A “toxic evangelicalism” has spread a fake news Gospel that betrays the good news of Jesus Christ, a leading evangelical told a Chicago gathering of more than fifty other leaders who agree that the word “evangelical” has become widely associated with radical right-wing politics and needs to be reclaimed.
“This gathering emerges instead from worry, sorrow, anger, and bewilderment—whether we are Democrats or Republicans,” said Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. “Christians in both parties found the others’ candidate patently unacceptable, leading to fierce division. Many felt cornered without a genuine choice when the issues represented are complex and fear is justified.” Labberton continued:
The central crisis facing us is that the gospel of Jesus Christ has been betrayed and shamed by an evangelicalism that has violated its own moral and spiritual integrity.
This is not a crisis imposed from outside the household of faith, but from within. The core of the crisis is not specifically about Trump, or Hillary, or Obama, or the electoral college, or Comey, or Mueller, or abortion, or LGBTQIA+ debates, or Supreme Court appointees. Instead the crisis is caused by the way a toxic evangelicalism has engaged with these issues in such a way as to turn the gospel into Good News that is fake. Now on public display is an indisputable collusion between prominent evangelicalism and many forms of insidious racist, misogynistic, materialistic, and political power. The wind and the rain and the floods have come, and, as Jesus said, they will reveal our foundation. In this moment for evangelicalism, what the storms have exposed is a foundation not of solid rock but of sand.
The closed-door meeting was held on April 17-18 at Wheaton College, a prominent liberal arts evangelical school. As if on cue, a new national poll released April 17 added an exclamation mark to the concerns of those gathered in Chicago. As Newsweek put it:
A new poll suggests that President Donald Trump’s base of white evangelical support was not hurt at all by his lawyer’s hush money to Stormy Daniels, nor by allegations that the married president had a yearlong affair with a former Playboy bunny shortly after first lady Melania Trump gave birth to their son, Barron. On the contrary, as reports of the president’s infidelities and shady business deals have piled up, white evangelical Protestants—among the nation’s most socially conservative, law-and-order voters—have only come to hold more favorable attitudes about him….
White evangelical Protestants have only grown more Trump-drunk since the election. In October 2017, 73 percent of white evangelicals supported Trump.
Now, according to a poll conducted in late March, after the Stormy Daniels story was widely discussed, support has risen to a record 75 percent. The new poll, to be released today by PRRI, also shows Trump has the lowest unfavorable ratings—22 percent—among evangelicals in any survey since PRRI first asked the Trump question in 2015.
But PRRI research shows that the numbers of evangelicals are falling, and young people are fleeing. The Newsweek article said:
Evangelicals’ fervent support of Trump is not universally shared by a crucial, and rapidly evaporating, subset of the white evangelicals—their children—who are leaving the faith in droves over its anti-LGBT and anti-science positions.
Only 35 percent of white evangelicals are under the age of 50, compared with 54 percent of the population, according to the PRRI. And they are bleeding youth: Only 8 percent of white evangelicals are under the age of 30, compared with 21 percent of the American population….
Many white evangelical churches have staked out positions—not just on same-sex marriage and abortion but on climate change, evolution, and other issues—that are at odds with the attitudes of younger Americans, the PRRI polls find. “These hard line stances have set up a culture clash that leaves many young people feeling out of touch with the institution and ultimately walking out the door as a result,” Jones said. “Part of the reason white Evangelicals have been losing numbers over the last decade is not because of their support for the kind of rhetoric they have branded themselves with. It really is around young people and the strong anti-gay stance.”Many white evangelical churches have staked out positions—not just on same-sex marriage and abortion but on climate change, evolution, and other issues—that are at odds with the attitudes of younger Americans, the PRRI polls find.A growing group of online social movements, started by millennials and calling themselves #Exvangelicals and #ChurchToo, reflect the trend. The online movements, which have clocked tens of thousands of hashtagged Tweets in the last year, have been walloping faith leaders daily over the hypocritical distance between their ultra-conservative teachings, and their support of the legal norm-flouting Trump.
Historian and writer Christopher Stroop, 37, and an instructor at University of South Florida, was raised in a fundamentalist Christian community. He has spearheaded a number of social media hashtags, including #EmptyThePews and #RaptureAnxiety, to provide an online platform for ex-evangelicals to share experiences on everything from being forced to go on “mission trips” to evangelize indigenous peoples, to having to deal with what they call “rapture anxiety”—the belief, drummed into them from a young age, that God will swoop down at any moment and take all the good people away to heaven, leaving nonbelievers to die in the horrible, Biblically predicted Apocalypse.
“I have seen evangelicals say they left after Trump,” Stroop said. “I see people distancing themselves from the label.”
