Evangelical leaders and their flocks, we are told, are supporting Donald Trump for president by overwhelming margins. Despite a campaign marked by bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny, and a candidate whose personal character and sexual morality are completely contrary to their professed values, evangelicals are still rallying to Trump’s side. Or so the story goes.
But there’s a problem with that story.
The term “evangelical” has become political shorthand for white political conservatives who profess to be evangelicals and vote overwhelmingly for Republican political candidates, based almost solely on their opposition to abortion and gay marriage.
This characterization erases the voices of tens of millions of Americans who fit the theological definition of evangelical, but who do not support such a narrow definition of “moral issues” and clearly do not support Trump or his bigotry. These evangelicals are African-American, Latino, Asian-American, Native-American and white. They are younger and older, and they are women and men. They are Christians who believe in the centrality of Christ as savior of humanity and the world, the importance of both conversion and discipleship, the authority of the Scriptures and the “good news” of the Gospel, especially for the poor and oppressed as Jesus himself defined it in his opening sermon at Nazareth.
Some 35% of U.S. adults identify as “evangelical” or “born-again,” according to thePew Research Center, but only 76% of this group is white. The problem with polls — like one done by Pew that shows Trump’s support among white evangelicals at 78% — is that journalists often report the results as “overwhelming support from (all) evangelical voters.” And that is just not the case.
For instance, a new LifeWay poll shows support for Trump among white evangelicals at 65%, while his support among all evangelicals is only 45%. In an Oct. 9 Reuters poll, Trump similarly won 44.8% of self-described born-again Christians.
The truth is that most U.S. evangelicals do not support Trump. These Christians are victims of a sort of identity theft, as the national conversation conflates them with a narrow demographic of mostly older, politically conservative whites.
This month, I and other members of this silenced multitude set out to change that. The bigotry of the Trump campaign “strikes at the heart of the Gospel” and is not just another issue, more than 75 evangelical leaders of diverse ages and ethnic backgrounds said in a statement posted at Change.org. “We, undersigned evangelicals, simply will not tolerate the racial, religious, and gender bigotry that Donald Trump has consistently and deliberately fueled, no matter how else we choose to vote or not to vote,” we said.
This declaration comes from individual leaders who believe that bigotry must be denounced for the sake of the integrity of the Christian faith and the very meaning of the word “evangelical.” If the mistaken perception persists that evangelicals overwhelmingly support Trump in this election, it could mean the obituary of the true meaning of “evangelical” in America — especially for a new generation.
These Christians are victims of a sort of identity theft, as the national conversation conflates them with a narrow demographic of mostly older, politically conservative whites.
As Robert Jones has expertly documented in his recent book “The End of White Christian America”, the number of older, conservative, white male evangelicals is shrinking each year. Meanwhile, the number of younger evangelicals of all ethnic backgrounds — whose moral and political views extend far beyond positions on gay marriage and abortion — is on the rise. By lifting up this large and growing group of Christians that has been omitted from the national dialogue, it is my hope that we can as a nation develop a better understanding of and a more hopeful future for the word “evangelical” in this country.
Too many leading conservative white evangelicals (the old stalwarts of the religious right) continue to ignore everything else about Trump for the sake of Supreme Court picks, an anti-gay agenda and proximity to power. But after we — and sadly many of our kids — heard Trump condoning and bragging about sexual assault on a vile video, that political strategy is becoming a stretch too far for a growing number of evangelicals.
“Strategy becomes idolatry … in defiance of God’s manifest concern for the stranger, the widow, the orphan and the oppressed. Strategy becomes idolatry when we betray our deepest values in pursuit of earthly influence,” editorial director Andy Crouch wrote in Christianity Today.
This embrace by many white evangelicals of a racial and pro-rich politics, which ignores 2,000 Bible verses that emphasize God’s concern about injustice and the poor, represents worse than bad theology — it is idolatry bordering on heresy.
The concern for the vulnerable is at the heart of Jesus’ life-changing and earth-shattering call. This historic moment, in which a diverse new evangelical generation confronts the immoral bigotry of the Trump campaign, is an opportunity to reclaim the true “evangelical” identity going forward. And that will indeed be “good news” for us all.