Russell Moore recently wrote a piece whose title I resonate with: “Why this election makes me hate the word ‘evangelical.’” As he notes, the word has become nearly meaningless in this election year. Most journalists, who should know better, use the word to mean only one segment of evangelicalism: those who are white and Republican. This is annoying, because evangelicalism has traditionally been a many splendored thing. And because evangelicalism has not been primarily about politics.
But precisely because it is a movement made up of many races and ethnicities, many worship styles, and many political persuasions, it hasn’t taken much for one group of evangelicals to become embarrassed at the unseemly views and behavior of other evangelicals.
Some evangelicals just shake their heads in despair when fellow evangelicals want to build a wall to keep out Mexicans, say we should all carry guns to defend ourselves, or insist that Donald Trump is America’s best hope. They are so embarrassed, they go out their way to say, “I’m not that type of evangelical.” Or they write blog posts and columns fervently arguing why evangelicals should not vote for Trump.
In part, they are trying to communicate to the larger world that not all evangelicals support Trump. Some really do assume Trump represents a mortal danger—more on that in a bit. But I’ve read enough posts over the past few weeks to suggest that some, at least in part, want to put some distance between themselves and these crazy relatives.
To put my cards on the table: I tend to identify with these evangelicals and their desire to change our identity: “If that’s what many evangelicals believe, and if that’s what the national media thinks of evangelicals, then I don’t want to be known as an evangelical any longer.”
Embarrassment of those within our camp has been a regular feature of evangelicalism. When Billy Graham broke away from the fundamentalists in the 1950s, many joined him because they were, in part, tired of being associated with “raving fundamentalists.” They didn’t even want to be called fundamentalists, but evangelicals. So what we’re seeing today is not new. It’s just that nobody has come up with a new name for those who want to disassociate with Trump and friends.
But something beyond mere embarrassment may be at play here, and it may be shaping the very nature of evangelicalism.
Evangelicals have cared about social justice for some decades now. While evangelicals will differ on many political issues, we’ve been relatively uniform about one area of justice: abortion. While a pro-life stance is rarely, if ever, included in statements of faith in evangelical organizations, there is a presumption that if you are an evangelical, you are pro-life. The same is true of sexuality and religious freedom, here and abroad. These are three examples of first-order social issues for evangelicals—social issues that are so important to evangelicals, they would eschew fellowship with those who don’t share their hunger and thirst for social righteousness in these areas.
In the last year and a half, another social justice issue has risen in prominence for evangelicals, and I’m beginning to think it has become a first-order social issue: racial and ethnic justice. I do not have the statistical tools to prove this, but sitting in the seat I do at CT, I can say this: Since the racial disaster in Ferguson, Missouri, the amount and intensity of Facebook and Twitter comments/blog posts/commentary/conversations about racial injustice, the number of evangelicals who support #BlackLivesMatter, the passion for multicultural initiatives—well, it has become a tsunami that has changed the evangelical landscape.