Evangelical support for President Donald Trump wasn’t enough to win him another term. But it was enough to confirm evangelicals’ reputation among the broader public as perhaps the Trumpiest demographic in America.
Whether that perception is fair is disputable, certainly. The well-known report that 81 percent of evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016 was never really accurate. Derived from exit polls, it ignored the millions of evangelicals who didn’t vote for Trump because they didn’t vote at all. Widely shared as descriptive of the whole evangelical vote, it only considered white voters, though evangelicalism is increasingly racially diverse.
It also counted as evangelical anyone who simply claimed the label, though self-identification is a messy metric that includes “evangelicals” who don’t believe or behave as longstanding definitions of evangelicalism stipulate. And, after all those qualifications, it wasn’t even 81 percent: Later, better studies put that figure in the mid-70s, matching the very consistent rate at which self-identified white evangelical voters supported other recent GOP nominees.
But will any of this nuance, or whatever shifts in evangelical voting patterns may appear in the 2020 data, make a difference? I don’t think so. “Americans seem to increasingly view evangelicals through a political lens,” the Barna Group summarized in survey results from late 2019. For many of our compatriots, “evangelicals” are first and foremost a voting bloc. A term intended to signal views on salvation, Scripture, and service now communicates political alignment with a single party and a president.
The defensibility of that alignment I’ll leave for another day—the question of whether evangelicals should have supported Trump has already been explored at length across the media and the internet. Nor am I making a case either for abandoning the word “evangelical” or restoring its older meaning, if the latter is even possible.
No, my interest here isn’t in who gets our votes or what we’re called, but rather how it is that a group of Christians could so easily—so quickly!—become this strongly linked to any person who is not Christ. What does it say about us if the first name that comes to mind when our neighbors hear “evangelical” is not “Jesus”?
Worries about reputation can seem frivolous. “We must obey God rather than human beings” (Acts 5:29), which means valuing God’s view of us above others’ sneers or praises. But the Bible takes reputation seriously, too. “Live such good lives among the pagans,” Peter advised, “that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us” (1 Pet. 2:12). Proverbs says, “A good name is more desirable than great riches” (22:1), and Jesus said our love for one another should identify us to “everyone” (John 13:35).
Acquiring a bad reputation as Christians is not necessarily a sign of disobedience to these commands. The early church was accused of atheism (for refusing to worship idols), cannibalism (for taking the Lord’s Supper), and incest (for calling spouses “brother” and “sister” in Christ). One critic, per an account by a third-century Christian writer named Minucius Felix, called the church “a reprobate, unlawful, and desperate faction” from “the lowest dregs” of society who “rage against the gods.”
But there is a yawning gap between poor reputation acquired via basic Christian faithfulness—worship, Communion, and community—and poor reputation gained by conspicuous fealty to a politician. Our reputation problem is not theirs. The Roman Empire under Caesar suspected that this strange sect’s insistence that Jesus is Lord made them incapable of citizenship; Americans who see evangelicals as a Trump voting bloc are not wondering if we’re too focused on Christ.
Despite that difference, the remedy in each case is the same. The early church refuted its false charges in the public square, and it grew exponentially because Christians lived “such good lives among the pagans” and told the distinct and hopeful gospel of a God who loves all humankind. Our task is no different. Whether it helps our reputation or not, whether it saves “evangelical” or not, we too should be living so faithfully and fully that it is inescapably clear where our allegiance lies.
Bonnie Kristian is a columnist at Christianity Today.
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