‘I am done with the label “evangelical”. It’s not the theological position I have a problem with, it is just the term. When 80% of white evangelicals vote for Trump…’ This was not a comment from Tony Campolo, but a conversation with someone with UK national profile. What are the theological issues at stake, and what should we make of it?
Before getting into any of the details, there are three vital things to remember when considering the use of the term on either side of the pond. The first is that, in the US, ‘evangelical’ functions as a term of social labelling in a way which we find to hard to comprehend in the UK. For us, ‘evangelical’ is a subset of the Christian church, only used with caution (and mostly used with little understanding outside the church). But in America, it is possible for people to call themselves ‘evangelical’ without being regular church-goers. Secondly, in the US and particularly in the South, Christian faith engages with those at the lower end of the education and socio-economic scale in a way that has never been the case over here. If voting for Trump correlates with lower education and lower income, then we should not be surprised that that is going to involve ‘evangelicals’. Thirdly, being ‘evangelical’ in the US is often used to mean ‘fundamentalist’—and this is not an insult in the way it is over here. Some of the key theological convictions amongst influential ‘evangelicals’ in America are quite distinct from the historic position of evangelicals here.
We also need to note that the ‘80% of evangelicals voted for Trump’ mantra (mentioned by Martin Saunders and emphasised by ‘progressive’ Rachel Held Evans in her poor and unreflective rant) is not well founded. It was based on poor sampling, only assessed white evangelicals, and does not take into account those who decided not to vote—so the more likely figure is around 35%–40%. A number of key evangelical leaders spoke against Trump before the elections, and a group of students from fundamentalist Jerry Falwell‘s Liberty University signed a petition rejecting him.
To understand the connection between theological position and voting, it would be helpful to have someone explain how their decision relates to their theology, and fortunately we have one. Bill Johnson is senior pastor at Bethel church in Redding, California, and is better known for his healing ministry than for his politics, and has been a regular speaker at New Wine summer conferences in recent years. Johnson had expressed his support for Trump during the campaign, and had received a fair amount of criticism for doing so (and it is worth reflecting on who had been offering that criticism). So he offered an explanation on his Facebook page which has been reproduced on various websites.
I was told if I voted for Trump I needed to open my bible to find out why it was morally wrong. So I did, and this is what I found.
Martin Saunders offered a critique, in which he charges Johnson with ‘missing the point’—but I wonder if there are some things Saunders himself has missed in his assessment.
The first issue Johnson raises is that of abortion. The abortion debate in the US is much more polarised and politicised in the US than in the UK, and has a different dimension which we need to bear in mind. The landmark ruling was Roe v Wade in 1973, and which is the focus of debate. It introduced the right to abortion in terms not very different from our own 1967 Abortion Act, but crucially imposed a Federal ruling on every US State, when many states felt they should have freedom to enact their own laws free from federal interference. Many struggle to make sense of a political or theological position which is ‘pro-life’ in relation to abortion, but appears to be ‘pro-death’ when it comes to gun control. But the converse question is worth asking of ourselves: why are so many Christians (rightly) concerned about the vulnerable in our society who are affected by ‘austerity’ and cuts to welfare—but seem unconcerned about abortion which arguably affects the most vulnerable group in our society? Concern about abortion has become the province of those deemed most ‘conservative’ (either theologically or politically) and, without delving into the complex issues involved, it is worth asking why this is.
The second issue for Johnson relates to immigration, and the duty of a government to protect its citizens which (he believes) comes ahead of an open immigration policy. Saunders is highly critical here, and reaches for the long tradition and theological commitment Christians have to welcome the stranger. But I am not convinced Saunders’ argument is as straightforward as it seems. There is a clear mandate in the OT to protect ‘the widow, the orphan and the alien’, but what is embarrassing for our contemporary ethics is that the assumption is made that the resident alien will adopt the culture, customs and religion of Israel when he or she settles there. We are challenged by the loyalty of Ruth and her commitment to Naomi—but we all too quickly pass over her comment that ‘your God will became my God’. As I have explored here previously, a good deal of Christian public comment on this issue does not engage with the complex issues, and lapses into ‘virtue signalling.’ Importing people is not like importing apples, since people come with values, commitments, and beliefs, and when they come they change the country that they come to.
