Evangelical Subculture Versus Evangelical Faith

As everyone, including most evangelicals, recognizes, U.S. evangelical subculture has some problems. Although its traditional populism is in some ways one of its strengths, in the matter at hand, it is more of a weakness.

As a demagogue, Donald Trump picks up far more of the popular evangelical vote than that of those considered evangelicalism's leaders. Grassroots evangelicals are heavily influenced by popular cultural and subcultural currents, and many do not know their pastors' views or even know who many of the less publicized leaders in the broader evangelical movement are.

In Iowa's caucuses, Trump picked up 22 percent -- about one-fifth -- of the evangelical Republican vote. In a January survey of one hundred evangelical leaders, however, roughly 50 percent favored Marco Rubio, whereas only 5 percent (one-twentieth) favored Trump. Similarly, in a January Lifeway poll, only 5 percent of Protestant pastors who were Republicans favored Trump. There is a clear disconnect between many of the movement's leaders and many who share their faith. (Then again, Wheaton's recent academic freedom debacle concerning Larycia Hawkins suggests that even evangelical intellectuals -- including at Wheaton College -- are not all of one mind. Ironically, Wheaton was founded in 1860 by Jonathan Blanchard, a radical abolitionist.)

I can understand those who, despite shared religious convictions, distance themselves from evangelicalism because of its frequent popular political connotations. In fact, over twenty years ago I came close to renouncing connections with white evangelical subculture myself. I had become part of the Black Church, which has traditionally advocated for social justice and community improvement while generally sharing evangelical beliefs about Scripture and salvation (on which see discussion below). (Many Catholics, Anabaptists and others also combine such approaches.)

Yet I found myself frustrated with some voices in the predominantly white evangelical subculture that either reinforced traditional prejudices or seemed utterly blind to the social issues my African-American friends were helping me to see. I wanted the faith without the subculture that was often assumed to go with it.

As I considered abandoning the dialogue, it was especially an African-American evangelical in her early twenties named Stacey who challenged me. She helped me to value the wider movement despite my concerns. Day after day at an Urbana missions conference I kept running into Stacey. Finally, when I arrived late for the communion service on the conference's last day, I had to take one of the only remaining seats still available in the 17,000-seat auditorium -- and found Stacey seated directly behind me. Stacey reminded me that when no one builds bridges, people on either side fail to understand each other and just become increasingly polarized. That unhelpful polarization has often grown in the past two decades, but I agreed with Stacey that I didn't want to be part of it.

In the years that followed, I soon flourished in a different evangelical subculture that made it easy to forget some other evangelicals' subculture. I taught for fifteen years at an urban seminary that was both mostly evangelical and ecumenical, affiliated with a mainline denomination yet interdenominational in its administration, faculty and student body. Roughly half our students were African-American and both our faculty and student body were also roughly evenly divided by gender; in my later years there, our president was African-American and our dean and associate dean were women. Most of my colleagues were deeply committed to justice issues, and indeed, instead of viewing me as heretical for affirming women's ordination, as some evangelical circles had seemed to do, my colleagues valued my commitment to it.

Anabaptist Ron Sider, then president of Evangelicals for Social Action and author of Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger, was one of my closest friends there. Another was Peruvian missiologist Samuel Escobar, a strong advocate for social justice and transformation and for a time president of the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students. Although many U.S. evangelicals do not realize it, U.S. evangelicals, whatever their political views, represent only a very small proportion of global evangelicalism. (Evangelicals outside the West outnumber Western evangelicals by four or five times; see for example Jason Mandryk, Operation World [7th ed.; Colorado Springs: Biblica, 2010], 3, 5.) Most evangelicals worldwide do not know about -- and could care less about -- U.S. evangelical political proclivities. While I was teaching at that seminary I married my best friend, who was from Église Évangelique du Congo, the Evangelical Church of Congo. Like other evangelicals in Congo, she had little exposure to U.S. politics.

Yet evangelicals who hold differing views politically are still evangelicals, at least by the most conventional definition. The term "evangelical" originally meant simply "having to do with the good news." An online Oxford dictionary defines the adjective "evangelical" firstly in this way and secondly with reference to "a tradition within Protestant Christianity emphasizing the authority of the Bible, personal conversion, and the doctrine of salvation by faith in the Atonement". My old, bulky Webster's unabridged hard copy defines "evangelical" as belief in salvation through faith in Christ rather than works alone and gives Methodists as one of its two examples. Some definitions add the feature of sharing one's faith. (You may not want to hear about their faith, but you can't blame someone for wanting to share an experience that they genuinely believe is a treasure, provided they respect your right of choice to listen or not.)

The U.S. National Association of Evangelicals insists on a faith definition (focused on Scripture as the highest theological authority and on salvation in Christ) rather than a definition by political perspectives. All of that is to say that for many of us, "evangelical" is a description of our faith, not an identification with a particular subculture. Indeed, to the extent that any Christian is Christian, one's loyalty to Christ should be greater than one's loyalty to a subculture, inviting the Christian to care for and listen to others beyond one's subculture.

For that reason, when some issue blanket condemnations of all "evangelicals" and stereotype us politically, it sounds prejudicial to us. It insults someone's personal faith just as would someone issuing blanket political condemnations of, for example, all Shiites, or all Reform Jews, or all Ahmadiyyas in places where these groups are substantial minorities. Those of evangelical faith are not unanimous regarding politics, evolution, eschatology, or a host of other matters. Authors who paint all evangelicals with a broad brush, rather than speaking of "many" evangelicals or "much of" white evangelical subculture, are condemning not a political position but people's personal faith experiences. Insulting other people's faiths is not helpful in making political progress; it simply reinforces polarization.

More productive would be building bridges of understanding -- including with those of evangelical faith-but-not-always-subculture who share with others some common perspectives. One perspective that should hopefully include is the recognition that Donald Trump has shown himself a misogynist demagogue.