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A Report from Across the Pond: The State of Evangelicalism Amid the 2020 Election

Fulcrum - Wed, 28/10/2020 - 22:00

What’s Going On?
As the 2020 election draws near next month, the world is watching to see who will be the next president of the United States. Donald Trump has consistently relied on the white evangelical grassroots as his largest voting bloc. Reportedly 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump in the 2016 election, despite the fact that almost the same percentage of black Christians (just as theologically conservative) voted for Hillary Clinton.

Ever since the Reagan era of the 1980s, “evangelicalism” has been associated with the Republican Party in part due to Jerry Falwell Sr. (founder of Liberty University, the flagship institution of conservative evangelical higher education) and the meteoric rise of the Religious Right that he had helped orchestrate. With the help of Paul Weyrich, Falwell established “evangelicalism” as a powerhouse in partisan politics. That Falwell should be the face of evangelicalism was a bit of a curiosity, however. Falwell had spent his early years as an avowed fundamentalist under the auspices of arch-fundamentalists such as Bob Jones Sr. and John Rice. In contrast, the modern evangelical movement (sometimes referred to as “neo-evangelicalism”) developed as a more irenic alternative to Christian fundamentalism, and fundamentalists used the word “evangelical” as a term of derision. But by the 1980s Falwell had dropped the fundamentalist label and adopted the “evangelical” moniker for its currency and political expediency, undoubtedly inspired by evangelicalism’s success in previous decades. With Weyrich he successfully forged an alliance with the current Republican Party--an alliance that has formed into an unquestioned allegiance and continues to this day. 

Such a virulent reaction could be seen as the “death of Christendom” prophesied by Kierkegaard in the previous century, as it takes its last, dying breaths in the States. Evangelical religion was once the civil or folk religion of a country forged in the revivalism of the American frontier as it expanded westward. The wave of secularisation that has beleaguered the U.K. and European continent has been slow to cross the Atlantic. But now that it has arrived, conservative evangelicals have experienced varying degrees of cognitive dissonance, resulting in increased militancy.  

But signs of change are afoot. The millennial generation--my generation--grew up in the “culture war” era and often has a strong aversion to it. The youngest are approaching their 30s and the oldest are moving into their 40s: they have families, careers, and mortgages. And they have some skin in the game when it comes to deciding the future of American society. 

In a recent interview, Karen Swallow Prior described the socio-political convictions of the up and coming generation of young evangelicals that will form the base of the movement for years to come. Prior, who had spent the past two decades teaching English literature at Liberty University, describes the younger generation of evangelicals as “more holistically pro-life,” citing concerns about racial justice and immigration reform along with the preservation of unborn lives that has been the trademark of evangelical political activism. She suggests that this gives them a sense of “homelessness” when it comes to partisan politics. They cannot buy into the Left’s view of life, and yet neither can they adopt the Republican Party’s narrative on immigration and race relations. 

These characteristics are embodied in people like Rondell Trevino. Rondell is a Latino-American and millennial Christian who founded “The Immigration Coalition,” an organization whose mission is to provide “biblically balanced resources that show compassion to immigrants and respect for the rule of law.” Rondell repeatedly refers to himself as “politically homeless” and “pro-life from the womb to the tomb.” He also describes himself as “theologically conservative [but] socially compassionate,” as well as “too conservative for progressives” and “too progressive for conservatives.” Like many millennial evangelicals, Rondell defies and transcends partisan categories.

Also indicative of this movement is an organization called the “AND Campaign,” founded by Justin Giboney, whose mission is “to educate and organize Christians for civic and cultural engagement.” (Giboney and his organization were recently profiled in an article on The Gospel Coalition, a popular evangelical website.) Their motto, “compassion and conviction,” stresses both Christian conviction and social compassion. They maintain and uphold traditional Christian views on sexuality, gender, marriage, and the sanctity of life, and yet also find ways to advocate for racial justice, immigration reform, and socio-economic reform. 

