White evangelical politics in the United States has for many years been characterized primarily by the assumptions of political conservatism, including support for free markets, the American military, and, above all, moral regulation of the individual vices that evangelicals oppose. Now, though, evangelical critiques of political conservatism have been gaining ground in many formerly conservative evangelical venues – as evidenced, for example, by a new interest in examining structural racism or challenging the Republican Party’s support for immigration restrictions.
But what will replace this conservative ideology?
For many pro-life, theologically conservative evangelicals who have rejected the Republican Party (especially its Trumpist version), an unequivocal endorsement of the Democratic Party still seems unimaginable. Instead of an evangelical alliance with the Democrats, what we are instead seeing from a growing number of postgraduate-educated white evangelicals is a new critical stance toward both parties and an embrace of an innovative Christian political ideology that labels itself nonpartisan but has enough commonly held core tenets to justify calling itself a third party if it wanted to.
This new third way in American evangelical politics is pro-life on abortion and staunchly conservative on issues of sexuality and gender identity, but it also makes racial and economic justice – including addressing issues of structural racism and systemic poverty through government initiatives – a central priority. It finds expression in initiatives such as the AND Campaign, a group led by Atlanta attorney Justin Giboney and Obama faith outreach director Michael Wear that claims to combine “biblical values and social justice.” It also is the guiding spirit behind Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden, a group that formed in the fall of 2020 to argue that defense of life (both born and unborn) was a central priority that could best be accomplished through voting for officially pro-choice Joe Biden. And it finds expression in the statements of pastors such as Tim Keller, a New York City Presbyterian (PCA) minister who has long promoted social justice and pro-life stances while also arguing that Christians do not fit into the “two-party system.”
At the moment, the evangelical third way of pro-life, sexually conservative, economically and racially progressive politics does not yet have a name or a cohesive identity, but that could soon change. Its organizations are still small and fledgling, and consist mainly of a combination of Democrats who support their party’s economic programs – but are wary of becoming too closely connected to its stances on abortion, sexuality, and gender – and disaffected Republicans who haven’t felt comfortable casting a vote for their party’s presidential nominee since the rise of Donald Trump. There have always been white evangelicals who objected to the Christian Right, but what is new about the current nonpartisan movement is that its promoters include established movement leaders – former presidents of seminaries or the National Association of Evangelicals, bestselling pastor-authors, and Christianity Today magazine editors. To dissent from both political parties – that is, to critique the Democrats for their stance on abortion while publicly rejecting the Republican Party’s current orientation on race and immigration – is quickly becoming de rigueur among highly educated urban evangelicals, including those at longstanding evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College, as well as among many in evangelicalism’s Reformed wing. It now appears that Russell Moore, a never-Trumper newly untethered from the Southern Baptist Convention, may be an ally of this movement as well.
The sudden ascendancy of this third-way version of Christian politics is largely due to a moral division between the Republican and Democratic parties along educational lines that has made it increasingly difficult for a college-educated person to vote Republican and still be viewed as a morally acceptable person among their peers. This phenomenon is less than twenty years old. In the 1980s and 1990s, voting Republican did not necessarily make a person a moral pariah, even in an Ivy League university. To be sure, there was plenty of scorn for Ronald Reagan and even George H. W. Bush among liberal academics, but public opinion polls showed that on average, Americans with a graduate education were no more likely to be Democrats than Republicans in this era. As late as 2002, 46 percent of Americans with a graduate education identified as Democrat and 44 percent as Republican, a difference so slight that it fell within the margin of error for public opinion polling.
But this changed with the Iraq War, which some voters considered so morally unconscionable that it prompted them to rethink their party identification. Northeastern Republicans, including Senator Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island, left the party in droves. By 2005, 54 percent of American voters with a graduate education identified with the Democrats, and only 39 percent with the GOP. This gap continued to increase during the Obama administration, at which point a majority of college graduates (a group that had leaned Republican through the beginning of the twenty-first century) began supporting the Democrats. After Donald Trump’s election, college graduates became overwhelmingly Democratic, even among whites. By 2019, Democrats had a 20-point advantage among college graduates and a 28-point advantage among voters with a graduate education. At the same time, less educated whites became overwhelmingly Republican; white men without a college education supported the Republicans over the Democrats by 62 to 30 percent.
