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DMin, Leadership and Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

White Evangelicalism: Evolution or Mutation?

Written by: on January 13, 2020

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.”[1] 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.[2]

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.”[3] 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.[4]

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.”[5] It is an expression of religion that President Timothy Dalrymple of Christianity Today recently wrote: “has wrought enormous damage to Christian witness.”[6] 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.[7]

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?

~~

[1] Bebbington, David W. Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History from the 1730s to the 1980s. London: Taylor and Francis, 1988.

[2] Author’s interview with Maya Enista Smith conducted on November 14th, 2016.

[3] Ibid. 272.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Author’s interview with Dr. David Gushee conducted on November 25th, 2019.

[6] 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.

[7] 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.

About the Author

mm

Jer Swigart

13 responses to “White Evangelicalism: Evolution or Mutation?”

  1. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    This a powerful thought provoking post. Your experience and insight into the current political climate is appreciated and far beyond mine. I am not so sure all of American Evangelicalism can or should be judged by those opposing or supporting our current political climate. I am not convinced that the Christian community in the US is as united as some in Washington DC would like us to believe. Is it possible to vote in any form of a Christian Worldview while trying to ensure religious freedom for all? Why do you think that Christianity is so divided when it comes to political positions and parties? Is it right to think that Evangelicalism can or should create a country in its own image? I know one thing for sure, the current issues are beyond my understanding and they bring me to my knees in prayer for the country often.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Thanks Greg.

      I agree that not all of American Evangelicalism can be put placed in a pro-Trump or pro-Republican space. That’s why I was careful to denote white Evangelicalism as, based on the polling statistics, supported a Trump presidency at 81% and still appears to linger in the 75% range. Adding to that, it seems that some of the white Evangelical leaders with the largest platforms (i.e. Falwell Jr., Graham, Jeffers, Dobson) are continuously using them in an effort to speak on behalf of all of American Evangelicalism. Unfortunately, it seems that far too many are all too happy to thoughtlessly resort to the latest quip by one of these men then think for themselves.

      I actually do think that our votes could be informed by a Christian ethic, yet I honestly question whether the concept of the contemporary nation-state could ever reflect the life and teachings of Jesus. Too much of the system we live in is based on the accumulation and preservation of power and abundance through violence. Thus, I’m not one who believes that any political party is more in line with a Christian ethic than another. Nor do I believe in the possibility of a nation-state becoming “more Christian.”

      Where does that leave us? I imagine that it leaves us where we flourished in the beginning. Influencing from the fringes as we live a cross-shaped life and, in so doing, offer a hopeful alternative to the national religion and its practices.

      I would love to hear your reflections on this.

  2. mm Dylan Branson says:

    There’s a lot of thought provoking comments here, Jer. I’ve also struggled with the “evangelical” label that Trump took on and how many conservative Christians lobbied so zealously for him (I know the argument I’ve heard so many use is that he was the “lesser of two evils”, but, to quote Geralt in The Witcher TV series, “If I’m to choose between one evil and another, then I prefer not to choose at all.”).

    On reflection, what I saw/see was/is fear of a loss of identity within the white evangelical world. For so long, there has been a seat of power at the table for them and under Obama, I heard so many people saying that “Christians are going to lose their rights” or “Prepare for persecution.” It seemed that they were looking for someone to champion their “cause” and Trump fit the bill for them. With that being said, when we feel our identity or our power is at stake, we become desperate. We rewrite the definition of our values so that we can justify our actions in this regard.

    What would it look like to redeem white evangelicalism? If it were to die and be resurrected, what would that entail?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      I agree, Dylan. From my view, it does seem as though the imminent loss of power is the primary threat that is being felt by white Evangelical leaders. I’m watching them recognize that the nation is shifting and that their vice-grip on power and influence is slipping. In turn, they are doubling down on the power-over tactics they’ve utilized in more nuanced ways in the past.

      That said, rather than a loss of identity, I would propose that its true identity is being exposed. As I read the prominent white Evangelicals, they are crystal clear in who they are, what they’re after, and how they seek to attain it. What it is doing, though, is it seems to be causing an important identity crisis for so many who have identified as Evangelical. Our hope is to accompany these leaders through a necessary season of disorientation such that they reorient into leaders whose lives reflect the cross and whose love exposes the wonder of resurrection.

      Lastly, I’m not sure what a resurrection of white Evangelicalism would look like as I’m not certain that it was established with the flourishing of all as its outcome. I tend to agree with Gushee that it is beyond repair and that something new must emerge and, perhaps is currently emerging.

  3. mm Joe Castillo says:

    In general, the church simply no longer believes that. The average Christian seems to assume that more is needed than the Scriptures to help us cope with the modern world. Christian bookstores are full of books offering advice obtained from sources other than the Bible in almost every imaginable matter: Christian fatherhood, manhood and femininity, success and self-esteem, relationships, church growth, church leadership, ministry, philosophy and much more.

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Joe.

      I hear in your response a passion for and commitment to the Scriptures. I’m with you.

      Yet where this gets tricky from my view is this: the Scriptures according to whose understanding?

      I love the accessibility of the Scriptures and the way the Spirit roamed in its drafting, compiling, studying, and preaching. Yet, even as I reflect on my seminary experience, so much of the biblical commentary that I read came from the position of white Evangelicalism. I was not required, much less invited, to explore black or Latinx liberation theologies, much less feminist nor queer theologies.

      My point being, yes! Let’s go to the Scriptures, but let’s do so with as much humility as possible. And, let’s not understand the Bible as our authority, but Jesus alone.

