“Evangelical:” More GOP than KJV

How? How? How? That’s the question we’ve been asking for the past few years: How is it possible that four out of five white evangelical voters support President Trump? After all, love him or hate him, it is fair to say that Trump is not well known for his clarity of moral purpose. A new CNN poll suggests the obvious answer.

CNN REAL voter graphic

Red Votes

Here’s what we know: CNN’s poll sliced and diced some numbers to offer a few suggestions. It surveyed voters in the recent mid-term elections and found that white people who call themselves “evangelical” or “born-again” voted Republican in huge numbers.

As they found,

At least 77% of white evangelicals without a college degree voted against the Democratic Senate candidates in Florida, Missouri and Tennessee, while 72% opposed defeated Democratic incumbent Joe Donnelly in Indiana, the exit polls found. In the Georgia governor’s race, a breathtaking 89% of non-college white evangelicals voted for Republican Brian Kemp over African-American Democrat Stacey Abrams; 84% of those voters picked Ted Cruz over O’Rourke in Texas. Only Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin in West Virginia ran competitively, losing those voters by a narrow 52% to 46% margin.

The numbers weren’t much different for white evangelicals who had been to college. As CNN put it,

Nationally, Republicans again won almost exactly three-fourths of them in the House races, with relatively small differences between the men and the women. Results on that group were not available in as many states, because they comprised a smaller share of the total vote, but Republicans carried about 70% of them in the Tennessee, Indiana and Missouri Senate races; in Georgia, 83% of college-educated white evangelicals voted for Kemp.

It’s tempting to conclude that white evangelicals voted Republican with large majorities. If we really want to understand these polls, though, we need to add an important qualifier. These polls don’t actually tell us how white evangelical Christians voted. Rather, they suggest only that white people who call themselves evangelical do so.

It might seem like a quibble, but it is a significant distinction. Why? Because, as other surveys have shown, yes, white evangelicals vote Republican. But many white evangelicals are also voting with their feet and leaving the “evangelical” label behind. According to a different set of poll data from the Public Religion Research Institute, the number of people who call themselves evangelical has dropped from 21% of the total US population in 2008 to only 15% this year. CNN quotes Robert P. Jones of PRRI, who calls the exodus “asymmetrical.” It’s not just white evangelicals as a whole who are dropping the label, but especially “younger and better-educated members.”

So what?

CNN writes that those younger voters are “the most likely to leave the faith,” but that’s not a fair conclusion. After all, CNN’s poll didn’t find out anything about respondents’ faith. Rather, it only asked them one question: “Would you describe yourself as a born-again or evangelical Christian?”

These days, people who answer “yes” to that question likely connect those labels to a set of political beliefs. They are choosing to identify with a label that has come to imply political conservatism, not just a certain cluster of religious beliefs.

In short, this poll helps dramatize the trend among American evangelicals. Instead of the word “evangelical” meaning primarily a set of religious ideas and theological commitments, it has become a political and culture-war marker. If you call yourself an “evangelical” these days, it usually means you think of yourself as white, Christian, and politically conservative.

So it’s no surprise that big majorities of people who call themselves evangelical voted Republican. Choosing to call yourself an evangelical these days usually means endorsing a set of conservative political beliefs associated these days with the Republican Party.

What do evangelical Christians think about Trump and the GOP? This poll doesn’t tell us. To be an “evangelical Christian” can mean a whole bunch of different things. There are lots of non-white people who have religious beliefs that have historically been associated with evangelical Protestantism. There are white liberals who no longer call themselves evangelical but who retain their evangelical religious beliefs.

What this poll does tell us is that the word “evangelical” has come to imply a set of political beliefs, not only religious ones. People who embrace the label tend to embrace those politics. Are they still religious? Sure. But we make a mistake if we try to understand how someone with evangelical religious beliefs could support politicians who seem to go against those beliefs. Calling yourself “evangelical” these days is more about those political leanings than any specific religious commitments or theological ideas.

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Does THIS Explain the Football Fornicator?

It has stymied nerds for years now. How could so many white conservative-evangelical Protestants support Trump? He is hardly a moral model. Could a new term help explain Christian Trumpism, and other evangelical oddities such as Liberty University’s recent hire?

Freeze at Liberty

Victory at any cost?

Coming off a year of glorious victory, Liberty doubled down on its football team. Still pursuing its grand dream of becoming “the Notre Dame of the Christian world athletically,” Liberty brought on one of the best big-time coaches in today’s football scene.

