Evangelical = anti-abortion, anti-gay white Protestant?

Is a ‘black evangelical’ a contradiction in terms?” Molly Worthen asks at NYTimes.com:

In recent years, conservative white Protestants have made a special effort to reach out to black believers who share their views on theology and social mores. … Black Protestants often agree with white evangelicals on the importance of religious faith and the sinfulness of homosexual behavior. They are no great supporters of abortion rights. They ought to be natural allies in the fight to ‘defend the family’ and preserve America from the forces of secular humanism.

Yet to many African-American Protestants, ‘evangelical’ and ‘the Christian Right’ remain white words, and their voting record proves it. …

… The reasons for their alienation, rooted in history, are still with us today. Black Protestants may affirm Christ’s divinity, the Bible’s literal authority, and the other basic doctrines that white conservatives preach. But a statement of creed is not the same thing as lived religion. In many black churches, the crucible of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil rights movement has forged these doctrines into a theology quite different from the cocktail of personal moralism, prophecy and Christian libertarianism that has come to preoccupy the Christian right.

Black Protestants have good cause to eye Republicans warily and mistrust the label “evangelical” …

… those evangelicals with the most political clout have helped turn the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt into a pseudo-religion with its own Holy Trinity: the flag, the traditional family and the free market.

Meanwhile, in Christianity Today, Judd Birdsall examines President Barack Obama’s faith in the context of the “Bebbington Quadrilateral.” That’s British historian David Bebbington’s classic attempt to limn the boundaries of “evangelicalism” by pointing to four emphases:

Conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be termed crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross.

Birdsall looks at Obama’s faith in light of those four evangelical emphases and concludes that:

Obama is clearly not a secret Muslim or anything other than what he claims to be: a committed Christian. For evangelicals, the commander-in-chief is a brother in Christ.

So according to the Bebbington Quadrilateral’s approach, for evangelicals, Obama is one of us.

Except, of course, that Bebbington’s historical view no longer has much of anything to do with the American voting bloc that replaced the vibrant stream of Protestantism known as evangelicalism. Today, that tribal voting bloc defines an evangelical as a White Protestant who opposes legal abortion and civil rights for LGBT people.

That’s three strikes against Obama right there.

It doesn’t matter if Bebbington’s formula would seem to include people like Barack Obama in the category of evangelicals. The whole point of that category nowadays is to exclude people like that.

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  • tiredofit

    Evangelicals turned on Jimmy Carter, too, even though he was far more born-again Christian than Ronald Reagan.

  • “Today, that tribal voting bloc defines an evangelical as a White Protestant who opposes legal abortion and civil rights for LGBT people.”

    True enough. If anything, the white evangelicals are pushing the Republicans to evolve into a regional, whites only club.

  • Tonio

    From Time magazine about a decade ago, in the context of school prayer: “Some black leaders are wary that black
    supporters of the drive for school prayer are being sold antebellum
    values cloaked as piety.” The article doesn’t quote such leaders, to my disappointment. But Paul Weyrich has stated that the religious right first organized in response to the federal government lifting the tax-exempt status of religious schools that wouldn’t desegregate.

  • I always feel super naive because when I watch political shows or look at newspapers I’m always pretty aghast at how racially polarized they are.  I figure– as a straight white guy– that the Right Wing’s appeal to the black evangelical voters is: “hey, we have a HIERARCHY of discrimination; join up now & sure, you’ll be fourth class citizens– rich people, richer people & white people are up first, even though those Venn diagrams overlap– but you’ll still be above immigrants & gay people!”  

  • Evangelicals helped elect Carter before they turned on him.  The way I remember it, that was really the moment when they exploded on the national scene as a voting bloc, and mainstream journalists were confused at the time: who are these “born-again Christians” and why are they suddenly important?

    Ever since then, it’s as if the political media have been doing penance for that episode, bending over backwards to take evangelicals as seriously as they possibly can, but still without much understanding of what’s going on.

  • I’m so very excited to see this today! I took a Baptist History seminar with Dr. Bebbington this past fall semester, and Fred, I don’t think your fears are off base about the evangelical label. There have been a good number of Baptists, both on the fundamentalist side and on the moderate/liberal side who rejected the Evangelical label at times through history because they saw it as the end of voluntarianism and the end of  the baptist distinctives (soul competency, religious liberty, whatever you decided was baptist for your local church, etc).

    One of the more interesting essays we prepared for that day
    was  E. Glenn Hinson, ‘Baptists and Evangelicals – What is the
    Difference?’, in J. L. Garrett, jr, and E Glenn Hinson, Are Southern Baptists ‘Evangelicals’?, 1983 . 

    I’ve actually got a decent booklist (if anyone wants it
    emailed) on the subject of Contested Identities /Evangelical /Fundamentalist/Modernist
    /the Conservative/Liberal Polarization / Social Gospel from 18th century
    Baptists & Revivals – until the last decade really. 

