Saving It Depends on How You Define It.
By Bob Smietana
On paper, Jemar Tisby looks like a perfect evangelical.
He came to faith in an evangelical youth group, joined an evangelical church, and even went to an evangelical seminary.
There was just one problem. As an African-American, he never felt he fit in.
“I always felt like an outsider—because of my race, my culture and my politics,” says Tisby, a doctoral student and founder of The Witness, formerly known as the Reformed African American Network (RAAN). “I found I could not fully be myself.”
Eventually, Tisby dumped the evangelical label altogether. He’s got company.
About a third of Americans who hold evangelical beliefs shun the term “evangelical,” according to Lifeway Research.
That’s especially true for African-Americans. About 30 percent of African-Americans hold evangelical beliefs, but only 15 percent call themselves evangelicals.
Meanwhile, only about half of self-identified evangelicals strongly agree with core evangelical beliefs on the Bible, Jesus, evangelism and salvation.
In other words, evangelicals have issues.
A Divided Movement
They’re divided by race and politics. And the current polarized culture in the United States makes matters worse for the largest Christian tradition in the nation.
Add in a few divisive elections and the evangelical movement risks fragmenting.
“I don’t think I know what the word ‘evangelical’ means anymore,” wrote National Review columnist David French recently.
French, who grew up in the Churches of Christ, says he embraced the term “evangelical” when he left that tradition.
For him, the term meant conservative Christians who loved Jesus and the Bible and who wanted to share their faith. It was also a term that united believers from different backgrounds.
“It broadcast that you took your faith seriously, but you didn’t obsess over denominational differences,” he wrote recently. “Within evangelical circles the term was a clear marker of friendship and unity.”
Today, he’s willing to give up the word. It’s too divisive, he argues, and applies only to white Christians.
Derwin Gray agrees.
Ask non-Christians to define the word evangelical, Gray says, and they’ll tell you it means white conservative Christian. Meanwhile, evangelical believers who are African-American, Latino or Asian-American don’t seem to count.
“It seems like we get left out of the conversation,” says Gray, pastor of Transformation Church, in Indian Land, South Carolina.
Gray uses the term evangelical when talking to other pastors—but not when he’s describing Transformation, a multiethnic congregation. It’s a place where the politics and congregation are diverse.
“We will have someone with a ‘Make America Great’ hat sitting next to someone wearing a ‘Black Lives Matter’ T-shirt,” he says.
“We would call ourselves a New Testament local church that is committed to the Great Commandment and the Great Commission.”
Changing the conversation about evangelicals will take time, says Scott McConnell, executive director of Lifeway Research.
That’s in part because the label has many meanings—about belief, belonging and behavior.
It’s a theological term about beliefs, referencing the Christian mission of sharing the good news about Jesus.
It’s also a term about belonging, as it describes Protestants from denominations and church traditions who cooperate on that mission.
And it’s a term used to describe the voting patterns of a segment of conservative Christians.
McConnell points to the New Testament Greek word euangelion, which means “good news.” That’s where the word “evangelical” comes from—and the best way to define the term, he says.
Still, McConnell says pollsters see the term as useful because white conservative Christians are a significant voting bloc.
And they’ve become increasingly partisan.
For example, in 1999, 57 percent of self-identified white evangelicals supported Republicans and 36 percent favored Democrats, according to Pew Research.
By 2016, 76 percent favored Republicans, while only 20 percent supported Democrats.
But McConnell is concerned that polling groups have failed to even report results from evangelicals of color.
“If you only care about a portion of a religious group, you are not reporting on that religious group,” he says.
In 2005, Gallup described its method for determining who qualifies as an evangelical. Pollsters first asked people whether they called themselves either born again or evangelical.
Then they excluded all Catholics. Then they excluded African-Americans.
Gallup polling found that 70 percent of African Americans said they were either evangelical or born-again Christians. But they were excluded because they vote differently than white evangelicals.
“For most practical, analytic purposes, including blacks in the mix of those defined as evangelical makes little sense,” argued Frank Newport and Joseph Carroll of Gallup in 2005.
In recent years, the National Association of Evangelicals and Lifeway Research have developed a new polling model to identify evangelicals based on beliefs.
They’ve developed a set of four questions about the Bible, Jesus, salvation and evangelism. Those who strongly agree with all four are considered to be evangelicals by belief.
