Evangelical Christianity in the US

The election of Donald Trump has divided America and highlighted the link between Evangelical Christianity (and Fundamentalism) and American politics.
But what is Evangelical Christianity? Who are these Christians? What do they have in common and how are they different from each other, and from other Christians? What place Fundamentalism?

How do we explain what is going on to a British Audience?

I recently offered to give a talk to a U3A (University of the Third Age) class that I was attending entitled Evangelical Christianity in the US. I knew this was a very big subject but I planned to talk (as someone who had never been in a leadership role) primarily about my own experiences of both evangelicalism and fundamentalism after being almost ‘forced’ to examine the American Evangelical church scene in 1995 when the leadership of the Sabbath-keeping church we were attending announced that much of their theology was misguided. It wasn’t long before the church leaders were welcomed with almost open arms by members of the National Association of Evangelicals. I was immediately faced with a problem. One of the statements of faith of that association is:

  • We believe in the resurrection of both the saved and the lost; they that are saved unto the resurrection of life and they that are lost unto the resurrection of damnation.

As a former Anglican (who had never had any formal theological training) I had been taught that the first eleven chapters of Genesis were myth and symbolism (as described by both C S Lewis and J R R Tolkein). I had never accepted what seems to be a traditional teaching of a literal hell, and neither did the church we were attending (they even had a booklet entitled, “This is not the only day of Salvation”). I just knew that something wasn’t right! That was when I started to explore the whole Christian scene in America – the beginning of what I often refer to as a second wilderness experience!

By 2003 I was very involved with the emerging / emergent house church scene (both in America and the UK) – often referred to at that time as the ‘Out of Church Christians’. I was sharing stories and listening to teachings on the web by numerous leaders and former leaders who were no longer attending church. It was about this time that I found the initial chapters of “So you don’t want to go to church anymore” that was then being written and posted on the web by Wayne Jacobsen and Dave Coleman.

I had known about the forthcoming publication of “The Shack” and had read it when it was produced privately in 2007. By this time I sensed that I had quite a good idea of why people believed what they believe, often as a result of divisive, denominational theology. I read many of the reviews when the book was finally published in 2008, and these just highlighted some of the differences between Christianity as practised in America and the way it is practised in Britain and Europe. As I am writing this the film has recently been released and the same arguments, both for and against, are again being aired!

I have effectively been retired for over 20 years and appreciated following on Facebook a lot of the ‘sparring’ in the US Primaries – noticing especially the enormous support for Bernie Sanders that was not reported by the press along with the sheer frustration of many ‘middle of the road’ Christians and others who just didn’t support either of the other two candidates.

As an outsider two things in particular struck me. There seems to be no way that any third party candidates can get a fair hearing – and the time and money spent on the whole election procedure.

The election of Donald Trump has divided America and horrified many others around the world. It has highlighted the link between Evangelical Christianity and American politics and raised questions about the place of White Supremacists.

How was I going to explain some of this in simple terms to a British audience?

While I was preparing material for my talk I came across an article explaining the difference between Evangelicals and Mainline Christians written in 2004. Looking back that just about sums up my understanding of the American Christian scene at that time – and makes a good starting point for some of the things I wanted to talk about.

It was suggested at that time that membership of evangelical churches had been increasing while mainline denominations were, at best, just holding steady.

I always like to use bullet points:

  • Evangelicals have a clearer set of beliefs that distinguish them from mainline Protestants.

  • The term evangelical refers to the good news of Jesus Christ — that Jesus came to save humanity.

  • There are four cardinal beliefs that evangelicals tend to hold, at least officially.

  • One belief is that the Bible is inerrant. It was without error in all of its claims about the nature of the world and the nature of God.

  • A second belief is that the only way to salvation is through belief in Jesus Christ.

  • A third belief is the idea that individuals must accept salvation for themselves. They must become converted. Sometimes that is referred to as a born-again experience.

  • The fourth cardinal belief of evangelicals is the need to proselytize, or in their case, to spread the evangel, to evangelize.

  • Mainline Protestants have a different perspective. They have a more modernist theology. So, for instance, they would read the Bible, not as the inerrant word of God, but as a historical document, which has God’s word in it and a lot of very important truths, but that needs to be interpreted in every age by individuals of that time and that place.

  • There is a belief that Jesus is the way to salvation, but many mainline Protestants would believe that perhaps there are other ways to salvation as well. People in other religious traditions, even outside of Christianity, may have access to God’s grace and to salvation as well, on their own terms, and through their own means.