There was only one problem. Coach Hugh Freeze was only available for a non-elite team like Liberty because he had been fired from Ole Miss for a “pattern of personal misconduct,” including using university resources to hire prostitutes.

Why would an evangelical university—supposedly devoted to conservative morals and buttoned-up lifestyle rules—shell out big bucks to hire a fornicator?

On one hand, the answer’s easy. Coach Freeze built up an impressive winning record at Ole Miss, including defeating Alabama two seasons in a row.

On the other, however, it’s a puzzle. As I described in Fundamentalist U, the selling point of conservative evangelical colleges has always been a safe moral environment, one in which students wouldn’t learn to smoke, drink, and have sex, much less believe mainstream science or liberal religion.

How are we to make sense of this phenomenon? …of supposedly values-driven evangelicals supporting anti-values driven celebrities?

Would it help if we called universities like Liberty something besides “evangelical?” Something that captured more clearly the real values of the school, including Trumpism, guns, and big-time sports?sutton tweet

Recently, some historians have been debating the value of another term. Matthew Avery Sutton proposed “Christian Nationalism” for white conservative evangelicals who put their culture-war positions ahead of their evangelical theology. Professor Sutton asked,

should we make a distinction, using “evangelical” for those who are part of a historic, traceable, bounded (para)church network and use “Christian nationalist” for the right-wing political expression of many of these folks and the many more outside the network?

Calling schools like Liberty “Christian Nationalist” colleges instead of “evangelical” schools would go a long way toward clearing up any confusion about stories like that of Coach Freeze. It could fill in for the old “fundamentalist” label, now out of favor even among the most devoted fundamentalists. It could also help make sense of trends at conservative schools such as Hillsdale, which are now attracting a healthy enrollment from Catholic students. And it could explain where the financial support comes from for conservative flag-waving institutions such as the College of the Ozarks.

In short, using a term like “evangelical” to describe an institution like Liberty University seems inherently confusing. Under the leadership of Jerry Falwell Jr., the school has embraced a Trumpist worldview, in distinct contrast to the traditional moral values of conservative evangelicals, at least in the late twentieth century.

Calling it “Christian Nationalist U,” on the other hand, seems to fit. It doesn’t seem outrageous to hear that a “Christian Nationalist” school has hired a football fornicator. A “Christian Nationalist” school would obviously support Trump, whereas an “evangelical” school wouldn’t. A “Christian Nationalist” school would value football victory at any cost, while an “evangelical” school wouldn’t.

Sorry, I Didn’t Catch Your Name

What do we call them? When we want to talk about white, American, conservative evangelicals, is there a better, shorter, catchier term? Otherwise we either have to keep saying “evangelicals” when we don’t really mean ALL evangelicals, or keep repeating the whole too-long description.

hello-my-name-is.jpg

CAWEP? WACE? ???

I’ll plead guilty. In Fundamentalist U I often talked about “evangelicals,” when I really usually meant white, American, conservative evangelicals from the 20th-century interdenominational fundamentalist tradition. In a book, I feel like I can get away with using “evangelicals” as a short version of that long mouthful, because in context (I hope) it was clear what kind of evangelical I was talking about.

In other formats, though, I would like a better term. For example, in talking with journalist Trey Kay today of Us & Them fame, I kept wanting a better, clearer term. We kept talking about what “evangelicals” thought about the supposed War on Christmas. And I kept having to pause and specify that it wasn’t really evangelicals as a whole we were talking about. We were only talking about that specific subgroup: white American conservative evangelicals.

It is not a nitpick or a quibble. It is a vital and important distinction.

us and them war on christmas

Why are the evangelicals so mad? …they aren’t.

But to my knowledge, there is not a convenient, catchy, everyday term out there to capture what we mean. Is there one out there already? Or can we invent one?

Some of the options out there are no good. I’m not okay with “Christian Right” as a label. It can be useful in some cases, but if we’re talking specifically about conservative evangelicals, then it doesn’t fit. Sure, many evangelicals WANT to claim the right to speak for all Christians, but it doesn’t really do justice to the diversity of conservative Christianity.

Or, how about John Fea’s term “court evangelical?” Since 2016, it has been a great term to understand the kind of evangelical who has jumped on the Trump train. For these purposes, however, “court evangelical” is too specific to our current time and place.

We need a term that captures what we really want to talk about, without having to say “white American conservative evangelical” every time. And without having awkwardly to correct everyone who says “evangelical” when they really mean “white American conservative evangelical.”

