Opinion

Has U.S. evangelical Christianity become more a political culture than a religion?

The sharpest opinions on the debate from around the web

Christianity is on its way to minority status in the U.S., according to a recent study from Pew Research. But what if Christianity is already losing its religion? 

A new biennial survey of U.S. Christian beliefs from Ligonier Ministries and LifeWay Research found a lot of heretical beliefs — notably Arianism, a 4th-century belief that Jesus was the son of God but not divine like him — even among evangelical Christians who otherwise take the Bible quite literally

For example, 43 percent of evangelicals said Jesus was "not God" and 65 percent seemed to disagree with the doctrine of original sin. On hot-button social issues like abortion and sex outside of heterosexual marriage, however, evangelicals were nearly unanimous that they are sins. White American evangelicals are overwhelmingly Republican and live largely in the South. Has this most American of religions become less a religion and more a political culture?

Yes, evangelicalism is becoming a political club

White U.S. evangelicals were more politically heterogeneous until the 1980s, when they started flocking to the Republican Party, but "evangelicals' beliefs are often molded by political and cultural allegiances, not just biblical texts," Kristin Kobes Du Mez, a professor of history at Calvin University, writes in The Washington Post. And "over the past half-century, conservative evangelicals have reoriented their views to champion strong masculine protectors who fight for faith, family, and nation."

That largely explains why white evangelicals are among the loyalist supporters of former President Donald Trump, who does not share their professed morality or fealty to scripture, Kobes Du Mez writes. "Increasingly, those who identify as evangelical are aligning not primarily with a theological system but with a cultural and political identity."

With this new Ligonier survey, "Kobes Du Mez's argument that evangelicalism is a culture rather than a set of beliefs has never looked stronger," writes Jacob Huneycutt, a student of Baptist history at Baylor University. "This problem could be remedied, friends, if we actually catechized our kids. How many of these evangelicals grew up doing 'True Love Waits' campaigns and watching pro-life films but have never heard of the word 'catechism,' even still?" 

Extramarital abstinence and opposing abortion are important, Huneycutt adds. "Jesus' divinity and original sin are more important, though. They are the foundations of our belief."

Evangelicals are religious but too focused on sexual purity

The term evangelical "has become so laced with politics that millions of Christians identify themselves as 'evangelicals' simply because they're Republican and they're Christian," David French writes at The Atlantic. "The word has become such a tribal signifier that, in many households, evangelical Christianity is little more than a God-and-country lifestyle brand." But the Ligonier/LifeWays survey winnows those cultural evangelicals out, and it turns out even American "theological evangelicals" have "a Jesus problem." 

"A traditional, orthodox evangelical sexual ethic" is good, but "the core of the faith is not its moral codes but rather faith in the person of Jesus Christ," French writes. "When the church leads with its moral code — and elevates that moral code over even the most basic understandings of Jesus Christ himself — the effect isn't humility and hope; it's pride and division. When the church chooses a particular sin as its defining apostasy (why sex more than racism, or greed, or gluttony, or cruelty?), it perversely lowers the standards of holy living by narrowing the Christian moral vision," leaving "a weaker religion" populated by millions of Christians who, "in the quest for morality" have "lost sight of Jesus."

American culture is corrupting evangelicalism

The State of Theology survey "reveals that the overwhelming majority of U.S. evangelicals have accepted a view of human identity that aligns more with American society than the teaching of the Bible," Ligonier Ministries argues. "While positive trends are present, including evangelicals' views on abortion and sex outside of marriage, an inconsistent biblical ethic is also evident, with more evangelicals embracing a secular worldview in the areas of homosexuality and gender identity."

What's wrong with cultural evangelicalism?

Growing up evangelical, "I was taught that a cultural Christian was one of the worst things a person could be," Jenell Williams Paris, a sociology professor at Messiah College, writes at CBE International. "They were nominal and lukewarm," using "church as a social club," while we "committed Christians" were "born again, pursued a personal relationship with God, attended church, and did good works in the world."

Now, "I remain evangelical for cultural reasons, which I suppose makes me a cultural evangelical," Williams Paris writes. I'm still a "committed Christian," but "my evangelicalism is embedded in American culture," and "I'm glad American culture socialized me for gender equality, educational success, and a life that includes service in the public sphere."

"Being a cultural evangelical in this sense is not a weak attachment to tradition or to God," Williams Paris goes on, "but a recognition of how deeply we are shaped by culture, and how successful evangelicalism can be in molding individuals into a Christian way of life."

What's wrong with political evangelicalism?

White evangelical Christianity is actually undergoing a sort of schismatic split between one camp that favors Trump-style messaging, politics, and conspiracy theorizing, and those who follow the traditional evangelical path of avoiding politics as antithetical to biblical, University of Illinois Chicago sociologist Michael Emerson tells The New York Times

"There's a great separation taking place," agrees Wade Lentz, "patriot" pastor of Beryl Baptist Church in Vilonia, Arkansas. "A lot of people are getting tired of going to church and hearing this message: 'Hey, it's a great day, every day is a great day, the sun is always shining.' There's this big disconnect between what's going on behind the pulpit in those churches and what's going on in the real world."

"This mindset that Christianity and politics, and the preacher and politics, need to be separate, that's a lie," Lentz tells the Times. "You cannot separate the two."

Evangelicals can't serve both God and mammon

"There's this line I hear from evangelical pastors these days — 'I get them for one hour a week and Fox gets them for 10 hours,'" New York Times reporter Ruth Graham recounts on The Daily, in a look at how one conservative Arkansas pastor was driven from his church because his congregants wanted Trumpist affirmation more than Christian transformation. "Now people might be getting an extra hour of exactly what they're hearing the rest of the week, and now it's from their pastor. So the person who is at the center of their religious life now is feeding them more of the politics and reinforcing their political beliefs."

Ed Stetzer, the executive director of Wheaton College's Billy Graham Center, offered a similar assessment to The Atlantic but said this is a "cultural convulsion" that cycles through American evangelicalism every few decades.

Evangelicals certainly haven't cornered the market on making self-righteous, cherry-picked claims about the Bible, but their support for "neo-pagan warlords like Donald Trump" and other Christian nationalists "has less to do with Christianity in any recognizable form than with the sanctification of entirely secular cultural passions with the unshakable faith owed only to God given to politicians," Ed Kilgore writes at New York magazine. "You can choose to follow your culture wars into partisan politics or even authoritarianism and insurrectionary violence, like the not-so-spiritual warriors of Jan. 6. But please, please, be honest about your motives and leave your savior and mine out of it."

"From one perspective, the Christian embrace of populist politics is understandable," Michael Gerson writes in The Washington Post. "The disorienting flux of American ethical norms and the condescension of progressive elites have incited a defensive reaction among many conservative religious people," and "anxious evangelicals have taken to voting for right-wing authoritarians who promise to fight their fights," including "the oddest of political messiahs — one whose deception, brutality, lawlessness, and bullying were rewarded with the presidency."

"In the present day, the frightening fervor of our politics makes it resemble, and sometimes supplant, the role of religion," Gerson adds. "Nowhere did Jesus demand political passivity from his followers," but "Christians seeking social influence should do so not by joining interest groups that fight for their narrow rights — and certainly not those animated by hatred, fear, phobias, vengeance, or violence. Rather, they should seek to be ambassadors of a kingdom of hope, mercy, justice, and grace. This is a high calling — and a test that most of us (myself included) are always finding new ways to fail."

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