…still Think “Evangelical” Is Not a Political Label?

Albert Mohler can say what he wants. To this reporter, there is a much more obvious conclusion. For those of us who struggle to understand evangelical identity, another recent poll seems like more evidence that we can’t rely on religious ideas alone.

SAGLRROILYBYGTH are sick of hearing about it, but I can’t stop mulling it over. In my upcoming book about evangelical higher education, for example, I argue that a merely theological definition of American evangelicalism will not suffice. The reason it is so important to study evangelical colleges, universities, seminaries, and institutes—at least one of the reasons—is because these institutions make it startlingly obvious that religion and theology are only one element defining evangelical identity, sometimes a remarkably small one.

Smart people disagree. Recently, for example, Neil J. Young took Frances FitzGerald to task for over-emphasizing the political element of evangelical identity. And a few months back, John Fea called me on the carpet for over-emphasizing the culturally and politically conservative element of evangelical higher education.

And smart people will surely disagree about the implications of recent poll results from the Washington Post and Kaiser Family Foundation. To me, they seem like more proof that American evangelicals are more “American” than “evangelical,” at least when it comes to their knee-jerk responses to poll questions.

The poll asked people whether poverty was more the result of personal failings or of circumstances beyond people’s control. As WaPo sums it up,

Christians, especially white evangelical Christians, are much more likely than non-Christians to view poverty as the result of individual failings.

Now, I’m not much of a Christian, and I’m not at all evangelical, but I can’t help but think that blaming the poor’s lack of effort for their poverty is not a very Christian attitude. And plenty of Christians agree with me. According to Julie Zauzmer in WaPo, African-American Christians tend to blame circumstances by large margins. The divide stretches beyond race. Democrats tend to blame circumstances. Republicans tend to blame individual failings.

Zauzmer reached out to experts to try to explain why white evangelical Christians might feel this way. She gave Albert Mohler of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminar a chance to explain it away. And Mohler did his level best. The reason white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty, Mohler told her, was because

The Christian worldview is saying that all poverty is due to sin, though that doesn’t necessarily mean the sin of the person in poverty. In the Garden of Eden, there would have been no poverty. In a fallen world, there is poverty.

I just don’t buy it. If we really want to understand why white evangelical Americans tend to blame the poor for their poverty, we are better off looking at Reagan than at Revelation, at Goldwater than at Genesis. Blaming the poor has deep political and cultural roots. American conservatives—at least since the early twentieth century—have insisted that poverty in the Land of Opportunity must be due to individual failings rather than to structural problems in society. When American evangelicals mouth such notions, they are allowing those political and cultural beliefs to speak louder than their strictly religious or theological beliefs.

If we want to understand American evangelicalism—especially among white evangelicals—we need to understand that the “conservative” half of “conservative evangelicalism” is just as vital as the “evangelical” half. We need to understand that white evangelicals are complicated people, motivated by a slew of notions, beliefs, and knee-jerk impulses.

Why did so many white evangelicals vote for Trump? Why do so many white evangelicals blame the poor for their poverty? If we really want to make sense of it, we can’t focus on the merely religious beliefs of evangelicals. We have to look at the big picture.

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  1. Yes yes yes. There is no compelling biblical reason — certainly no compelling Gospel reason — for 81% of white evangelicals to support Trump. There is certainly no compelling biblical reason — certainly no compelling Gospel reason — for white evangelicals to blame the poor for their poverty. Al Mohler has it wrong.

    • That’s simply not true. Maybe the reasons are not compelling to you but they are to others. “Biblical” reasons and figural reading of early Christian history both figured into Evangelical pro-Trump positions. And of course Evangelicals read such things through filters informed by the repertoire of habits and beliefs on “the Protestant work ethic.” Patriarchy is certainly biblical as well, with Mike Pence’s type of misogyny quite common among Evangelicals; they see it as biblical, even feminist, and highly ethical behaviour. Then there is the explicit politics.

      I cannot explain any aspect of my own life in evangelical communities without reference to cultural politics, explicitly promulgated libertarian economic ideology, etc. But I can explain how this stuff gets so settled into the culture that people don’t need to read or be taught “conservatism;” it is in the water. When they read anything, they read it through that lens.

      Adam, I think you nailed it in your dialogue with Fea. Let’s not pretend there’s not an agenda here either; the apologists who are now all clamouring to separate “real evangelicals” from the trainwreck of their partisan cultural politics have every professional and personal incentive to do so but no good historical reasons. Where were they during prior administrations? If Trump was wildly popular now, would they be just as mobilized to tell us that real Evangelicals aren’t ok with a devil take the hindmost / god helps those who help themselves approach to public policy?

      • A couple of things here. First, we are not trying to “separate ‘real evangelicals’ from the trainwreck of their partisan cultural politics.” We know that there are evangelical scholars who are trying to do this, but we are very doubtful that that this can be done. American evangelicalism/fundamentalism is wrapped up in a very particular Christian Right politics, and has been for quite a while — hence the fact that the “evangelical left” has been and remains a tiny remnant, and many folks who spend time as part of the evangelical left end up leaving evangelicalism altogether, as they find the place to be inhospitable.

        Second, we should have used the word “necessary” instead of “compelling.” Of course Christian Right evangelicals do and can make biblical arguments for patriarchy, unfettered capitalism, and the like. We make precisely this point in Righting America. But of course, and as we also argue in our book, you can also make biblical arguments for radically different political views, particularly if one takes the Gospels seriously. And this point is, explicitly or implicitly, denied in many evangelical/fundamentalist churches. Christian = GOP is often a given.

      • I agree almost entirely, if you put it that way. There is a reason why religious groups read their texts within certain parameters and not others. They could go outside those parameters, but this is very unusual and generally unlikely. I don’t think it’s fair to say, particularly for the Abrahamic faiths, that they “take their texts seriously” only when they come to certain political implications. Additionally, to focus on the Gospels as specially liberators texts is to read them through a certain Christian frame that has traditionally been very close to (and used for) antiSemitic arguments, or more recently the idea that Islam is intrinsically more violent, authoritarian, etc. I would suggest the root of these tendencies in all three relations and indoeuropean cultures has more to do with classical metaphysics providing assumptions about reality and truth that all texts are read through. The most self aware reactionaries in the modern age are quite clear about this, that their project is to deny a post-metaphysical worldview that denies there are essential, natural norms that imply a morality and political order. The problem is Aristotle.

  2. Have you read Divided by Faith by Michael Emerson and Christian Smith? Their argument is about white evangelical attitudes to race, but it offers an obvious theoretical framework for understanding this recent poll. I try to summarise their argument here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/leavingfundamentalism/2016/06/07/white-evangelicalism-perpetuates-racial-inequality/

    • Jonny, You bet. I like Emerson & Smith. In my upcoming book, I wrestle with the question of racism among white evangelicals. By the 1960s–at least at places like Wheaton College and Gordon College–anti-racist white evangelicals were able to use the histories of their own schools to insist that white evangelicalism needed to return to its 19th century anti-racist roots. Of course, the story is complicated by the fact that some of the fiercest segregationist hold-outs were other evangelical colleges, most notoriously Bob Jones University.

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