In a sense every sincere Christian is evangelical because the word means to live and proclaim the gospel, the good news of Jesus. From the mid-1700s there emerged a distinct evangelical movement within Protestant Christianity. The word movement is important. Some denominations are entirely evangelical, some congregations within a mainline Protestant denomination are evangelical and a small group within any one or another Christian church can have evangelical fervor. Plus, as this article will detail, in recent times the term evangelical might have little or nothing to do with any congregational or denominational expression of Christianity, or any expression of Christianity at all.
The number of people in the United States who identify with a Christian denomination is in decline and has been so for several years. (The Roman Catholic decline would be greater except for the blessing in recent years of Catholic immigrants and their children.) On the surface evangelical Christianity is an exception to the decline. Its number since 2016 remains steady, according to Pew Research Center (www.pewresearch.org; 9/15/21). There’s a catch, however.
What is the religious affiliation of a person who supports current Republican policies, especially those who support former president Donald Trump? When put on the spot, that person replies evangelical. The Pew report suggests that “instead of theological affinity for Jesus Christ, millions are drawn to the evangelical label because of its association with the GOP,” summarizes Ryan Burge (N.Y. Times, 10/31/21). A large number of conservative Republicans, it seems, are comfortable using the evangelical label even if they are not members of a church. In 2020 27% of all self-identified evangelicals in the United States hardly ever attended a religious service.
There is a history within the evangelical movement of not going to church. Billy Sunday (1862-1935), the famous evangelical preacher, quipped, “Going to a garage doesn’t make you an automobile no more than going to church makes you a Christian.” This statement could wisely be heard to warn against the hypocrisy of church-goers who are callous during the workweek. But it has also been twisted to mean that good cars don’t go to a garage and good Christians don’t need church. In the current context of conservative politics millions of self-identified evangelicals don’t think about church at all, not one way or the other. “To be a conservative Republican is to be an evangelical Christian, regardless of whether they ever attend a Sunday service,” writes Burge.
Timothy Carney of The Washington Examiner finds that many fervent supporters of Donald Trump (the so-called Republican base) are unaffiliated—not only from congregations but also from other local voluntary associations. While Trump supporters say that religion is very important, they are the “least likely to actually go to church,” Carney writes in Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse (Harper Collins, 2019). This segment of our society is more psychologically isolated and less happy than others who participate in extended ethnic families and associations of many types. They are stuck. There is little “scaffolding to climb above their starting point,” Carney concludes.
Poverty doesn’t keep people away from church. It is social isolation, including that of young adults, that is associated with not participating in a church. So what comes first? Attract people to a good church and other healthy groups? Then they will see through the shallowness of nationally-known evangelical preachers (and some Catholic leaders) who equate Christianity with conservative Republicanism? Or, attract voters to some alternative to conservative Republicanism and they will go to church? But to what alternative? To a Democratic Party enthralled with the empty promises of Wall St., Hollywood and Silicon Valley?
Droel edits a print-newsletter on faith and work, INITIATIVES (PO Box 291102, Chicago, IL 60629).