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  • VMink

    This is kyriarchy at work — the formal, systematic web of oppression such that anyone at any time can say that ‘at least we’re not X!  Yeah, screw those X!’  And yet they all fail to realize that they’re all being oppressed by the people at the top.  But that’s okay.  At least they’re not X.

  • & then the people at the top, what, they think they are oppressed by…having to pay a bare minimum of taxes! Awesome. Turtles, all the way down.

  • Duncan Beach

    Essentially, what you are referring to as the ‘traditional evangelical values’ equate to the sort of hypocrisy Jesus preached AGAINST  throughout his life.  While he had a certain respect for what he called ‘the commandments’, he refused to judge.  While he gave sermons, he did NOT corner people at work and force them to listen to his doctrines and diatribes.  While he healed the sick and helped the needy, he did NOT put his charity on a ‘faith-based basis’ i.e. he did NOT require anyone to subscribe to his beliefs before he exerted himself on their behalf (or after, for that matter).  A lot of so-called Christian evangelicals seem far more devoted to Paul than they seem devoted to Jesus.

  • Joykins

    I noticed this in 2006 when reading a Gallup Poll about the characteristics of “evangelicals”:  http://www.christianforums.com/t2289680-2/#post23221711


    Americans are among the most religious groups in America. They are
    also, for the most part, Protestant Christians. Therefore, it is not
    surprising to find that 70% of blacks in the combined aggregate sample
    of surveys say they are evangelical or born again.
    But for most practical, analytic purposes, including blacks in the mix
    of those defined as evangelical makes little sense. Data show that
    blacks are overwhelmingly Democratic in political orientation regardless
    of their religion. At least 9 in 10 blacks vote for the Democratic
    candidate for president each election. So, the inclusion of blacks in a
    group of “evangelicals” being defined for analytic reasons obscures
    analysis to the degree that the purpose of defining the group is to
    measure their influence on political life in particular.
    Thus, while it may be reasonable to look at black evangelicals in some
    situations and for some purposes, for the current purposes evangelicals
    will be defined as only whites.

    So, to paraphrase the Gallup folks, black evangelicals fit all the
    criteria for defining an evangelical, but for the purposes of the
    influence of evangelicals on public life, we aren’t going to count them
    as evangelicals. Because then we’d have to count all those Democrats.
    Then we’d see that the influence of “evangelicals” on the public square
    isn’t all Religious Right, and then we’d see that “evangelicals” are
    actually having a more interesting and complex effect on public life
    than we want our little number-crunchers to have to deal with, or the
    public (or the news organizations that report on our polls) to actually,
    oh, let’s say KNOW ABOUT, so let’s just sweep all these black
    evangelicals under the rug.

    This strikes me a bit disingenuous, as if our friends at Gallup are
    buying hook, line, and sinker into the great myth promoted by the likes
    of Dr. Dobson and Phyllis Schafly, that evangelicals are all religious
    right, and those who aren’t religious right–or, apparently, black,
    since the two don’t usually coincide–can’t be real evangelicals.

    Then there’s a brief bit on the characteristics of white evangelicals,
    or as the Gallup people call ’em, “evangelicals,” concluding with:

    Christians skew strongly Republican in terms of their political
    orientation. More than half (54%) identify themselves as Republicans,
    compared with 35% of the total population. On the other hand, 22%
    identify as Democrats, compared with 33% of the total population.
    Along these same lines, almost 6 in 10 evangelical Christians are
    conservatives, compared with just about 4 in 10 national adults, and
    they are less likely to identify themselves as moderates or liberals.

    Well OF COURSE they’re going to be mostly Republican and conservatives,
    after you’ve eliminated the largest demographic bloc of Democrats.

  • Joe Wilhite

    MLK Jr was not a Democrat. MLK Jr wanted an America where skin color was NOT the basis of public policy. Today’s black “leaders” are the opposite. If you disagree with them for any reason, you are judged a racist. They want skin color to be the determining factor in any number of social and legal situations. America’s inner cities are not well served by their Democratic leaders. The large urban centers of America are the new plantations, run (again) by Democrats, as was the case in the South.

  • You have demonstrated nothing with your assertions other than you know as little about policy and black people as you do Martin Luther King Jr.

  • EllieMurasaki

    MLK Jr was not a Democrat.

    Although King never publicly supported a political party or candidate
    for president, in a letter to a civil rights supporter in October 1956
    he said that he was undecided as to whether he would vote for the Adlai Stevenson or Dwight Eisenhower, but that “In the past I always voted the Democratic ticket.” –Wiki

    Also, are you familiar with the concept of ‘wage slavery’? If not, go Google it, and note that the people who benefit from it are predominantly wealthy white men, who tend to vote Republican.