Breaking Out of the White Evangelical Echo Chamber
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.
Make America Christian Again
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.
And then there is the 81 percent. They are in all likelihood committed, churchgoing Christians, and their support for Trump remains strong. We can sort this group into the Trump lovers and the pragmatists. The lovers believe Trump is the man God appointed to restore the country to its purportedly Christian roots. They celebrate the president through an almost Christological lens, from the Thomas Kinkade–style paintings of Trump in messianic settings to the choir of First Baptist Dallas performing a hymn called “Make America Great Again.”
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.
Trapped in insular language
The phrase “post-Christian” implies that there was an earlier era when this country was Christian. It is one thing to acknowledge that Western political theory and jurisprudence are heavily informed by Christian thought, or that many of America’s founders were themselves Christians. But those are far different claims than suggesting that the United States was ever a “Christian nation.” The land of the free obliterated Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, and imprisoned Japanese Americans. The home of the brave bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, killed tens of thousands of Iraqi civilians, and waterboarded its captives. There is much to commend about this country, but there is also much to lament. Too many popular evangelical narratives omit indispensable parts of our story. And the stories we tell about our history shape how we see ourselves and how we engage with the world around us.
Consider the belief that Christians are the “new minority.” This claim only works by ignoring much smaller minority demographics. Recent polls suggest that white evangelicals comprise roughly a quarter of the population. By comparison, 2 percent of the country is Jewish, and 1 percent is Muslim. Second, even if white evangelicals continue to decrease in number, this does not make them minorities in the same way as historically disadvantaged groups. Generations of systemic advantages in housing, education, and employment mean that it will be a long time before a minority of white evangelicals—or white Americans more generally—confronts challenges similar to those faced by racial minorities, sexual minorities, and other maligned groups.
The insular language of white evangelicals is exacerbated by a heightened aversion to terms that almost everyone else in the country does recognize and understand. The term “sexual minorities” in the last paragraph is one of them. Other examples include “social justice” and “structural racism.”
White evangelicals who embrace labels like “post-Christian” and the “new minority” while being suspicious of terms like “social justice” and “structural racism” will continue to alienate themselves from much of the rest of society—including fellow conservative believers, like black Christians, Catholics (especially nonwhite Catholics), Mormons, conservative Muslims, and Orthodox Jews. Ideas like “social justice” may sound off-putting as sound bites on Fox News, but they flow out of important and careful arguments like those found in Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy, Jemar Tisby’s The Color of Compromise, and Tim Keller’s Generous Justice.
The white evangelical echo chamber is further hardened by conservative media. Too often, stories in evangelical circles suffer from the same kinds of caricatures, fearmongering, and lack of charity that Christians are quick to call out in the “liberal media.” At their worst, these stories perpetuate harmful distortions about Muslims, immigrants, and others. And the same algorithms and clickbait driving partisanship outside of the church are shaping hearts and minds inside of its walls with every retweet, Instagram like, and Facebook share.
A broad, engaging evangelical witness
It doesn’t have to be this way. I have spent the past few years speaking across the country to groups of people of all faiths and no faith. And I have encountered kind and hopeful people in all of these places. Some of these hopeful people are Christians, especially younger Christians. But too often, the white evangelical narrative I encounter is driven more by fear and anxiety than by the hope and confidence of the gospel. And the world is watching. What can you do if you find yourself surrounded more by anxiety than hope? Let me offer three suggestions.
First, pay more attention to your words. Stop saying you’re living in a “post-Christian” country or that you are the “new minority.” These assertions generate antagonism rather than empathy. Similarly, take care in how you describe others. Invoking tropes like “social justice warriors” or “the gay agenda” assumes the same kinds of stereotypes that you don’t want people using against you. And invoking these tropes ignores the commandment to love others and treat them as individual image-bearers. By all means, speak truth and critique bad arguments and unjust policies. But don’t settle for lazy generalities and ad hominem attacks.
Second, diversify your personal networks. This won’t always be easy or obvious everywhere, but if you look closely, you’ll find people who, at the very least, think differently than you do. Some of you will need to risk finding your first cross-racial friendship. That might mean going to nonwhite spaces and institutions to learn and to experience the discomfort of a cultural baseline that is not your own. You should also diversify the leadership of your institutions. Who is in the room determines which questions get asked, and white evangelical institutions will not escape their insularity without greater racial diversity in circles of power.
Third, show up and take risks. If you want to be known as a pro-life people, advocate for all stages of life. Speak out about dehumanizing and family-separating policies like immigration detention centers and mass incarceration with the same fervor you have for religious freedom and opposition to abortion. Risk uncertain and messy relationships with your neighbors to help repair the social fabric. Step outside of your comfort zones and partner in common-ground causes with progressive and mainline Christians, with people of other faiths, and with nonbelievers. Defend the rights of Muslim Americans, Jewish Americans, and Americans of no faith. Stand up against bullying of LGBT people. Look for opportunities to seek counsel from and promote women rather than avoiding them because of the Billy Graham Rule or the Mike Pence Rule. None of these opportunities threatens your faith. But they all require rethinking the assumptions that come from cultural, racial, and relational insularity.
Will these suggestions win you political favor? Maybe not. But, frankly, political expediency matters far less than the faithful witness of the church. And these suggestions will help you toward a more faithful witness by lessening your insularity. They will lead to less fear and more hope. They will move you closer toward the example of Jesus, who stepped into messy and uncertain spaces with people who were different from him. And that seems worth doing regardless of what is to come in this world—because it is what the gospel asks of those whose citizenship lies in heaven and who believe that he who conquered death will prevail over all other earthly challenges as well.
John Inazu is the Sally D. Danforth Distinguished Professor of Law and Religion at Washington University in St. Louis and co-editor (with Timothy Keller) of the forthcoming book Uncommon Ground: Living Faithfully in a World of Difference (Thomas Nelson).
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Breaking Out of the White Evangelical Echo Chamber