In the wake of the presidential election, a lot of insinuations regarding who is responsible for electing Donald Trump have been tossed around by news sources, pundits, dissatisfied voters, and many a social media post. As far as I have noticed, the culprits receiving perhaps the most blame in news articles, blogs, and social media have been a group of Americans categorized as “white evangelicals.”
If this political demographic had not drawn its fair share of ire leading up to the election, it is receiving a cascade of vitriol now. On Twitter, in particular, I have read the incensed statements of friends and strangers alike denigrating this group as, at best, duped patsies, and, at worst, homophobic-racist-bigots by association. Most troubling to me has been how these allegations are coming as much from Christians as they are non-Christians and atheists.
It did not take long for my anxiety over the election of Donald Trump to be overshadowed by full-on despair at the unmitigated acrimony leveled against evangelicalism. More than I am worried about a Trump White House – and, believe me, I am still pretty worried about a Trump White House – I have been much more hurt by this reactionary fallout toward evangelicalism.
Because, last Tuesday, I cast a vote in the presidential election. And it was not for Donald Trump. For over a year, I was deeply disturbed at the idea of him becoming Commander-in-Chief, not simply because of his past and present moral debasement, but also because, having researched many of the policies he touted throughout his campaign, I could see in them no ultimate viability. In other words, my vote was not cast for Trump not only because of the lack of personal temperance and honor I saw in him, but also because I chose to be an informed voter who, despite the perceived character of a candidate, nonetheless weighs the practicality of his or her platforms.
And yet, I am an evangelical, and a white evangelical at that. Thus, according to a large group of Americans, many of whom are infuriated at the result of this election, I am responsible for a President Donald J. Trump.
From the tweets of those Christians above, it now seems the only good and right course of action for me is to renounce evangelicalism as a corrupt and profane group. Otherwise, I must accept the indignation of my more enlightened brothers and sisters in the faith, and live under the guilt of my association. Even if, technically, I belong to the mere 19% of white evangelicals whose votes were not cast for Trump, I will certainly find myself haunted by my inability to persuade my demographic’s majority not to vote for a monster. That, or I must wallow in shame because I was not bold or courageous enough to speak against him and those who planned to vote for him.
According to the first Tweet featured above, from spiritual director and author Richard Rohr, whom I deeply respect, the evangelical movement has irrevocably defiled itself. Real Christians should extricate themselves from it as soon as possible, as if it doing so were truly the quick and simple adjustment some think it is. As if all it takes is for a Baptist to start attending a Catholic parish instead, or an Assemblies of God Republican to re-register as a card-carrying member of the Democratic Party and transfer his membership to an Episcopal church.
The truth is, every single Christian whose tweets are shown above have not slipped the bounds of evangelicalism as wholly as they may think. Many of them may disparage both the word and the social demographic it categorizes, but were you to press them for an honest answer on whether they have truly rejected the core principles of evangelicalism, you would find almost all of them remain squarely in the center of evangelicalism whether they like it to not.
Back in seminary, I had a friend who was outspoken about his rejection of the term “Christian.” To him, the word had been so drastically watered-down and misapplied that he had completely lost use of it (or, rather, he feared he would be associated with people with whom he did not share particular political or spiritual beliefs). He preferred, instead, the title “marked by X,” (X representing the Greek letter, chi, the first letter in the word “Christ.”). “I am not a Christian,” he would say to us. “I am marked by X.”
Meaning he was a Christian; he just didn’t like the word.
My friend despised the many false connotations the word “Christian” had picked up over the years, like dirt and cockleburs that stick to a hiker’s clothing as he journeys along a wooded trail. In the minds of many people today, the word “evangelical” is in very nearly the same situation. The question, then, is whether or not Christians should “divorce” themselves from the word or persist in using it?
What would we gain if we rejected evangelicalism as a term? Clarity, maybe. Or at least a slightly clearer conscience.
What would we lose? Only a word describing the very heart of Christianity itself. Not to mention associating ourselves with a more than 500-year-old movement of individual and communal liberation.
