Over the last few years, many articles and books have analyzed the current state of evangelicalism in the United States. (See note below for examples.) The reason for all of this attention to a historically profound world-wide movement in Christianity is not only the 81 percent of white evangelicals who voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, but the continued support these evangelicals have given him despite his lack of faith, his continual distortion of truth, and his attempt to overthrow the 2020 election.
Commentators and people of all and no faiths wonder how evangelicals known for being so concerned about character can enthusiastically defend such a person who demonstrably lacks it. Many reasons have been given for this allegiance, such as Trump’s support for the anti-abortion movement, for promoting religious freedom, and for appointing conservative judges. These values were important to many Trump voters, but are they the whole story?
For instance, many white evangelicals have also been tremendously supportive of Trump’s harsh rhetoric and actions with respect to non-European immigrants. What causes evangelicals to dismiss biblical teachings about “welcoming the stranger” and the “foreigner”? Is it because of fear of “the other” and a concurrent loss of cultural dominance? Is it the unsettling feeling, as someone has said, that “we are no longer the home team”? Is Trump’s appeal to white nationalists overlapping with his appeal among white evangelicals?
Another reason people support Trump is his dismissal of science in combating climate change and the pandemic. Many evangelicals have been adamant in not getting vaccinated or wearing masks. But why have such behaviors seemed more Christian than loving one’s neighbors through good public health practices? Is this a further uncovering of an evangelical anti-intellectualism that Mark Noll addressed in his classic nineties book, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind?
A Lost Identity
The result of this passionate support of Trump is that evangelicals have tragically lost their identity as people concerned about character and biblical principles. Former Republican governor of Tennessee, Bill Haslam, writes in his excellent new book, Faithful Presence: The Promise and the Peril of Faith in the Public Square, that “the term evangelical is more likely to be identified as a voting block than a description of someone who desires to share the good news of grace found in the Gospels.” Fellow Republican and evangelical commentator, David French, similarly questions whether the term evangelical carries any “true religious meaning any longer.”
In addition, many local churches (as well as parachurch groups) are fracturing because they include members with strong and conflicting political identities that have not been refined by either personal humility or a greater allegiance to biblical values. Pastors and other leaders are exhausted trying to withstand these competing political pressures in their churches and ministries.
One common response to this spiritual unsettledness is to decide one can’t talk about political or social issues in church. I sympathize with this pragmatic choice, but it can ultimately diminish our active witness in a decaying and darkening world. If we can’t talk about differences in our churches and Christian organizations, how can we talk meaningfully with those outside the household of faith?
An Evangelical Past and Future
I write these comments with great sadness as I have been an evangelical all of my life. Beginning with my home church when I was growing up, I have experienced an evangelicalism that takes the authority of the Bible seriously. I have fully embraced the words of John R. W. Stott that “God has not revealed his truth in such a way as to leave us free at our pleasure to believe or disbelieve it, to obey or disobey it.”
The evangelicalism I have experienced in many congregations with faithful pastors, has proclaimed and demonstrated the whole gospel (the evangel) to the whole person. It cared about worshipping God, spiritual formation of the soul, the life of the mind, social and racial justice, and the international mission of the church.
Fortunately, many evangelicals, churches, and institutions still embrace these values. Nineteen percent of white evangelicals and the strong majority of Black, Asian, Hispanic, and Native evangelicals did not vote for Trump even though they also care about pro-life and religious freedom issues.
So, is there a future for evangelicalism? Probably as a public identity, yes. As long as pollsters keep it alive, it will be hard to get rid of the terminology. Also, so many groups and churches have evangelical in their name or description, such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Evangelical Free Church, that major changes are difficult to imagine (although Evangelicals for Social Action did recently change their name to Christians for Social Action).
We also simply don’t yet have a better terminology to describe what has been a vibrant subgroup within Christianity. Many prefer now to avoid the evangelical label and just say, “I’m a Christ-follower.” That term might help on an interpersonal level in avoiding the stigma of an evangelical political identity—but will it hinder us from embracing a spiritually coherent vision for a biblical evangelicalism that is a faithful witness of salt and light in the world?
New Approaches to Eternal Truths
The answer may lie with a developing evangelical “tribe” made up of those across church, denominational, and ministry lines who embrace a broader coalition of spiritual convictions to supplement the traditional pillars of evangelicalism: belief in the Bible, belief in salvation through Jesus Christ, and belief in the importance of evangelism. This growing informal coalition has at least the following elements.
- The first is the tremendous interest in spiritual formation that is providing abundant resources and opportunities for pastors and lay leaders to pay attention to their souls and not just their beliefs. Organizations such as Renovaré, The Transforming Center, Leadership Transformations, Fuller Formation, and a host of spiritual direction programs, retreat centers, and books are leading the way to this deeper spirituality.
