Evangelical Christians are conservatives—culturally, economically and theologically. Sometimes the term “evangelical” is loosely used to differentiate Protestant conservatism from Protestant liberalism, but evangelical Christianity has specific characteristics that set it apart in the Christian community.
five core beliefs
- A strong belief in the Bible as the authoritative and infallible word of God
- A belief is that the only way to salvation is through Jesus Christ
- A personal conversion experience—being “born again”
- A personal relationship with Jesus Christ
- A willingness to tell other people about the message of salvation in Jesus Christ
a significant portion of the population
Some experts say that about 100 million people (about 33% of the American population) identify themselves as evangelical or “born-again” Christians, although others place the number at closer to 40 million (14%). Determining the precise borders of the evangelical world is difficult. Often Christians in every denomination describe their faith in some classic evangelical terms—as having a personal relationship with Jesus Christ or having a spiritual rebirth experience. Hence, the “experts” wide variation.
However, the broad perception of American Christianity is that the evangelical viewpoint is dominant. If you watch the Fox news channel on a regular basis, you would believe that James Dobson, Pat Robertson, and Jerry Falwell represent mainstream American Christianity. But even on more balanced and trustworthy news outlets, it seems that evangelicals are all-too-often recognized as the definitive voice of the church.
Even if evangelicals are not a majority of the American population, polls suggest that a majority of Christians who regularly attend and participate in the life of local churches are evangelical in belief and behavior. (But once again, the pollster’s definitions and categories are somewhat fuzzy.)
Research also suggests that frequency of church attendance is related to how Americans vote in presidential elections. It is a much better predictor of voting behavior than most other demographic factors, including age and income, or even union membership. Here the pollsters may be correct. Evangelicals vote overwhelmingly Republican. In fact, evangelicals now comprise more than half of all Republicans.
Moreover, evangelicals—namely, the largely suburban and politically conservative white Americans who dominate this category—enjoy an unprecedented level of influence in politics and culture. During the George W. bush era, administration officials, members of Congress and elected officials across the country openly identified with the evangelical wing of Christianity.
early social engagement
Church historians trace the roots of evangelicalism to the colonial period and the First Great Awakening, whose leading figures set a revivalist tone that would characterize this movement up to the present day. Throughout the nineteenth century—even as mainline Protestantism held the dominant position in society, politics and culture—evangelicalism remained a vital part of the American religious landscape, sparking periodic spiritual “awakenings” and helping to fuel social movements such as abolitionism, prison reform, and the temperance movement.
One of the chief characteristics of evangelicals has been their anti-intellectualism—a sentiment of mistrust towards intellectuals and intellectual pursuits. This may be expressed in various ways, such as an attack on the merits of science, education, or literature. Anti-intellectuals often seek to frame themselves as champions of the “ordinary people” against those they view as cultural elites.
Evangelical thought arose from early nineteenth century American values. Those values included revivalism, individualism, political republicanism, economic free enterprise, and patriotic nationalism. These were the values of the American frontier. They stood in opposition to those of the effete Eastern establishment. Anti-intellectualism was a major cultural force as America expanded West.
Baynard R. Hall, wrote in 1843 of frontier Indiana:
“We always preferred an ignorant bad man to a talented one, and hence attempts were usually made to ruin the moral character of a smart candidate; since unhappily smartness and wickedness were supposed to be generally coupled, and incompetence and goodness.”
Anti-intellectualism is still alive and well among the American electorate. Both Al Gore and John Kerry were rejected by a substantial number of evangelical voters as stiff and intellectual candidates. More preferred was the rather folksy, inarticulate, simple-minded style of George W. Bush who was viewed by many as “a guy you could sit down and have a beer with.” (Of course Karl Rove’s wedge issues of abortion and gay marriage also influenced their vote.)
Someone once quipped that an evangelical could be defined as someone who says to a liberal, “I’ll call you a Christian if you’ll call me a scholar.”
the scandal of the evangelical mind
In a book titled The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, Wheaton College historian Mark Noll says, “The scandal of the evangelical mind is that there is not much of an evangelical mind.” Evangelicals are simply not noted for critical thinking, because it is seen by them as a detriment to their faith.
According to Noll, evangelical thinking suffered additional damage from the “disaster of fundamentalism.” In its holiness/pentecostal form, fundamentalism encouraged morbid inwardness; in its dispensationalist form, it fostered wooden literalism and an unhealthy preoccupation with predicting the future. (See fundamentalist Christianity.)
clinging to a pre-modern worldview
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the pre-modern worldview of the evangelicals came into increasing conflict with modern secular thought. Reaction to perceived threats by liberal scholars, who began to critically examine the myths and miracles of the Bible, led to the reactionary position of Christian fundamentalism which sprung from the fertile roots of the evangelical movement.
