The Problem With Us Evangelicals Is We’re Just Too Liberal

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If there’s anything the election of Donald Trump has taught me it is this: We evangelicals have gone liberal and it’s taking us down a wrong path.

Let me explain.

The Word “Liberal”

Current American Politics

“Liberal” is a word that can mean many things. In everyday use, the word refers to the opposite of “conservative.” If Republicans are conservative, then Democrats must be liberal. To be conservative socially is to support traditional values and personal responsibility. To be liberal socially is to advocate for personal freedom, self-expression and personal flourishing on all social moral issues. Evangelicals tend to be conservatives in these ways.

Classical Liberalism

The more classical use of the word however, in the political tradition of John Locke, J.S. Mill, John Rawls, describes a brand of individualist politics. The goal of this kind of “liberal” is to order a society around the freedom of each to pursue his or her “life, liberty and happiness.” Achieving this goal, in essence, is what it means to “make America great again.”

In the crassest of terms, this version of political liberalism seeks a society that liberates each individual to do whatever he or she wants as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else.

Political liberalism seeks to liberates each individual as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody. Click To Tweet

Classical Liberalism and Individualistic Evangelicalism

It is this kind of liberalism, I contend, that runs deep (beneath the surface) in evangelicalism. After all, we are the religion of the individual. For us, it is of ultimate importance that each individual makes a personal decision to receive Jesus as Savior. Each Christian must have a personal relationship with Jesus. Church for evangelicals is a bunch of individuals gathering together to get pumped up to be better individual Christians.

This is our version of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. You could say then that evangelicals are the ultimate liberals in the classical sense of the word.

When Trump was elected with the help of 81% of white evangelicals who voted, I thought to myself, “Ah, here we go again, being good liberals.”

We believe the only way to defend our individual Christianity is to vote for a government that will protect us. No matter how disgusting of a misogynist, how overt a racist, or how oppressive of immigrant populations, Trump at least promises a government that protects “me” from all the social forces that might endanger my Christian existence in America. I will, therefore, vote for him! It’s about me pursuing my individual Christian life of happiness and flourishing. In other words, evangelicals are good liberals.

Because our Christianity is such an individual thing, we do not have confidence that God is working in the world. Neither do we see how the church is a way of living together that displays His Kingdom in society. We don’t see how the church lives under its political power, the reign of Jesus who is Lord and bringing in His Kingdom.

Because our Christianity is individualist, we don't have confidence God is working in the world. Click To Tweet

Evangelicals tend to shop around for the perfect church to meet our individual needs with just the right products for my private Christian flourishing. We have never believed the church could be an agent of change in society. Church is a Sunday morning supermarket that keeps us going for another week of good Christian living. Church is all about me and my family. In other words, we are good liberals.

Evangelicals have never believed the church could be an agent of change in society. Click To Tweet

When this life of ours is threatened, the only thing we have left to do is go out vote for someone to protect our rights and our values. This is why Trump’s pandering to racial fears and degrading treatment of women didn’t bother evangelicals. We are hoping that his government will protect us. In other words, we are good liberals.

All the best attempts by progressive evangelicals to persuade conservative evangelicals to not vote for Trump fall on deaf ears because it’s one version of liberalism against another version of the same. And arguing that Hillary provides for a more equitable inclusive liberalism (where more individuals get to pursue their personal flourishing in our country) doesn’t sell to people who are scared and angry at all the people who threaten their own personal flourishing.

The Upside of Being “Too Liberal”

But maybe there is an upside for us evangelicals who have been disgusted by Trump (and there are more than a few of us). Maybe our eyes have been opened to the bankruptcy of our own liberal-individualism? Perhaps we will now be forced to take the church more seriously now.

Maybe our eyes have been opened to the bankruptcy of our own liberal-individualism? Click To Tweet

Maybe church can now be less of a mall-like experience, and more of a place we gather to live a way of life that makes a difference in the world.

Maybe church can now be less of a place to learn about our beliefs and more of a place to practice those beliefs in the care of the poor, protection for the immigrants, reconciliation among minority groups.

Maybe we can give up being such good liberals and become present in the world with the good news that God is at work in Christ making all things right, reconciling the world to Himself, that Jesus is indeed Lord here and we have nothing to fear in the Kingdom of God.

Maybe we can give up being good liberals and become what I call his “Faithful Presence” ( see here ) in our neighborhoods.

What do you think? Is the election of Donald Trump a new moment for those of us evangelicals who reject Trump to reimagine church as a witness to God’s justice, reconciliation, and presence in the world?

