I sometimes quip that I am half of a white evangelical; that is, I am half-white, not half-evangelical. But the joke points to a greater complexity. I am half-Japanese, but my faith has largely been shaped by culturally white institutions, many within a broadly evangelical orbit. And even though I come from this white evangelical world, I find it increasingly difficult to understand.
I’m not the only one. Despite recent important books like John Fea’s Believe Me and Thomas Kidd’s Who Is an Evangelical?, the meaning of evangelical continues to befuddle religious and nonreligious alike. Around the globe, evangelicalism connotes a subset of Protestant Christianity that prioritizes Scripture, discipleship, and public expression of faith, as reflected in movements like the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization and the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students.
These global movements did not emerge in a vacuum, and some of them import norms that are more Western than Christian. But global evangelicalism differs from the way the label is now understood in the US, as a synonym for white conservative Christians who are increasingly defined by their views about President Trump.
These Christians—whether in urban or rural settings—tend to be isolated in largely white neighborhoods, workplaces, churches, and schools. Not all of them, to be sure. But most. And this insularity often undercuts their own interests and their witness to the watching world. White evangelicals are losing touch with broad segments of this country (and with the global church) that are increasingly nonwhite.
In this cultural context, the meaning of evangelicalism has also become more political than theological. The political dimensions have always been there—it’s not quite right to intimate that evangelicalism recently “transform[ed] … from a theological position to a racial and political one.” Rather, as theologian Lesslie Newbigin has written, “Christianity as a social phenomenon has always and necessarily been conditioned as to its outward form by other social facts.”
In the United States, the religion practiced by many white evangelicals has always been racial and political as well as theological, even if the relative intensity of each of these dimensions has varied over time. But today, the political dimension is particularly acute. It manifests in three categories of white evangelicals: Trump critics, pragmatists, and Trump lovers.
We often hear about the 81 percent of white evangelical voters who voted for Trump, but the 19 percent remainder—including Republican “never Trumpers,” Democrats, and third-party voters—is not a rounding error. These are the critics, and they include millions of voters, far more than all Jewish and Muslim voters combined. Beyond the 19 percent remainder, the critics also include a portion of white evangelicals who did not vote in the 2016 presidential election and who are therefore excluded from frequently cited polling numbers. Given what we know about generational differences, the percentage of critics among white evangelicals is likely to increase—if they continue to identify as evangelicals at all.
The pragmatists may not like the president, but they see him as their only option, pitted against a Democratic Party that they view as opposed to their values. The most pragmatic among them may be hoping for Trump’s political demise and the quick rise of a successor. The pragmatists are not entirely misguided in betting on Trump, who has delivered some of their key policy objectives. Not the rhetorical ploys to repeal the Johnson Amendment or end the “war on Christmas.”
Nor the executive orders on issues ranging from public funding of religious nonprofits to transgender bathrooms—which will be undone with a pen stroke by the next Democratic White House. But Trump’s success with the Supreme Court and other judicial appointments will have much longer staying power. And for some pragmatists, that success more than validates their Faustian bargain.
Another reason that many pragmatists are sticking with Trump is that Democrats have not reached out to them. On policy matters, no Democratic candidate has expressed interest in compromise legislation to address tensions between LGBT rights and religious freedom. Or take abortion. With Joe Biden’s switch on the Hyde Amendment, none of the leading Democratic candidates supports restrictions on federal funding for abortion. Nor has the rhetoric been helpful—too many prominent Democrats show disdain rather than empathy for white evangelicals.
But the relational insularity runs both ways. Many lovers and pragmatists resonate with the promise to “Make America Great Again.” For them, this past greatness is not just economic, militarily, or cultural—it is theological. America was once great because it was moral, a city on a hill blessed by God. These longings for the past produce current laments about a “post-Christian” America in which Christians are the “new minority.” They reveal just how out of touch many white evangelicals are with the world around them. And, truth be told, this detachment characterizes not only the lovers and the pragmatists but also many of the critics.