  • Mainline Protestants are much less concerned with personal conversion. Although they do talk about spiritual transformation, they’ll often discuss a spiritual journey from one’s youth to old age, leading on into eternity. So there is a sense of transformation, but there isn’t that emphasis on conversion — on that one moment or series of moments in which one’s life is dramatically changed.

  • Mainline Protestants believe in sharing their beliefs with others, but not for the purposes of conversion necessarily. The idea of spreading the word in the mainline tradition is much broader than simply preaching the good news. It also involves economic development. It involves personal assistance, charity, a whole number of other activities.

  • But on many points, evangelicals and mainliners are often hard to tell apart. There are liberal evangelicals and there are those in the mainline churches who have a more traditional, or conservative perspective.

  • The two communities are not as completely distinct as some might argue. But there are clear distinctions at the core of each tradition, which allows us to recognize them as different approaches to Protestantism (that had originally developed as a reaction to Catholicism).

  • Mainline churches are traditional. They are less entrepreneurial, less flexible in relationship to cultural issues, and have, for reasons of belief and practice and organization, not fared nearly as well in the postwar world as have more self-consciously, self-identified evangelical churches.

  • For Evangelicals the Bible is objectively, authoritatively the word of God. That’s what distinguishes evangelicals from, say, mainline Protestants.

  • People wondered, why conservative churches were growing. One suggestion was that they offer moral certitudes in a world without any certainties. They offer moral absolutes to people who are looking for moral guidance, and a way to live in a crazy, mixed up world. Then they combine it with contemporary music and worship. It’s appealing, and they were growing.

  • There was a suggestion at that time that a mega-church formed every two weeks in America. Meanwhile, mainline Protestantism was dying.

Reflections on recent developments in the US:
An Australian blogger (who gave up calling himself an Evangelical a decade ago) was visiting America at the time of the election and summed it up like this:
There are reports of white supremacists attacking, verbally or physically, people who belong to minorities such as blacks, Muslims and Latinos. Right wing Christians are expressing relief that Hilary Clinton, who they vehemently oppose because she is seen to be pro abortion, pro gay marriage, pro political correctness, anti freedom of religion, and dishonest, didn’t get elected.
Meanwhile the people he was with had the opposite reaction. They were shocked by Trump’s victory, critical of his many obvious flaws and failures, concerned for the safety and well-being of people from minorities, including women, and feeling let down by the right wing Christians overwhelmingly voting for Trump.

He went on to say that the nation is divided and so is the Christian church. He suggested that in the US Evangelicalism is identified by many with political and social conservatism – opposed to abortion, gay marriage, climate science, the equality of women, strongly patriotic and sometimes anti-Muslim.

He goes on to refer to a small but growing number of more progressive Christians who think pro-life should mean anti-war and pro social equality and better social services, who think women and the LGBT community should be treated equally with white straight males, and who are deeply concerned about the environment, especially climate change – basing their ideas, like the Anabaptists, on the teachings of Jesus.

Then he wondered if there will be yet another split. Many of these progressive Christians have seen themselves as evangelical, but the polarisation which has become clear through this election is now making that identification problematic.

My own experience suggests that the majority of those who have been drawn away from churches that they may have attended for many years have come to see that so much of Evangelical teaching leads to fear, guilt and shame. They are often very reluctant to describe themselves as Christians because of what that means to so many people (especially those who simply rejected Christianity without considering any alternative views).

Shane Claiborne is one of those very active Christians who is struggling with this question. In a blog post early in November entitled “A New Home for Homeless Christians” he suggested that trying to mix Christianity with a political party can be sort of like mixing ice cream with horse manure. It might not harm the manure, but it sure messes up the ice cream.
As he says, many today see evangelicals as anti-women, anti-gay, anti-environment, anti immigrant, and champions of guns and war. He suggests that most of what has come to characterise evangelicalism is in direct conflict with the core values and teachings of Christ. Why have so many white evangelicals supported a candidate who rejects many of the core values of evangelicalism, including fidelity, faithful stewardship and others?

Shane talks about a new generation of Christians – whether they want to be called evangelical or not – who love Jesus and care about justice. They care about life, the earth, the poor, the refugees and immigrants. For them, a consistent ethic of life shapes the way they think about war and militarism, gun violence and police brutality, the death penalty and mass incarceration. For them, being pro-life isn’t anything about anti-anything; it is about pro-life!

