The End of American Evangelicalism

One of the big surprises of 2016 is the extent of evangelical support for Donald Trump. As I mentioned several weeks ago, judging by historical precedents, evangelicals might well have divided their support among a number of candidates who spoke persuasively about their Christian faith, including Ted Cruz, John Kasich, and the now-defunct Ben Carson, Marco Rubio, and Jeb Bush. Nevertheless, in many early primaries, Trump attracted a plurality of the Republican evangelical vote.

This past Tuesday, things were more mixed. Trump nearly won an outright majority of the evangelical vote in Florida, but Ted Cruz out-performed him among such self-identified voters in Missouri (by quite a bit), Illinois (very narrowly), and North Carolina (even more narrowly). Kasich narrowly carried the evangelical vote in Ohio.

Many journalists and other commentators have noted the fracturing of the evangelical vote in 2016 and sought to explain Trump’s success among this demographic. Stephen Prothero offers a good starting point for assessing these developments: “America’s evangelicals just aren’t all that evangelical anymore.”

So, what does it mean for someone to be an “evangelical?” Prothero suggests that “what made an evangelical an evangelical was a born-again experience that included accepting the Bible as the inspired word of God and giving one’s life over to Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. To a born-again Christian, following Jesus came first. Everything else came in a distant second.” He suggests, though, that this is no longer true for most self-identified “evangelicals.” It’s the Republican Party or whatever political savior appears that takes priority over Jesus.

I’m not convinced without further evidence that self-identified “evangelicals” are less evangelical than they were in ca. 1980. The positions of Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority, after all, did not flow straight out of the New Testament.

The bigger issue here in my view is that journalists and pundits invest “evangelical” with overly broad meanings. First of all, most exit polls ask respondents whether they are “evangelical or born-again Christians.” If the question were simply, “Are you an evangelical?” many respondents might well be confused, and journalists would probably identify fewer Americans as such.

In the 1950s, the term “evangelical” or “new evangelical” had a particular meaning, identifying a camp of theologically conservative Protestants led by Carl F. H. Henry, Harold J. Ockenga, and, above all, Billy Graham, that wanted to create a more attractive version of fundamentalism. Over time, though, “evangelicals” won this internecine, intra-fundamentalist conflict. As the ranks of self-identified “fundamentalists” narrowed, “evangelical” became shorthand in many quarters for all theologically conservative Protestants, especially those who placed a central importance on the born-again experience of conversion.

Scholars, meanwhile, often define evangelicalism in terms that are simultaneously specific and vague. Following the lead of David Bebbington, they define evangelicals as Protestant Christians who place strong emphases on conversion; on biblical authority; on activism; and on the meaning of the crucifixion for the atonement and human salvation. For example, in my history of Campus Crusade for Christ, I defined evangelicals as “Protestant Christians who readily talk about their experience of salvation in Jesus Christ, regard a divinely inspired Bible as the ultimate authority on matters of faith and practice, and engage the world in which they live through evangelism and other forms of mission.” Of course, many Christians who would not think of themselves as “evangelical” or “Protestant” could own such language. Historians, though, have particular groups of Protestants in mind from the eighteenth-century through the present day.

Nowadays, the term “evangelical” has morphed into something far more diffuse and confusing. As Stephen Miller observes, “its footprint has extended far beyond the number of people who might fairly be called evangelical.” Many conservative Protestants recognize and lament this reality. For example, D.G. Hart has argued that theologically conservative Protestants should discard “evangelical identity” for confessional identities more closely tied to historic Christian movements.

As an antonym of sorts for “liberal Protestant,” “evangelicalism” is still a reasonable way to identify factions within a range of American denominations and an umbrella term that brings together a host of parachurch organizations, nondenominational churches, and other institutions.

At the same time, “evangelicalism” as imagined by many journalists does not exist, nor is there an “evangelical” movement akin the one led — albeit loosely — by Billy Graham in the decades following the Second World War. To claim that a quarter of Americans are “evangelical” or “born-again” says rather little. And if we want to examine the appeal of Ted Cruz or Donald Trump to different sorts of American Protestants, we need far more precision. American evangelicalism, in short, no longer exists the way that many journalists and scholars imagine it.