The clash between the theory of evolution and a literal acceptance of the creation accounts in Genesis brought the conflict to a head. The 1925 Scopes “Monkey Trial” in Dayton, Tennessee was a public battle between these two contrasting positions, with Clarence Darrow (on the left) representing modern secularism and William Jennings Bryan (on the right) representing evangelical fundamentalism. In the play and film Inherit the Wind we see the lop-sided interchange between Darrow who questioned Bryan on the stand. Bryan sought to defend fundamentalism and literal creationism, and failed miserably. After the trial, evangelicals and fundamentalists, who were embarrassed by nationwide ridicule and negative publicity, began a period of relative seclusion that lasted for several decades.
coming out of isolation
But in the 1940s and ’50s, the evangelical isolation began to change. Evangelists such as Billy Graham brought evangelicalism back to prominence and was viewed with new respectability by the mainstream Christian denominations that most evangelicals had previously shunned. Graham preached a simple message: come to Jesus, let him into your heart, confess your sins, and be saved. (George W. Bush credited Billy Graham for saving his life from alcohol, cocaine and an aimless drift.)
This re-emergence in the fifties and sixties proved to be a decisive break between the evangelicals and the fundamentalists, who condemned Billy Graham for his tolerance, openness, and acceptance—which are well-known liberal traits. Not only are these traits liberal, but they are part of a form of Christianity going back to the earliest days of the faith. Jesus and his followers were known for their acceptance, compassion and reconciliation. That is what drew people to the Christian movement. The early churches were communities of compassion. Fundamentalist churches, however, have become places of judgment and condemnation.
Today, most evangelicals are not fundamentalist. They find themselves in a strange middle ground. Liberals often lump them with the fundamentalists, while fundamentalists see them as far too liberal. Still, their political and social conservatism has placed them firmly in the camp of the Religious Right worldview.
moral ethics: anti-sex and pro-violence
The event that really galvanized the evangelical movement in the United States was Roe v. Wade, the 1973 Supreme Court ruling that legalized abortion. On top of an earlier court decision to limit prayers in schools, evangelicals now decided that political action was a necessary option in their pursuit of a “Christian nation” dedicated to Christian principles.
In 1979, the rallying cry was put forth by a new political action committee—the Moral Majority. Founded by Jerry Falwell, the organization brought together evangelicals and Roman Catholics for the first time in a new political alliance. Its agenda was pro-life and pro-traditional family. It was against pornography, drugs and gays, but also against the Equal Rights Amendment for women. In addition, the group supported a strong national defense and a pro-Israel foreign policy in the Middle East.
Increasingly, the evangelical movement has almost exclusively focused on sexual morality, usually centered on the hot button issues of abortion and same-sex marriage. Conservative columnist Cal Thomas, who once served as Jerry Falwell’s spokesman, said, “What are Christians known for? We’re against abortion, against same-sex marriage. But what are we for?” (It’s telling that Thomas sees those who oppose abortion and same-sex marriage as the only legitimate Christians.)
Conservatives generally oppose abortion in every situation including pregnancy as a result of rape and incest, and even in situations where the mother’s life is threatened. They claim to be pro-life, but they are really only anti-abortion. Many of those who claim to be pro-life see nothing wrong with militarism, war, and capital punishment.
This leads to speculation of what consistent governing principle, if any, is behind their pro-life morality. If it is the commandment “You shall not kill,” it seems to be inconsistently applied.
sex vs. social justice
Thomas Merton once observed that conservatives focus on issues of the “flesh” while liberals focus on issues of the “world.” Conservative Christians seem to believe that sexual behavior is the central focus of the moral and ethical revelation of God in the Bible. As any knowlegable biblical reader knows, it is not. The essence of the Bible is not about personal sexual behavior, it is about social justice, specifically economic justice.
God’s special concern in the Bible is on how a society cares for the poor in its midst. Justice and injustice in the Bible are about human systems—laws, economic systems, structural practices, conventional norms and attitudes—and how they impact human lives.
The biblical call to justice flows through the entire Bible. In the Hebrew Bible we find it in the law (including the Covenant Code in Exodus, the Holiness Code in Leviticus, and the Deuteronomic Code in Deuteronomy); in the wisdom literature, including the Psalms and Proverbs; and in the prophets. It flows through the New Testament, in the gospels, the epistles, and life of the early church as recorded in Acts.
For the biblical writers, the just society is the society in which the weak and voiceless ones have been brought into the community so as to enjoy its goods. The contour of biblical justice is providing the poor with access to the means of life.
Some evangelical voices recognize the centrality of justice in the Bible and are calling conservative Christians to another path. But they represent a minority voice.
anti-gay, anti-poor, anti-environment
Tony Campolo is an evangelical pastor, speaker, author, and professor of sociology. He was named by Christianity Today magazine as one of the 25 most influential preachers of the last fifty years. In his book, Letters to a Young Evangelical, Campolo called on evangelicals of all ages to reject the false pieties of the Religious Right. During a 2006 interview with Publishers Weekly, Campolo said:
“Evangelicalism is in a precarious position. On the one hand, it is doctrinally strong… On the other hand, over the last couple of decades, evangelicalism has been seduced into the politics of the Religious Right. It’s anti-gay, anti-poor, and anti-environment. Young evangelicals need to know that this is not the only way, and that there is a positive way to live out faith that addresses the needs of the poor and the environment and that is compassionate to gays.
