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.