“The ex-evangelicals support group continues to grow,” he added.Stroop, who left the faith when he was in college after years of Christian schooling, said he has heard of people “stuck in Christian colleges” who have been joining private online support groups that encourage and help people to leave the churches and schools.Evangelical churches, with their insistence on a God-given patriarchal system in which women are believed to be created as male helpmeets, are also facing a potential tsunami of online and private allegations about sexual abuse. After the Harvey Weinstein celebrity revelations prompted the #MeToo movement, two ex-evangelical women started a #ChurchToo movement. The women, Emily Joy and Hannah Paasch, both 27, told Newsweek that after they started the hashtag, they were inundated with thousands of public and private messages from women and girls describing abuse from pastors and at fundamentalist Christian schools and colleges, mostly swept under the rug….
Stroop, who left the faith when he was in college after years of Christian schooling, said he has heard of people “stuck in Christian colleges” who have been joining private online support groups that encourage and help people to leave the churches and schools.
“There are lots of anonymous people already struggling and the internet does help,” Stroop said. “I do think we are seeing a cultural watershed moment.”
It’s not just white Evangelicals. White Catholics, too, voted heavily for Trump–not the 81 percent of white evangelicals, but a strong 60 percent. White Catholics, too, are shrinking in number. Twenty-five years ago they made up almost 90 percent of U.S. Catholics; now, it’s down to 55 percent and declining. For those under age 30, just 36 percent are white; 52 percent are Hispanic. And the young are fleeing. Just over 10 percent of white Catholics are below the age of 30. You can get a sense of the rapidly changing religious landscape by spending some time with this PRRI graphic:
Another excellent graphic shows white Christianity (bottom three lines) skewing far older than other religious groups:
In his Chicago speech to fellow evangelical leaders, Labberton identified the crisis not as a war waged by hostile secular elites against Christianity, as so many of the fake news Christians claim, but as a product of a Christianity that has become colonized by and aligned with anti-Gospel Americanism. He was speaking to evangelicals, but I would argue that Catholicism and mainline Protestantism have also been colonized and aligned with anti-Gospel values. Labberton’s dissection of the problem is spot on for all of Christianity in the United States:
This is not a crisis taking place at the level of language. This is not about who owns or defines the term “evangelical,” and whether one does—or does not—choose to identify as such. It is legitimate and important to debate if and how the term “evangelical” can currently be used in the United States to mean anything more than white, theologically and politically conservative. But that is not itself the crisis. The crisis is not at the level of our lexicon, but of our lives and a failure to embody the gospel we preach. We may debate whether the word “evangelical” can or should be redeemed. But what we must deal with is the current bankruptcy many associate with evangelical life.
This is not a crisis unfolding at the level of group allegiance, denomination, or affiliation. The varied reality that is American evangelicalism is evidenced in this room. We have no formal hierarchy, leadership, or structure and form no single organization, but are sorted and divided today as we have been—for better and worse—for much of our history. Some might wish for a clearer distinction between those who call themselves fundamentalist and those who call themselves evangelical. We might look to varying traditions or geographies to explain our division. These distinctions matter but can easily devolve into scapegoating or blaming, diverting us from our vocation as witness to God’s love for a multifaceted world.“Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power.” — Mark LabbertonThis is not a recent crisis but a historic one. We face a haunting specter with a shadow that reaches back further than the 2016 election—a history that helps define the depth of the sorrow, fear, anger, anxiety, and injustice around us. Today’s egregious collusion between evangelicals and worldly power is problematic enough: more painful and revealing is that such collusion has been our historic habit. Today’s collusion bears astonishing—and tragic—continuity with the past.
Right alongside the rich history of gospel faithfulness that evangelicalism has affirmed, there lies a destructive complicity with dominant cultural and racial power. Despite deep gospel confidence and rhetoric, evangelicalism has been long-wedded to a devastating social self-interest that defends the dominant culture over and against that of the gospel’s command to love the “other” as ourselves. We are not naïve in our doctrine of sin that prefers self over all, but we have failed to recognize our own guilt in it.
Our professed trust in Jesus has not led evangelicals to die to ourselves, but often to justify our own self-assertion—even when that means complicity in the suffering and death of others. The scandal associated today with the evangelical gospel is not the scandal of the Cross of Christ, crucified for the salvation of the world. Rather it is the scandal of our own arrogance, unconfessed before the Cross, revealing a hypocritical superiority that we dare to associate with the God who died to save the weak and the lost.
Labberton continued his speech by identifying and discussing “the top four arenas in which this violation of spiritual and moral character has shown itself.” I described his speech to a friend as the kindest reading of the riot act that I have ever seen. What he said is so good, and so important, I want to treat his points individually in four forthcoming posts.
Top photo: Creative Commons license; credit Daniel Oines