So who was the real loser in Iowa last night? The "evangelical" brand. For weeks now the nation has heard the media talk about "evangelicals" — by which they actually mean white, highly conservative, older, mostly male voters motivated by their faith. Last night one pundit after another analyzed who this “evangelical” vote supported, with data showing Ted Cruz winning significant backing.
This stereotype now has become the public face of "evangelicals." Yet abundant evidence shows this is simply not an accurate description of this group. Like all of Christianity in the U.S., evangelicals are becoming less white, more ethnically diverse, and more “wholistic” in their view of the gospel, especially among those who are younger. Surveys show that 25 percent of evangelicals are now non-white, and growing. Further, those in historic black churches meet theological definitions of being “evangelical,” but are never included in the media’s description of this group. And the demographics of Iowa reveal that this expanding ethnic diversity of evangelicals is vastly under-represented.
Political diversity also marks the changing nature of evangelicalism today. InterVarsity’s recent affirmation of “Black Lives Matter” is just one more reflection of how issues of justice, racial reconciliation, and stewardship of the earth are becoming commonplace commitments among a younger generation of those still claiming an evangelical identity. Yet, none of these trends are recognized by the way the media stereotypes the “evangelical vote” in this presidential campaign.
Globally, these changes are even more dramatic. Seventy percent of the world’s evangelicals now live in countries of the global “South” — Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Their views of global economic justice, protection of the climate, defense of human rights, and the alleviation of poverty are far closer to Pope Francis than Ted Cruz or Jerry Falwell Jr. Those voices are actually forging the future of evangelicalism, but are largely unnoticed in a framework where white, evangelical older men in the U.S. are seen as the center of power.
Every pastor trying to reach "millennials" knows how widely they reject expressions of Christian faith, which are anti-immigrant, anti-gay, and publicly self-righteous. Those pastors' faithful efforts have been seriously undermined by politicians in Iowa merging right-wing politics with "evangelical" faith as an overt strategy. Particularly for those in their 20s and 30s who may be exploring spiritual questions, but are highly skeptical about the organized church, presentations of Christianity that seem wedded to a right-wing political agenda, propelled by a homogeneous white community, will cause them to walk in the opposite direction. They’ve been doing so by the tens of thousands, and Iowa will make this worse.
For years moderate to progressive evangelicals have debated whether this term can be redeemed or should simply be jettisoned. The branding of “evangelical” as religious right-wing conservatism by a superficial media and ambitious politicians may be doing mortal damage to a time-honored tradition. That debate is getting settled for thousands by the Iowa Caucuses.