Americans Feeling Better About Every Religion Except Evangelicalism

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Fascinating article in Christianity Today about American attitudes toward various religions. The chart on the left tells the tale very well. Everyone — even atheists — are more highly regarded in 2017 than in 2014 — except for evangelicals.

A more detailed article is available at the Pew Research Center’s webpage.

It’s actually worse than the chart shows.

The ratings fall when responses from fellow evangelicals, who made up more than 1 in 4 of respondents, are removed: Just under a third of non-evangelicals (32%) have warm feelings towards the group.

Part of the reason for evangelicals’ middling ratings is lack of exposure. The proportion of Americans who say they know an evangelical dropped by 9 percentage points from 2014 to 2017, down to 61 percent today. (A 2013 study hinted at the lack of exposure: 1 in 5 non-evangelicals in North America said they did not personally know an evangelical.) Meanwhile, knowing an evangelical increases their rating by 12 degrees on Pew’s feeling thermometer.

Though a majority of Americans still know at least one evangelical, the group experienced the most significant decline in familiarity. Among non-evangelicals, millennials (45%) and African Americans (33%) were least likely to know someone who identifies as evangelical.

Now, it’s a complex problem in part because “evangelical” is a poorly defined and understood term. In fact, in my experience, it’s most commonly used by the press to identify white Christians who support Republican candidates. Black Christians with nearly identical views generally decline to be described as “evangelical.”

The meaning of “evangelical”

In fact, in prior postings, I’ve had readers confuse “evangelical” with “evangelistic.” In the Churches of Christ, the term is hardly ever used.

I’d never heard of the term until I had finished law school. I ran into it in a Time magazine article and thought it was a form of “evangelistic” myself. I went to college at Lipscomb, had daily Bible classes and daily chapel services, and never heard the term. After all, it’s not a word found in the Bible. Well, not exactly.

The Greek for “gospel” is euaggelos, Anglicized as evangel. (A double g is pronounced ng in NT Greek. The transition of the “u” to “v” is a long story.) Hence, a gospel preacher is an evangelist — a gospelist or good-news-ist. An evangelistic meeting is a gospel meeting is a meeting where the gospel is preached.

Hence, an evangelical Christian should be a redundant term. That is, all true Christians necessarily believe the gospel and attempt to live the gospel. But in modern American usage (Europe is different) “evangelical” has come to refer to the Southern Baptist Churches, most community churches, and similar denominations and congregations. It’s more or less the people who support the Billy Graham Crusades, subscribe to Christianity Today, and shop at the Baptist bookstore, even if they’re not Baptists.

According to the website of the National Association of Evangelicals,

Historian David Bebbington also provides a helpful summary of evangelical distinctives, identifying four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:

  • Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
  • Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
  • Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
  • Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity.

By that definition, most Church of Christ members are evangelical, as are most Black Christians and most Pentecostals, although the press, the survey companies, and such usually treat Pentecostal Christians and Black Christians as separate categories.

The Churches of Christ tend to reject the term as not found in scripture, although it’s just the adjective form of “gospel” in transliterated Greek.

In the popular press, “evangelical” is usually contrasted with the “mainline” denominations, which are the old European Protestant denominations, such as the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Reformed, and Anglican or Episcopalian denominations — even though there are evangelical Anglicans, Lutherans, etc. The real distinction is how seriously a given church takes scriptural authority. Those who reject the resurrection as a real, historical event are not evangelical. Those who object to evangelistic missionary work are not evangelical. In fact, if you deny the resurrection of Jesus, you aren’t really a Christian at all (Rom 10:9).

The popular press also distinguishes “evangelical” from “Fundamentalist.” The two terms have meant different things at different times. Today, of course, no one wishes to be considered a Fundamentalist because of the association with “Fundamentalist Islamist,” which was once the press’s preferred euphemism for “Islamic terrorist.”

Not long ago, “Fundamentalist” was closely tied to legalism or a works-based version of Christianity. Hence, it would have been meaningful to speak of the Churches of Christ moving from Fundamentalism toward evangelicalism as a result of the so-called progressive movement within the Churches. But at this point, the press has so co-opted “Fundamentalist” that the Pew Research study doesn’t even bother referring to some Christian denominations by that term. And no church would self-identify under the term.