Characteristic of this movement is an equal emphasis on both orthodoxy (right doctrine) and orthopraxy (right action). There was once a conscious “exvangelical” movement of young evangelicals disillusioned with the church’s complacency on justice issues leaving the church in droves and deconstructing their faith. And yet they found the narratives of the secular left just as unconvincing, unappealing, and insufficient. My friend, Ian Harber, recently and cleverly described his journey of reconstruction back to an evangelical faith as a “revangelical” story. (Unbeknownst to him, “Revangelical” was also coincidentally the title of a book published in 2014 that fittingly stressed a return to Christian social ethics, or “orthopraxy,” alongside orthodoxy.) As it turns out, a thoroughly biblical, orthodox worldview has the resources in spades for the pursuit of justice and constructive cultural engagement if you look closely enough. Ian’s story is an example of countless others that have rediscovered historic Christian faith even while retaining their passion for social justice and reform. He came out the other side with a more balanced and nuanced faith of his own. 

Anecdotes like these lead Prior (who has spent years with evangelical students) to predict that the future of evangelicalism looks neither Republican nor Democrat. Though future generations of evangelicals might vote for different political parties, she does not necessarily anticipate the same marriage that the Religious Right has had with the Republican Party. Prior also predicts that the future of evangelicalism looks much more racially and culturally diverse–an observation that many others have made due to current sociological trends. As white Americans become less religious on average, the black church continues to thrive, while the U.S. continues to receive a steady stream of evangelical immigrants from the majority world, including Latin America. With them, they bring new cultural expressions of evangelical Christianity, as well as different viewpoints that do not necessarily comport with the Republican or Democratic parties. Although evangelicalism in America has historically been a predominantly white phenomenon, denominations such as the Southern Baptist Convention are being enriched by an influx of black, brown, Latino/Latina, and Asian evangelicals. In other words, evangelicalism in the U.S. is beginning to look a lot more like St. John’s vision in Revelation 7:9 (“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”).

A Historical Perspective: The Past Meets the Present
In 1947, Carl F. H. Henry penned a small book titled “The Uneasy Conscience of Modern Fundamentalism,” which would become the unofficial manifesto for the burgeoning evangelical movement as it distanced itself from the more rigid, socially unconscious fundamentalists. The “uneasiness” that Henry refers to is the discontentment that he and his peers felt toward their fundamentalist counterparts, who tended to be hostile, combative, and antagonistic to the surrounding culture. In contrast, Henry and his colleagues such as Harold Ockenga believed that evangelicals could engage culture and society constructively and have a positive impact in the areas of social reform and the academy. They founded institutions such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the organization that would become World Relief to bolster these efforts. 

I see a similar impulse happening in today’s movements. Younger evangelicals are discontent with the approach of their culture-war predecessors and are returning to the original vision of evangelical cultural engagement as it was envisioned by Henry, Ockenga, and others. 

Furthermore, the younger generation is teaming up with the “old guard” of neo-evangelicalism. The AND campaign has recently joined with older evangelical organizations such as the NAE, World Relief, and Prison Fellowship to spearhead efforts for justice reform (especially in light of the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd). In 2013, the NAE also formed the Evangelical Immigration Table, a taskforce which dovetails well with the Immigration Coalition’s concern to bring the immigrant discussion back to the forefront of national discussion. And most recently, both the NAE and World Relief have a released a statement calling evangelicals back to responsible civic engagement, citing concerns for racial justice and immigration alongside traditional pro-life concerns.

Conclusion
Evangelicalism in North America is experiencing a shift similar to what happened in the 1940s due to young, discontent evangelicals. Even if Donald Trump gets re-elected this year, it seems as if the days of Republican ascendancy within evangelicalism are numbered. If people like Karen Swallow Prior are right, this has the potential to change the geopolitical landscape for years to come. 

In the 1940s, the young, evangelical reformers took the name “neo-evangelical,” which was eventually just shortened back to “evangelical.” As of right now, there is currently no name or title for this barely self-conscious renewal movement of evangelicalism, still in its infancy stages. But “revangelical” doesn’t sound half bad.

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