Defining "Evangelicals" in an Election Year: What is an evangelical? | Sojourners

Defining "Evangelicals" in an Election Year: What is an evangelical?

Jim Wallis
Jim Wallis

Here we go again. Presidential elections are coming and the role of "the evangelicals" is predictably becoming a hot political story.

Ironically, voices on both the right and the left want to describe most or all evangelicals as zealous members of the ultra-conservative political base.

Why? Perhaps because some conservative Republicans want to claim a religious legitimacy and constituency for their ideological agenda, and some liberal writers seem hell-bent on portraying religious people as intellectually-flawed right-wing crazies with dangerous plans for the country.

Let me try to be clear as someone who is part of a faith community that is, once again, being misrepresented, manipulated, and maligned. Most people believe me to be a progressive political voice in America. And I am an evangelical Christian.

I believe in one God, the centrality and Lordship of God's son Jesus Christ, the power of the Holy Spirit, the authority of the scriptures, the saving death of the crucified Christ and his bodily resurrection -- not as a metaphor but a historical event. Yep, the whole nine yards.

I love my liberal church friends, but am more theologically conservative. I have many allies on the religious left, but I am not a member of it. I work closely with brothers and sisters of other faith traditions where we have common concerns, but I will never compromise the truth of my own faith.

I also collaborate with people of no religious affiliation at all, because I believe that religion has no monopoly on morality. But I also believe in evangelism, and have called and led people to faith in Jesus Christ. Like I said, I am an evangelical.

For me (and a growing number of others), it is precisely because we are Bible-believing and Jesus following evangelical Christians, that we have a fundamental commitment to social, economic, and racial justice, to be a good stewards of God's creation, to be peacemakers in a world of conflict and war, and to be consistent advocates for human life and dignity wherever they are threatened. Because we are all made in the image of God. We are all God's children.

And, because we are first members of the global body of Christ, before we are Americans, we don't believe God blesses and loves our country more than others, and that the gospel doesn't co-exist well with empires.

Millions of evangelicals are neither conservative Republicans, part of the Religious Right, nor members of the tea party, and they don't believe that Christian "Dominionists" or any other religious group, should take over America -- despite what a rash of recent articles and commentaries have said.

Case in point: In the new book, Left, Right and Christ: Evangelical Faith in Politics, a hefty and provocative read that drops next week, Sojourners' own Lisa Sharon Harper and co-author, The King's College professor D.C. Innes, demonstrate that two authentically evangelical voices can hold very different views across a wide range of political, economic, and social issues. Many -- even most -- evangelicals don't fit media stereotypes and are growing weary of hearing them repeated over and over again, especially from writers who know nothing about us, have an agenda to use or distort who we are and what we believe, or simply should know better.

After the election in 2004, I wrote a book the next year called God's Politics: Why the Right Gets it Wrong and the Left Doesn't Get It. Now in 2011, the Right still gets it wrong when they claim that most evangelicals are firmly in their base; and the Left still doesn't get it when they tacitly agree with the Right's claim that all the evangelicals essentially belong to the most conservative candidates. But the myth survives. Why? Perhaps because it's in the interest of people on both sides to keep it going.

The Republicans have a longstanding strategy of using religion for their political purposes, while Democrats are just beginners at their own "faith outreach." And some liberal writers -- many of whom live in the same zip codes in New York, Washington, D.C., and California -- seem all too eager to discredit religion as part of their perennial habit and practice.

On the one hand we have religious fundamentalists who are eager to use evangelicals, and on the other hand we have secular fundamentalists who want prove that evangelicals are stupid and dangerous extremists. But millions of evangelicals feel stuck and almost invisible in the middle of that political and cultural battle. One of the best responses to the recent articles about evangelicals came from Mark I. Pinsky, author of A Jew Among the Evangelicals: A Guide for the Perplexed and a self-professed "secular liberal," who has covered evangelicals astutely for many years and counsels his fellow writers and commentators to take a deep breath and stick to the facts.

The facts do belie the stereotypes. Evangelicals run the political gamut from conservative and moderate to progressive and decidedly liberal. To suggest that most evangelicals reside on the far right is simply not true.

Younger evangelicals are more concerned than some of their parents with issues of social justice, human rights, environmental protection, and peace. Evangelicals in black and Hispanic churches tend to be more focused than many of their white co-religionists on economic and racial justice, and related issues such as immigration. Differences do exist between older and younger evangelicals, and between white and ethic evangelical churches. And the evangelical center has shifted significantly over the last decade.

Every journalist who wants to write intelligently about evangelicals should begin by reading the National Evangelical Association (NAE) landmark statement For the Health of the Nation: An Evangelical Call to Civic Responsibility, that spells out biblical commitments on poverty, the environment and climate change, immigration reform, war and peace, the protection of life, and the promotion of family, which should clearly dispel any notion that evangelicals as a monolith adhere to an ultra-right-wing political agenda. Rather, the NAE's evangelical social and political ethic challenges all outposts along the political spectrum.

The untold story almost nobody covers is that global evangelicals have almost no affinity with America's religious right or tea party. Even the math from election exit polls, challenge the political stereotypes.

In the 2008 election, Barack Obama won Indiana by 28,391 votes with 160,918 more white evangelicals voting for him than voted for John Kerry in 2004.

  • Obama had a 16-point swing among white evangelicals over Kerry, which clearly contributed to his victory in the state.
  • Michigan had an 8-point swing among white evangelicals while Colorado saw a 20-point swing.
  • Similar shifts in evangelical votes made crucial differences in other swing states such as North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Florida.

Democrats lost those gains in the 2010 election, proving that political shifts among evangelicals may never be permanent and that many religious voters may be voting more on issues of concern to them, rather than being loyal partisans and party members.

Isn't that the way it should be?

In the future, evangelicals may likely vote more and more as independents, depending on the issues and the candidates, rather than according to any party loyalty.

It is precisely that kind of moral integrity -- in politics and any other arena -- that should re-define "evangelical" in this or any election.

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