Thinking Out Loud

January 29, 2018

What Does American Evangelicals Electing Trump Say About the Movement?

In Canada we have no fixed Evangelical voting block. Consensus from my church peers on any candidate — municipal, provincial or federal — might be hard to come by.

But if Evangelicals in the U.S. could elect one such as Donald Trump, what does that say about the movement as a whole? Could it happen with Canadian Evangelicals, or Australian Evangelicals?

Skye Jethani probes the fallout from the November, 2017 election in an article too long to print in full here. But I want to share some highlights while strongly encouraging you to click the title below.

Who’s Really Leading Evangelicalism, the Shepherds or the Sheep? (Hint: it’s not the shepherds)

by Skye Jethani

Twenty years ago, when I was engaged to my future wife, a counselor told me, “The key to a successful marriage is not who you are on your wedding day, but who you are becoming. Healthy couples grow together over time, not apart.”

Based on that wisdom, the marriage between American evangelicals and their leaders is heading for divorce. What began following World War II as a marriage between evangelical leaders like Graham, Ockenga, and Henry seeking a biblical form of culturally-engaged Christianity and ordinary Christians tired of fundamentalism’s strident separatism, has now splintered into a house divided.

Since 81 percent of white evangelical voters lifted Donald Trump to the presidency, many of evangelicalism’s leaders are wondering what’s happened to the movement they are supposed to be guiding but hardly recognize anymore. For the last year they’ve been asking tough questions: Can evangelicals support immoral candidates and not lose their moral authority? How did “evangelical” go from a theological label to a political one? And, Who’s a real evangelical anyway? 

These questions have flooded blogs, editorials, and even the mainstream media via articles by luminaries like Tim KellerMark Galli, and Russell Moore

All of this soul searching and hand wringing, however, is unlikely to have much impact because, as Michael Lindsay has observed, “There is a growing divide between ordinary evangelicals and evangelical leaders.”…Those evangelicals who lead denominations, para-church organizations, relief and mission agencies, who write well researched books, and publish editorials in The New Yorker may walk the halls of power but they are not the voices actually shaping popular evangelicalism. In fact, there’s growing evidence that even local pastors are having less influence on the evangelicals filling their churches.

During the 2016 election, for example, polls found evangelical pastors ranked Mr. Trump last among Republican candidates while ordinary evangelicals consistently put the malcontent mogul at the top of their lists…

A 2016 survey by LifeWay Research found that despite claiming to be Christians, most Americans hold unorthodox and even heretical beliefs. That’s not very surprising. What is surprising, however, were the findings when LifeWay used strict criteria to isolate the responses of committed evangelicals. As reported by G. Shane Morris, “Everyone expected [evangelicals] to perform better than most Americans. No one expected them to perform worse.” LifeWay found that evangelicals were more likely than Americans in general to hold heretical beliefs about Jesus, the Trinity, and salvation. Based on the survey, if you’re curious about the Bible and Christian faith you’re better off asking a stranger on the street than the average churchgoing evangelical.

Despite an emphasis on the Bible and teaching in most evangelical churches, and despite the avalanche of resources offered via evangelical media and publishing, ordinary evangelicals are not being shaped by the orthodox views held by the elite evangelicals producing this content.

Furthermore, there’s evidence to suggest ordinary evangelicals are not adopting the views of their own pastors on key matters of doctrine either. Roughly half of evangelicals have dispensational beliefs about the end times. (Think Left Behind, the rapture, antichrist, etc.) While a much smaller percentage of evangelical pastors hold these views, and among pastors with seminary and theological training—the evangelical elites—the number drops even lower.

So, the data suggests there are dramatically different sets of theological, cultural, and political views held by those leading evangelical institutions and those populating them. Of course, one should expect some distance between the views of leaders and followers within any group. After all, without a gap there is no where for leaders to lead.

However, the dramatic disparities now evident between elite and average evangelicals on politics, social issues, public policies, and even doctrine is alarming. It signals something much more disturbing and, I fear, unsustainable. It verifies the divide Michael Lindsay identified a decade ago, now, however, the gap may be so wide that it may be incorrect to call elite evangelicals “leaders” at all, because if no one is following are they really leading?…

…I’ve also spoken to administrators at evangelical colleges navigating increasingly frequent conflicts between faculty (elite evangelical) and the parents of students (ordinary evangelicals) who are distrustful of campuses that affirm political, cultural, and intellectual diversity. The “big tent” evangelicalism championed by Billy Graham 70 years ago and embraced by institutions like Fuller, Wheaton, and Gordon is being challenged by siege-mentality evangelicals wanting a safe place for their kids to avoid liberals and their ideas. “We haven’t moved one inch from our evangelical convictions,” one exasperated university official told me. “It’s the people in the churches who’ve changed.”

I suspect in the coming years there will be a reckoning. Apart from a dramatic realignment or unforeseen intervention, the center will not hold and the divide between elite and ordinary evangelicals will become an irreparable breach. Evangelical’s elites will find themselves having to choose between finding new pastures or maintaining their institutions by falling in line with, rather than shepherding, the sheep.

As the divorce between elite and ordinary evangelicals becomes more likely, one question remains unanswered. Who will get the kids?


Again, that was highlights; you’re encouraged to scroll back up and click on the title to read it all. You might want to send the link to friends as well. I received a copy of this in email this morning because I’m subscribed to Skye’s newsletter.

 

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