The term “evangelicalism” comes from the Koine Greek word euangelion, a combination of eû (“good”) and ángelos (“messenger”). The word is found all over the New Testament, commonly translated “good news” or “gospel.” In the Church, it refers exclusively to “the way, the truth, and the life” provided us by Jesus Christ. To be an evangelical is to stake your entire existence on the belief that atonement for sin, salvation of the soul, and redemption of the body is found in Jesus alone. It means pursuing transformation by the Holy Spirit through the practice of spiritual disciplines modeled for us by the Savior, including befriending rich and poor alike, showing endless compassion to the oppressed, responding to all conflict and confrontation with grace and non-violence, and accepting the expectation that your obedience to the Law must surpass that of even the religious (and political) elite. Throughout history, the evangelical movement has continually challenged the Church to find its identity in this Gospel, and to, in turn, proclaim and practice its principles unto all humankind.
Historically, the evangelical movement has boldly stood up to corrupt, idolatrous men of power who selfishly and opportunistically entangled the Church with the State, and who used its influence to oppress millions and withhold dignity and basic rights from the masses. It preached that forgiveness of sin comes from God alone, and that no mere human being may wield power over another’s soul. It insisted that all people have a divine right to read the Scriptures in their own common languages. It contended time and again that salvation is for everyone, regardless of age, race, gender, or socioeconomic status.
Are we sure we want to separate ourselves from so extraordinary a movement, and the incredibly fitting word that describes it, simply because a handful of one country’s population (categorized “evangelicals” by secular news agencies and pollsters ) have made what many would say is a bad political choice out of the very real temptation for personal prosperity and security?
The simple fact is, even if a person is a committed Christian, they are not exempted from national concerns. The inclination to chase after individual liberties, sustainable employment, general safety at home and lasting security abroad is as common to us as it is to every other American. No matter what some Christians may claim, these desires do not always present themselves as black-and-white choices, even when we consider them in light of the Gospel. Certainly many of these “white evangelicals” are considered Christians simply because they live in heavily “Christianized” areas, not because the principles of the Gospel populate the top of their personal priority lists. In other words, the only way the term “evangelical” describes them is in its false, sociopolitical context.
And yet, I am also well aware that there are plenty of people within the 81% of white evangelical Trump voters who have indeed been cleansed of their sins – past, present, and future – and are being transformed by the Holy Spirit. Personally, I could not reconcile a Gospel-centered life with a vote for Trump. Some of my brothers and sisters in Christ would disagree. And many others either were not considering the principles of the Gospel, or considered a vote for any official candidate to be a compromise of those values in one way or another. And so many “evangelicals” voted for a guy who promised (however dubious such promises may be) that he would fight to protect their morals and way of life. They are afraid the country is turning its back on many important things, including at least some of the principles of the Gospel they believe in, and so they cast their vote for the person who convinced them he would do the most to stem the tide, and perhaps even reverse it.
In other words, the true meaning of evangelicalism, nor the tradition of the movement, is not responsible for the result of the election. National sentiment is, and whether or not it is easy to describe this sentiment as “evangelical,” it is ahistorical and pseudo-theological to do so.
I realize that my argument is primarily semantic. It mostly revolves around the definition of a word. But no matter how many times I read the indignant statements of Christians who have turned their noses up at “evangelicals” and have joined with the masses in equating the movement with racism, homophobia, bigotry, and regressive conservatism, I cannot bring myself to disassociate with a concept that stands at the heart of our faith.
The evening after the election, I was teaching a class on the inspiration and translation of Scripture. I reminded the class that one of the hallmarks of the evangelical movement was fully evident in the room: every person had their own copy of the Bible, not only in their own language, but even in a style of that language they most preferred to read! (I am willing to bet a large sum of money that every single person whose tweets are shown above take advantage of that same privilege.)
One man asked, “What’s the difference between a Christian and an ‘evangelical Christian’?”
In the aftermath of the 2016 Presidential Election, there are many people who would have you believe the answer to this man’s question is, “A lot!”
But if Christians – be they Trump protestors or Trump supporters – will resist the temptation to treat politics as that which brings justification, security, and ultimate happiness, then maybe we can restore the original meaning of evangelicalism. Maybe we can even be united by it, even as we continue to differ on specific ethical or denominational issues. Maybe we can humbly admit that no one is so enlightened in the faith that they cannot be led astray by Gospel-less perspectives and opinions.
Maybe we can come to see the nonsensical redundancy of the term “evangelical Christian,” because we know a true Christian is evangelical, and a true evangelical is a Christian. Maybe we can look that man in the eye when he asks his question, and reply, “Actually, there is no difference at all.”