Where Have the Evangelicals Gone

Deep Divide

There was something about this past presidential election that struck a cord deep into the soul of America. Some would argue it was more like a lightning strike that split the ground deep, producing a dark divide in our country. Others would suggest that divide has always been there, just hiding in the shadows like an angry dragon, waiting patiently to attack the unassuming village below.

I would count myself in the common category of individuals not too enthralled with either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump, but it truly hurts my heart to think that Donal Trump somehow represents me to the free world. What hurts even more is the numerous evangelical leaders who’ve explicitly backed and continue to support Trump’s every move. This fact has become so disheartening to me that it’s even made me question my assumed religious identity as an “evangelical.”

I’m Not with Them 

I’m 37 years-old and grew up listening to Christian radio and reading Christian books. People like James Dobson, Franklin Graham and Jay Sekulow were my moral heroes, instructing me in all things Christian. There were many others, of course, but these were a few that I greatly respected. But, now this group, along with Jerry Falwell Jr., Pat Robertson (among others) have aligned themselves, heart and soul with Donald Trump. I totally respect an evangelical’s relationship with a sitting president, but the complete support these men have given this particular president is something else. I find it hard these days to listen to the news, hearing the next horrible thing our president has tweeted, said, or done. It’s embarrassing and sometimes sickening. But, what really hurts is when the men I’ve grown up respecting stand with, support, and defend his every action.

If this is what it means to be an evangelical in the eyes of America then I want nothing to do with that term. Apparently I’m not the only one thinking this way. I’ve read multiple articles recently from individuals struggling with these same concerns. One author believes evangelicals are losing an entire generation because of their behavior. Tony Campolo refuses to call himself an evangelical now. Like me, they believe the Bible is the word of God, that man has a problem called sin, and that Jesus is the only way to heaven. We believe everything a traditional follower of Jesus would believe, but have begun to cringe every time the word “evangelical” is brought up in the media-because it’s usually connected with something terrible. Even those who don’t follow our faith are utterly confused by the support white evangelicals are giving a man like Donal Trump. A book just came out last year by a person outside the faith trying to figure out this very question called The Evangelicals

Evangelicalism Experiences a Mutiny 

The term “evangelical” rose to fame in America after the election of Jimmy Carter in 1976. Then it was popularized even more in the 80’s with the birth of the moral majority. The term “evangelical” gave political parties a way to identify white people with conservative values who leaned towards voting Republican. On the religious side the term gave various denominations common ground to work together. But,  there soon began a divide between what was meant politically by the term “evangelical” and how the term defined actual conservative Christians.

The term “evangelical” also developed division along racial lines. White people have traditionally defined the narrative of the movement. The National Association of Evangelicals was founded in 1942, but interestingly no major African-American denomination or church were a part of the group. Even though “activism” was a central value for all evangelicals, white evangelicals were not willing to take a clear stand against racism. The Southern Baptists famously didn’t publicly condemn their slavery roots until a resolution in 1995. And even more recently they struggled to pass a resolution to disavow any connection with white supremacists, leading some to leave the denomination.

Recent polling practices during the 2016 election only deepened the complexity of the term “evangelical”, especially along racial lines. One article explained that exit polls on the day of the election only allowed white people to self-identify as “evangelical”. Everyone else had to choose “protestant” or “other Christian.” Those who took the poll were not asked if they attended church, only what religious group they identified with. Another author found that those who identified as Christians who attended church regularly did not vote for Trump.

Evangelicalism Becomes Divisive Rather than Rallying

These facts all bother me. If conservative, Bible-believing Christians really are going to forge something special for the future, then it will not happen while waiving a flag bearing the term “evangelical”. This term has become too politicized and has been used only to create division. We need a new term. Maybe we just need to go back to using the term “Christian.” Or, maybe we could call ourselves, “Christ-followers,” or “Disciples of Jesus”. Whatever we call ourselves it’s clear that “evangelical” is not going to cut it anymore. In some ways we’ve ruined the term. But, I don’t know that all is lost. It’s clear, historically, that the term evangelical has not equally represented all conservative Christian backgrounds in America.

As followers of Jesus for the future, we have to be able to stand with our brothers and sisters of other ethnicities and experiences and fight for injustice wherever it is found. I live in a very multi-cultural city so often our soccer teams are very diverse. Yesterday a few teams from our city were playing in a tournament about an hour away. An African-american girl from one of our older teams was playing in a game when a girl on an opposing team got in her face and called her the “N” word. She immediately crumpled to the ground crying. THIS HAPPENED YESTERDAY! Fellow Christians, we are far from where we need to be and the house that evangelicals built has now burnt to the ground. If we can’t take a clear stand against racism, fight for those who don’t have a voice, help the poor, and stand against bullies who abuse women- then what can we ever stand for!

Right now it feels like we’re crawling among the ashes looking for something to salvage. But, it’s time to build something new- something better- something stronger. From the ashes we can begin to to build a movement based, not on any political party or ideology, but on the heart of Jesus who came to earth to seek and save that which was lost. The heart of Jesus has always been for the lost, broken, and disconnected. I hope we can focus on that and eventually the world will again know we are Christians by our……love. 

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