Shane then suggests that it’s time to reclaim our unique identity as followers of Jesus. It’s time to recommit ourselves to the ones Jesus named as particularly blessed in his Sermon on the Mount: the poor, the meek, the merciful, those who mourn, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. According to Jesus, our Father blesses the very antithesis of many of the things America has come to stand for: prosperity, pride, and power. The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures would undoubtedly name what we have become as “idolatry.” We’ve made idols out of wealth, fame, power, and whiteness—and the phenomenon of Donald Trump is a natural outgrowth of that idolatry.

Then Shane ends with this:
While this awakening to the real Jesus feels new to many, our revival – in which we must be born again – has been a long time coming. Over 160 years ago Frederick Douglas observed:
Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognise the widest possible difference – so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure and holy is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt and wicked . . . I love the pure, peaceable and impartial Christianity of Christ; I hate the corrupt, slave-holding, women-whipping, cradle plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land. Indeed I can see no reason, but the most deceitful one, for calling the religion of this land Christian.

At this point I’ve painted a picture of Christianity in America tearing itself apart. How did this happen? What follows is part of what the Encyclopaedia Britannica has to say about the origins of Christian Fundamentalism:

A movement in American Protestantism that arose in the late 19th century in reaction to theological modernism, which aimed to revise traditional Christian beliefs to accommodate new developments in the natural and social sciences, especially the theory of biological evolution.

Social scientists and philosophers influenced by Herbert Spencer (1820–1903) advocated a parallel theory of progressive social evolution that refuted the traditional religious understanding of human sin, which was predicated on the notion that, after the fall from grace, the human condition was corrupt beyond repair. Meanwhile, some ministers in various denominations ceased to emphasize the conversion of individuals to the religious life and instead propounded a social gospel that viewed progressive social change as a means of building the kingdom of God on Earth.

A more direct challenge to traditional Christianity came from scholars who adopted a critical and historical approach to studying and interpreting the Bible. This perspective, known as modernism, treated the books of the Bible—especially the first five (the Pentateuch)—not as simple documents written by a single author but as complex texts constructed by multiple authors from several older sources. Although modernism offered a solution to many problems posed by seemingly contradictory biblical passages, it also raised severe doubts about the historical accuracy of the biblical text, leading scholars to revise the traditional history of the biblical era and to reconsider the nature of biblical authority.

The issue of biblical authority was crucial to American Protestantism, which had inherited the fundamental doctrine of sola Scriptura (Latin: “Scripture alone”) as enunciated by Martin Luther (1483–1546) and other 16th-century reformers. Thus, any challenge to scriptural integrity had the potential to undermine Christianity as they understood and practised it.

What sets Evangelicals apart from Fundamentalists? Here are two comments:

  • I believe in the Virgin Birth of Christ, which makes me a fundamentalist in the eyes of some people, but I take an occasional glass of wine and don’t worry about evolution, which means that, for many people, I can’t be a fundamentalist”.

  • Fundamentalists generally believe that culture is evil and corrosive. Their views usually result in isolation from the culture and/or bigotry. Evangelicals believe the culture is redeemable and can and should be impacted by Christians”.

Who came first, Evangelicals or Fundamentalists?
In 1910 the Presbyterian General Assembly declared that all ministerial candidates had to subscribe to five fundamental doctrines, the inspiration and inerrancy of the Bible, the Virgin Birth of Christ, the substitutionary atonement of Christ, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and the historicity of the biblical miracles.

For the next decades a battle ensued in nearly every mainline Protestant body between fundamentalists and those who wanted to remain tolerant and open-minded in response to modern learning. The Fundamentalists appeared to have lost BUT . . . what happens next?

I had been aware that Trump’s selection of Mike Pence was seen by many as a master stroke that would turn the election in his favour, especially when Ted Cruz withdrew from the race and supported Pence.

What changes are we going to see over the next few years and why?

***

I had set out to explain something about the American Christian scene in simple terms. In the process I had been learning more about the underlying complexities.

My Australian friend had referred to white supremacists. I had had first hand experience of this in 1955 when I was 20 while in the Royal Air Force. I was stationed alongside USAF Mildenhall in Suffolk and regularly played Table Tennis in the PX. I worked shifts and particularly enjoyed playing with two men – one Black and the other White. On one occasion I was playing with the Black when the White came in and saw me. He turned his back on me and never spoke to me again.

I am well aware that almost all articles on the web are biased. While researching for my talk I came across these:

I wonder how objective these are!