With some megachurches accepting gays, and Millennials spreading the gospel in increasing numbers, it’s time for a fresh look at what it means to be evangelical in America.
By Laura Turner
(Illustration: Christopher Griffith)
Evangelicals are no longer the reliable right-wing voting bloc they once were. With the decline of the Moral Majority, the framework for evangelical participation in public life is shifting, and the splintering of this group — 25.4 percent of the United States — means that its influence will be felt in new and surprising ways.
Meanwhile, the definition of “evangelical” is more expansive than we often acknowledge. It can refer to someone who places great import on the moment of religious conversion. It can mean someone who believes sharing their faith is the ultimate goal of their life. It can mean someone who believes Jesus will return to Earth.
It used to be the case that “evangelical” referred to a largely white, politically homogenous group of people. Now, the group is growing in ethnic diversity. Latinos make up 11 percent of evangelicals in America, and they are coming from Pentecostal and charismatic backgrounds. And, while some black Christians are reticent to identify as evangelical because the label doesn’t necessarily correspond with their voting habits, they do place a premium on sharing their faith and emphasizing conversion, two central elements in any definition of evangelicalism.
From Israel to the economy, gay issues to green, evangelical communities are evolving — even as we continue to treat this heterogeneous group as a monolith. Here’s all you need to know.
Bible as the Law
Ronald Reagan’s declaration that “within the covers of the Bible are all the answers for all the problems men face” wouldn’t resonate among today’s leaders. It’s not that politicians don’t still appeal to the Good Book for their decision-making, but they are aware that we live in a more pluralistic society than ever. People with no religious affiliation are a fast-growing group, representing one-third of the population under 30 in the U.S.
As the relationship between evangelicals and the Republican Party grows more complex, church leaders are recognizing that the Bible belongs more in sanctuaries than at the Capitol. Yet there are still evangelicals who see the Bible as having been codified in government from the beginning: “I don’t believe America is a Christian nation, but it was certainly founded on Christian principles,” says Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University, an evangelical school founded by Jerry Falwell. “The laws of the Bible that concern loving our neighbor are already written into U.S. laws. I believe that the Constitution contains within it sufficient Biblical principles for our nation to be a just and good nation for all people.”
(Illustration: Christopher Griffith)
The practice of evangelism is on the rise among younger people. Almost every other age group — excepting those age 68 and older, who raised the number by an insignificant 1 percent — professed a decline in the importance they place on sharing their faith between 2010 and 2013. But the practice of evangelism, a.k.a. proselytizing, doesn’t vary only by age; it also varies by income. The same survey showed that individuals with low incomes (under $39,000 annually) are the most likely of any income bracket to share their faith. Proselytizing by those in the middle-income bracket ($40,000 to $60,000) has declined from 51 percent of evangelical adults in 2010 to 37 percent in 2013. Moreover, while evangelism is practiced more by Millennials than by their aging counterparts, Millennials make up a smaller percentage of evangelical Christians than Gen-Xers and Baby Boomers. The future of evangelical Christianity is passionate, but it is also shrinking — and growing older by the day.
The infusion of Latinos into evangelical churches has significant consequences, and the move is happening quickly: Latinos are the fastest-growing group within evangelicals. What does that mean for the future of evangelicalism?
When it comes to voting, “I hope that we have diverse churches,” says the Reverend Dr. Gabriel Salguero, president of the National Latino Evangelical Coalition. “Because we’re Latino, people think we’re Democrats; because we’re evangelical, people think we’re Republican.” But Latino evangelicals defy easy party labels, having constituted key majorities in the elections of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. As Salguero noted, “We’re the quintessential independent voter because we have high priorities around social conservatism — Hispanic evangelicals tend to be socially conservative on issues of marriage and life and all that — but progressive on issues of economics, housing, and immigration.” The changing face of evangelicalism in America is Latino.
There are four large evangelical churches in the U.S. that now explicitly accept LGBT people as members.
Embracing the LGBT community is a significant move within evangelicalism, which has traditionally held that any non-heterosexual expression of desire is a sin. As that belief changes, this growing acceptance is reflective of attitudes writ large: In 2001, the Pew Research Center found that only 13 percent of white evangelical Protestants supported gay marriage; by 2015, the number had risen to 24 percent.
A version of this story first appeared in the July/August 2016 issue of Pacific Standard.
For these churches, changing their position on sexuality is not an exception to faith, but a result of it. “We were thrust by a divine wind into a … careful and hopeful conversation regarding sexual orientation,” Pastor Stan Mitchell preached to his congregation at GracePointe in January 2015.
Not everything is trending leftward in evangelical Christianity. In 2007, 35 percent of evangelicals believed that environmental regulations were not worth the economic damage they did, agreeing with the statement that “stricter environmental laws and regulations cost too many jobs and hurt the economy.” Seven years later, 48 percent agreed. Even as “creation care,” a movement within Christianity to protect the Earth and focus on sustainability, has grown more popular in recent years, fewer evangelicals think the national cost of protecting the environment is a smart move. You could credit this reluctance to the cyclical effect: the idea that the national mood shifts depending on who is in the White House. But there are a number of other factors at play, including a recent poll finding that 77 percent of white evangelical Protestants believe the severity of recent natural disasters could be attributed to Biblical “end times,” and 64 percent of white evangelicals prefer a small government over a large one, which would presumably include opposing what they see as governmental overreach in the environment.
The Israel Question
Forty-six percent of white evangelicals say the U.S. is not sufficiently supportive of Israel, compared with only 31 percent of American Jews.
(Illustration: Christopher Griffith)
Israel has always held a special place in evangelical theology. Even though Jews and Christians disagree about the divinity of Jesus, support for Israel has long been a central tenet of evangelical Christianity in America. In 1998, Jerry Falwell, an architect of the Moral Majority and the founder of Liberty University, worked with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to mobilize evangelical churches to oppose the expansion of Palestine. Drawing its name from a passage in the book of Isaiah, a program called On Wings of Eagles (established by the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews) provides assistance for Jews who live in embattled, anti-Semitic environments and helps them re-settle in Israel.
Since 2010, a group of evangelical Christians living in Palestine has held a biennial conference called Christ at the Checkpoint. Meant to address the Israel-Palestine conflict with sympathy for both sides, Christ at the Checkpoint and its supporters have come under fire from conservative American evangelicals and Messianic Jews living in Israel, who bridle at anything less than unquestioning, vociferous support for the Israeli cause.