Ten days after the 2016 Presidential election, I was invited to Washington DC to offer an analysis of white Evangelicalism in America. Throughout the polarizing election season that had just concluded, many had found themselves dumbfounded by the adamant support for Donald Trump by white Evangelicals. As the months unfolded, it seemed as though the more outspoken he became about racism, xenophobia, misogyny, and white supremacy, the more white Evangelical support for a Trump presidency grew. With each outlandish Trumpian tweet, we watched as prominent white Evangelical leaders doubled down on their alignment with Trump. From the perspective of many, as they added their voices to the chorus of those who revered Donald Trump, these white Evangelical leaders baptized him and his ideas as Christian…as Evangelical. This was troubling to many who understood themselves as Evangelical and so they convened a group of leaders and invited three of us to offer analyses.
The invitation provided me an opportunity to interrogate what it meant to be Evangelical. I reflected on my upbringing in a conservative, Republican, Evangelical home in the upper Midwest. I couldn’t recall if we had language that defined the term, but I could point to a handful of core values that were repeatedly emphasized throughout my upbringing:
- The Bible was our primary source of wisdom.
- Personal salvation and the forgiveness of sins because of the work of God on the cross of Christ was the most important thing.
- Declaring our faith in attempts at converting others to Jesus was our mission.
- Acts of charity for the less fortunate were regarded as a manifestation of our faith.
These aforementioned values are consistent with and give credibility to the scholarly work of D.W. Bebbington in Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. His work is a remarkable historical analysis of Evangelicalism throughout Britain and is revered primarily for what has become known as the Bebbington Quadrilateral. He writes: “There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.” While the manifestations of these core qualities differ by person, family, church, or denomination, the Bebbington Quadrilateral has been critical to a global understanding of what it means to be Evangelical.
Put simply, Evangelicals value and know Scripture, are saved by Jesus, seek to live in a Jesus-kind-of-way that is helpful and hopeful, and shares the good news of Jesus with others. Yet, are these the qualities that were being celebrated by prominent white Evangelical leaders in their endorsements of Donald Trump? What about those who exist outside the fishbowl of white American Evangelicalism? In light of a tumultuous election season where Trump was celebrated by white Evangelicals as their Dream President, what did they see as the defining marks of white Evangelicalism?
When the time came, I made my way to Washington DC. The evening before the event, I shared a table with a diverse set of friends who spanned the creedal, ethnic, and ecumenical spectrums. None of them identified as white Evangelical, and all of them shared a common lament over the election of Donald Trump as President. What’s more, they were outraged by the role that white Evangelicals had played in securing his election. When asked why I was in town, I confided in them that I was there to offer an analysis to a room filled with white Evangelical leaders. Before I could continue, one friend demanded to know what I was prepared to say. Again, before I had a chance to respond, she offered this:
Here’s what we need you to say. Let them know that we used to see them as a source of hope. They are now neither hopeful nor irrelevant. They are a liability. They are the problem. They are a violent, power-hungry, hate-filled people who look nothing like the Jesus they claim to follow.
This is the analysis that came to mind as I made my way through Evangelicalism in Modern Britain. While I do not think that Bebbington went nearly far enough in his critique of Evangelicalism, offering, instead, pictures of nuanced expressions of the tradition, I was drawn to his depiction of how the Evangelical movement was shaped by culture. Through cultural trends such as Enlightenment rationalism, Romanticism, and Modernism, the Evangelical movement evolved in Britain. Bebbington writes: “Changing socio-economic and political conditions affected Evangelicalism and its potential recruits in ways that dramatically moulded its size, self-image, strategy and teaching.” While the movement sought to impact the culture for Christ, it evolved under social influence. Generously speaking, one can imagine that the movement did so in order to remain relevant within a changing world. Yet rather than achieving relevance, segments of the Evangelical movement evolved to reflect the values of the time and place.
I thanked my friend for her analysis. She had described a form of white Evangelicalism that had evolved beyond an accurate description of Jesus. I wanted to understand the qualities of this form of Evangelicalism from the perspective of these friends so I asked her to get a bit more thoughtful. As I imagined, a post-election quadrilateral emerged that identified white American Evangelicalism as:
- Conservative, white nationalists who are committed to maintaining a social order that prioritizes and maintains the supremacy of whiteness
- Utilizing coercive power to accomplish their goals
- Prioritizing the accumulation of wealth and safety through unchecked consumerism
- Policing the morality of others based on a rigid, non-generous filter.
This analysis of white American Evangelicalism, whether fully accurate or not, reveals a tradition that has not only evolved but has mutated into something antithetical to the Jesus of the Gospels. It is a mutation that, in the words of Christian ethicist, Dr. David Gushee “is a cult that is beyond repair.” It is an expression of religion that President Timothy Dalrymple of Christianity Today recently wrote: “has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness.” It is, as Michael Gerson refers to in his thoughtful essay in the April 2018 issue of the Atlantic, an expression of Evangelicalism that could forfeit its future and stain whatever positive legacy it has had.
My friend’s analysis, the white Evangelical Quadrilateral that my friends exposed, and the reflections of these influential leaders leaves me, leaders like me, and organizations like mine with the following question: Is white American Evangelicalism worth resuscitating or is its death the best possible outcome not only for the Christian witness but for the world?
 Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Taylor and Francis, 1988.
 Author’s interview with Maya Enista Smith conducted on November 14th, 2016.
 Ibid. 272.
 Author’s interview with Dr. David Gushee conducted on November 25th, 2019.
 Dalrymple, Timothy. “The Flag in the Whirlwind: An Update from CT’s President.” https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2019/december-web-only/trump-evangelicals-editorial-christianity-today-president.html. Article accessed on January 10th, 2020.
 Gerson, Michael. “The Last Temptation: How evangelicals, once culturally confident, became an anxious minority seeking political protection from the least traditionally religious president in living memory.” https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2018/04/the-last-temptation/554066/. Article accessed on January 10th, 2020.