It used to be that “evangelical” referred to more grace-oriented versions of Christianity. You might be Calvinist or Arminian, but if you believed in salvation by faith in Jesus (sola fide or “faith only” in the Reformation vocabulary — with no intended reference to baptism either way) you were evangelical. But thanks to the alliance of many evangelical denominations with the Republican Party, the term may have been hopelessly corrupted in the public’s mind. Hence, conservative Black Christians generally reject the term due to its political associations.

And so, increasingly, people who think of themselves as evangelical do not describe themselves with this term, to avoid having their religion tied too closely to politics. Frankly, I’m in that camp. A few years ago, I might have described myself as a Church of Christ evangelical — in preference to, say, progressive. But I deeply object to the politicization of the American evangelical churches, and so I do not use that term of myself.

I say all this to explain why so few people think they know an evangelical Christian. It’s a term many evangelicals no longer wish to be associated with. It’s no longer particularly useful.

The impact of American politics on evangelicalism

So while the stats are by no means good, they likely aren’t quite as damning as they appear at first glance. Nonetheless, this much is true: the recent political season hasn’t helped conservative, Bible-based denominations. In fact, one could rightly interpret the Trump presidency as a rejection of evangelical involvement in American politics — not because they’re Christians but because they’re indistinguishable from non-Christians.

After all, there were several overtly evangelical candidates among the Republicans — and they all lost to Trump in the Republican primaries, and Trump is clearly not evangelical. So even the evangelical Republicans didn’t support evangelical candidates — even though many evangelical leaders urged their followers to refuse to support Trump.

Why? Well, I think because the Christian Republicans saw so little difference between the overtly Christian candidates and the more secular candidates. The evangelical candidates didn’t come across as particularly different from the same old politicians that have been failing us for decades.

So we evangelicals (that is, conservative Christians) have badly damaged our image in the eyes of the public — appearing to be a special interest group within the Republican Party rather than advocates for the gospel. Indeed, we’ve been so co-opted by American politics that even the churches can’t see a difference between “our” politicians and purely secular politicians. Therefore, the effort to move the nation’s culture in a more Christ-like direction through politics has failed. In fact, the result has been to move the church in a more secular direction. The culture has fought back and is changing the church so that Christian candidates are largely indistinguishable from non-Christian candidates.

Obviously, the solution is to get the church out of party politics so that “evangelical” and “Christian” no longer mean “Republican” and instead mean “follower of Jesus,” two very different things. But just to show how difficult this is, the fact that many evangelical leaders came out against Christian support for Trump only reinforced the image of the church as a political special interest group. Whether you take the pro or con position on a candidate, you’re still using your pulpit to take an overtly political position — making the church appear overtly political — because it is.

So depoliticizing the church will require some serious deprogramming of our members and leaders. And this requires developing a better theology of the church and state — something that can be preached in both election and non-election years. Something like  the Kingdom is not concerned with changing the culture of the world but with lifting up Jesus so that those in the the world leave the world to enter the Kingdom.

It’s not complicated.

Well, it’s a little complicated because there is also the need for the church to serve the oppressed. And there are times when the government has to be criticized because it’s the oppressor rather than a defender of the oppressed, contrary to God’s design for government. Then again, sometimes the church is the oppressor — advocating against the interests of the oppressed, unrepresented, and politically impotent — because of the church’s loyalty to party over Christ. But we’re really grossly incompetent to make these judgments because we are so tied to American party politics. We’ve forgotten how to think about the needy in purely biblical terms.

We’ll be getting deeper into some of these questions as we continue our study of N. T. Wright’s book on the atonement, The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus’s Crucifixion. After all, we’ve not yet fully sorted out just what the “revolution” might be.

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About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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8 Responses to Americans Feeling Better About Every Religion Except Evangelicalism

  1. jon says:

    Excellent post–thanks! You can make the case that the church’s close association with a particular political position is not only bad judgment, it’s heresy. In any case, I hope evangelical churches can move away from such a close identification with right-wing extremism (or any political position, for that matter), and I’m looking forward to your thoughts on Wright’s latest book.