As a whole, white evangelicals are still overwhelmingly Republican; 78 percent identified as Republican in a 2019 Pew poll, and approximately 80 percent of white evangelical voters cast their ballots for Trump in 2020. Some of these evangelicals have argued that voting Republican was a moral imperative because of abortion. But for college-educated evangelicals, it is now clear that voting Republican will mark them as a moral pariah among their educational cohort in a way that was not true a generation earlier. If the educated Americans who rejected the Republican Party in the early twenty-first century had done so primarily because of the GOP’s conservative stances on abortion or gay rights, maybe the theologically conservative, educated evangelicals who shared other evangelicals’ views on these issues would have been willing to resist the pressure to leave the party. But that was not the case; the most polarizing political debates, for the most part, were not over abortion or even marriage. In fact, many of the concerns that prompted a growing number of educated non-evangelicals to reject the Republican Party were concerns that educated evangelicals shared as well – first the Iraq War, then climate change, then Black Lives Matter and immigration, and finally COVID safety protocols and spurious claims about the 2020 election outcome.
If the principles of both rationality and the gospel lined up more closely with the Democratic Party’s stance on many of these issues, how could they continue to defend a Republican vote? As it became increasingly clear that the Republican Party was rebranding itself as a populist white party of the “poorly educated” (to use Donald Trump’s phrase) whose policies, many educated evangelicals believed, were hurting the environment and poisoning race relations, it became increasingly hard for such evangelicals to think of themselves as Republicans. And so, at the very moment when the parties were becoming polarized along educational lines, with partisans on both sides accusing the other of taking an immoral stance, educated evangelicals had to choose: Would they side with the party of reproductive freedom and LGBTQ+ rights, thus alienating themselves from theologically conservative evangelicalism, or would they vote for the GOP, thus swallowing a whole host of policy stances that most of their non-evangelical peers viewed as racist, xenophobic, discriminatory, and environmentally destructive – and that maybe they did as well?
Some sided unapologetically with the Democrats – though for many who made this choice, their exit from theologically conservative evangelicalism followed not long after. Some sided with the Republicans – though the number of evangelical academics, especially in the humanities, who were willing to do this publicly became vanishingly small. But a third (and rapidly growing) group chose the newly attractive third option of nonpartisan, pro-life, pro-social justice politics. Indeed, this new social justice wing of evangelicalism is now arguably significant enough to splinter the Reformed evangelical coalition, according to recent articles on the subject.
The formation of this nonpartisan third way has been so hasty – with much of it occurring after 2016 – that the group has not yet agreed upon a cohesive political platform. But there are indications that this is not far off. In particular, Catholics in the coalition, who have been joined by a number of Reformed Protestants, have argued that the model for this third way should be European-style Christian democracy. This is the premise of the American Solidarity Party (ASP), a mostly Catholic group that also has a few evangelicals among its leadership – including its 2020 presidential nominee, Brian T. Carroll, a former missionary and lay Evangelical Free Church minister from California.
Those looking for a viable third party that can influence elections will probably be disappointed that the ASP is not even registered on the ballot in most states. But its potential to offer guidance to politically disaffected evangelicals and Catholics is much greater than its limited electoral significance might suggest. By offering a comprehensive platform that is tied to a well articulated political philosophy, the ASP suggests the sort of political ideology around which a growing number of Christians who now feel politically homeless can rally.
Though organized mostly by Catholics, the ASP expresses views that are closely in line with those of evangelicals such as Tim Keller, the leaders of the AND campaign, and some of Christianity Today’s editorial staff. It’s staunchly pro-life, conservative on marriage, and strongly in support of Christian influence in society. It’s also in favor of universal healthcare, progressive immigration reform, restorative and structural racial justice, and sharp limits on American military engagements that do not meet the strict criteria of a narrowly interpreted just war theory. Perhaps what’s most unusual about the ASP is its direct admission that its inspiration comes not from any American political principles, but from European-style Christian democratic movements of the mid-twentieth century, which combined social welfare politics with Christian views of the family and the church’s role in society.
Could Christian democracy as promoted by the ASP and likeminded Protestant entities be the future of evangelical politics? If we’re looking for a replacement for the Christian Right, the answer is no, because highly educated urban evangelicals comprise only a small fraction of the evangelical movement. Evangelicals, frankly, are not a very highly educated group. Only 21 percent of white evangelicals have either a college degree or postgraduate education; 43 percent have no more than a high school diploma. The only religious demographic in the United States with a lower average level of education are Black Protestants, 15 percent of whom have a college degree or have attended graduate school. Among the constituencies where white evangelicalism has its strongest roots – whites without a college degree and those who live in the South or in rural areas – the Republican Party has very strong support. I don’t expect Christian democracy to make any significant inroads in these areas. So, the future of the Christian Right is secure among white evangelicals; the majority are not going to leave the Republican Party, precisely because there are no signs of any widespread disaffection with the GOP among the 79 percent of white evangelicals who lack a college degree.
