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A new kind of “evangelical”?

We should not let politics obscure theological labels

People pray before former President Donald Trump speaks at a rally in Sioux Center, Iowa, on Jan. 5. Associated Press/Photo by Andrew Harnik

A new kind of “evangelical”?
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As any grandmaster of Pointless Online Theological Fisticuffs can tell you, the less clearly you define your terms, the more pointless the debate will be. If, for example, a Roman Catholic and a Southern Baptist debate whether baptism saves without sharing a common definition of both “baptism” and “saves,” both sides will end up barking slogans at each other and neither side will win any converts.

Likewise, if you wish to argue that Donald Trump “is connecting with a different type of Evangelical voter”, you won’t make a terribly convincing argument if you have no clear definition of “evangelical.” Unfortunately, that’s precisely the path Ruth Graham and Charles Homans take in their recent New York Times article.

Graham and Homans profile a handful of these “new” evangelicals who share a few things in common, namely a fervent desire to see Donald Trump reelected and a lack of regular church attendance. There’s Karen Johnson, who hasn’t attended a worship service in years and who sees Trump as both “our David and our Goliath.” There’s Cydney Hatfield, who prays to God every night but doesn’t attend church and describes Trump as “the only savior [she] can see.” There’s Tricia Shuffty who “votes on Biblical issues” but doesn’t gather for holy worship regularly on account of her work schedule.

“Evangelicalism has long had an individualistic strain that resists the idea that personal faith requires church attendance,” Graham and Homans tell us. And, in their minds, those they profile serve as evidence that Donald Trump has helped these new evangelicals carve out terrain in the legitimate and long-established non-church-going wing of evangelicalism.

But all of their question-begging raises an important question: are these new evangelicals or not evangelicals? Certainly, evangelicalism is a tradition with murkier boundaries than Catholicism or Presbyterianism, but one would be hard pressed to identify which section of David Bebbington’s Evangelicalism Quadrilateral (conversionism, biblicism, activism, crucicentrism) has room for the Proud Non-Churchgoers. 

If one must believe that “lives need to be transformed through a ‘born-again’ experience and a life long process of following Jesus,” to be an evangelical, and if one must have “a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority” to qualify, what room is there in the movement for those who feel no compulsion to follow Jesus to the house where His word is preached and who don’t believe Hebrews 10:25 is divinely inspired enough to command their obedience to it? Likewise, if evangelicals place “stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity,” how does someone who sees Trump as more of a messiah than the actual Messiah have a place in that tradition?

President Trump didn’t change the views of pre-existing evangelicals as much as he made the label “evangelical” appealing to those outside the boundaries of the tradition.

Graham and Homans are certainly free to argue that Donald Trump has caused a new and legitimate branch of the evangelical tree to sprout. But if they want to better understand the Trump Effect, they’ll find it in this piece from Pew Research Center, one that, ironically enough, Graham and Homans cite in their article. 

As Gregory A. Smith of Pew notes, “white Americans who viewed Trump favorably and did not identify as evangelicals in 2016 were much more likely than White Trump skeptics to begin identifying as born-again or evangelical Protestants by 2020.”

In other words, President Trump didn’t change the views of pre-existing evangelicals as much as he made the label “evangelical” appealing to those outside the boundaries of the tradition. Throughout Trump’s presidency, those who loved Trump but weren’t regular churchgoers watched hostile media voices feign ignorance over how Christians could possibly support a man who made a hypocritical mockery of their faith instead of those who were openly hostile to it. They heard condescending talking heads use “evangelical” as a slur meaning “deplorable Christians who support the Bad Orange Man.” And, as is often the case in the religious realm, the maligned began positively adopting the slur. 

A good example of this is found in Karen Johnson, the first woman profiled in Graham and Homans’ piece. Johnson grew up Lutheran, the tradition to which I belong. And while Lutherans originally called themselves “evangelicals” in the Reformation era, American Lutherans have never identified themselves as part of the modern evangelical movement. Our views on conversion, the Sacraments, and church fellowship, to name a few, place us squarely outside the boundaries. 

Nevertheless, Graham and Homans tell us that Johnson “still identifies as an evangelical Christian.” Still? While there may be a very small chance that Johnson used that moniker for herself back in her days teaching Sunday School to little Lutherans, the odds are significantly higher that Johnson never called herself an evangelical until the mainstream media told her that an evangelical is what you call a self-identified Christian who loves Donald Trump but doesn’t necessarily love singing hymns on Sunday morning.

As a Lutheran, I have no particular interest in weighing in if my Southern Baptist and non-denominational friends want to argue about which of them is a better representative of the evangelical tradition. But as a believer who is both weary and wary of bad-faith framing by anti-Christian media, I’m tired of seeing Christian-scented Trump worshippers falsely labeled as “evangelicals” in order to play guilt-by-association with faithful Christians who are guilty of nothing but hoping to bring about godly policies through an ungodly politician. Words have meaning, and if we’re interested in anything deeper than scoring cheap points against our political opponents, we should let “evangelical” retain its historic and theological definition.

Hans Fiene

Hans Fiene is the pastor of Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Crestwood, Mo., and the creator of Lutheran Satire, a multimedia project intended to teach the Christian faith through humor. He is also a frequent contributor to The Federalist. A graduate of Indiana University and Concordia Theological Seminary, Hans and his wife Katie have four sons.

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