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Before the 2016 election, I was comfortable with using the term “evangelical” for people like me, in spite of the problems with it. Now I am not so sure. The reason is that, whatever its historic value, the word “evangelical” in America has become inextricably tied to Republican politics. This is because the dominant media is far more interested in the political expressions of religion than in religion itself.

But it is also because strong majorities of white evangelicals support Republican candidates, including Donald Trump. Because it has become inextricably politicized, “evangelical” has become an essentially divisive term among Bible-believing Christians, as many African Americans, Hispanics, and others cannot identify with the political ramifications of being an “evangelical,” especially after the election of President Trump.

Kevin DeYoung, Mika Edmondson, and Russell Moore had an excellent discussion at TGC about the problems and use of the term:

In a previous post at this blog, I addressed how politics and polled killed the term “evangelical.”

In American pop culture parlance, “evangelical” now basically means whites who consider themselves religious and who vote Republican.

George Whitefield and Jonathan Edwards would be utterly perplexed by this development. These early evangelicals were fighting specifically against cultural Christianity, which was politicized in state churches. In their day, if you lived in Britain or its colonies, and had been baptized as an infant, you were regarded as a Christian. No questions asked.

Swimming against the stream of culture, the evangelicals of the Great Awakening preached against nominalism and national faith, declaring that you must be born again. The born-again believer would find a radically different, kingdom-minded way of life in the community of the redeemed.

Much has changed since the 1700s, and the change seems to have accelerated since the 1980s. I would point to three key factors in the corruption of the term “evangelical.”

1. The success of the evangelical movement itself. From its origins on the fringe of Anglo-American Christianity, evangelicalism in the 1800s turned into the de facto established religion of many parts of the South and Midwest. By the mid-20th century, many Americans could grow up imagining that they were “evangelicals” because that term seemed, in some quarters, equivalent to Protestant “Christian” or even “American.” You were now born an evangelical, not born again as one.

2. The political alignments of the 1970s and 1980s. In those decades, evangelicals began gravitating away from candidates with personal evangelical backgrounds, like George McGovern and Jimmy Carter, to those like Nixon who defended the “Silent Majority.” This tendency culminated in the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, who knew many evangelicals but who was not one himself. Reagan mastered the art of talking like evangelicals and promising progress on issues like school prayer and abortion. But when he got in office, actual progress on those issues was fairly meager, with notable exceptions such as the appointment of Antonin Scalia to the Supreme Court in 1986.

From then on, self-identifying white evangelicals have often been ok with candidates who learn evangelical lingo, and who promise good Supreme Court appointments, whatever the candidate's other positions and background. This meant that the media, who are puzzled by the concept of evangelicalism anyway, could disassociate evangelicals from theology, or affinity with other evangelicals, and link them inextricably with GOP politics.

3. Modern political polling. Political polling has become remarkably accurate at predicting electoral outcomes, even when everyone believes the numbers can't possibly be true (see Trump in the primaries). But pollsters stink at understanding the people they're polling. The most serious problem with understanding “evangelical” political behavior, then, is letting respondents define their own religious affiliation.

We see this difficulty all over the religious map. For example, Baylor research has shown that when you dig deeper with a certain fraction of the people who say they have “no religion” in polls, you find that those people attend church regularly. (They are the “nones” who say, "I am not religious, I have a relationship with Jesus.")

Likewise, time-strapped pollsters just let people tell them that they are evangelicals, without probing what that means. In the primaries, some evidence suggested that “evangelicals” who did not attend church were more likely to support Trump! For those who have a deeper understanding of the term's meaning, there can be no such thing as a non-churchgoing evangelical (unless the evangelical in question is imprisoned, incapacitated, or similarly detained). But polls can't account for these sorts of nuances.

I suspect that, tragically, many of these supposed American evangelicals have no clear understanding of the term “evangelical,” or of the gospel itself. They figure, "I'm conservative [another ill-defined term] and a Protestant, therefore I am an evangelical." Or maybe they think, "Well, I watch Fox News, so I must be an evangelical." Or, "I respect religion, and I vote Republican, so I must be an evangelical."

These vague associations have turned 'evangelical' into a term that luminaries like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitefield would not recognize. And, more problematically, they represent a faux gospel of moralism, nationalism, and politicization. That is a gospel that certainly cannot save.

Historians (including me) will keep on using the term “evangelical” and examining what it has meant in the past. But in public references to ourselves, it is probably time to put “evangelical” on the shelf.

What else will we call ourselves? That may be the biggest problem with not using “evangelical.” Mika Edmondson has a sensible response in the video--just identify with your denomination. (For me, that means Baptist.) Or you can tell people you are a follower of Jesus Christ, or a gospel Christian.

Another issue is whether to quibble with a pollster’s categories or a reporter’s question (“what do you mean by evangelical?”). I know there are occasions where you just can’t be nuanced. But if “evangelical” has become fundamentally politicized and divisive, we can get along fine without employing the term.

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13 thoughts on “Is the Term ‘Evangelical’ Redeemable?”

  1. Matěj Cepl says:

    I usually go just with “Christian”, I believe which should make some effort to keep solidarity with all people who believe in Christ, whatever strange way they do it. If you need to go into discussion about various theological opinions (or who is Christian and who is not), and do you really need to?, then just go into this discussion, but do not preventively distance yourself from other believers in Christ.

  2. Kierkegaard71 says:

    Has not a similar change happened to the word “religion”? My recollection of Jonathan Edwards writings is that religion is another term for a spiritual relationship with God, and all the attendant exercises associated with cultivating that relationship. Somewhere along the way, though, the word religion became associated, perhaps indelibly in the popular mindset, with rituals that have no necessary connection with a heart felt faith. Thus, one ends up with church going Christians disavowing any “religion”.

