Magazine article The Christian Century

The Politics of Whiteness: The Racial Basis of American Evangelicalism

Magazine article The Christian Century

The Politics of Whiteness: The Racial Basis of American Evangelicalism

Article excerpt

IN THE 2016 ELECTION, 81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Donald Trump--a statistic that has attracted enormous attention from media, scholars, and evangelicals themselves. That piece of data also raises some obvious questions: How could a group so concerned about personal morality vote for a thrice-married casino mogul? How could pro-family Christians vote for a man who admitted freely on tape to sexual assault?

Over the past year, questions like these have consumed many of us who study American evangelicalism, and for good reason. The past 35 years have witnessed an outpouring of historical scholarship about American evangelicals, work that has greatly enhanced our understanding. But somehow this scholarship (my own work included) did not prepare us to understand why white evangelicals turned out so strongly for Trump and why they continue to remain his most ardent supporters.

Part of the problem is that in characterizing evangelicals, historians have relied on David Bebbington's four-pronged characterization: evangelicals are Christians who (1) focus on the importance of conversion; (2) support activism, particularly in missionary efforts to spread the gospel; (3) display a high regard for biblical authority; and (4) stress the centrality of the cross, with an emphasis on Jesus' work of substitutionary atonement. Bebbington's definition appears on the website of the National Association of Evangelicals as well as in countless books and lectures about the movement. It suggests that the heart of evangelicalism lies in its beliefs about God, salvation, and the Bible.

The problem with this approach was captured in the headline of an article published by Life Way, a Southern Baptist news outlet: "Many who call themselves evangelical don't actually hold evangelical beliefs" (Dec. 6, 2017). Besides reporting that fewer than 45 percent of self-identified evangelicals strongly hold to classic evangelical beliefs, the article stated that the converse is also true: a significant number of evangelical believers reject the term evangelical. So if self-identified evangelicals don't buy into supposedly evangelical beliefs, and a third of those who do believe those things don't identify as evangelical, don't we need a better definition?

The answer is yes. Though Bebbington's definition has been useful for theologically grouping a diverse set of believers, it is not necessarily the most useful way to mark the boundaries of what is often meant by the term evangelical. In fact, what most distinguishes white American evangelicals from other

Christians, other religious groups, and nonbelievers is not theology but politics. White evangelicals in the early 21st century display attitudes about issues such as race, war, and immigration that differentiate them from other religious groups. White evangelicals have also become the most reliable bloc of Republican voters.

Other religious groups voted for Trump as well, but none did so at the 81 percent level that white evangelicals did. Among Protestants, 58 percent voted for Trump; among white Catholics, 60 percent voted for Trump; among Mormons, 61 percent. In April 2017, approval of Trump had dropped among white mainline Protestants to 50 percent and among white Catholics to 53 percent. But among white evangelicals his approval rating stayed high, at 78 percent.

White evangelicals are also outliers on social and political issues. Before the school shootings in Parkland, Florida, only 38 percent of them favored stricter gun laws, compared to 57 percent of white mainline Protestants and 67 percent of Catholics. Exactly 50 percent of white mainline Protestants and white Catholics approved of Trump's ban on refugees from seven Muslim-majority nations when it was announced last year; an overwhelming 76 percent of white evangelicals supported the policy. Racial minorities display even greater disagreements with white evangelicals than did other white Christians. …

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