“We are advocating an evangelicalism marked by compassion and justice, and one that shies away from legalism and political fascism. We want to transcend fascism on the Left and the Right, and mentor evangelicals who think deeply, pray intensely and act compassionately.”
pro-rich, pro-war, pro-American
Jim Wallis is an evangelical pastor committed to the social justice inspired by Jesus. He is the is the editor of Sojourners magazine, the author of God’s Politics: Why the Right Gets It Wrong and the Left Doesn’t Get It, and the founder of Call to Renewal, a faith-based movement to overcome poverty.
He commented on the hijacking of Christianity by the evangelicals of the Religious Right in the pages of Sojourners magazine:
“Many of us feel that our faith has been stolen, and it’s time to take it back. An enormous public misrepresentation of Christianity has taken place. Many people around the world now think Christian faith stands for political commitments that are almost the opposite of its true meaning. How did the faith of Jesus come to be known as pro-rich, pro-war, and pro-American? And how do we get back to a historic, biblical, and genuinely evangelical faith rescued from its contemporary distortions?
“That rescue operation is even more crucial today, in the face of a social crisis that cries out for prophetic religion. The problem is clear in the political arena, where strident voices claim to represent Christians, when they clearly don’t speak for most of us. We hear politicians who love to say how religious they are but utterly fail to apply the values of faith to their public leadership and political policies. It’s time to take back our faith in the public square, especially in a time when a more authentic social witness is desperately needed.
“When we do, we discover that faith challenges the powers that be to do justice for the poor, instead of preaching a “prosperity gospel” and supporting politicians that further enrich the wealthy. We remember that faith hates violence and tries to reduce it, and exerts a fundamental presumption against war, instead of justifying it in God’s name. We see that faith creates community from racial, class, and gender divisions and prefers international community over nationalist religion, and we see that “God bless America” is found nowhere in the Bible. And we are reminded that faith regards matters such as the sacredness of life and family bonds as so important that they should never be used as ideological symbols or mere political pawns in partisan warfare.”
red letter Christians
Jim Wallis, Tony Campolo, and many other progressive Christians—including Brian McLaren and Ron Sider—have formed a group called “Red Letter Christians.” The name was created when Jim Wallis was interviewed by a self-styled “secular Jewish country music songwriter and disk jockey“ on the radio in Nashville, Tennesee.
According to Campolo, the DJ said to Wallis:
“So, you’re one of those Red-Letter Christians—you know—who’s really into those verses in the New Testament that are in red letters!’ Jim answered, ‘That’s right!’
“And with that answer, he spoke for all of us. By calling ourselves Red-Letter Christians, we are alluding to the fact that in several versions of the New Testament, the words of Jesus are printed in red. In adopting this name, we are saying that we are committed to living out the things that He said.
“In those red letters, He calls us away from the consumerist values that dominate contemporary American consciousness. He calls us to be merciful, which has strong implications for how we think about capital punishment. When Jesus tells us to love our enemies, he probably means we shouldn’t kill them. Most important, if we take Jesus seriously, we will realize that meeting the needs of the poor is a primary responsibility for His followers.
“Figuring out just how to relate those radical red letters in the Bible to the complex issues in the modern world will be difficult, but that’s what we’ll try to do.
“Gandhi once said that everybody in the world knows what Jesus was teaching in those verses—except Christians! We will try to prove him wrong.
“We are not part of the Right or the Left. Whenever anyone asks us whether we are Democrats or Republicans, we say, ‘name the issue.'”
Jim Wallis has also commented on a faith based on the teachings of Jesus:
“The truth is that there are many people who like the ‘red letter stuff,’ and many of them are not even Christians. Try it yourself sometime. Go out on the street or to your school or workplace and take a poll. Ask people what they think Jesus stood for. You’re likely to hear things like ‘stood with poor people,’ or ‘compassionate,’ or ‘loving,’ or ‘he was for peace.’ Then ask them what Christians or the church stand for. And you’re likely to hear some very different things.
“We have a problem. Most people have the idea, as crazy as it may seem, that Christians and the church are supposed to stand for the same things that Jesus did. And when they don’t, people get confused and disillusioned. It’s a problem.
“When Jesus tells us he will regard the way we treat the hungry, the homeless, the stranger, the sick, and the prisoner as if we were treating him that way, it likely means he wouldn’t think capital gains tax cuts for the wealthy and food stamp cuts for the poor represent the best domestic policy. Or when he tells us ‘love your enemies’ and ‘blessed are the peacemakers,’ it might be hard to persuade him to join our ‘war against terrorism,’ especially when there is so much ‘collateral damage’ to civilians, including women and children.
“Yes, Jesus is a problem—for many of our churches, the Wall Street traders, and the powerful people in Washington who maintain the American Empire. But for millions of people, religious or not, Jesus remains the most compelling figure in the world today. The church may not be much more credible than the advertisers, the media, or the politicians, but Jesus remains far above the rest of the crowd. Somehow, Jesus has even survived the church and all of us who name his name but too often forget most of what he said.“