  3. Curt Day says:

    Both terms, ‘evangelical’ and ‘fundamentalist,’ suffer from the same problem: image distortion. And such results in dysphoria for those who wish to use those terms but in ways that focus on their original meaning.

    I have a sweatshirt that I wear to some of my leftist protests that identify me as a fundamentalist. That has caused some people to ask me what do I mean by that term. Then I get a chance to tell them about the basic fundamentals of the faith that distinguished Christianity from theological liberalism.

    We should reclaim the term ‘evangelical.’ But in order to do so, we have to, by word and actions, separate it from the strong association it has with Republican Party positions and politics. And the only way to do that is to show how evangelicals support a variety of political parties.

  4. Ken says:

    It is a shame, for “evangelical” has an honored place in Christian history going back at least to the early years of the Reformation; they were evangelical before they were Protestant. But if the term now confuses where once it clarified, it is probably time to set it aside.

  5. Stephen Hoffmann says:

    How about “conservative Protestant,” at least outside of the Christian community? Even “conservative Christian” carries political baggage, and “theological conservative” could seem disingenuous both to politicized conservatives who won’t tolerate liberal ideas in any form and to the increasingly secularized leftists, who have opened a wide gulf between liberalism and any orthodox religion that is not privatized. “Protestant” seems to have lost the elitist and anti-Catholic baggage it once had, and it is enough associated with the “mainline” (relatively liberal) part of American Christianity that the adjective “conservative” becomes a meaningful identifier. Within Christian circles “evangelical” can still work.

  6. allen says:

    I called the billy graham evangelical association the day after franklin graham appeared at the right side of trump in Arizona….so sad…my life had transformation through billy graham and his ministry….my faith awakened at one of his films in the 1970’s….now franklin is so unlike his father…that he has become a façade….and after billy is gone…the entire association is without focus….other than to promote radical right agenda…so sad

  7. Michael S says:

    People said the same thing about the term “liberal” when Reagan was in office.

  8. Timothy P Robbins says:

    Good, concise article here. I am one who has stopped calling himself evangelical just since last year. Words only carry the meanings ascribed to them– so if the meaning changes, then my usage should reflect that as well. I am a Ph.D. student at an evangelical seminary, and I work for an evangelical rescue mission. But now I merely tell people I am a “Christ Follower.” Some individuals I was becoming friends with assumed that since I was a white evangelical, over 50, I would naturally oppose justice for refugees, and would not support programs to help the poor. That’s a travesty– when an evangelical starts to earn the reputation of taking exactly the opposite positions of that which Jesus taught! So I’m out– at least as far as identity goes. If people carrying that label can support obvious bullying tactics, enhanced military aggression, and calls for expanding the use of torture, it’s time to give up on that term, lest my own credibility suffer. The term now refers to a people, hungry for power, crying out for self-deception and manipulation. Trump was a great test case of whether they will support anything with an “R” after it. Turns out, they will. When the leader of Focus on the Family enthusiastically takes the side of bullying and misogyny, the whole movement has been hijacked. I will not follow them over the cliff.

  9. Norm says:

    I prefer “small-o orthodox Christian” myself.

  10. Hmm says:

    I agree with the ambiguities associated with “evangelical”. I certainly do endorse the candidates and causes of the “evangelical” political movement, which the author seems opposed to, though he cares not to elaborate why. Christians who vote Left have much more explaining to do than those who vote Right considering the platform off the Democratic party and the now militant support it gives to causes antiChristian.
    The term being off -putting, it is best to use questions about how you label yourself to briefly clarify what is most important to you with a few comments summarizing the gospel. This can turn into a meaningful conversation rather than a a tortured dance around a term.

  11. Reid Fowler says:

    Although I agree that the term embraces far too broad a spectrum to be of much use, I am concerned that the author’s reasoning seems to only focus on the United States, without regard for other parts of the English speaking world where it may carry different connotations.

  12. Bill Black says:

    Growing up Presbyterian in a Memphis suburb, I barely ever heard anyone use the word “evangelical.” I don’t remember anyone identifying as “evangelical”–they called themselves Baptist or Methodist or Pentecostal. Sometimes someone would call themselves a “Bible Christian,” but that was about it for a self-identified term that was intended to encompass multiple denominations and at the same time exclude others. (As opposed to, say, “Christian.”)

    As a Presbyterian, I heard the term “fundamentalist” as a descriptive, apparently neutral term for Protestants to the right of mainliners. But I didn’t know anyone who called themselves a fundamentalist. (I should note I never actually heard the term “mainline”–both sides of the spectrum were more likely to refer to Presbyterians and their ilk as “moderates” or “liberals.”)

    In any case, I don’t remember anyone calling themselves an “evangelical” or labeling other Christians as “evangelicals.” I really only came into contact with the word through political punditry. So I thought of evangelicals as more a religio-political voting bloc, conservative white people who were concerned about gay rights and abortion and other hot-button “moral issues.”

    This is just my own experience. But I wonder if it’s true for others–that they’ve mainly encountered “evangelical” as a talking point of pundits, and when people are polled they largely adopt the identity in this political sense.

  13. David Teesdale says:

    We can’t keep running from terms. Be what you are, and stop worrying about what everyone else is doing. Constant redefinitions to make certain that we are signaling that we’re not like “them” is not productive. Be the hands and feet and let God take care of it.

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Thomas S. Kidd, PhD

Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University, and the author of many books, including Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father  (Yale, 2017); George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale, 2014) and Baptists in America: A History with Barry Hankins (Oxford, 2015). You can follow him on Twitter and subscribe to his weekly author newsletter.

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