Focusing on faith, rather than voting blocs, is a first step toward correctly using the term “evangelical,” McConnell believes.
“When we are talking about religion, we care about theology, not politics,” says McConnell. “How one votes may be the litmus test for politics, but it is not the best indicator of one’s beliefs about Jesus Christ.”
According to a recent Lifeway Research poll, there are major differences between self-identified evangelicals and those who strongly hold evangelical beliefs.
Those who hold evangelical beliefs go to church more and are more diverse—ethnically and politically—than self-identified evangelicals.
Among self-identified evangelicals, 70 percent are white, 14 percent are African-American, 12 percent are Hispanic and 4 percent claim another ethnicity.
By contrast, 58 percent of those with evangelical beliefs are white, 23 percent are African-American and 14 percent are Hispanic. Five percent claim another ethnicity.
Despite their common faith, evangelical believers are divided by politics and race, according to the Lifeway Research study.
Eighty percent of white evangelical believers are Republicans or lean Republican. Sixty-two percent of evangelical believers of color are Democrats or lean Democratic.
“Race and party affiliation are better predictors of how someone votes than theological beliefs,” says McConnell.
“Still it’s clear that evangelical believers disagree about politics. And most of the disagreements fall along racial lines.”
While they share the same beliefs, evangelicals don’t often share the same churches. They are often segregated on Sunday mornings. And they disagree on whether that should change.
A 2015 Lifeway Research study found that 71 percent of evangelicals say their church is diverse enough. White churchgoers (37 percent) are least likely to want their church to become more diverse.
By contrast, about half of African-American (51 percent) and Hispanic (47 percent) churchgoers say their church should be more diverse.
Dealing with racial divides is hard for evangelicals because of the way their faith functions, says Michael Emerson, co-author of Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America.
In the late 1990s, Emerson and his co-author, sociologist Christian Smith, studied how evangelicals talk about race.
At the time, racial reconciliation was a major emphasis for evangelicals—from Billy Graham to the millions of men who gather for Promise Keepers events.
White evangelicals saw racial divides as mostly an individual problem—the sins of a few prejudiced people. For African-American Christians, racism was a systemic problem.
“Permeating most aspects of society like the air they breathe, it may never die,” Smith and Emerson wrote.
As a result, white Christians wanted reconciliation—to build strong friendships with black Christians, says Emerson. But they didn’t want to deal with bigger societal effects of racism.
“Here we are 20 years later, and we haven’t made a lot of progress,” he says. “We have had the time of trying to come together—and so we are moving back to a time of being apart.”
Emerson is doing a follow-up study and has found that younger Christians of color are turned off by the term “reconciliation.”
“They think it means assimilation,” Emerson says.
Instead, he said, they want to talk about how white culture has shaped evangelical culture and institutions—and how that will change as the country and the church become more diverse.
At the same time, the evangelical movement is rapidly moving from a mostly white movement to a multiethnic enterprise.
While older self-identified evangelicals (96 percent) are almost all white, according to Lifeway Research, young evangelicals are much more diverse.
Only about half (53 percent) are white. The rest are Christians of color.
Ironically, Christians of color might walk away from the evangelical movement just as it’s getting more diverse, says Emerson.
He worries the term may end up being claimed only by white Christians.
Hope for the Future?
Tisby is also skeptical about the future of the term “evangelical”—and of the movement in general. He worries evangelicals won’t ever come to grips with how race has shaped the country and their movement.
“There has yet to be an honest accounting of racism in this country and, more to the point, there has yet to be an honest accounting of racism in the church,” he says.
Until that happens, he says, “the term evangelical cannot be redeemed.”
George Yancey, professor of sociology at the University of North Texas, is a little more hopeful.
He believes a new kind of evangelicalism—more diverse, with communities based on faith rather than politics—could rise from the conflicts over the term “evangelical.”
And it could attract many people who currently feel at odds with evangelicals but are looking for meaning in life.
“If we can rebuild our evangelical communities, then we will be in a position to become attractive to many individuals who today do not value our faith,” he wrote recently.
McConnell agrees. He believes the theological meaning of “evangelical” still matters—and isn’t going away.
“I don’t think the biblical word ‘evangelical’ and the mission of sharing the good news of Jesus Christ will go away, so I don’t think it needs saving,” he says.
BOB SMIETANA (@BobSmietana) is senior writer for Facts & Trends.