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  • RustbeltRick

    You can nitpick about whether evangelicals are over-counted, but the truth remains that lots of Bible believing, church-attending, devotion-reading evangelicals are voting for Trump, and no, it’s not a surprise at all. There is a large part of evangelicalism that sees “opposition to liberalism” as a core belief, an everlasting crusade that manifests itself in a fondness for liberal-bashers like Ann Coulter, Matt Walsh, Sean Hannity . . . and now, Donald Trump. He bashes Obama and insults Hillary and many evangelicals absolutely love it; in that moment, he becomes a friend, a fellow warrior. Of course they vote for him.

  • Sandra K Jenner

    Yes, liberal-bashing is a core belief and a pleasant pastime. Anyone with his eyes open sees the harm liberalism does to the culture. There is nothing un-Christian about denouncing something that is so toxic. The religious left prefers that evangelicals should pay our taxes and cower in our homes meekly and let our liberal masters rule us. Sorry, but wimpiness is not a Christian virtue. Trump is no friend of mine, but if he denounces people who fully merit being denounced, it’s all good. Hilary might have enough church savvy to say “Second Corinthians” instead of “Two Corinthians,” but the fact that she poses as a Christian means nothing, Christian are not as naive as she supposes. I don’t expect the president to be someone who would lead the Wednesday night Bible study in my church.

  • Torin

    Yes, Let’s hear it for the Anti-Christ! The strong deserve the Earth, the poor should die! Death to Homosexuals! White Men are ordained by God to rule!

  • Dennis Velco

    Get a grip.

  • Torin

    I do a real hard grip.

  • Sean

    There are millions of black evangelicals in the US and abroad, so attempt to smear evangelicals as racists is bogus.

    In fact, it’s the liberal churches in the US which are predominantly white – basically social clubs for white liberals. The Southern Baptists and Assemblies of God have higher percentages of minorities than the post-Christian churches (Episcopagans, ELCA, PCUSA, etc). The megachurches are much more ethnically diverse than the dying mainlines.

    But don’t let facts sway you.

  • Torin

    The African American Evangelicals I know are trying to live the gospel not impose religious conviction on others by way of Congress. Just saying.

  • John Turner

    Yes, that’s true. Of course, Trump does at least as well with non-evangelicals in places like Massachusetts than he does with the folks you are describing.

    What I would be interested in measuring the actual religious participation and beliefs of these Trump evangelicals versus, for example, the Cruz evangelicals.

  • PJ Dellas

    I suspect it would be higher than your hypothesis. The basic reason (and I am a Cruz supporter since Rand Paul exited) is that if another liberal democrat gets elected ALL the causes near and dear to evangelicals won’t matter because they will be lost. They believe Trump is their best shot at getting what they want. We’ve been fed the promises for many years but have seen no results. They believe that Trump represents the creative destruction necessary to dislodge the power hungry.

  • Ed The Oregonite

    Rick…I think you are right, but it is disheartening. Self-proclaimed believers love to mock a wolf who acts like a wolf…but they fall for a wolf who looks like a sheep…telling them what they want to hear and using them for personal gain. As we approach Good Friday, I am reminded that many of the inhabitants of Jerusalem supported Pilate and claimed allegiance to Caesar when it was convenient, but their city was destroyed about 40 years later.

  • George

    Evangelicals – the type who fell within the “Billy Graham Camp” – were an entirely different animal than what we consider evangelicals today.

  • Chris

    I don’t think it’s so surprising. In 1976, Carter ran as a “born again Christian,” and Time magazine dubbed 1976 “Year of the Evangelical.” By November 1980, the Christians who have voted for Carter were much wiser, and they turned out in huge numbers for Reagan.

  • cken

    “So, what does it mean for someone to be an “evangelical?”………” I think part of the problem is less than half of self identifying evangelicals live the definition. I also think the Dominionist upbringing of Ted Cruz does and should scare many Christians. I don’t think most Christians want to give up separation of church and state and become a theocratic country or have abortion and being gay criminalized. Those are things Cruz believes in. You should want to become a Christian for its joy and freedom, not because you are coerced by a Cruz government.

