Eighty-one. This number likely haunts many American evangelicals today. Just last week, the exit polls revealed that 81% of our white evangelical brothers and sisters voted Trump.
In response, several self-identifying evangelicals bemoaned the state of American evangelicalism. Some even began to reconsider their identification with evangelicals.
I imagine the line of thinking to go something like this: “If evangelicalism is in any way associated with support or even tolerance of the racism, sexism, ableism, and xenophobia exhibited by Donald Trump and many of his supporters, then I must renounce it.”
For some, the 2016 US Election signalled the final nail in the coffin. To them, “evangelicalism” has become a term broken beyond repair, hijacked by the liberal media, overly-politicized, and continually dying the death of a thousand qualifications. And this is in addition to the handful of voices who were already critiquing the “evangelical” label. It would seem that D.G. Hart and Carl Trueman were right all along when they helpfully pointed out evangelicalism’s fuzzy boundaries and lack of solid definitions.
And yet, as someone who was personally discouraged by the 81% and who also greatly esteems Hart and Trueman’s thoughts, I find myself unable to bid evangelicalism farewell.
This is my attempt to hash out just why that is.
5 Reasons Why I’m Still An Evangelical
1. Future Evangelicalism
Admittedly, I have not lived in the South or rural America, where Trump support was the strongest, but neither my personal experience with evangelicalism nor my prediction of where it is headed comport with the evangelical Trump supporter narrative. Along with Joe Carter, I’m quite skeptical about the exit polls. I wonder how representative the 24,537 respondents truly were.
Even if the 81% figure is accurate, the trajectory of evangelicalism in America, and especially in the rest of the world does not appear to be in line with a Trump vote. In fact, before the election, it was estimated that 67% of non-white evangelicals preferred Clinton. White evangelicalism, whatever it is, is not representative of evangelicalism’s future (for more on this see Soong-Chan Rah’s The Next Evangelicalism). Non-white evangelical voices, such as the Asian American evangelicals’, will soon constitute the majority of American evangelicalism, and we do not celebrate Trump’s victory as the church’s victory. Neither do handfuls of the most respected and influential leaders and institutions of American evangelicalism. In my humble opinion, the future of evangelicalism is brighter than the darkness represented by the number 81. I hope to be a part of the light.
2. Political Complexity
I should probably admit here that I didn’t vote for Clinton or Trump. The worrisome political agendas and the lack of moral integrity that I perceived between both candidates prevented me from merely choosing the “lesser of two evils” this year. Still, Trump votes particularly saddened me. But I also strongly believe it’s important to differentiate between voting Trump in opposition to Clinton, and voting in support of Trump. We mustn’t perpetuate the lie that voting for Trump was essentially embracing or endorsing evil. As someone who could not vote for Clinton in good conscience, I believe I’m obligated to respect those (especially those in swing states) who chose what they believed to be the lesser of two evils in Trump. After all, how do you quantify the lesser of two evils objectively? How do you weigh sexism and ableism against the abandonment of the unborn’s rights? I’m unsure.
In my context, I personally resonate with the argument that voting for Trump harmed the Church’s witness. Still, I’m not sure I could dogmatically bind other people’s consciences with that argument. If voting for Trump was unmistakably an affront to Christ, all Trump voters should be subject to church discipline. Are we ready to go there? For this reason, I cannot so simply heap scorn upon the 81% of white evangelicals who voted for Trump. Neither will I abandon our shared evangelical identity. Politics is complex. Evangelicals should be free to disagree. This brings me to my next point.
3. Evangelical Diversity
The outcome and responses to the 2016 US Election demonstrate how widely not only Americans disagree, but also American evangelicals. This confirms Barry Hankins’ argument in American Evangelicals. Hankins, professor of history at Baylor University, argues that the diversity of evangelicals reflects a lack of consensus in the broader culture. He essentially says that evangelicals are much more like the rest of Americans than they or even their critics believe. American evangelicals are diverse because America is diverse. Are diversity and disagreement ultimate evils? I don’t think so.
I refuse to give up on evangelicalism because I believe in something more ultimate than political unity. Evangelicalism has and will always be broad and diverse, especially when it comes to politics. It will also continue to host disagreements until our King’s final return. The beauty of the evangel, however, is that those who can’t unite as Trump’s people or Clinton’s people, are irreversibly united as God’s people. I’m not denying the political implications of the evangel, but evangelical unity must begin with the gospel, often in spite of politics.
4. “Evangelical” Still Has Import
Hopefully I can do a full blog post on this in the future: “The ‘What’ & ‘Why’ of Evangelicalism.”
In the meantime, this is where I tread lightly in disagreement with Hart and Trueman’s evaluation of the evangelical label. But I do so with the support of Don Carson and Doug Sweeney, and in the spirit of John Frame! I believe that the evangelical identity marker still has import, especially for the masses of Christians who hail from non-denominational churches and parachurches that uphold the five Christian fundamentals. Whether or not non-denominationalism causes you to shake your head, it’s where many of us came from. Evangelicalism, however hard it is to define, has given us a common language, experience, and identity to share together.
I also believe that evangelicalism continues to helpfully describe the (admittedly expansive) group of Protestants who are neither compromised modernist liberals nor world-denying separatist fundamentalists. Sure, the boundaries of evangelicalism are fuzzy, and there is plenty of healthy and unhealthy debate in this tent, but I think it’s all worth it. Evangelicalism need not be in opposition to confessional and/or denominational Christianity. Rather, it offers a wider field of dialogue, the sharing of ideas, and the experience of unity and diversity under the professed Lordship of Christ.
5. Prophetic Opportunity
The final reason why I’m still an evangelical is because this is no time to leave. An evangelical is supposed to be a gospel person. I refuse to allow the media or politically idolatrous Christians to define what a “gospel person” is. Yes, evangelicalism is a mess, but it’s also an opportunity. It’s a prophetic opportunity. Today, American evangelicals have the opportunity to subvert the politicized right-wing evangelical narrative. It will take repentance, forgiveness, reconciliation, and civility. We must show them what gospel people are by embodying the gospel’s manifold implications. We must show them the beauty of unity in diversity.
America cannot seem to fathom unity in the midst of political diversity. But evangelicals can. Indeed, we must. The world is watching. They saw the number 81. They heard the name “evangelical.” They see our division. Now, it’s time that they see Jesus, hear the true evangel, and witness the best of evangelicalism: gospel unity.