Is Trump the End of Evangelicalism?

How often does a doctor visit a family reunion to be accosted by relatives with erroneous self-diagnoses and misapplied remedies? This doctor then futilely attempts to correct the improper use of various medical terms. Perhaps after a while he just gives up and stops pointing out the errors?

The announcement of Trump’s new “Evangelical Executive Advisory Board” is a similar situation. ‘Evangelical’ is not the right word. And if it is, is this the end of evangelicalism?

The interest surrounding Trump’s new advisory board should not be around why Trump is making one (of course he did, he needs money, more megaphones, and every Republican has always pandered to evangelicals). And the news is not really who is on this list (televangelists, mega-church pastors, and denominational leaders, who are mostly very conservative white men). Rather our interest centers on the fact that this collection of people is thought to be advisors regarding a group known as “evangelicals”.

Outside of academic halls, where people attempt to maintain the proper usage of words like “evangelical”, the fact is that words mean what they mean because of how people use them. And Trump’s campaign is using ‘evangelical’ exactly like the mainstream media: to indicate predominately white conservative Christians.

But the easy equation of ‘evangelical’ with religiously and politically conservative Christianity (near fundamentalism) is neither true to past or present circumstances. So, while this might seem like shouting in the wind or a struggle against inevitability, with Inigo Montoya, I would like to say, “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” With Inigo Montoya, I say, I do not think that evangelicalism means what you think it means Click To Tweet

Classical Evangelicalism

The misunderstanding comes from thinking of contemporary evangelicals as the nicer children of 20th century American fundamentalism. These evangelicals, it is thought, reacted against the abrasiveness of their parents, became more friendly and culturally aware, but essentially hold all the same values and stances. In reality, however, evangelicalism predated fundamentalism by 200 years (beginning roughly with the First Great Awakening and persisting up to the Azusa Street Revivals).

This older or “classical” evangelicalism was, according to historian Douglas Sweeney, Protestantism with a revivalist twist. This revivalist twist included social reform. It could be said the evangelical consensus within the First Great Awakening was conservative theologically in seeking revival of the soul but compassionate politically in seeking reform in the city.

This unity of personal piety and social justice were hallmarks of John Wesley in the First Great Awakening and Charles Finney of the Second (and these were the norm, not the exception). Especially during the Second Great Awakening, predominantly Wesleyan-Holiness revivalists worked toward the abolition of slavery, the equality of women, workers right and prison reform.

George Marsden, distinguished historian of evangelicalism and fundamentalism, notes that while classical evangelicals “were dedicated first to saving souls…their record of Christian social service, in an era when social reform was not popular, was as impressive as that of almost any group in the country.” A classical evangelical, then, would not be scandalized by a seamless union of prophetic social reform and spiritual revival.

But the rise of American fundamentalism spelled the ruin of the broad evangelical consensus of revival and reform. As Marsden notes, the union of revival and reform would not survive the rise of fundamentalism and the ‘Great Reversal’ which “took place from about 1900 to 1930, when all progressive social concern, whether political or private, became suspect among revivalist evangelicals and was relegated to a very minor role.”

(For more of this history, see The Scandal of the Evangelical Memory, part, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5)

Re-alignment of Theology and Politics

The loss of this evangelical consensus created an unfortunate realignment of theology and politics. After the Modernist Controversy where the fundamentalist and liberal parted ways, conservative theology was aligned with conservative politics, and liberal theology was aligned with progressive politics.

This re-alignment has been the lasting influence of fundamentalism on the broader strand of American evangelicalism. Because of it, we lost a more compassionate political orientation and the true sense of the word evangelical was exchanged for a derogatory word.

Now politicians, media outlets, and causal observers use “evangelical” to refer to those who are better understood as fundamentalists, obscuring the fact that there is no true evangelical vote.

So, is this the end of evangelicalism, brought to infamy through a 100-year detour in fundamentalism?

The End of Evangelicalism?

Perhaps we should abandon the term to history.

But we can’t make sense of the world outside of the language use. If we abandon the term then we would need to come up with another one. Otherwise we would miss the reality of a Moral Minority always attempting to counteract the Moral Majority. We would miss the re-emergence of those committed both to revival and reform (even if they do not exactly speak that way at Missio Alliance, InterVarsity, Evangelicals for Social Action, and Sojourners). We would miss those who embrace a conservative orthodoxy and compassionate politics. We would continue to see the landscape in the binary that religious conservatives are political conservatives and religious progressives are political progressive. Perhaps we should abandon the term 'evangelicalism' to history. Click To Tweet

But the linking of conservative theology and conservative politics is a mark of the old fundamentalists. Perhaps Trump’s new advisory board is the end of the Religious Right.

And if so, perhaps this is the beginning of a renewed evangelicalism, beyond right or left.

(The title question is inspired by David Fitch’s The End of Evangelicalism? Discerning a New Faithfulness for Mission)