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

Greg Strand – May 11, 2016 5 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.

5 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.

  3. The lack of faith of the average American Christian is disheartening. It is outrageous for Christians to engage in a voting decision that they purport the Lord has led them into with a sense of disgust, ambivalence, fear or “holding” their noses. Since when has the Holy Spirit ever led us to do things that our God-given conscience found truly cringeworthy and unsettling?

    We go to church and listen about the parting of the Red Sea, Gideon’s victory, Esther’s faith that saved thousands of her people, Daniel and the lion’s den, the faith of the prophets who faced down death to promote truth, the life of Jesus who destroyed the sting of death and the gates of hell and nod our heads knowingly to these stories. But where is this knowledge evoking actual change in us or the political landscape? First, why couldn’t God who Christians say created the universe use a coordinated campaign of write-in votes to bring about change? Why haven’t we fielded our own third-party options? Why do we believe this is impossible…if Jesus really rose from the dead and you believe this why couldn’t God make the unlikely a reality if that was His will? Are we really confining Him to the existing options of our manmade political system? Why haven’t we, including myself and every other Christian, lived even better lives in the community so our light shined so bright that change in this country came from below where it matters most not from legislation?

    Do Christians really have the insanity to believe that morality, safety and security are procured by putting people into power to push our agenda? Let’s not forget part of the reason Jesus lost his support among his own people. They were afraid of their Roman government for good reason, missed the days of self-governance and their idea of “making Israel great again” was to misconstrue the role of the Messiah to meet their earthly needs. While they went to temple, engaged in rituals and learned the words of Moses, they really did not believe in the value of those activities and did not seek the heavenly objectives Jesus laid forth to them. His refusal to become their earthly king enraged them…they wanted comfort and security now. Sound familiar?

    How are we different? Do we really think any man or woman can use political means to stop premarital sex which leads to the overwhelming number of pregnancies that comprise America’s abortion statistics? If we were honest, would we say that we simply do not like how the immorality of the world has encroached upon our comfy often suburban enclaves and we want a quick fix to avoid thinking about these things for a couple years. If we can just vote in some people who believe nothing of our views, one of whom is shameless about grabbing women’s genitalia, but who promise to “keep government out” (most of us couldn’t define what that even means), rid America of abortion and “protect our rights” then we feel we can sleep night. Ah, faith in mankind. Hardly reassuring and a poor substitute for faith in God. For the record, we have often voted this way since the 1980s and on last check, America is less moral. Funny…Jimmy Carter was a better Christian than Reagan but somehow we glorify the latter.

    What is the call of Christianity? Isn’t it to have faith that the God who dragged an often faithless group of Israelite refugees across the Red Sea can show us moral Biblically based options to engage in the political process? We sort of chuckle at their lack of faith but they at least crossed the Red Sea…would we? Wasn’t the charge Jesus gave the disciples to go into the world and preach the gospel of salvation that changes lives and communities to people? It was not go to Rome, form a political action committee and get the Roman governor to take him, his military and their idols with them. Are we so afraid to find an uncharted path for us in our political landscape that we misconstrue voting for men who built their empires on the misery of those with gambling addiction as the courageous act of voting one’s conscience?

    I am a mere mortal but God has given me enough perception to realize that we do not seem to worry about the souls of those around us. We ring our hands over flagburning, if our children pray in school and will the government take away our tax exempt status. The message is us, us, me, me. Who cares if they take away the tax exempt status? Why can’t the Lord provide the “ram in the thicket” like we constantly tell our children about regarding the faith of Abraham?

    What church leaders fail to see is their fear in facing this head on is leading to the unsaved misunderstanding Jesus and them finding us odious. They would be correct in their disdain since the brand of Christianity we are selling is fear and a fake sense of self-preservation. If indeed the God we serve is so weak He requires us to “save” the kingdom for Him by our votes, I can see why church attendance in this country is falling.

    I know this is long but it’s a sad day when a Bible believing Christian cannot even understand why her own brothers and sisters in the Lord find faith in men not God. Where are the pastors who are challenging us weekly in this regard? It is a sad time to be an American Christian when the person in the pew beside you shows greater enthusiasm for their political candidate than what the Lord has done for them that week.

    There is time to change our views on this. With God, all things are possible.

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