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Is The Word “Evangelical” Still Meaningful? An Opinion

I have been thinking a lot lately about the number 81.

According to exit polls reported by the Washington Post after the 2016 US presidential election, 81 percent of “white evangelicals” voted for Donald Trump.[1] My response to that has been to wonder what on earth the word “evangelical” might mean in the public discourse, and to question whether it has any further use. An internal corollary to that question is pondering whether or not I wish to continue to self-ascribe as an evangelical. According to a Guardian newspaper article, I am not alone in my angst. “Exvangelicals” are becoming an actual thing.[2]

I note that white male evangelicals have been particularly implicated in this statistic. To be fair to American white male evangelicals, most of the ones whom I know and have spoken with on the matter are slightly mystified by the 81 percent figure. They themselves do not know many of their ilk who did vote for Trump, and could not bring themselves to do so, even when their historical sympathies have been broadly Republican. One has suggested to me that the figure is in fact much lower amongst those self-identifying evangelicals who actually go to church. There is some quantitative evidence that he is right.[3]

I am not a political commentator, but I think I understand why many of those evangelicals who voted for President Trump did; in fact, I am related to some of them. The ones I know did so because they saw him as a route to a more conservative supreme court. To be fair to them, in New Zealand we do not understand well the complex dynamics resulting from the American constitutional system of the separation of powers: legislative, judicial, and executive. Furthermore, a supreme court with a balance of more conservative judges delivers more conservative verdicts on what many evangelicals see as key issues of personal morality. Of those, perhaps the issues of abortion, the presence of overt Christian expression in public institutions, and the autonomy to make Christian choices within broader society have been trigger issues. [4]

On their own these dynamics indicate a troubling irony in evangelical morality. Over the years the ethical privileging of personal morality by religious conservatives has regularly expressed its view that the personal behaviour of men (and it is men being spoken of) in public office is a reliable guide to their fitness to exercise that office. But with Trump, this approach has been overturned. Now, fitness for office on the basis of personal morality may be overlooked in the service of a so-called greater good. A kind of moral exceptionalism appears to hold sway.

But the issues run much deeper than that. My starting point on this is to look back to historian George Marsden’s seminal study on Reforming Fundamentalism.[5] Written in 1987, this history of Fuller Seminary was much more than merely that. It charted the history of Fuller in the context of the emergence of a “new evangelicalism” in the 1940s to 1960s. A feature of this new evangelicalism was a need to define itself over against the fundamentalist protest at modernist theology of the 1920s and onwards. Laidlaw College is one of a number of historically evangelical institutions in New Zealand who have shared in this shift from a fundamentalist stance to an espousal of a new evangelicalism.[6] It is a movement in which I am personally steeped, and to which I have been deeply committed.

And yet, the number 81 leads me to wonder if that neo-evangelical movement has failed – in two respects. First, one thing that has come through with crystal clarity in the reporting on the Trump election – and is evident on an almost daily basis in most Western media – is that the struggle to distinguish evangelical from fundamentalist in the public discourse has been lost. As a nice example I instance the website whose reporting notes that “the term ‘evangelical fundamentalist’ can today be assimilated to the ‘evangelical right’ or ‘theoconservatism’.”[7] My research has not been extensive but I have not been able to locate any analysis of fundamentalist voting patterns in the Trump election contra evangelical voting, and many of the “evangelical” leaders cited in reporting on the issue I would associate with a “fundamentalist” position. So, for me, what is meant by “evangelical” in the public discourse no longer expresses that with which I identify.

Yet, the neo-evangelical movement has failed in much more important respects than simply failing to win the terminology game. We have also failed to counter a Christian movement that verges on being heterodox in a number of respects, and that holds significant sway in our churches.[8] The Trump election, and studies of factors that lay behind the voting have made that clear. It is not that the Trump effect, whatever that might be, has brought this about; rather, the Trump effect has made visible what has been brewing for some time. Much could be, and has been, written about this. I am not qualified to produce an encyclopaedia of difficulties but would like to suggest four indicative and troubling aspects of the style of Christianity that now masquerades under the label “evangelical” in the popular discourse.

The first is inherent in some of my earlier comments; it is that the evangelicalism of public perception has become a world denying faith. Such is the focus on issues of personal morality that there is a deep suspicion of the world and of the goodness of the world that God has made. This distrust manifests itself in various ways. It is seen in a suspicion of public policy that makes any kind of concession to the world as it is actually experienced by most people. It is seen in a kind of fear of science as a deceptive force of evil rather than a vocation to understand more fully the mind-bogglingly good creation in which God has placed humanity. And so, all sorts of public devices dedicated to the care of creation and to broader human flourished are placed under threat. That so-called evangelical Christianity is complicit in these forces displays an obscene withering of the doctrine of creation.