  • PJ Dellas

    That is the most uninformed post I have seen here yet. You create a false narrative about Cruz, use terms that no one who you mean to apply them to uses (i.e. Dominionist) and then draw conclusions from your absurdity.

    Paranoia runs deep, my friend. Deal in reality.

  • cken

    Don’t take my word for it. Look up Seven Mountain Dominionist. Cruz and his Dad think everybody should be forced to be a Christian. His Dad thinks Cruz should rule the world to prepare for the second coming. The acorn doesn’t fall far from the Oak. Cruz pretends to be a Baptist just like Obama pretended to be a Christian for political purposes. So deal in reality.

  • PJ Dellas

    I am familiar with the term and it is a bogus term. No one I know self-identifies with it because it is a term like homophobe or islamophobe, created to describe what someone believes he understands about another person.

  • cken

    I suppose it is more of a doctrine or creed than a religion. Nonetheless it isn’t bogus and Cruz and his dad believe in it. And it is certifiably wacko. If somebody publishes what they believe then none of those terms are being imposed on that person by another’s perception of that person. It is a fact about that person.

  • PJ Dellas

    I don’t buy that theory. And Crux has not published anything of the sort. Can you cite something?

  • cken

    There many cites. Just put Cruz and Seven Mountain Dominion in a google search. It is truly astounding. They think there should only be one religion allowed. Christians should control all businesses, governments, etc. It is eye opening even shocking. I didn’t believe there were such radicals flourishing still today.

  • DD

    You are so wrong on every point. The “theocracy” accusation is the biggest lie the left ever told. I can understand people of no faith spreading the lie, but it’s truly sickening that people who call themselves “Christian” would be so slanderous of Christians. You can keep talking “theocracy” and “dominionism,” but a lie is a lie, no matter how often you repeat it. The religious left’s hatred for evangelicals has to be rooted in being the biggest losers on the religious landscape. Some evangelical denominations are growing, but none of the left-wing churches are, they are hemorrhaging members and will never recover. The religious left kept pushing the narrative that they would win the church wars because they are “inclusive” and “tolerant,” but the numbers show that no one is interested.

  • cken

    I am a conservative and definitely to the right of center when it comes to Christianity but I will repeat what I said above. Don’t take my word for it. Look up Seven Mountain Dominionist, Google it. Cruz and
    his Dad think everybody should be forced to be a Christian. His Dad
    thinks Cruz should rule the world to prepare for the second coming. The
    acorn doesn’t fall far from the Oak. Cruz pretends to be a Baptist just
    like Obama pretended to be a Christian for political purposes. So deal
    in reality. It is not a lie. I don’t think Jesus would approve of that style of Christianity.

    Finally, can you name a denomination that is growing. It isn’t the Baptists or Mennonites for example. Maybe the Pentecostals, but then glossolalia is entertaining.

  • cken

    I really don’t think Ted Cruz with his dominionist doctrine represents the teachings of Jesus. In fact it is the antithesis of Jesus’ teachings. Therefor I would question his standing or rather veracity of his Christian character..

  • DanH

    What size tin foil hat do you wear?

  • cken

    Perhaps you should research Seven Mountain Dominion doctrine and we can both wear the same hat. You really shouldn’t comment about something you know nothing about.

  • Ed The Oregonite

    I’m not sure I fit the term ‘evangelical’, although I would be a ‘social conservative’ or ‘traditional values’ voter. I think both of those terms are more useful than ‘evangelical’. In the ‘Trump era’, many church goers are ready and willing to abandon their religious views and vote for someone who would not fit at all into their church.

  • PJ Dellas

    Think about the logic of this. When you want your plumbing fixed, do you hire the christian or the best plumber? People aren’t voting in their new pastor. They are voting the man they believe will do the job.

  • steve

    The analogy is faulty. The plumber’s moral condition has no bearing on his work, unless his moral compass is skewed enough that he will act without integrity (overcharge, do shoddy work, etc.). It is the contention of people like Ed (and me), that values do matter in a presidential candidate because of the nature of the decisions that a president must make and the problem of so much power in the hands of one person.
    I wouldn’t go so far as to say we need a Christian president, though I would prefer it (yet, I would emphasize that being a Christian doesn’t necessarily make one a good president–just look at Carter). However, when I look at Trump, I see someone who has no commitment to the kind of honesty and basic decency that I believe are essential for a president to have.