It has to be pronounceable. And short enough to use regularly.

How about CAWE? Or WACE? CWAEP? (pronounced see-wape, with the “P” from Protestant) CAWEP? I don’t like any of those, but I prefer them to our current muddled practice. Any better ideas out there?

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

The ILYBYGTH International offices shut down last week for the Thanksgiving holiday, but the rest of the world kept spinning. Here are some of the stories that we missed:

Something new, nothing blue: Daniel K. Williams on the fact that rural white voters nationwide have united behind the GOP, at HNN.

Progressive women: Want to convince Trump voters to see things your way? It’s harder than you think, at The Nation.

Just as you don’t want to be the obedient wife of some porn-addicted Christian bully, they don’t want to be a slutty baby-killer like you.

Neighborhoods integrate, but schools stay segregated. Why? At Chalkbeat.

What is life like in a Chinese re-education camp? At NPR.

What do evangelicals need to read Revelation right? Imagination, says Scot McKnight.

This Book of Revelation sets afire the imagination and should be turning us off to literal pictures. . . . Revelation was written for imaginations not for sketch artists.

Lessons from Watergate: Does a Blue House spell the end of Trumpism? At the Atlantic.

In one respect, Trump’s position may now be even more precarious than Nixon’s.

john allen chau 2

Schools on a mission…

Missionary killed on remote island. Hero? “Terrorist?” Or “self-important, arrogant, deluded, foolish, and a pest”?

Worth it? Post-9/11 wars have cost the USA $5.9 Trillion, at the Nation.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

It’s been a busy week here in the offices of ILYBYGTH International! Here are some of the stories that came across our desk that we thought you might find interesting:

Trump’s proclamation for Education Week.

What was the “city on a hill” really about? Not what Reagan thought, at WaPo.

Two insufficient ways schools teach WWI. At TC.

wilson addressing congress

This WILL be on the test!

School privatization takes a hit in the mid-term elections, at T74.

Freaking out yet about the Asia Bibi case? At the Guardian.

What do you do if you support teacher strikes but lose your bid for Congress? Run for President, at Politico.

More swings than a school playground: Hillary Clinton is back IN the Texas history standards, at DMN.

Are evangelicals cracking up? Eric Miller interviews Paul Djupe at R&P.

we can foresee almost no circumstances at this point that would intervene in the mutual love affair—the equally yoked relationship—between white evangelicals and Trump. But, that necessarily entails a crackup of evangelicalism.

More than double-secret probation on the line: Dartmouth sued for allowing “Animal House” antics by three well-funded professors, at IHE.

Are the real anti-Semites on the Left? At Spectator.

What can conservatives and progressives agree on? Deriding tax breaks for Amazon, at the Federalist.

Jill Lepore on her new non-textbook textbook, at CHE.

A former school superintendent describes his disillusion with testing at Chalkbeat.

We’re not playing the long game for our kids.

Rutgers changes its mind: It’s okay if a white professor is anti-white, at FIRE.

Yale White Student Union_1542397045372.jpg_62387087_ver1.0_640_360

This isn’t what he wanted…

Money-laundering Bible college busted, at CT.

Will the real populist please stand up? R.R. Reno at TAM.

When the ruling class ignores or derides the unsettled populace (as is happening today — deplorables, takers, and so forth), the restlessness jells into an adversarial mood. A populist is anyone who gains political power on the strength of this adversarial stance.

Fundamentalism’s Retreating American Horizon

It’s not about Darwin. It’s not even about Jesus. We see again this morning that radical young-earth creationism—at least Ken Ham’s Answers In Genesis brand—is built on a vision of American history in which fundamentalists are always under more and more attack.ken ham on the moon

Here’s what we know: This morning Ham tweeted a nostalgic video about Apollo 8. On that mission, astronauts circled the moon for the first time on Christmas Eve, 1968. In a live broadcast, astronauts read the opening verses from Genesis.

We can ignore the obvious stuff, like the fact that Ken Ham misdescribed this 1968 moon circling as the 1969 moon landing. We’re more interested this morning in Ham’s take-away from the video itself. What lesson did Ham draw?

2: The culture has changed–NASA sadly would not allow this today

Of course, as historians and SAGLRROILYBYGTH are well aware, back in the 1960s, Ham’s predecessors were articulating very similar laments about the dangerous trends in American culture. In early 1963, for example, Samuel Sutherland of the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (BIOLA) warned of the dangerous effects of the recent SCOTUS ruling against Bible-reading and teacher-led prayer in public schools.

