Evangelicals and Trump
According to a recent news report, Pew Research says that approximately 75% (give or take some) of white evangelicals think Trump is currently doing a good job as president—indicating they will vote for him again this year. (The new report said “about seventy percent but the web site said about eighty percent so I’m going with seventy-five percent.)
Here are my thoughts about this…
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
First, the report should say “seventy-five percent of white AMERICAN evangelicals” because “evangelical” is a world wide spiritual-theological identity and not uniquely or even distinctively “American.”
Second, to me, anyway, “evangelical” includes MOST religious African-American people and I still do not understand why they (the pollsters and their trainers) separate white evangelicals out from other evangelicals. Many non-white people are evangelicals. Why does this matter? Because the way they express it IMPLIES to readers that being evangelical and being a Trump supporter are virtually synonymous. But when you step back and look at the larger picture of ALL evangelicals, regardless of race or ethnicity, the picture changes.
Third, I strongly suspect, based on many years of research, that many, perhaps even most, white Americans who identify as “evangelical” or “born again” are actually fundamentalists and I have always distinguished between my evangelicalism and fundamentalism. True, there is a sense in which most fundamentalists are evangelicals, but they are not my evangelicals. Let me explain.
My dear departed uncle was a long-time member of the national board of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). He and I had numerous lengthy conversations about evangelicalism in America (and around the world). One subject of our conversations was why the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in the United States and maybe in the world, never would join the NAE. It never did. Individual SBC churches could join, but the denomination as whole would not join the NAE. Reasons given were hardly good reasons.
But, in a way, I was glad the SBC did not join the NAE because my evangelicals considered most Southern Baptists fundamentalists and fundamentalism is one reason for the birth of the NAE in the 1940s. It was to distinguish moderate evangelicals and fundamentalists from the likes of the angry, mean-spirited, separatistic fundamentalists. (There were other reasons, of course.)
So, to make a long story short…when I was attending a moderate, evangelical Baptist (non-SBC) seminary in the 1970s I was taught what my uncle said—that “evangelical” was a separate identity from “fundamentalist” even though both held many of the same beliefs. There was, I was told and still believe, a difference in spirit, ethos, mindset, approach to being a Christian. Fundamentalists “majored in minors” (making mountains out of molehill doctrines such as the “rapture” and “young earth creationism”) and had a separatistic spirit that usually regarded even Billy Graham as “dangerously liberal” because he permitted liberal Protestants and Roman Catholics to participate in his evangelistic crusades.
I will never forget the day in the 1970s when I saw Jerry Falwell, a well-known fundamentalist leader, appear on the Phil Donahue show and identify himself as an “evangelical” and attempt to speak for all evangelicals. I believe I stood up from my easy chair and pointed at the television screen and shouted “You don’t speak for me!” Around the same time I heard Jerry Falwell say to a NPR reporter that Jim Wallis, evangelical leader of Sojourners, was to evangelicalism what Adolf Hitler was to Roman Catholicism.
Almost overnight, so it seems now in hindsight, fundamentalists, including many Southern Baptists, were calling themselves evangelicals and getting away with it. In my opinion, fundamentalists hijacked evangelicalism in America. And the media helped them do it.
Admittedly, around the same time, many moderate American evangelicals, mostly white, turned toward “the Reagan revolution” and the Republican Party in its new increasingly conservative style. (Before then there were notable progressive evangelical Republicans such as Mark Hatfield and John Anderson.)
Again, to be relatively brief about this, what I think is that many true non-fundamentalist evangelicals have stopped identifying as “evangelical” because of the newish connotations of evangelical as synonymous with fundamentalism. And many fundamentalists now identify as evangelical.
You wonder why this matters to me? Because I identify myself with evangelicalism as a world wide, not distinctively American, spiritual-theological ethos. When I identify as evangelical I am identifying myself with evangelical Christians in Latin America, Asia, Africa and, yes, even Europe. The majority of Protestants (and many Catholics!) in those places are evangelicals. I am one with them. I refuse to allow my evangelicalism to be American or white.
Fundamentalism has largely gone away in America; almost nobody calls themselves “fundamentalist” anymore. One denomination that had “fundamental” in its name has officially changed its name to a set of letters—presumably to avoid having that word in its name! Beginning with the rise of “Islamic fundamentalism” especially in Iran in the 1970s most American fundamentalists dropped the label. They adopted “evangelical” in its place. But they remained fundamentalists.
To use an analogy… I find myself in somewhat the same “place” (dilemma, awkward position) as George Will—the dean of American conservative public intellectuals. He is still the Gold Standard of American conservatives and yet he finds it difficult to identify himself as “conservative” because of how that label has been hijacked by Trumpists. But he can’t quite bring himself to surrender the label to them. It just wouldn’t be fair or right to do so.
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