Evangelicalism: It’s a Brand, but it’s Also a Space

Editor’s Note: This is the second article in a series where we pose the question: Is it time to leave the term “evangelical” behind us?

Read the first article here: The Last Evangelical by Geoff Holsclaw

You’ll notice that not all of the articles land in the same place, but instead express different viewpoints. Our purpose in publishing these articles is not to define or dictate what we believe the “right answer” is, but to begin the conversation. And we’d love to hear from you too (submit an article here). May this help to foster much-needed dialogue and discernment for the days ahead.

Juliet Liu
Editorial Director

The Problems of the Evangelical Brand

If identifying as “evangelical” before the election of Donald Trump was difficult, the past 12 months have only made the label easier to disavow. On the morning after 81% of white evangelical voters helped elect Mr. Trump, a Fuller Seminary professor posted on social media,

I won’t be calling myself an evangelical anymore in the future, or struggling to reinterpret the term in a better way.

Five days later, a former managing editor at Christianity Today wrote,

When it comes to the Bible and Jesus and evangelism and service, the 81 percent and I share the same DNA… But this time, this election, I can’t defend my people. I barely recognize them. @KatelynBeaty

Much ink has been spilled on white evangelicalism’s role in the 2016 election, but is anyone asking about the rest of evangelicalism? Do we even know what percentage of evangelicals of color voted for Mr. Trump? It seems like a simple question, but over a year later, there’s still no clear answer—largely because evangelicals of color aren’t considered as a category in most national polls. Election demographics for American Protestants typically break down into three segments: white evangelical, white mainline, and Black Protestant.

If you’re a Protestant who isn’t black or white, pollsters apparently find you invisible.

Notice too how the e-word is used as a sub-category of white Protestants, not to identify any Christians of color. Despite the fact that one-third of American evangelicals are not white, the prevailing connotations of “evangelical” fail to account for such diversity.

As an Asian American Christian, I am hard-pressed to find statistics on how my subgroup voted. Somewhere between 18 and 27 percent of Asian American voters supported Trump, but what about Asian American evangelicals? When the only evangelicals being counted are white, we shouldn’t be surprised this term has come to signify an increasingly narrow slice of Christianity. When the only evangelicals being counted are white, we shouldn’t be surprised this term has come to signify an increasingly narrow slice of Christianity. Click To Tweet

The whitewashing of evangelicalism’s brand has expedited the process of a good word going bad, creating conditions under which a multifaceted Christian movement’s label became hijacked by a racist, sexist, anti-immigrant agenda that looks almost nothing like Jesus.

Fuller’s president recently observed,

The word ‘evangelical’ has morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand. Worse, that brand has become synonymous with social arrogance, ignorance and prejudice—all antithetical to the gospel of Jesus Christ. @MLabberton

Consternation over religious labels isn’t new. Evangelicalism has long struggled with an image problem, wrestling with its relationship to a brand that curtails the church’s witness, credibility, and capacity to be understood. One survey found that 70% of church leaders were comfortable describing themselves as “evangelical” to other Christians after the election, but only half (52%) felt as comfortable using the term with non-Christians.

In other words, even if we’re evangelicals on the inside, we don’t want the brand to define us from the outside, especially not the brand of Jerry Falwell Jr., Franklin Graham, and President Trump. 

For those hoping to rescue evangelicalism from its brand name of ill repute, the solution appears simple: drop the label. If it harms our credibility, hinders our witness, and creates barriers to being accurately understood, why keep it in our vocabulary? If the term represents nothing more than the latest iteration of white nationalist arrogance, idolatry and injustice, shouldn’t Jesus’ followers distance themselves as much as possible? If this word repels and confuses the very neighbors we seek to lovingly welcome into our faith communities, why not abandon it? Besides, why should Christians of color use a label entangled in whiteness? If we can’t change public opinion about its connotations, isn’t it high time to bid this brand farewell?

There’s only one problem: Evangelical isn’t just a brand. It is also a space. Before you 'Farewell evangelicalism,' here's something you have to consider. Click To Tweet

Evangelicalism as a Space

One can drop the evangelical label while still residing in evangelical spaces. Evangelical identity is not merely a t-shirt hanging on the religious clothing rack, something to wear or not wear depending on one’s desired look. Evangelicalism is more than a billboard or a logo. There is an entity to which the word points – a social location that’s not so easy to dismiss. 

