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Understanding Evangelicals

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The nomination of Donald Trump has has resulted in countless articles, blog posts, tweets, etc. on what it means for Evangelicals.  Conclusions have been all over the map.  But the past couple of days have seen a couple of pieces one on Sunday from NBC News and one today from the NYTimes that have enough heft to deserve comment.

The Times piece has a lot of useful information, but is of a type that has become most typical in this cycle.  In tone and remark it attempts to paint Evangelicals as hypocrites and the Republican party as falling apart based on internal conflicts in its significant religious wing.  Of those interviewed for the piece, as opposed to studies or editorials cited, I recognize only my friend Matt Anderson who has been #NeverTrump since before there was a #NeverTrump – based precisely on the expectation of charges of hypocrisy.  In dismissing the article, I do not wish to dismiss that hypocrisy charge – it has a great deal of validity – I am just not sure it is dispositive regarding a #NeverTrump position.  In point of fact, any number of those claiming Evangelicalism are highly hypocritical and have been since long before Donald Trump made the scene.  Trump may be putting a spotlight on them, but he is hardly the real issue.

The NBCNews piece is far better at describing the various factions inside Evangelicalism and contains this particular observation which explains so, so much:

But in the context of how modern candidates, operatives and pollsters define evangelical Christianity as a political constituency, a better question might be: “How could it be otherwise?”

The piece goes onto make the case that evangelical Christians as so defined are largely white, but I don’t think that is really the issue either.  I think the issue is that evangelical Christianity is not a political constituency.  It’s just not.

The article goes on to observe:

Historically, major polling organizations have categorized Christian respondents’ faith into a few main groups: Catholics, mainline Protestants, white evangelicals, African-American Protestants and those with no religious identity.

Forget the racial distinctions in there (which is what NBC focus’ on almost exclusively) – I am not at all sure that “evangelicals” constitutes a religious grouping in anywhere near the same fashion as Catholics or mainline Protestants do.  Evangelicalism is a movement, but as such it is highly diverse and has never institutionalized sufficiently to be considered monolithic in any measurable fashion.  The article discusses efforts to describe the theology of Evangelicals and what has been done is more a “points of agreement” statement than anything like the creeds, confessions and systematics that define Roman Catholicism or any of the mainline Protestant denominations.  (At least defined them historically as many of them now routinely ignore those documents.)

The Evangelical movement has deep strains inside Roman Catholicism and the mainlines.  C.S. Lewis, the most prominent “Evangelical” author of my formative years, and the author most celebrated by leading Evangelical education institution Wheaton College, was deeply and profoundly Anglican (a mainline denomination).  I would describe myself as a “Presbyterian with Evangelical leanings” and my host here often refers to himself as an “Evangelical Presbyterian Roman Catholic.”  The point is that the groupings discussed above are concocted for polling and political purposes and have little to do with the religious facts on the ground.

Unquestionably, the so-called “religious right” has lost much of its political impact, but the roots of that loss and its consequences are what are really in question.  And because both of these pieces, and so many of the related pieces, come from an almost entirely political viewpoint, they are missing many of the forces at play here.  The fact of the matter is that “Evangelicalism” as a free standing religious grouping, as opposed to a movement within various churches,  is almost entirely a political/cultural creation.  Evangelicalism on its own simply lacks the critical mass to exist of its own accord.  By “critical mass” I do not mean people, most Christians today hold to much that is dear to the Evangelical movement, rather I mean that Evangelicalism is a viewpoint and theological emphasis; which simply does not amount to enough to be an actual church.  When you add to that Evangelicalism’s lack of institutional cohesion, you just do not have that much.  Hence my assertion that Evangelical hypocrisy far precedes Trump’s arrival on the political scene.  Many, many leaders have attempted to capitalize on the Evangelical movement by investing it with more mass than it actually has by appending to it political agendas or cultural encumbrances.  But in doing so most have missed the point of what the movement is really about and are therefore hypocritical in some fashion.

What is happening is more of a sorting than anything else.  Religion has massive political consequence, but it is not inherently political of itself.  Those that take their religion seriously, and its political consequence, are being sorted from those that confuse their religion and their politics.  (Which, of course, an entirely secular media does.)  The hypocrisy charge is the heart of the sorting mechanism.  The net result of this can only benefit genuine religious faith and hence the nation.  Christianity with Evangelical leanings, but unencumbered by politics and culture, is the only force that can right the ship of this nation.

Let flow the inevitable charges of hypocrisy from those that wish to destroy Christianity in America.  It will serve only as a refining fire.  As God said through Zechariah:

“And I will bring the third part through the fire,
Refine them as silver is refined,
And test them as gold is tested.
They will call on My name,
And I will answer them;
I will say, ‘They are My people,’
And they will say, ‘The Lord is my God.’”

It is not a pleasant time to be a Christian in America, but it is a good time.  Let us celebrate the good.

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