In the United States, the word “evangelical” is often confused with a political designation. Though associated with a particular brand of Christianity, it is perhaps more popularly paired with conservative policy views, Republican registration, and an overwhelming whiteness. For several decades, white evangelicals have positioned themselves as moral arbiters calling for decency and godliness. From the Moral Majority to the Christian Coalition to the values voters who elected George W. Bush, this religious-political-racial demographic has asserted its faith in the public square, often within the confines of the Grand Old Party. In 2016, when it was widely reported that 81 percent of white evangelical voters had cast a ballot for Donald Trump, many critics—and more than a few allies—dismissed the movement’s longstanding claims to moral authority, concluding that its ambitions were squarely here on earth and not in heaven. But is this really who evangelicals are? And are these evangelicals representative of the whole?
A new book from Thomas S. Kidd, Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis, challenges the popular impression that evangelicals are only white and Republican. In the book, Kidd traces the history of American evangelicalism, hoping to situate the current movement in relationship to its past, and so more clearly define what—and who—is an evangelical.
Kidd is the Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University. His many previous books include Benjamin Franklin: The Religious Life of a Founding Father; George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father; and Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots.
Eric C. Miller spoke with Kidd about the book recently by phone. Their conversation has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
Religion & Politics: So, who is an evangelical?
Thomas S. Kidd: The simplest answer is that an evangelical is a born-again Christian. But in addition to the conversion experience (being born again), evangelicals have been marked by the “felt presence” of God in their lives. Sometimes they describe this presence as a personal relationship with Jesus. Evangelicals also have a very high view of Scripture. This last attribute did not originally distinguish them much from their Reformed or Protestant brethren, but starting with the fundamentalist-modernist controversy of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, evangelicals have emphasized that they trust the authority of the Bible in ways that modernists, liberals, and mainliners ostensibly do not.
R&P: Is it fair to say that this book, more than your others, is inspired by current events?
TSK: I think so. Of course I’m trained as a historian and a lot of my work has been on eighteenth century history, the Great Awakening, the American Revolution, and so forth. But this book is a history of evangelicalism that runs through the present day, and so is obviously concerned with controversies around evangelicals and politics—especially white evangelical support for the Republican Party and Donald Trump. This project has grown out of my blogging at The Gospel Coalition, where I felt like there was a need to speak to current evangelical alignments in politics, what these have to do with evangelical history, and in some cases how they’ve departed from that history. This book has also taken me into more social science and polling than I’ve considered in any of the others. So it’s definitely engaging with current events, but still from a historical perspective.
R&P: “Evangelical” is not a short word, but it’s become shorthand for a particular voting bloc, and you seem to be bothered by the imprecision.
TSK: Yes. I think that, by implication, the media has come to discuss evangelicals in a very narrow way. The implication is that, when we use the term, we are talking specifically about white Republicans in the United States. But when you think about the evangelical movement on the world stage, this is very misleading. In the U.S., evangelicalism has been politicized within the last 50 years or so, especially since 1976 when Jimmy Carter’s candidacy prompted the first polling about the term “evangelical.” Since then, the designation has been based on self-identification, with pollsters simply asking whether each respondent is evangelical, recording the answer, and moving on to questions about political behavior. Some polls go deeper, but a lot them—exit polls, for example—are purely based on self-identification.
So while I think the polls can tell us something about people who consider themselves evangelical and how they behave politically, there are a lot of groups who get excluded. Some polls won’t even ask people whether they’re evangelical if they’re not white, and much of the political polling doesn’t consider the large numbers of self-identified evangelicals who don’t vote. So, often, when you read a story about “evangelicals,” you’ll find that it actually refers specially to white voters who call themselves evangelicals. That’s a pretty small segment of the movement, and it’s not reflective of the diverse global population.
R&P: I suspect journalists and politicos use evangelical in this way partly because they don’t like writing “white conservative Republican evangelical” again and again in their articles.
R&P: Is there a term that you’d recommend instead?
TSK: I would be fine, from an internal perspective, if evangelicals could come up with another term that would work better. But even then the situation is complicated by a lot of people who seem evangelical but who reject the term—this is true of a lot of African Americans, for instance, who consider themselves born again but don’t identify as evangelical because they consider it to have political overtones. And then there are others among white evangelicals—a lot of Baptists, for instance—who wouldn’t immediately identify with the term unless maybe when asked by a pollster. So if there was another term that we could agree on—“Bible-Believing Christians,” or “Born Again Christians,” or “Gospel Christians,” or something—we might see some different response rates from different ethnic groups. The problem with that whole discussion is that there’s no evangelical pope to decide on a new term, and even if we could, I don’t think that the media would go along with it. So I think we’re stuck with evangelical.
R&P: The book situates the white, conservative evangelicals of this particular moment within a longer movement history. Is this cohort typical of its predecessors?