What would happen now? Sutherland warned the SCOTUS decision might

Make our country an atheistic nation, no whit better than God-denying, God-defying Russia herself. . . . in prohibiting the name of God to be used in any form of prayer, [SCOTUS] are in effect advocating that the children be taught atheism.

Sutherland wasn’t alone in warning that 1960s America had gone to the atheist dogs. In 1965, for example, in the pages of Carl McIntire’s Christian Beacon magazine, one writer warned that the banishment of teacher-led Christian devotions from public schools

will mean the division even more sharply of this nation into communities of the secular and the Church, which will inevitably lead to more expression of the secular and more repression of the Christian. When this happens, repression, restriction, harassment, and then outright persecution will be the natural course to follow in secular opposition to Christian witness.

In the glorious 1960s, then, Ken Ham’s predecessors were making the same kinds of warnings that Ham is making today: Things used to be better for conservative evangelical Protestants. Public schools and public policy used to speak in the tones of evangelicalism.

Over and over again, across the decades, fundamentalist Cassandras have articulated a similar historical vision. The past was always better. The present–no matter what year–is characterized by a bitter sense of loss, by a grief for a glorious Christian past stripped away by scheming secularists and soft-minded false Christians.

It doesn’t have much to do with actual creationism, of course, or with evolutionary science. But this relentless alarmist nostalgia does a lot to help us understand why some evangelicals yearn to Make America Great Again.

Heresy and the Death of the Sniff Test

It can’t be real. That was my first impression when I saw pix of the blasphemous billboard circulating around the interwebs. It just looked too hokey and too perfectly outrageous. But, as Sam Wineburg is telling us, we need to be asking different questions these days. Our old-fashioned sniff tests are way out of date. What’s worse, even Wineburg’s hopeful prescription can’t help us with some problems. Namely, as with this billboard, political realities have gotten so bizarre I’m losing hope that any of us will have much luck discerning the true from the troll.

trump christ

This can’t possibly be real…can it?

It looks so perfectly anti-Christian that I was sure it had to be a spoof. And spoof it may be, but at the very least it seems to be a real billboard. According to Snopes,

The billboard is undoubtedly real, though it is not yet clear who paid for it and when it was erected. A spokesperson for DDI Media, the St. Louis company which owns the billboard itself, told us they could not share such information.

As SAGLRROILYBYGTH know, I personally don’t care about heresy, but I am absolutely flummoxed that any self-identified Christian would equate the Donald with The Christ. The entire episode seems like more proof of Sam Wineburg’s new argument. We can no longer trust our sense of what “looks” and “feels” real and legitimate. It’s just too easy to fake it.

Among other things, Professor Wineburg describes his study of internet readers. He asked ten academic historians to decide which group was more trustworthy based on their websites, the American College of Pediatricians and the American Academy of Pediatrics. One (ACP) is a legitimate professional organization of doctors. The other (AAP) is an anti-gay splinter group.

Turns out, these historians—all of them hyper-trained to read and decode complicated texts—weren’t very good at figuring out how to evaluate on-line legitimacy. As Wineburg writes,

Typically, the historians would size up a site within seconds.  Snap judgments were often based on a site’s “look” or its official-sounding name. . . . [one] chose the established American Academy of Pediatrics, not because of differences in the organizations’ stature or pedigrees (he never ventured beyond the two sites to learn about these organizations respective backgrounds), but because of the fonts on their webpages.

As Wineburg points out, evaluating online information based on these sorts of impressions is woefully out of date. Back in the wild 1990s, we used to be able to evaluate information based on the look of the website. Shoddy graphics, sketchy organizational details, and over-long web addresses were all easy give-aways.

These days, those markers are simply too easy to fix. A fly-by-night extremist organization can have a website that looks and feels legit.wineburg why learn history

Wineburg has hope. Students and the rest of us can learn better tools to detect online fraud and fakery. We can learn to read the web laterally instead of trusting any one website.

As this billboard episode shows us, though, perhaps we need to be more concerned than that. For me, the billboard appeared fake not only because it looked poorly made, but because its message was so outrageous. So, yes, I thought it was fake because it looked kind of blurry and because it didn’t include any information about its source. But I also thought it was fake because no Christian could possibly have intended to advertise such a blatantly blasphemous message.

Yet someone did. Clearly, the old fashioned sniff tests can’t help us anymore. Fake information can look real. Even worse, though, ideas that would have been too hateful to see bruited about in public spaces now seem common.