  • PJ Dellas

    I think perhaps you forgot that a divorced, twice married, former Democrat, union leader, Hollywood movie star with a questionable history on God, guns and abortion (as California Governor) did pretty OK after he beat the “born again” Sunday School teacher from Plains, GA.

  • steve

    Ha ha… Fair enough (though I mentioned Carter as an example of a bad president being an apparently genuine Christian)! But still, something doesn’t sit right with the comparison. Reagan at least didn’t boast about infidelities. I don’t know whether he was in the habit of asking forgiveness for things, but he surely didn’t openly say he never needed to. On the one hand, you have a guy who, despite his moral failings, appears to acknowledge through his behavior that a.) there is a standard of decency and b.) one *ought* to adhere to it. And then on the other hand, you have a guy who appears oblivious to even the idea of acting with dignity and integrity. Maybe Trump would surprise me. But I wouldn’t wager on it.

  • PJ Dellas

    I am hopeful. But I am not betting on it, either. But the alternatives are SURE BETS against what I want for my grand kids (Cruz excepted, who I am hoping will win).

  • Ed The Oregonite

    I want my plumber to be honest, and willing to admit that he might not have all the answers. I also don’t want my plumber’s reputation to be based on bankruptcies. I want him to have a clean mouth and display a humble manner around my wife and children. I could go on, but I think you get the point.

  • Torin

    When you make a Faustian bargain with the Devil, the Devil wins. The Religious Right/social Conservatives/ Evangelicals sought to make America Great again by legislating religious conviction. Their leaders got rich and famous by vitriolically decrying the rise of Women Rights, LGBT Rights, and to some extent African-American Rights (don’t forget the leaders of the RR where against a Martin Luther King Jr day). Today, a political campaign speech sounds more like a sermon, quoting the Bible, and insisting God’s anointed, are bound for glory to the white house. Now, Religious Right/social Conservatives/ Evangelicals, are surpirsed by the anti-christ usurping their message of the weak shall inheriting the Earth to the strong shall inheriting the Earth. I say, Shadefruende!

  • Dennis Velco

    Amusing rant.

  • cken

    Generally I agree with what you stated, but you do know most of the politicians who favored separate but equal and the KKK and the Birch society were Democrats. It was laughable when on CNN somebody equated David Duke to Strom Thurmond. The CNN guy about had a heart attack. I think the comparison was fairly accurate. Both were members of the KKK.

  • Torin

    Yep, Jim Crow was a Democrat idea! Let’s not forget it was the Liberal Evangelicals that were organized enough to stamp out Jim Crow laws.

  • Jennifer P

    My conversations with friends who are Evangelicals who support Trump suggest that they see voting for the next in line Republican as a vote for the status quo (meaning nothing will get done) while a vote for Trump means that a wall might be built and that we might be able to protect our borders. I will immediately add that none are anti-immigrant but almost all are anti-ILLEGAL immigrant.

  • davidt

    I can’t determine who’s made a bigger mess of the new testament Catholics or american evangelicals?!!!! I would say American evangelicals since the anti science screed tends to be heavily evangelical.

    Then again the new evangelicalism is atheism so you can’t easily kill it. It is morphological in nature. Kind of hard pointing to absurd, to defend absurd, and it not be the same absurd. Don’t worry clueless evangelicals, you aren’t going extinct, you are just morphing into clueless atheists and clueless transhumanists to keep each other company I suppose.

  • Richard Pierard

    Nearly 50 years ago I began warning my fellow American evangelicals that many of their number were selling their souls to political conservatism and right-wing Republicanism. I was ignored and belittled then, and things have only gotten worse with the new generation and new century. Will we ever learn? As I now ride forgotten off into the sunset, I have to assume probably not.. There will always be a Donald Trump or Ted Cruz ready to seduce us.

  • gizmoZ3

    You can rest assured, there is zero chance of anyone trying to seduce you.

  • Richard Pierard

    Of course, who wants to try to seduce an 81-year old guy when there are so many young folks like you who seem to be so gullible,