TSK: It’s typical in the sense that evangelical faith, like most versions of Christian faith, has always had political implications and alliances. These have taken a lot of different forms throughout history. There were lots of evangelicals who were active in the temperance movement in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There were pro-slavery evangelicals and anti-slavery evangelicals, with each faction aligning itself politically. So evangelical political activity is nothing new.
What is different about white evangelical voters today is that I’m not aware of another time in the American past when there has been such a fixed alignment—or, at least, the impression of such a fixed alignment—with one political party for such a long time. There was a strong alignment with the Whig Party in the 1830s and 40s, but it was disproportionately northern, and a lot of southern evangelicals tended to be Democrats. Then in the 1950s, when you began to see the coalescence between northern evangelicals and the Republican Party, there were still a lot of evangelical southerners who were Democrats, and that persisted at least through 1976 with the election of Jimmy Carter. So I think it’s unusual to have such a deep, trans-regional alignment among white evangelical voters with one party, and it has held despite the nomination of a candidate like Donald Trump, who seems to run counter to a lot of stated evangelical values.
R&P: Trump has been criticized as a racist demagogue, and you spend a lot of time in the book detailing white evangelicals’ fraught history on race. Does that history help explain their attraction to Trump in the present?
TSK: I’m sure it does for some. There is a long and dismaying history of white evangelicals refusing to find common cause with their African American brothers and sisters in the church. There were strong pro-slavery sentiments among white evangelicals in the South, of course, but also among some in the North. White evangelicals were largely passive in response to lynching in the 1910s and 20s, and they were largely opposed to the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 60s. There is definitely a pattern there and though many of us like to think of ourselves as being post-racial today, I think Trump’s presidency has exposed a lot of problems. So I’m sure that there are a lot of white people in America, including white evangelicals, who are attracted to Trump because of his hostility toward immigrants and toward Muslims and his equivocation about the white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, and so forth. The fact that certain white evangelical leaders have expressed sympathy for Trump along these lines shows that it is part of his appeal.
Having said that, though, I don’t think we know how many white evangelicals have supported Trump in spite of these views, who find him dismaying and distasteful on race, but who voted for him because they thought he was a better choice than Hillary Clinton, or that they would get better Supreme Court nominees out of him, or who have calculated that he would be a more pro-life president. I’m sure that there were millions of people who fit into this category, but it’s hard to know with any precision where any given evangelical voter fits on the spectrum between disapproval and celebration.
R&P: You’ve been pretty vocal in your criticism of Trump. Do you think he can be supported in a way that is consistent with evangelical belief and practice?
TSK: This is just a personal commentary, of course, but I am sympathetic to almost any reaction that evangelicals can have to this political moment. I can understand why some would decide not to vote, or would vote for a third-party candidate, or would vote for a Democrat, or would reluctantly vote for Trump. I have a harder time accepting the idea of white evangelicals who are zealously supportive of Trump, because I see him as patently contradictory to the best of evangelical values. I would even suggest that his evangelical supporters should be chastened by his behavior. But I remain pretty disheartened by our current political options and so can understand a variety of responses to the situation.
R&P: Russell Moore had said at one point that the term “evangelical” had become too compromised by politics and that he might stop using it. Do you have a take on the term’s viability?
TSK: Well, as I said before, I think we’re stuck with it. So instead of abandoning it, I would recommend that committed evangelicals—including evangelical scholars—fight to redeem the term from the current political associations. We should also remind the media and the general public that “evangelical” is used around the world, in all sorts of different nations by all sorts of different ethnic groups. There are millions and millions of these individuals, most of whom are neither white nor Republican. We need to use the term in its broader sense, to refer both to the diverse global movement and to the different varieties of evangelicals in the United States.
R&P: As we move into another election year, what advice do you have for evangelical voters trying to make political decisions in light of their faith?
TSK: I think that Christians of all kinds are in a difficult situation at the moment, with our political options, the state of our political discourse, and the fractured nature of the republic and our political system. I think there is reason to grieve and to be sober about our situation. Historically, though, there have been a lot of times when people have been discouraged about the state of American politics, dating all the way back to the founding. In that sense, there is nothing new under the sun.
I guess my recommendation would be to try to ensure that it is your faith—and not something else—that is dictating your political views and decisions. This era has shown us that there are no perfect choices, but we must do our best to be faithful to what God has called us to do in our time and place.
And I would recommend that evangelical pastors try to be as sensitive and cautious as they can about not seeming to endorse one political party or another. There were definitely excesses of that during the Moral Majority era, and I think that these helped set the stage for Trump. There is some repairing and healing that needs to be done in evangelical churches over those excesses. One of the best things that evangelical pastors can do is to make clear to their audiences that an evangelical congregation should be a refuge from political divisions rather than a place that exacerbates them. As carefully as they can, I think pastors need to communicate to their congregations that they expect a diversity of political viewpoints within the body and that they not only accept this but endorse a climate of political difference. I think this would be very helpful for the tone of discourse within churches going into the 2020 election.