But among evangelicals who are college-educated and who are feeling morally conflicted about the Republican Party, Christian democracy offers a promising possibility. It certainly should not be presented as the only Christian option, but it might serve as an attractive political identification for those who want to signal to others what they believe if they take a critical stance toward both political parties. With its roots in a centuries-long European Christian tradition, Christian democracy can arguably claim to have a theological and philosophical authority sufficient to challenge American individualistic political philosophies or Christian nationalism.
But isn’t all this talk of a politically impotent third way simply a path to making college-educated evangelical voices even more irrelevant than they already are? If it won’t redirect the Christian Right or change national politics in any way, what is the point of Christian democracy or related evangelical third-way political advocacy groups?
The value of such a movement lies not primarily in what it can do for national politics but in what it can do for the church. Christian democracy can give evangelicals and theologically conservative Catholics and Orthodox Christians a firm sense of how they can apply their Christian tradition to practical political thinking. It has the potential to show them that Christian politics can be much more holistic and socially oriented than they ever would have guessed from observing the Christian Right. It shows them that there is a better alternative to Christian nationalism and Republican politics than secular progressivism can offer. In other words, it encourages them to remain deeply grounded in their faith tradition while also striving for the social justice causes that have prompted some disaffected evangelicals to leave conservative Christianity altogether.
Christian democracy can also give evangelicals a political compass point to guide them through the imperfect choices and stormy vicissitudes of each election cycle. In the short term, advocates of Christian democracy will probably have to vote for an imperfect political choice – possibly a Republican or, for many, a Democratic candidate who doesn’t share their view of abortion or marriage. But Christians who believe in the cause of Christian democracy can still be guided by the question: In a world of imperfect choices, which choice will best advance the cause of the comprehensive set of political principles that I have embraced as the best representation I know of biblical principles of life and justice? This is exactly what the members of Pro-Life Evangelicals for Biden did last November. They freely admitted that they disagreed with Biden on abortion, yet they made a case that their set of principles would better be advanced with Biden in the White House than with Trump. That’s a holistic approach to politics that contrasts with the single-issue messaging that evangelicals have often embraced in recent years. And it’s possible only when evangelical voters have a comprehensive political platform in mind that has a holistic view of human flourishing and the kingdom of God as its end goal.
Christian democracy will probably not appeal to every college-educated evangelical. In particular, those who are firm believers in the free market or who remain deeply suspicious of social welfare expansion are probably going to object to it. It also won’t appeal to evangelicals who think that “pro-life” necessarily means making abortion stances a single-issue political litmus test rather than seeking to reduce the abortion rate through a more strategic, holistic approach. But an increasing number of college-educated evangelicals don’t share their parents’ individualism or faith in the market, and they’re looking for an alternative. For many of them, Christian democracy will likely have an appeal. And while that appeal may not be widespread enough to reshape the election map in the rural South or even have any noticeable impact on national elections, it will change evangelical institutions.
Already, we are seeing a growing divide between politically conservative white evangelicals who don’t have a graduate education and national evangelical institutions such as Wheaton College and Christianity Today magazine that are led by people with orthodox evangelical beliefs but who don’t share rural southerners’ devotion to Trump and Republican populism. Once Christian democracy becomes somewhat better known, we’ll have a label for that difference – and, best of all, a way for the two sides to talk with each other across the growing divide. As advocates of Christian democracy can point out, the divide is not over abortion or marriage – issues on which Christianity Today, the social justice wing of the PCA, and Wheaton College remain firmly orthodox. Rather, the divide is over a view of justice and social well-being. The differences on those issues are stark enough that a split between these wings of evangelicalism may still happen. But if we use the language of Christian democracy to talk about the differences, we’ll have a better sense of what is – and what is not – at stake in the debate, and we’ll avoid the danger of thinking that evangelicals who have decided to leave the Republican Party are abandoning the pro-life cause or softening their commitment to biblical truth. Indeed, maybe by rejecting the partisan politics of the Christian Right, they’re rediscovering some important historic Christian principles.