Maybe we can give up being good liberals & become his 'Faithful Presence' in our neighborhoods. Click To Tweet
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9 responses to “The Problem With Us Evangelicals Is We’re Just Too Liberal

  1. I respond with a whole hearted “yes” to the last question, but still contend it’s best to abandon the “evangelical” label when attempting to do so. It has come to mean something radically different than what we WANT it to mean, at least to the watching world, and clinging to the label will – in my opinion – only make it more difficult for us to gain an audience with many we might otherwise be able to build relationship with. We’re under no obligation to defend, uphold, or rebrand the “evangelical” label. Faithful followers of Jesus throughout history have effectively spread the good news of Jesus without it, and still are, of course…

  2. Dr. Fitch, one more excellent post! Hauerwas has called the whole U.S. religious culture liberal and named its bankruptcy in the same way Barth and company did in Germany (Barth with the publication of Romans).

  3. I am pretty sure you are not grasping what it really means to be a Liberal in the context that you are attempting to use it. Liberal is not about what is in it for my individual needs. When you talk about Liberalism being about individual freedom and, as you put it, “individual to do whatever he or she wants as long as it doesn’t hurt anybody else” you completely miss the point. Liberalism isn’t about fighting for my preferred and beneficial version of individual freedom. Rather it is about fighting for EVERYONE’S individual freedoms and rights. There are two actual definitions that come into play here. The first is that as a Liberal I am more likely to take a favorable attitude to or respectful of individual rights and freedoms. Not just my individual rights and freedoms, but yours as well. I am more likely to fight for the rights of an individual to make their own choices and to follow their own path rather than forcing them to follow my beliefs or make the choices I believe are better. I believe this is much more in line socially with the teachings of Christ who never said his followers should force people to be saved or force them to accept God. In fact he specifically states that to be saved you have to come to him, not have him forced on you.

    In the mean time the other version of this that you are trying to blend together with the social aspects of it are the political context of Liberalism. While being a social Liberal means I seek to provide people individual freedoms and rights, being a political Liberal means I am in support of social reform being supported by and yes even in some cases driven by government. I believe Government doesn’t have the power to tell people what to think or what they can and cannot say. But at the same time I think the government has a responsibility to protect individual rights and make sure that one group does not have to pay an unfair price because of another group. I also believe religion and government are 1) not the same thing and 2) have no business coming together in any way, shape, or form.

    There is absolutely nothing “Liberal” about voting for a candidate who has no respect for individual freedoms or individuals that are not the same, think the same, and believe the same as he does. The Liberal Christians did not vote for Trump. The single issue Conservative Christians who finally see a candidate that will do all the things they want to force their beliefs down other’s throats voted for him. You can’t by any stretch of the imagination call someone who voted for that candidate who through his entire campaign spoke against individual freedom and rights for anyone other that white America a “Liberal”, and I would argue you can’t call them a Christian either.

    “Making America great again” was never about individual freedom, unless you are white.


    1. Yes! Thankyou Andy Atencio
      A more helpful label for the debate is Libertarian…
      Also, lots of people didn’t vote For Trump – they voted against Hillary and against the system. Trump was simply the beneficiary of those voting against “more of the same”.

  4. Honestly, I’m not sure I care who voted for Trump or why they did. I care about what they’re doing now. Are we all still paying attention? No matter how we voted, are we all in agreement that racism is a bad thing? Can we translate that into calling our congressmen/women to say it distresses us to see Steve Bannon in a White House office? Can we let our senators and representatives know that it is BIG concern to us that the man who will be nominated to be the Attorney General thinks the Voting Rights Act of 1965 (the one Martin Luther King fought so hard for) was “too intrusive.”
    I’m sure a little navel gazing and word parsing is in order, but meanwhile, stuff is happening. Your local mosque probably received some hate mail in the recent past, perhaps worse. Has your congregation sent them a letter saying, “Hey, we’re concerned about you, why don’t you come over for coffee sometime?”
    I could go on, but if evangelical Christians would pay attention and express concern, perhaps about the fact that Congress can’t exercise oversight if it doesn’t know the President’s financial holdings and debts — then maybe it can still stand for those things it says it believes.

    1. Lol, Congress’ oversight has nothing to do with Trumps finances. There is a concept of SEPARATION of Powers that are supposed to be upheld by the Constitution. Currently, Congress is a vile and corrupt self-serving monster.
      But if you want to talk about what has happened since the election, maybe you would like to comment on all the protest riots by the precious people who didn’t like the democratic result?

  5. Thank you! so much for this insight. I’ve been thinking a lot about the reasons evangelicals (particularly white) do the things they do… This is at least one of them. My feeling, welling from the depths is that evangelicalism (of which I am a part of) and particularly the white, american, often suburban/rural part, has deep-seated theological/philosophical reasons that drive their political/cultural choices. I’ve been trying to discern these; write them down; ponder them; compare them to Scripture. I also believe many don’t comprehend these reasons within themselves… they assume it’s Biblical… they assume it’s “conservative”… they assume it’s the way Christians have always acted throughout church history…they assume it’s God’s way… IMO they’re terribly wrong on all of those counts and because of that they have little, if any Light to shine in this world. They are completely taken over by the kingdom-of-this-world “classical liberalism” you speak of and don’t know it…

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