Ironically in the light of the above – or perhaps as a logical extension of the above – there is evident, secondly, a worrying identification between faith and nationalism. It is a concern that the evangelicalism that voted for Trump appears to be incapable of conceiving that patriotism is not a Christian virtue. Rather, the symbols of state have been conflated with religious commitment and treated as if they in themselves are religious icons and creeds. This is not merely a distortion in emphasis; it is heresy. And it is becoming an evangelical heresy. It is a kind of thrust towards theocracy that is world-denying, the dangers of which have been well demonstrated by historical experience. One could escalate the debate by referring to some of those extreme examples. I will not do so, because the situation is more nuanced than that, but care must be taken.

Thirdly, and connected to the drive towards unexamined assumptions of Christian theocracy, comes a deep suspicion of other groups, particularly those of other faiths and of non-Western cultural streams. These misgivings manifest themselves most acutely in our own times as a fear of Islam and a consequent deeply ingrained mistrust of Muslims, and a similar fear of immigrants more generally. This ought to be deeply problematic to Christians, whose faith has formed the world in which it is possible for different religions to co-exist side by side in civil society, and whose founder calls on us to love our enemies and to show hospitality to those who are different from ourselves. And yet in many Christian quarters, Muslims are only viewed as persecutors, and the notion of dialogue with them is seen as an inherently unfaithful thing to do. The evangelicalism of public discourse has become complicit in this unfaithful response to the other. It is ironic that this response is rooted in an impulse towards the same sort of world-denying theocracy that drives the most fearful distortions of Islam.

Conversely, and fourthly – but also arising from the same world denying impulse towards theocracy – so-called evangelical Christianity has become complicit in the Zionist agenda of the current American approach towards Israel. This has become entangled also with the conflation of nationalism and Christian virtue noted above. In this equation the promotion of the state of Israel is assumed to be bringing about the culmination of history and a consequent alignment with the work of God. This has long been an influence in American policy with respect to Israel, but it is now hardening into quite explicit proactive denial of the legitimate claims of the Palestinian people to their long identification with the land in that place.[9] I must be clear that I am supportive of the rights of the state of Israel and the Jewish people to live in peace and safety on the piece of land to which they have such a strong theological and historical attachment.[10] But, as part of a world affirming theology, the state of Israel must be held to the normal expectations of one nation’s treatment of another with respect to the peoples they seek to displace. Furthermore, there is not a coherent theological case for the implicit equation of the current state of Israel with the people of God of the Old Testament. For a Christian to deny the civil and citizenship rights of a people group on the basis of Zionist exceptionalism is to cave into a heterodox Christology that implicitly denies the sufficiency of the work of Jesus, who inaugurated the kingdom of God. In this thinking, the sufficiency of Jesus now has somehow to be supplemented by the re-establishment of a particular ethnicity on a particular piece of land. And yet that which has been called evangelical is also complicit in this weak Christology.

So, there we have it. The outcome of the Trump election, among other effects, has brought to light a weak doctrine of creation, a heretical approach to the nation state, a worrying drive towards theocracy, and a heterodox Christology, on the part of those who are publicly labelled as evangelicals. This column has focused on the North American context, because recent events there have exposed certain fault lines so clearly. But, allowing for nuances of context, none of these forces are absent from the New Zealand church and there are lessons to be learned.

In the meantime, I do not recognize in any of them the broad attractive wholistic Christocentric world-affirming evangelicalism in which I was nurtured and whose heritage I look back to. So, do we give up the fight for the label “evangelical” as a meaningful category, contra the forces noted above, and so abandon the term as a self-designation? Or do we maintain our quixotic mission to keep defining the term differently from nearly everybody else and risk being taken as seriously as Humpty Dumpty who said, “When I use a word … it means just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less”? The jury is out. For now, though, I am not quite an “exvangelical” because I value deeply the evangelicalism that formed me. But I am chastened and shamed by recent events and must ask myself whether the fault lines revealed may themselves have grown from small cracks or scars in the tradition of my formation.

Tim Meadowcroft is a Senior Research Fellow at Laidlaw College, Auckland, and assistant priest in the Anglican parish of Henderson. 




[4] I acknowledge that there is something of caricature in my assertion, and there are a range of trends at work. See for example

[5] George M. Marsden, Reforming Fundamentalism: Fuller Seminary and the New Fundamentalism (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987).

[6] This entire column begs the question as to the contents of that new evangelicalism, but that is for another time. I refer readers to the helpful taxonomy developed in John M. Hitchen, “What it Means to be an Evangelical Today – An Antipodean Perspective,” EvQ 76 (2004): 47-64; idem, “What it Means to be an Evangelical Today – An Antipodean Perspective, Part 2,” EvQ 76 (2004): 99-115.


[8] This is not to say that valiant and notable attempts are being made in resistance. See for instance from the American context: But 81 percent suggests that they are not prevailing.


[10] I am happy to identify with the term “cultural Zionism” as espoused in Israeli peace activist Jeff Halper, An Israeli in Palestine: Resisting Dispossession, Redeeming Israel (London: Pluto, 2008).