  4. mm Greg Reich says:

    Jer,
    As always you bring gold to the table of thought. I agree I don’t believe we can christianize a government. I think history has shown us of what atrocities a church ran government is capable of. Throughout history the christian faith has flourished under opposition. I am concerned when an entire nation of christians yield there voices to a small group of outspoken individuals conservative or liberal. I am sure there is a large number of Christians who put their hope in the republican party just as there is those who put their trust in the democratic party. Is this really what Jesus was talking about when he was teaching about the Kingdom of God? If it was would that mean that all other forms of government are an abomination? When did we become a faith that places our hopes and trust on a governmental system instead of God? Could it be that we have made America our God?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      Ooooh. America as our god. Perhaps you’ve hit on it. Under the myths of the Doctrine of Discovery, it does seem as though we’ve given ourselves the mission of creating America as the new Eden. Sadly, the shapers of this utopian ideal have worshipped the dream more than the dream-maker. I do think that we worship what our hands have created and, in this case, it could be that our idol is the idea of America. Connecting this to Bebbington more directly, with regard to conversionism, it appears that we are seeking to convert people to America, American democracy, and American values more than we are the transformation of their hearts and lives toward Christ. Our understanding of mission exposes our god.

  5. mm John McLarty says:

    I’ve been fascinated lately watching Christians play both sides of the “persecution card.” From the so-called “war on Christmas” and Starbucks cups and lamenting the supposed absence of God in the public space on one side and the celebration of religiously-influenced laws, appointment of religious-friendly judges, and moving the US Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem on the other side. It seems we Christians can’t decide if it’s more marketable to claim a minority status or flex a majority muscle. Is it because we’re spending more time and energy on the things of this world that ultimately do not matter and intentionally neglecting the harder and more important world of growing in our own discipleship, diving deeper into the nuance and context of Scripture, tending to the needs of the marginalized and oppressed, and proclaiming the hope we have in the crucified and risen Christ?

    • mm Jer Swigart says:

      John. Perhaps power, its accumulation and protection, has corrupted our memory and imaginations with regard to what it means to be Christian. Speaking to your ideas of minority/majority, I would place that in the realm of proximity to power. Those who prefer to position themselves within the minority often see themselves not as subversive kingdom-people, but as victims who don’t have enough power. Those who prefer to position themselves within the majority often seem to pride themselves in their status and sense of influence. They understand themselves proximate to power and will do whatever they have to do to remain there. Regardless, we’ve lost our way and, it seems, that many think that gaining power is the only way forward.

  6. mm Shawn Cramer says:

    Jer, you pose a provocative solution around the death of much of Evangelicalism. What do you imagine that death to look like? What would rise from the ashes? Your prose is persuasive, and your personality is charismatic, so I’m hoping your prophetic voice can also paint a picture of what should follow. Another question for you, do you think the theological tenets of Bebbington’s quadrilateral necessitated a nationalistic expression, or do you think they are a detour? In other words, is there a nucleus within Evangelicalism that is worth carrying on to something new?

  7. mm Jer Swigart says:

    Shawn.

    It’s possible that we are watching white American Evangelicalism’s (WEA) death right now. From the perspective of many within and outside of WAE, the idolatry of power and the arrogant practices of certainty, exclusion, violence, and unchecked consumerism are making the movement obsolete.

    As to what may emerge from the ashes? From my view, it’s already begun. There are likely and unlikely leaders emerging who were once rooted in white Evangelicalism and who are now, in the words of MLK Jr., “transforming nonconformists.” They are women and men who are finding themselves being liberated from an oppressive system into a hopeful, restorative way forward. They are pioneering expressions of Christian community that are oriented around a Jesus who is not a white, Evangelical Jesus, but one who reflects the dark-skinned Palestinian Jew who existed on the underside of Empire. These expression of faith are marked by self-sacrifice rather than the accumulation and preservation of power, abundance, and safety. They are less focused on rapid exponential expansion and are instead focused on the slow, the local, and its interconnectedness within the global village. They don’t place their trust in a government of a nation-state to usher in the new world that God is making, but, instead, understand their mission as joining God in making all things new here and now.

    Cultivating these leaders is the impulse behind this project for me. Personally, I’m not interested in spending my time on the dismantling or renovation of the current system. My leaning is to pioneer and help bring to life what is emerging, believing that, over time, what was will become obsolete.

    As to whether I think Bebbington’s Quad necessitated a nationalist expression. Not necessarily. I do wonder, though, how religion in the hands of dominant culture folks becomes simply another tool to dominate and control people. If so, then nationalism would be a natural outcome.

    As to a nucleus of Evangelicalism carrying forward. I tend to agree with Dr. David Gushee that WEA is beyond repair. It’s become something that does not reflect the life, teachings, death, and resurrection of Jesus. Do I think that there are valuable pieces to the original intent of Evangelicalism generally? Sure. Do I think that they will inform what is emerging? Likely. Although I may offer teh following adjustments:
    1. Ongoing transformation of the person, the community, and the context are the simultaneous work of the Spirit and the individual/community.
    2. Solidarity that looks like mutual sacrifice in pursuit of a shared vision of a just, peaceful, equitable future.
    3. The Scriptures as authoritative rather than the authority in so much as they point to Jesus.
    4. The cross as declaration of belovedness and inviration into a cruciform way of life for the sake of the world.

  8. mm Chris Pollock says:

    How have we been fooled? What is it? Could it be fear?
    Protection of Capitalism?

    Thank you for sharing some pearls here, Jer. Both of your thought and your experience.

    Some things that MES shared are just so cutting. I can’t help but to feel sadness and to wonder what is this thing (the Church, Christianity) that I can be seen as related to? Like what’s going on. I have heard stories of many who love Jesus, jumping off the ‘name game’. The super negative connotation to being a Christian today is very troubling.

    What is to inspire our passion now? Remember Jesus.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P-Zp586pvZg

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