    I suspect Churches of Christ have avoided the term evangelical because of its association with “the denominations” (American Methodists and Presbyterians are also historically considered evangelical, along with Baptists, although it’s come to be less associated with these churches since the 1960s). Like you, I never heard the term until I was an adult. I don’t think Churches of Christ should have any problem with it, because except for instruments and frequency of taking communion, services at most of the evangelical churches I’ve attended are virtually identical to a service in the CofC. I’m afraid too many of our brethren are still afraid of using a term that might suggest we’re not the “one true church,” and that suggests that the folks in other denominations might be saved.

    I’ll add, too, that the term fundamentalist has anti-intellectual overtones–stemming originally from the Scopes Trial and clownish ministers–that many modern evangelicals find distasteful. My memory may be off, but as I recall (from reading Christianity Today and George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture) post-WWII figures like Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry intentionally starting calling themselves evangelicals to get away from conservative Christianity’s association with fundamentalism and all its baggage. It’s ironic and sad that the press and popular culture now associate the term evangelical with anti-intellectual and populist politics, even though serious observers of Christianity know the term should actually mean something much different than how one votes.

  2. Profile photo of Kevin Kevin says:

    Interesting article in Baptistnews.com about American evangelicalism and Tom Wright:
    https://baptistnews.com/article/can-tom-wright-save-christianity/#.WKiThbE-Lox

  3. Mark says:

    Evangelicalism also has a reputation of being anti everything, real or perceived. Present is a polity that is frequently anti-woman, anti-gay, secular conservative, etc. Even if some of the individual people are the nicest and most Christ-like you could know, the group has a reputation that is different. Paul is the most important firgure and Jesus is barely running second.

    Now Pope Francis, who mind you is a Jesuit, has done done quite a bit to help the Catholic and mainline Protestants rode the Catholic improvement. He has softened some of the hard-line policies and reminded people and clergy of what they are supposed to do out in the real world. I don’t think evangelicals have benefited from his speeches but some of the people have silently listened to him, but many of the preachers wouldn’t dare quote him. Jesus was a social person who was not cloistered during his life. As the Bible says, there was much more that Jesus did which was not written. I have a feeling this wasn’t done in secret.

  4. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Kevin,
    Thanks for the link. Excellent article.

  5. Bob Davis says:

    Hi, Jay, Few years ago I read that ‘fear’, of 8 reasons, is the main reason for people failing to share Jesus. My experience has been not knowing how to answer the hard questions. As a prison volunteer, when I’m asked, “Brother Bob, do you believe that God is going to burn me in fire forever because I love a man instead of woman?”
    Being a conditionalist I explain,…slowly and carefully…… no, wouldn’t that sort of make God a sadistic monster? But do you suppose doing so might keep your name out of the book of life?” Then the questions from the inmate begins and my answers are mostly in the form of questions like, “Do you think Jesus was mistaken about what He said in Matt 10:28?” Gradually to the story where punishment is of different levels depending on the degree of wickedness that isn’t forgiven, possibly destroyed in a nano second. Then on to the wonders of heaven where “no eye has seen or hear has heard etc………..forever. How it broke God’s heart when the Moabites got so wicked God knew it was time for the end of most of them.
    Unfortunately those that would teach a homosexual the punishment was “fire forever because that’s just the way God is” causes them to reject the whole idea of God in the first place and adds to the number of people that become atheist. I’ve experienced it for almost 20 years now, dealing with that having happened. Whereas helping men learn of God’s true character has turned some around…..thankfully. The message of love will help eliminate the reason of “fear” from sharing Jesus with whomever……..Bob

  6. Profile photo of Jay Guin Jay Guin says:

    Bob,

    Thanks for the testimony. It made my day.

  7. Gary says:

    Michael Gerson, a devout Catholic, has a thought provoking column in today’s (February 24, 2017) New York Times entitled “An Evangelical Struggle with Sexual Identity.” It is well worth reading.

  8. Johnny says:

    Gary, since the figures show that is 12-13 times more expensive to bring middle eastern refugees here than to support them in the Middle East, why would you favor a plan that limits the number of refugees we can help? Would you prefer we help 1 and leave 11 to suffer more?

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