The Myth of Evangelical Political History Just Won’t Die

It happens sometimes. Academic historians think they have consigned a myth safely to long-deserved oblivion, only to see it pop up again and again. This time, New York Times journalist Clyde Haberman repeats the tired old falsehood that conservative evangelicals only got into politics in the 1970s. What do we have to do to get rid of this misleading but popular timeline?

Gods own party

Read a book…

Here’s the story the way it is often told: White evangelicals had always steered clear of politics, but when Jimmy Carter was elected president in 1976, conservative white evangelicals rallied against him. Jerry Falwell Sr. led them out of their churches and into polling booths to elect Ronald Reagan and become a political force.

It’s a compelling timeline, but it’s just not true.

So why do intelligent journalists keep taking the myth at face value? As Haberman puts it incorrectly,

American evangelicals had long steered clear of politics, but with the advent of Moral Majority that was no longer so.

It just didn’t happen that way. Even the celebrity historians Haberman talks to could have told him that. For example, in the long video, Dartmouth’s Randall Balmer gives the real story. In the late 1970s, Balmer explained,

For really the first time in any significant way, evangelicalism becomes interlocked with the Republican Party.

Getting into bed with the GOP is not at all the same thing as getting into politics. I thought historians such as Daniel K. Williams had long made this point clear to everyone. As Williams put it in God’s Own Party,

evangelicals gained prominence during Ronald Reagan’s campaign not because they were speaking out on political issues—they had been doing this for decades—but because they were taking over the Republican Party. It was an event more than fifty years in the making.

Similarly, Matthew Sutton underlined the point that white evangelicals had never really been out of politics. As Professor Sutton put it in American Apocalypse, the “rise-fall-rebirth” story of evangelical involvement in politics was beloved by fundamentalist leaders such as Jerry Falwell Sr., but it doesn’t match the historical record. As Sutton explained, fundamentalists’

Sutton

…for Christ’s sake!

agenda was always about more than correct theology; it was also about reclaiming and then occupying American culture.

I told a similar story in Fundamentalist U. Especially at Bible Institutes, the long-held and cherished myth that evangelicals were above politics is just not true. Even at the other-worldliest of schools, Moody Bible Institute, leaders in the 1920s such as James M. Gray always considered themselves ardent political operatives. Sorry to quote myself, but as I wrote in Fundamentalist U, in 1928,

When MBI’s radio station came under political pressure . . . Gray came out swinging. “The time for fighting has begun,” Gray intoned ominously. If MBI’s lawyer was not powerful enough to protect the school’s rights, Gray insisted, then the school should enlist the political support of allies such as Missouri senator James M. Reed. There was no doubt in Gray’s mind that his institution must engage with mainstream politics. Retreat and withdrawal, Gray reasoned, would compromise his school’s missionary testimony.

As the savvy historians quoted in the NYT piece are very well aware—leaders in the field such as Randall Balmer and John Fea—there has never been a time when white evangelicals were really out of politics. Rather, unique among American religious groups, America’s white evangelicals have always considered themselves both outside the world and, in America at least, the proper people to be in charge of it.

It has been white evangelical leaders who have promoted this myth that they were once outside of politics, and only reluctantly got involved in the scary secular seventies. If we really want to understand American history and politics—let alone the enormous support for Trump among white evangelicals—we need to stop re-telling this convenient evangelical myth as if it were true.

I Love You but You Didn’t Do the Reading

I don’t know how people had time to write stuff when the Brewers were in the playoffs, but they did. It has been a whirlwind week. Here are some of the top ILYBYGTH-themed stories from the interwebs:

What 81%? A new look at white evangelicals and Trump, at CT.

Some background on the new president of the Moody Bible Institute at RNS.

1940s postcard library

Getting those dispensations right…c. 1940s.

Trump, Pocahontas, and the Cherokee Nation: Senator Warren releases her DNA results, denied by both Cherokee Nation and Trump, at Politico.

Schools and the midterm elections: In Ohio, a failed charter network becomes a political football.

“He was clinically upset.” Rich parents reject Zuckerberg’s edu-plan, at NYMag.

Atheists keep sneaking in God through the back door. A review of Gray’s Seven Types of Atheism at NR.

What Christianity and secular humanism share is more important than their differences: No other religious tradition—Jewish, Greek, Indian, Chinese—envisions history as linear rather than cyclical or conceives of humanity as a unitary collective subject. The very idea of utopia—a place where everyone is happy—could not have occurred to people who took for granted that individuals have irreconcilable desires and ideals, and that conflict is therefore impossible to eliminate. Western universalism, Gray scoffs, is very provincial indeed.

