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Disappearing evangelicals

Where did all that clout go?


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If you are disappointed, as I am, at the dismal recent showing by presidential candidates with bona fide labels as “evangelicals,” maybe it’s time for an altogether different way of looking at things.

By my count, zero out of two Democratic candidates sought to be identified as evangelicals, while four (or, at most, five or six) out of 17 Republicans seemed to welcome the label. In descending order of their campaign longevity, Ted Cruz, Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry, and Scott Walker all eventually had to tell their evangelical backers that 2016 just wasn’t the year. (Whether you’d add Seventh-day Adventist Ben Carson or Roman Catholic Marco Rubio to that short list is a subject for a good discussion another time.)

Where did all those evangelicals go? We could, and probably to some extent should, blame it on the evangelical voters, who in massive throngs preferred the populist and simplistic promises of Donald Trump. In state after state, pragmatism trumped principle—even among principled evangelicals.

The evangelical candidate who will ultimately win needs also to produce and dramatize a track record of lifetime accomplishment.

But my focus is on the candidates themselves. Is this handful of folks the best we can produce? With 100,000 to 200,000 evangelical congregations across the country; with several hundred colleges and seminaries committed to the development of a so-called biblical worldview; with more than 250 publications listed in the Evangelical Press Association and more than 1,000 Christian radio stations—with all that and more, what does it say about the evangelical community that we have not shaped somebody with a strong enough biblical and philosophical understanding of issues, big enough leadership skills, a clean enough personal record, and courage enough to take the risks and pay the price of getting out front?

Well, we shouldn’t kid ourselves. One reason we don’t have a bigger roster on the political front is simply that we have a similar shortage in just about every field of endeavor. Where are the standouts in business and economics, in law and public policy, in medicine and healthcare, in science and technology, in education, in the media? Where are the men and women in these and other fields who have developed leadership skills honed by biblical teaching, principles, and values?

But such an awareness, along with an ability to articulate it winsomely and clearly, is just a start. The evangelical candidate who will ultimately win needs also to produce and dramatize a track record of lifetime accomplishment, rooted in biblically illuminated truths. As much as I had an inclination in the last few months to back Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, such support was minimized by their relative inexperience. Both were freshman senators. Both had relatively meager records of real-world achievement. Both brought some serious negative baggage to the contest—including a simple inability to get along.

In every vocation, in every calling, God asks his people not merely to wrap a Christian veneer around what they do—but radically to reform all such tasks through biblical insights and Spirit-provided power. Only then will the larger public come to sense that we are Daniels in the top halls of government, and not just one of King Nebuchadnezzar’s other ding-a-ling no-names.

Keeping in mind such a combination of (1) clear thinking and (2) record of accomplishment, does a single one of the recent evangelical wannabes leap out as “just right”? Not one of them has approached the American voting public with a clear explanation of why he believes what he believes. That explanation doesn’t have to be narrow and sectarian. It starts instead with a simple affirmation of what Francis Schaeffer said a generation ago: “He is there, and he is not silent.” A presidential candidate who has thought through the issues should be able, without mean-spirited offense, to anchor his proposed program in the historic truths of the Bible and to explain to the American people how such truths offer hope for a world that is increasingly broken and terror-stricken.

Next time around (if there is one!), these folks will have put on a few years. Whether they add wisdom and serious accomplishment as well will be another matter.

Email [email protected]


Joel Belz

Joel is WORLD’s founder. He contributes regular commentary for WORLD Magazine and WORLD Radio. Joel has served as editor, publisher, and CEO over three decades at WORLD and is the author of Consider These Things. Joel resides with his wife, Carol, near Asheville, N.C.

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Brendan Bossard

I agree with you. Reagan was Reagan because he was willing to negotiate and still retained his moral bearing without arrogance. Cruz has moral bearing, but seems unwilling to negotiate and is very arrogant. Unfortunately much of the Republican electorate is very similar, and we are paying for it this year. 

Kingdomnetworker

The description of Cruz and Rubio seem to fit the American "Christian" populace, rural and urban, that is we see a "relative inexperience" in polical and biblical matters as they relate to cultural challenges (abortion, honesty, sexual morality, etc) and "a simple inability to get along". This was obviously true of Cruz and Rubio, not to speak of Trump. It is also true of the the many evangelicals in our local communities. We don't get along or work together on cultural transformative matters. Our view of what we must work on together seems more focused on "what is in it for me and mine?" rather than "How will this benefit God's Kingdom?" We are far from seeing the results of John 13:35 and John 17:21,23. that we may love one another so the world will believe in the one who sent us.

JennyBeth

This assessment is accurate. I have become convinced, through observation over the past year and discussion with someone wise enough to see past the partisanship, that we have a dearth of real Christian leadership because Christians on the right and left both base their opinions more on modern secular philosophy than on the Bible and Christian tradition, holding up rights to money, to our bodies, and our own national power above responsibility to God. Everyone sees this only on the other side: Democrats call out Republicans rightly for corruption but ignore it in their own camp; Republicans pushed to remove Bill Clinton for immoral behavior, but gave Gingrich and now Trump a free pass on it. We only know how to oppose a party, not how to keep our own house, which is why Cruz has based his career on opposing things without casting any positive vision, and why Trump's promises of greatness, absurd as they are, rose above that. There is no integrity, and our nation is now reaping what it has been sowing for years.

Sawgunner

I'm hitting the like button. It does seem the last time an unabashed Evangelical got to DC he quickly shed any biblical convictions to garner favor with beltway elites even though he had proudly run as an "outsider".  Conservative Christians have been betrayed and stabbed in the back so many times by political "saviors" of the religious right only to see them all more or less go the same way as Ralph Reed (or worse, Sanford of South Carolina).

I think the biblical conservative movement in politics needs to make like the 3 Stooges and "spread out" and exert more influence in more than the national level R party as difficult as that might seem. I certainly encourage proLife voters to become multi partisan. 

socialworker

I don't believe it's possible in this current cultural climate to elect an outwardly evangelical president. Any of the above you mentioned should have been an automatic win over the current Dem candidate if people were not so hostile toward Christianity and conversativism.  Scott Walker is the person I can't believe was overlooked by the American people.  I don't think it's a failing in the evangelical community...I believe God is giving our country clearly what we want.  Christians need to take cover because who knows what will come next.

LCA7539

I've told a number of my friends who support(ed) Cruz, it's not enough to be right, one needs to show respect, also (As Paul did to the leaders of his day in Acts 26). And, you can't complain about dishonesty in another candidate and yet practice the same thing--as if it's somehow legitimized if it's your guy misrepresenting the truth. And finally, my facebook page for months was filled with comments about others being dumb, stupid, and ignorant for not jumping on the Cruz bandwagon. This is not rocket science. How many people are you going to win over by calling them idiots? And even in defeat, for many, the self-righteousness remains--blaming the "ignorant heathen" instead of removing the log from one's own eye. I've taken a lot of heat for expressing these thoughts. But, to those people I would say, if you're happy with the results, behave the same way next time around.