Who and What Is An “Evangelical”?: Evangelicals and Politics (Part 1)

Greg Strand – May 11, 2016 4 Comments

I have thought much about how Evangelical, both the term and the person so identified, is understood these days. It is inevitable that during election years, the term is used primarily as an important way to understand and influence a voting bloc, more of a sociological understanding of Evangelical. However, that comes way short of what Evangelicalism means. 

Even for those who claim to be Evangelical, there is a significant difference between those who merely identify as an Evangelical and those who actually are actively living out their faith, evidenced in attending church (even though we know that does not guarantee one is truly an Evangelical either). Even though there is support with the former group, those in the latter category do not generally support Trump. You can read of this here: Donald Trump’s poll numbers show a big divide between Christians and churchgoing Christians

In another piece, one writes that “most Evangelicals Don’t Vote Trump,” in that “the numbers tell a different story than the headlines.” The conclusion: “Evangelicalism as a religious and cultural phenomenon is difficult to define and measure accurately, so the media should show a bit more caution before lumping all evangelicals together in a massive pro-Trump herd, especially when a super-majority of that supposed herd do not actively support Donald J. Trump.”

Russell Moore writes “The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.” He has also tweeted, “The word “evangelical” no longer has any meaning. Just call me a gospel Christian.” Although he writes this, he strongly affirms the truth of Evangelicalism, the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He wants to make clear the distinction between cultural Evangelicalism and evangel, i.e. gospel-centered, Evangelicalism.

Michael Horton writes a good piece in Christianity Today about this under the title The Theology of Donald Trump. He gets at what sort of Christianity Trump imbibes, which is akin to Norman Vincent Peale and Joel Osteen.

Recently this issue has been raised again: Trump, Clinton, or Neither: How Evangelicals Are Expected to Vote. Since it appears Trump and Clinton will be the respective candidates, how will Evangelicals respond? For whom will they vote? Will they vote a third party candidate? Will they vote at all? This is the question raised in this article: Should Christians Vote for the Lesser of Two Evils?

Russell Moore wrote about this again recently in the NYT, A White Church No More Although there are Evangelicals who support Trump, see Donald Trump’s Feud With Evangelical Leader Reveals Fault Lines, and although Moore does not speak on behalf of Evangelicals, Trump, as he typically does when questioned, took to Twitter to address (attack) Moore : “Russell Moore is truly a terrible representative of Evangelicals and all of the good they stand for. A nasty guy with no heart!”

Interestingly, because of Moore’s understanding of and commitment to live by the gospel of Jesus Christ, there is much with which he would probably agree. In fact, he would likely be able to add more. That perspective is the result of a life transformed by the gospel of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 5:16-17).

Many, both inside and outside Evangelicalism, continue to ponder and process this phenomenon during this election year. The political landscape has changed. The moral landscape is in a free fall from any God-given standard. Many Evangelicals continue to think through how to live in this cultural context, such that Christianity and culture are not overlapping realities. Although they never had been one and the same, there was significant overlap and influence between them. There is decreasing overlap and a widening gap between the two, with an increasing opposition to the Christian truth and Christians who affirm that truth.

This is not a time for Christians to disengage, or to cloister themselves, or to accommodate, or to capitulate. Neither is a time to pine after an earlier day, nor whine about being misunderstood or mistreated. That certainly does not mean we roll over and play dead, but if this is how our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was treated, why would we expect less (Jn. 15:20)?

How do you process this from a biblical perspective? How do you counsel people who ask you about it?

In the second part of this brief look at Evangelicals and Politics, we will look at some distinctives and convictions that explain/define who and what an Evangelical is.

Greg Strand

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Affectionately called “Walking Bible” by his youngest daughter, Greg Strand has a ministry history that goes back to 1982. Since that time, he has served in local church ministry in a variety of ministry capacities: youth pastor, associate pastor of adult ministries and senior pastor. He is currently the EFCA's Executive Director of Theology and Credentialing. Greg reads voraciously and never stops learning — a passion reflected in the overflowing bookshelves that spill from his library to multiple offices. And he could tell you about each of those books! His hunger for learning pales in contrast to his great love for God and for teaching the Word of God.

4 responses to Who and What Is An “Evangelical”?: Evangelicals and Politics (Part 1)

  1. Warren E. Anderson May 11, 2016 at 9:18 pm

    Greg,

    If we Christians are to be salt and light, we must in cases like this vote for the lesser of two evils. Hillary Clinton will put liberal judges on the Supreme Court, do all that she can to support abortion, and faithfully promote the LGBTQ agenda.

    If Christians had all shown up at the polls and voted as a virtual bloc for the Republican candidate in the past two presidential elections, our courts would be less liberal, and we would probably have seen gay marriage voted down.

    If we organize, we can be a potent political force. Witness the success of the gay community in making enormous progress in recent years. Unions and other groups wield great influence as well.

    I pray daily that God will give us better leaders than we deserve. I am asking God to either change Donald Trump or give us a better candidate. But for me it is no-brainer that he is a better choice than Clinton. Warts and all, I hope that he will assemble a team around him that God can use to move us as a country in the right directions.

    Warren Anderson

    • Thank you for your thoughtful reply, Warren. Personally, I do not consider not voting an option. My belief of God sovereignly ordaining government and leaders (Rom. 13) and my responsibility as a member in two cities, the city of God and the city of man, means I engage. But my membership in the city of God directs, dictates, governs and guides the means and manner in which I engage in the city of man. In the third part of my essay, which will be posted on Friday, I spell out some principles for how we as Evangelicals ought to think and live in the present day.

  2. Greg – thank you for the insight into the historical and current definitions of the term ‘evangelical’. This instructs the dialogue we have and may slow the rush to remove the word ‘evangelical’ from all our churches.
    Dan

    • Thank you for reading and commenting, Dan. Although it is truly frustrating for the term evangelical to be co-opted, it remains a good, biblical term that I am slow to discard. Furthermore, any term with which it would be replaced will soon enough carry other kinds of baggage. I recommend we continue to use the term and we ensure we define it biblically. This is also something we ought to help others to understand, to use this as a teachable moment, since many attending the churches where we serve likely have a similar understanding/definition of evangelical as the media does.

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