- A second development is a renewed passion for loving God with our minds and speaking God’s truths in the public arena. Major evangelical organizations such as BioLogos, The Trinity Forum, The Veritas Forum, Christianity Today, The Council for Christian Colleges and Universities, multiple study centers, and segments of Christian publishing seek to elevate thoughtful engagement with current world issues. It is striking now to read evangelical writers in The Atlantic, The New York Times, and The Washington Post. It is also encouraging to know of thousands of professors and graduate students in Christian and secular colleges and universities through ministries like InterVarsity Christian Fellowship who are living out their faith within and beyond their academic disciplines. Being a faithful presence in the world is a deep spiritual and professional calling that is gaining traction.
- A third dynamic is the significant number of social justice ministries, such as Christians for Social Action, Sojourners, International Justice Mission, World Relief and many newer ministries. These agencies are articulating and practicing biblical values of compassion, mercy, and justice in our culture. They are engaged politically where necessary but also assist church congregations with resources and opportunities for involvement. Many local churches are leading the way in caring for the homeless, for unwed mothers, and for racial justice in their communities. There is also a greater spiritual and relational connection (especially with many younger evangelicals) among white and ethnic minority church leaders in this country and throughout the world. An international and multiethnic church is becoming a compelling vision and reality rather than something to fear. Social justice is being rediscovered as a biblical calling integral to being a faithful witness.
- There is also a budding evangelical renaissance of the arts and the Christian imagination. This is happening through networks forged by groups and publications such as Christians in the Visual Arts (CIVA), Ekstasis Magazine from Christianity Today, The Edge of Faith Magazine, and many outstanding programs at evangelical colleges and seminaries. What is striking about this initiative is not only its appreciation of art as an expression of God’s creative activity, but how it is becoming an important resource in the areas of spiritual formation, social justice, and the life of the mind. Ever since the Enlightenment and its values of unmitigated reason and individualism, Christians have been lured into believing that our faith is fundamentally left-brained and transactional rather than also being transformative. The development and integration of a right-brained faithful imagination with a left-brained faith of belief is a powerful force of knowledge and creativity that is a bright light for evangelicals in the future.
If there is to be a resurgence of a vibrant evangelicalism, might it come from such a confluence of these spiritual formation, intellectual, justice, and arts initiatives? The traditional trilogy of Bible study, evangelism, and missions sometimes seems to be sadly depleted of energy or of being coopted by political allegiances. We can’t lose these priorities of the Gospel, but we need new and varied on-ramps to incorporate them into a holistic practice of Christian faith.
Streams of Living Water
Nearly twenty-five years ago, Richard Foster wrote a significant book called Streams of Living Water: Celebrating the Great Traditions of Christian Faith. Foster explores six spiritual traditions that have given shape to Christianity over the past two thousand years, including the Contemplative, Holiness, Charismatic, Social Justice, Evangelical, and Incarnational traditions.
Foster writes that these traditions all flow together with Jesus as the divine source. He notes both the strengths and limitations of each tradition functioning only by itself, suggesting that each stream can be enriched by receiving from the other streams.
But, as Foster notes, organizational and theological pride are like rocks that keep the streams from flowing freely together. It takes a true spirit of humility to welcome the value that each stream brings.
Maybe this is a time in history when the evangelical stream can be strengthened by receiving from the other streams and joining with them as a true expression of Christian unity.
The Great Commandments and the Great Commission
One shift in thinking that I believe might cultivate that spirit of humility is to more vigorously embrace Jesus’s teaching of the Great Commandments, to “love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind…[and] love your neighbor as yourself.” (See Deuteronomy 6:4-5, Matthew 22:35-40.)
The traditional evangelical mindset has often been focused more on the Great Commission: “Go and make disciples of all nations” (see Matthew 28:16-20) than on the Great Commandments. This discipling and missional impulse has been tremendously successful and is clearly foundational to our Christian calling. But perhaps it has been misappropriated in ways that have helped foster a worldly spirit of political triumphalism that is robbing us of our spiritual integrity.
Instead, we might focus more on a deeper love for God and neighbor that emanates from a place of humility, setting the stage for going into the world with all that Jesus taught us to obey, including the commandment to love one another. This would be a sharp contrast to being known for taking into the world a highly political and compromised faith.
An important part of recovering the true identity of evangelicalism is encouraging ministries that lead us in “paths of righteousness” and supporting pastors who courageously lead their congregations to think and act more biblically in the public arena. By collectively letting go of religious hubris and a longing for political power, we can better serve God and neighbor in ways that let the world “know we are Christians by our love.”
By God’s grace, that will be the future of evangelicalism.
Note: “What Is Evangelicalism?” by Bruce Hindmarsh, published in Christianity Today, provides an excellent summary of the evangelical movement. Another valuable contribution to the topic is the book Still Evangelical? Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning, edited by Mark Labberton. Still Evangelical? includes a rich diversity of perspectives from a number of writers, although Labberton’s comprehensive and carefully nuanced commentary in the seventeen-page introduction is in itself worth the price of the book.