Evangelicalism is a space within Christianity, a zip code where millions of Christians make their spiritual homes. As we’ve seen recently, it’s perfectly possible, even increasingly common, to shun the label while still living in the neighborhood.

A couple months ago, a missiology professor employed by an evangelical university served as the visiting preacher for the weekly chapel service at a seminary who describes itself as evangelical. During his sermon, the professor emphatically declared,

I am no longer an evangelical. I handed my divorce papers to evangelicalism last November because I’ve spent the better half of my career pleading and begging with white evangelicals for space. I’m done begging and I’m tired of asking white folks for permission to say something. @danwhitehodge 

What are we to make of a Christian thought leader, educated and employed by evangelical institutions, declaring to an evangelical audience that he is done with evangelicalism? I take him to mean that he is done with the brand but not done with the space.

And who could blame him in the current climate?

Like this professor, I too am repulsed by the whitewashed evangelical brand in its most recent iteration, yet I continue making my spiritual home in the locale know as American evangelicalism. It’s not my brand of choice, but it’s where I live.

I am a graduate of Wheaton College and Fuller Seminary. I work for InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. My church belongs to the Evangelical Covenant denomination, the ecclesial body in which I am a candidate for ordination. I read publications like Christianity Today, partner with agencies like World Vision, and can rattle off the lyrics to just about any worship song in the CCLI Top 100.

There’s a particular name for Christians who inhabit these spaces. If we take seriously the diversity of Christ’s body worldwide, neither Christian nor Protestant are sufficiently specific labels to locate ourselves within Christianity’s varied landscape. At some point, it must be acknowledged that we inhabit a particular space called evangelicalism. My spiritual home was here before the Trump presidency began and I expect to continue living here long after it ends. Evangelical isn’t my political brand, but it’s my spiritual zip code, for better or worse. Evangelical isn’t my political brand, but it’s my spiritual zip code, for better or worse. Click To Tweet

Instead of a brand, consider what happens when we think of evangelicalism primarily as a shared space.

  • A brand is disposable and can be dropped at any time, but a shared space requires collective responsibility for its care.
  • A brand perpetuates the illusion of control for individual consumers—especially those with buying and selling power, but a shared space connects us with longtime neighbors and new arrivals to the area.
  • A brand can be monopolized by slogans and celebrity spokespeople (nearly always white men in evangelicalism’s case), but a shared space provides the context for reaching across differences and divisions.

If evangelicalism is just a brand, the individual religious consumer becomes its master. But if evangelicalism is a place where diverse Christians live, we have a collective responsibility to care for our home.

Owning Our Baggage and Creating a Preferable Future Together

Once we see evangelicalism as a dynamic space that is both shared and particular, we can begin to take ownership of our baggage as a movement. Rather than calling it someone else’s problem, we acknowledge our participation in what has gone wrong. Just as racial and gender privilege have facilitated the hijacking of evangelicalism’s brand, it takes a certain degree of religious privilege to opt for re-branding when our collective sins catch up with us. American evangelicals have a habit of parting ways and saying, “not us” when things go bad, but not every religious group has this option. When Catholics, Mormons and Muslims feel misunderstood by American society or dislike being stereotyped, can they expect a different label to increase their favorability ratings? Regardless of whether American evangelicals of privilege choose to drop the name or not, we remain complicit in the mess our people have made.

My fellow evangelicals, let’s stop trading particularity for privilege. That’s precisely how we got into this mess: by selling our spiritual identity to the highest bidder.

Instead of fantasizing that a new label will make our baggage disappear, what if we owned up to our checkered history and actively engaged the diversity already inhabiting evangelical spaces? What if we took responsibility for participating in a broader renewal movement as part of Christ’s global body, where each member belongs to all the others? (Rom. 12:5) Rather than taking our cues from those with sufficient privilege to define our brand, what would it look like to pursue an expanded awareness of our evangelical sisters and brothers across demographic divisions?

With all that has gone wrong with the evangelical label in our present times and context, I am sympathetic to calls for a new brand name. But until we agree on what that is, let’s admit we are not just a brand. We are also a space. You might be in it right now.

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