyper-partisan political norms among conservative Christians, which yielded Trump. Fundamentalism’s “attraction to theological and social purity plays easily into a theologized ideology,” he wrote. Yet, “the more ‘evangelicalism’ seeks to be cast or accepts being cast as a theo-political brand,” he added, “the more motivating it is for some evangelicals to walk away from the tribe, not as a rejection of Christian orthodoxy but as a way to preserve and defend it.”
Debate over the role of Christian witness in politics isn’t new. Evangelicalism is inherently about outreach—after all, “activism” is one of Bebbington’s four definitional pillars—and the movement has a long history of political involvement. Karen Swallow Prior, a professor at Liberty University, pointed out that evangelicals played important roles in the movements for abolition, education reform, and empowered marriage. Conversations about evangelicals and Trump often suffer from a sort of amnesia, she suggested: “Too often evangelicalism in total … is conflated with 21st-century American evangelicalism.”
But as many in the book write, this particular moment does seem like a fulcrum point—a time for reckoning with evangelicals’ relationship to politics. Some pastors, like Robert Jeffress at First Baptist Church in Dallas, lean into partisanship; he frequently appears on Fox News defending Trump, and he recently brought Sean Hannity to speak at his church. Many other evangelical churches have pulled away from politics altogether—out of backlash toward the religious right, or because these topics are just too controversial for their community.
Many Christians may not see political activism as central to their faith. “Mostly evangelicals think of themselves as Jesus people,” wrote Galli. “Most days, those lives are consumed with being faithful spouses and parents, being diligent and honest in their jobs, caring for their children, teaching Sunday school, volunteering and the food pantry, [and] attending a small-group Bible study …”
But this passivity is itself a form of privilege. The outcome of the election is being felt much differently in white churches than in immigrant communities, which tend to be deeply religious. “A five-alarm fire is raging through the Latino community. Relatively few outside our community—and very few within the evangelical community—seem to care,” wrote Robert Chao Romero, an associate professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. “Many of us feel deeply hurt by the perceived apathy of the evangelical church in response to our suffering. Though we suffer, we don’t see the rest of the body of Christ suffering with us.” In general, these Christians don’t share Trump supporters’ sense of victory. “These aren’t issues in books or blogs,” wrote Sandra Maria van Opstal, the executive pastor of Grace and Peace Community in Chicago. “These are people who I care for deeply, people who have names: Michal, Myriam, Juwaan, Marisol, and Siouxsan.”
This, above all, may be the fracture line within the church that Trump has most exacerbated: race. As Michael Gerson wrote in The Atlantic’s April cover story, “Here is the uncomfortable reality: I do not believe that most evangelicals are racist. But every strong Trump supporter has decided that racism is not a moral disqualification in the president of the United States. And that is something more than a political compromise. It is a revelation of moral priorities.”
The authors of Still Evangelical? clearly see a non-white-majority future for the church—not just in America, but worldwide. In the U.S., Hispanics grew as a share of Catholics, mainline Protestants, and evangelical Christians between 2007 and 2014, according to Pew, and whites are more likely than either blacks or Hispanics to say they’re not religiously affiliated. A century ago, North America, Europe, and Australia dominated global Christianity; today, the faith is growing most quickly in regions like sub-Saharan Africa. While many predominantly white churches in the U.S. are aging and fading, multi-ethnic and immigrant-driven churches are increasing in size and vibrancy.
And yet, several authors argued, the norms of a white, Westernized version of Christianity prevail. “In seminary, I learned that the universal theological donor is a white evangelical,” wrote van Opstal. “This donor is always translating books into other languages, planting churches in other countries, setting up seminaries on other continents, and sending professors to teach global Christians. And this donor never seems to receive from the global church.” Trump’s election was not so much a source of racial division in the church as a symptom. “Evangelicals of color in the 21st century have jumped through multiple hoops to attain their metaphorical evangelical card,” wrote Soong-Chan Rah, a professor at North Park Theological Seminary. “However, when it came time [for white Christians] to publicly express support for evangelicals of color who were deeply troubled by the rhetoric in our public sphere, our concerns were ignored.”
The image that results from all this self-searching and critique is one of intense fracture. These leaders resent how evangelicals are portrayed and mourn how those perceptions may prevent people from coming to know Christianity. They feel a sense of crisis over evangelical identity and can’t recognize those who don’t share their urgency. And other Christians feel equally alienated by them: Galli noted that one Christianity Today reader wrote angrily in response to a panel of anti-Trump evangelicals, “[They] sounded like spoiled and arrogant snobs. Everyone who does not agree with them (apparently 81 percent of evangelicals) is unbiblical, undisciplined, or unchurched and generally need to be led by those who know so much more—them. It has not occurred to them that maybe they are the ones out of step.”
Evangelicalism is not going to be remade into a progressive movement in the wake of Trump. In 2015, Pew found that 56 percent of evangelical Protestants identify as Republican or Republican-leaning, higher than any other religious group other than Mormons. While a small but vocal minority of leaders have pushed to create an evangelical left, that movement is still narrow. Even among the generally anti-Trump elites who wrote essays for this book, not all would want that future for their faith.
But they are pulling for change. Perhaps these leaders and others like them will guide the way toward a rethinking of evangelical political activism, identity, and self-understanding. Perhaps, in this moment of tenuous political ascendancy and internal turmoil, “the call of God to white evangelicals is to stop trying to be God, to control everything and everyone, and to join the rest of humanity—beloved dust,” as Lisa Sharon Harper, a former executive at Sojourners, the progressive evangelical magazine, wrote.
“I have very little interest in spending time and energy to resuscitate the corpses within white evangelicalism,” wrote van Opstal. “Whatever needs to die, let it die. We need death and resurrection. We need revival.”