The Economist explains
EVANGELICAL CHRISTIANS have long been involved in American politics, but they gained national prominence in 1976. Newsweek declared it “the year of the evangelical” in a cover story; the group threw their support behind the conspicuously pious, Democratic candidate, Jimmy Carter, who described himself as a “born-again Christian” and was then the governor of Georgia. Four years later, evangelicals switched parties to back his Republican opponent, Ronald Reagan, preferring the former governor of California’s political conservatism to Mr Carter’s religious bona fides. Since then, white evangelicals have established themselves as America’s most cohesive and influential religious voting bloc. While mainline Protestant denominations have declined in both influence and numbers, and Catholics have split their vote between the two parties, white evangelicals have become the bedrock of the Republican Party. After insisting throughout the 1990s that character mattered, and that Bill Clinton was morally unfit for the presidency, they threw their support behind Donald Trump, a thrice-married rake. So what do evangelical Christians really believe?
That question has been debated for decades. According to David Bebbington, a British historian, an evangelical Christian believes in four essential doctrines: to be saved a person must have a “born again” conversion experience—hence evangelicals are also known as “born-again Christians”; Jesus’s death on the cross atones for mankind’s sins; the Bible is the ultimate spiritual authority; and Christians ought to actively share their faith through witnessing and good works. Mr Bebbington’s definition, which he codified in the late 1980s, is perhaps the most widely accepted among evangelicals.
But George Marsden, a historian of American Christianity, once quipped that an evangelical was “someone who likes Billy Graham”, perhaps the 20th century’s most renowned Christian preacher. Asked the same thing, Graham said, “Actually, that’s a question I’d like to ask somebody, too.” One reason why even Graham struggled to define evangelicalism is its decentralised structure. Unlike Catholics, evangelicals do not have a pope. They can belong to almost any denomination. What unites them is a shared theology of salvation through faith in Christ alone (their name comes from the Greek word “euangelion”, which means good news or gospel). Doctrinal beliefs can range widely depending on how they interpret Scripture.
Not all of them are politically conservative. According to the Centre for the Study of Global Christianity at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, there are almost 400m evangelicals worldwide. In Latin America, evangelicals have championed progressive political agendas that tackle issues such as poverty. In a 2020 Gallup poll, 34% of American respondents described themselves as “born-again or evangelical”. About one in four American evangelicals is non-white, and they are more likely to vote for Democrats than Republicans. But an overwhelming majority of white evangelicals lean right (about 80% voted for Donald Trump in 2016 and 2020).
Some argue that what used to be a theological term has now become a sociological and political one. “When we look at people who call themselves evangelical, they look really different from people who go to what we would call an evangelical church,” says Brooke Hempell, head of research at Barna Group, a Christian polling firm. According to an analysis from Ryan Burge, who teaches political science at Eastern Illinois University, over one-third of self-identified evangelicals who lean conservative attend church just once a year at most. Even some Catholics have adopted the label because to them it connotes religious devotion and political conservatism.
This definitional shift is opening a rift within the movement. Some evangelicals, such as Ed Stetzer, a dean at Wheaton College, believe that evangelicals need to get back to their theological roots, and not let their politics define them. “Evangelicals rightfully need to ask, ‘Who are we?’ and ‘Who do we want to be?’” Young evangelicals, who increasingly identify as liberal and look more favourably at issues such as same-sex marriage, immigration and climate change, eschew the label because of its association with militant, right-wing politics. White evangelicals also are becoming a smaller proportion of the national total, as the share of non-white Americans grows. But the movement has become so intimately entangled with Mr Trump and the Republican Party that reclaiming evangelicalism as a religious identity rather than a political one will not be easy. “I think the term itself—evangelical—is going to be very hard…to be redeemed at this point,” says Ms Hempell.