It can happen here: A century after the Spanish flu, what are the chances of another worldwide pandemic? At Vox.

keep the faith vote for science

Hoosiers can love Jesus AND Bill Nye…

Finally! Indiana voters urged to “Keep the Faith and Vote for Science,” at IS.

How are America’s public schools really doing? It’s a trickier question than it seems, says Jack Schneider at WaPo.

America’s schools don’t merely reflect our nation’s material prosperity. They also reflect our moral poverty. . . . Reform rhetoric about the failures of America’s schools is both overheated and off the mark. Our schools haven’t failed. Most are as good as the schools anyplace else in the world. And in schools where that isn’t the case, the problem isn’t unions or bureaucracies or an absence of choice. The problem is us. The problem is the limit of our embrace.

Why is an academic life harder for women and minorities? Columbia offers its findings at CHE.

Conservative campus group restricts audience for Ben Shapiro at USC, at IHE.

New survey: America’s evangelicals tend to like heresy, at CT.

religion as personal belief

How school reform works, until it doesn’t. Maine tries a new approach, then retreats, at Chalkbeat.

Proponents of proficiency-based learning argue that none of this reflects flaws in the concept. Maine struggled, they say, because they didn’t introduce the new systems thoughtfully enough, moving too quickly and requiring change rather than encouraging it.

Atheist and creationism-basher Lawrence Krauss announces his retirement after harassment allegations, at FA.

Heresy Is in the Eye of the Beholder

Are you a Christian? Are you sure? A new survey finds that most American evangelicals embrace heretical notions. More evidence that the real meaning of “evangelical” isn’t really theological, but something else.religion as personal belief

Christianity Today reports on new data from Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research. Even among evangelical believers, majorities of respondents disavowed orthodox theology. As CT reported,

When it comes to Americans with “evangelical beliefs”. . . the survey found that a majority say:

  • Most people are basically good (52%)

  • God accepts the worship of all religions (51%)

  • Jesus was the first and greatest being created by God the Father (78%)

The last point, especially, has a long and contentious history. The ancient church kind of settled it at the Council of Nicaea in 325, but as this survey proves, ideas about a three-part God are still thinly settled.

Why does it matter? Just like other large religious bodies (by way of comparison, ask any self-described Catholic about Catholic theology), evangelical Protestantism in practice is not defined by theology. Rather, American evangelicalism is a cultural identity that includes religious ideas, but isn’t actually based primarily on religious ideas. To make things more confusing, most religious identities assume that they are based primarily on theological definitions.

In other words, when you ask an evangelical what makes her an evangelical, she’ll likely give you a religious answer. But if you ask her about actual beliefs, she is likely not to know or care much about evangelical theology. The reasons she identifies as evangelical are described in religious language, but they are really a bigger mix of family, tradition, politics, and culture.

This was a big part of my argument in Fundamentalist U. If we really want to understand American evangelicalism we need to push beyond and behind the official dogma that evangelicals have used officially to define themselves. Throughout the twentieth century and continuing today, the leaders of evangelical colleges had to continually prove to a nervous evangelical public that they maintained the standards of evangelical culture—even when those standards weren’t really based in conservative evangelical theology.

To cite just one example, when fundamentalist intellectual J. Gresham Machen left Princeton Seminary in 1929 to open his own, purer Westminster Seminary, he got grief from other college leaders because Machen allowed his seminarians to drink alcohol.

There was no theological reason to ban alcohol, Professor Machen concluded, so he didn’t. Other college leaders were scandalized. The ban on alcohol might not have been a theological requirement–at least for Presbyterians–but it was written so deeply into the cultural bones of America’s conservative evangelicals that it had assumed sacred status.

We can see similar examples everywhere we look today. For instance, why was administrator Randy Beckum chastised at Mid-America? Theologically, there can be little reason to criticize a reminder that Christians need to put their faith before their patriotism.  Culturally, however, that can come as a shocking notion.

Evangelicals like to talk about doing more than just avoiding sin, but even avoiding the appearance of sin. If we want to make sense of the complicated realities of evangelical identity, we need to add a cumbersome caveat. It’s not only that evangelicals need to avoid the appearance of sin, but that they need to even avoid the appearance of things that aren’t really sins but America’s evangelicals think they are. On the flip side, they are free to embrace heresy as long as no one seems to care.