Every four years during presidential elections, the word “evangelical” gets employed a lot by the news media and I cringe every time. The word is assumed to be synonymous with “fundamentalist” and gets applied to every crazy uncle that protests a soldier’s funeral or claims Obama is a Muslim. What gets me most nauseated, however, is the nearly universal assumption that evangelicals are a monolithic block of conservative partisan voters.
Back in 1989, David Bebbington identified four characteristics that defined evangelicalism. Known as the Bebbington quadrilateral, they are:
- Biblicalism, a high regard for the Bible
- Crucicentrism, a focus on the atonement of Christ through the cross.
- Conversionism, a commitment to proclaiming the gospel.
- Activism, a belief that the gospel should change one’s life and the world.
By this standard, a majority of African Americans in the United States are “evangelicals” as the National Associate of Evangelicals has pointed out, but because African Americans vote heavily for Democratic candidates they escape the “evangelical” label by the media. In other words, the word has become more of a political identity than a theological one.
Why does that matter? Because the evidence shows that more young people are rejecting the Christian faith because of the politics it has become associated with. An eye-opening article in Foreign Affairs by David E. Campbell and Robert D. Putnam titled “God and Caesar in America: Why Mixing Religion and Politics is Bad for Both,” is a must read. Using research among young adults, Putnam and Campbell asked why the next generation is increasingly identifying their religious affiliation as “none.” They write:
“The best evidence indicates that this dramatic generational shift is primarily in reaction to the religious right. And Millennials are even more sensitive to it, partly because many of them are liberal (especially on the touchstone issue of gay rights) and partly because they have only known a world in which religion and the right are intertwined.”
Their last point is an important one. Those raised in the evangelical tradition under the age of 40 have no experience of Christianity apart from conservative Republican politics. A baby-boomer may have fond memories of the Jesus Movement, Billy Graham, and a pan-political church, but my generation associates “evangelical” with Jerry Falwell, the Religious Right, arguments about abortion and homosexuality, and a combative posture toward “liberal” neighbors. Those younger then me, the Millennials, are now learning to associate “evangelical” with Donald Trump, Sarah Palin, and the NRA.
Rather than corrupt a previously admirable theological and historical word like “evangelical,” let’s call this more recent partisan ideology wrapped in a veneer of Christianity what it is: “Christianism.” The word is attributed to Andrew Sullivan. Back in 2003, he said, “I have a new term for those on the fringes of the religious right who have used the Gospels to perpetuate their own aspirations for power, control and oppression: Christianists. They are as anathema to true Christians as the Islamists are to true Islam.”
Sadly, what Sullivan saw as a fringe minority a decade ago appears to be rapidly expanding to the point of becoming tolerated as mainstream. Consider that the president of the largest “evangelical” college has endorsed Donald Trump for president, and nearly 40 percent of white evangelical Republicans (an admittedly narrow demographic) also support the megalomaniacal mogul—double what the next closest candidate is currently polling. There is almost nothing about Mr. Trump’s character, story, agenda, or candidacy that finds alignment with Scripture, the cross, the gospel, or personal/social transformation (Bebbington’s evangelical markers in simple terms). However, his “Make America Great Again” slogan, along with his maligning of women, immigrants, and all “losers” while triumphantly holding up a Bible, fits Christianism perfectly. Trump, unlike the increasingly unpopular voices of orthodox evangelicalism, is giving the people what they want—a gun wielding, aggressive, capitalist Jesus who builds walls and kills terrorists.
The current presidential campaign is revealing how far popular evangelicalism has drifted from its theological moorings. While there are many thoughtful women and men who remain committed to the way of Jesus—including many leaders of evangelical institutions—the sheep are leaving to follow other shepherds. The fracturing of the flock was recently noted by Daniel Burke, religion editor for CNN, although indirectly. He outlined seven distinct camps within evangelicalism, but still insists on labeling all seven as “evangelical”. The fact that Burke can identify so many camps is a clue that the “evangelical” label has lost all usefulness and shared meaning. (Does anyone really believe that the faith and politics of Jerry Falwell Jr. and Tim Keller belong to the same branch of the ecclesiastical family tree?)
It’s time to acknowledge that large sections of the evangelical movement have devolved into an entirely different animal—a species with seven heads and ten horns, a beast that takes Christ’s name while opposing everything his kingdom stands for. I cannot force the news media to stop using the “evangelical” nomenclature, but going forward I am committed to calling this movement’s by its true name.
It is the heresy of Christianism.