Evangelicals: Belief and Politics Today
A conversation with David Gushee and Marcia Pally
MP: During the early rounds of my field research for The New Evangelicals, we spoke about the range of evangelical belief and activism, from right to centrist to progressive. In 2007, Frank Page, president of the Southern Baptist Convention, said, “I have cautioned our denomination to be very careful not to be seen as in lock step with any political party.”
Yet today, roughly 80% of evangelicals declare themselves on the right of Christian belief and the right of the Republican party. On key issues, the breakdown looks like this:
What do you make of this?
DG: There are a few problems with talk about “evangelicals” regarding definition and sampling criteria. The term is less clear than denominational, racial, and geographical affiliations. But to the extent one can figure out who white American evangelicals are, it seems more about whiteness, American-ness, conservativeness, and region (often Southern) than about any religious concept. It’s quasi-tribal and certainly partisan toward Republican party loyalty. If you replaced “evangelical” with Fox News’s attitude on any issue, the results would be similar.
This may mean that the religious identity of American evangelicalism is collapsing and being subsumed by other loyalties. We’ve seen this in other countries, and it’s scary.
MP: The capitulation of the churches to Nazism?
DG: Yes, and Dutch Reformed Christians capitulating to apartheid and writing it into their theology, or nationalist Catholicism in Croatia or nationalist Orthodoxy in Serbia. Religion gets bound up in national, tribal politics, especially when people feel embattled. Whatever can be positively derived from the moral and religious heritage of these traditions begins to disappear.
MP: Yet we don’t see such loyalty to the Republican right among other Christian groups.
DG: Evangelicals are loyal not especially to a denomination but to a trans-denominational “brand.” This is being fueled non-denominationally often by popular preachers who, for forty years, have been propagandizing in a joint project with the political right to “take back America” through the Republican Party.
So, while the United Methodist church, for example, is trying to catechize its members in Methodist doctrine, there’s nobody catechizing free-range evangelicals in the same way. Whatever is on offer in non-denominational churches is more likely to be vulnerable to the ideologies of the moment and to a concerted campaign to bring conservative, white evangelicals into the Republican tent.
White evangelicals are being catechized away from the teachings of Jesus or the moral principles of the prophets into a white cultural tribalism. The teachings of Jesus are not functioning as the bottom line—other things are.
MP: If one is not responsible to the long-thought-through tradition of principles, one may be vulnerable to local ideologies. But there’s also an irony here, where evangelical traditions themselves may make evangelicals vulnerable to certain political ideologies.
The hallmark of the political right is “small government-ism”—a wariness of government and government programs and support for tax cuts that shrink government services and return money to the market, ostensibly to “we, the people.” Evangelicals, too, have a long wariness of government. Throughout the early modern era, they were persecuted by Europe’s states and state churches. Over time, their well-earned suspicion of government became threaded into their belief and worldview, leaving evangelicals well-positioned to lean “small government.”
On the one hand, suspicion of authorities has contributed to a healthy democratic questioning of the status quo and to robust civil society. But it also makes it more difficult to see where government programs are productive owing to economies of scale. For instance, government can negotiate with large pharmaceutical firms to lower medication costs while a town or church doesn’t have that leverage. In the end, historical wariness of government may make evangelicals sympathetic to “small government” Republicanism even when it doesn’t benefit evangelicals or the many needy whom churches work so hard to help. What a paradox.
DG: The Social Gospel, Walter Rauschenbusch, and others, advocated for government intervention in a cruel laissez-faire economy. Many evangelicals supported this before evangelicalism became anti-New Deal and anti-government intervention. Then, in the Civil Rights era, federal intervention overrode local legislation and mandated integration. The Supreme Court abortion decision overrode more conservative state law.
MP: For many, the Obergefell Supreme Court decision on same-sex marriage has the same feel of federal overreach.
DG: Yes, and all this set many white evangelicals against the federal government, which was reinforced by the Republicans under Reagan, who repeatedly attacked “big government” and attacked economic redistributionism by cutting taxes on the wealthiest. It’s a reflexive “small government-ism”—except when evangelicals want a big military and a robust federal government to prohibit abortion.
MP: The exception to small-government-ism has always been national security—after all, the country was born in a war against a foreign power. This includes opposition to immigration, seen as a national security issue …
DG: … which allows support for a massive government apparatus to control the borders and deport people, even though evangelicals are for “small government.”
MP: One of the most troubling things about other priorities being written into theology is that it becomes harder to isolate economic, political, or racist positions and evaluate them in light of Jesus’s lessons and the prophetic voice.
DG: Confusion about what discipleship requires for economic and racial justice, welcoming the stranger, peacemaking, etc. are not new. If there is today a surrender to alien ideologies, there was some set-up for that surrender in advance. Those ideologies have already been woven into the folk theology of the people.
Various efforts have been made to articulate a public theology for evangelicals. Rich Cizik, Ron Sider, and I tried, under the National Association of Evangelicals and in various declarations, to establish first principles. But you can’t manufacture a tradition from scratch. If the pope says that welcoming the stranger and a humane immigration policy are required by doctrine, that carries heft that nothing in Protestantism matches. The pope gets resistance, and people don’t necessarily obey, but people are aware of his position, and it matters. The issue of authority—whose voice matters—is always up for grabs in Protestantism, and more so among evangelicals because the denominational structure isn’t there.
Sometimes I gain hope from young evangelicals who are thinking in a more holistic way, often because of what college professors are having them read. But in general, I’m pessimistic about the future of evangelicalism.
MP: How ironic that evangelicalism’s grassroots history and relatively light hierarchies have meant both evangelical right-wing-ism and progressivism. It was just this anti-authoritarianism that made evangelicals progressive until the mid-twentieth century. Here we see the other side of the coin, where a grassroots structure is not equipped to resist organized and funded political groups that target white evangelicals …
DG: … and target them where they are vulnerable, where they have already been infected by racism, for example.
MP: What would you say now to today’s evangelicals?
DG: I’ll offer a challenge: the meaningfulness of the religious claims of white evangelicals is being contested within the evangelical community and by observers who are recoiling at what they see. I call on evangelical pastors, professors, and scholars to name these problems and attack them with courage. Much is at stake.
Photo via Unsplash and edited by Dan Wilkinson.
About David Gushee
David Gushee is Mercer University’s Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and current president of the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Christian Ethics. His most recent book is Still Christian: Following Jesus Out of American Evangelicalism. Among his other works are Righteous Gentiles of the Holocaust, Kingdom Ethics, The Sacredness of Human Life, and, Changing Our Mind (thinking with evangelicals about the LGBT rights). He has also been a powerful voice in the press, writing for the Washington Post, Huffington Post, Baptist News Global, and Religion News Service.
About Marcia Pally
Marcia Pally teaches at New York University, Fordham University, and is a regular guest professor at the theology faculty of Humboldt University (Berlin). Her most recent books are Commonwealth and Covenant: Economics, Politics, and Theologies of Relationality and The New Evangelicals: Expanding the Vision of the Common Good, on evangelicals who have left the political right. In addition to her academic work, she writes on religion, culture, and politics for such publications as Religion and Ethics, The Guardian, Commonweal, Religion New Service, and Telos.