Johnson then addresses a cluster of issues around wealth creation, welfare and socialism. In suggesting that God delights in wealth creation, he is drawing on one strand of Old Testament theology—that God is the source of blessing and abundance—but rather by-passing at least two others. The Wisdom tradition in Scripture raises some significant questions about the correlation between wealth and blessing, and the theme that ‘The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it’ (Ps 24.1) which leads to the idea of human stewardship of resources offers a strong argument against the idea of permanent human ownership—and the Jubilee principle of restoring land to ancestral families expresses this tangibly. Johnson’s protest against the idea of structured welfare organised by the state doesn’t have much in the way of a theological justification, but is much more a reflection of American resistance to state control rooted in the individualism of both the Puritans and the privateers who were its founders. Engagement in structured social action has been a striking hallmark of evangelicals in the UK for the last couple of decades—though Christians who support welfare provision often have little to say about the destructive force of the dependency culture that it creates.
Johnson’s comments on honesty and propriety sound hollow to most on this side of the pond; given that Trump has contradicted himself on every major area of policy, including in his views of Hillary Clinton, it is really hard to know what this kind of concern actually means. Alastair Roberts, who explores in an earlier post here the concerns about liberal ideology behind Christian support for Trump, also suggests some questions that need serious reflection:
1. What do I believe will happen to the credibility and moral authority of Christians who support voting for Donald Trump?
2. Is Trump someone with a track record of being faithful to his promises and of loyalty to others when things get tough?
3. What bearing does Trump’s personal morality have upon his suitability for office? (…and seven others)
Johnson appears to be taking a Christian Zionist view of Israel, something that is hotly contested amongst evangelicals in the UK, and which I think is based on a misreading of the promises of the land in the Old and New Testaments. In claiming that ‘the one who blesses Israel is blessed by the Lord’ he fails to notice that Paul uses the term ‘Israel of God’ to refer to followers of Jesus (Gal 6.16).
This is only a sampling of Johnson’s views, but three things emerge. First, amongst UK evangelicals, many of the issues that Johnson calls confidently are areas of debate where there is a range of views, some quite at odds with Johnsons’. Secondly, within that spectrum, Johnson’s views sit at best at one end of the spectrum, and on different areas line up at that end. Thirdly, his views are clearly shaped by the particular context he is in; this is to some extent true of all of us, but it is possible to be more or less critical of one’s own culture and inheritance. Given that Johnson would look ‘eccentric’ (in the strict sense of being some way from the centre) amongst Uk evangelicals, why should his views lead me to make a judgment about the use of the term ‘evangelical’ amongst UK Christians? Why should we think that Johnson speaks for us or represents our position in any way?
A better view comes from Mark Labberton and Richard Mouw, the current and past Presidents of Fuller Theological Seminary, where I am adjunct professor (which, being translated, means visiting lecturer). They start by clarifying what Fuller means when it calls itself ‘evangelical’:
This term has captured the seminary’s commitment to the good news of God’s redeeming love in Jesus Christ, its trust in the unique and supreme authority of the Bible, its engagement in the personal and global mission of God in the world. The term has gone through various stormy seasons of contention and debate, not least as a contrast to fundamentalism. Over time, and in distinction to some, Fuller has not used evangelical as a term of association with political, partisan, racial, gender, or sexual identity politics. The seminary has instead persisted in its use of the term to identify its particular theological and missional commitments.
They go on to note the serious concerns raised by ‘evangelical’ support for Trump:
For some evangelicals, abortion and future Supreme Court appointments were of primary concern, placed over and against concerns for women, people of color, Muslims, and LGBT persons. This polarization, even among evangelicals, led some to conclude that evangelicals on both sides were increasingly and inextricably bound to and complicit with scandalizing words and actions that degrade people and contradict and betray the gospel of Jesus Christ…For some who have identified themselves as evangelical, these distorted entanglements now compel them to abandon the term, to adamantly reject further identification with evangelical and with groups associated with it.
But they commit to retaining the term, because of its articulation of what Fuller believes:
Evangelical has value only if it names our commitment to seek and to demonstrate the heart and mind of God in Jesus Christ. This calls us into deeper faith and greater humility. It also leads us to repudiate and resist all forces of racism, misogyny, and all other attitudes and actions, overt and implied, that subvert the dignity of persons made in the image of God. The only evangelicalism worthy of its name must be one that both faithfully points to and mirrors Jesus Christ, the good news for the world, and seeks justice that reflects the character of God’s kingdom.
Because of its non-negotiable commitment to the evangel, God’s good news, Fuller Seminary will continue to identify itself as evangelical. We must understand evangelical not as a self-congratulatory description of Fuller Theological Seminary but as our commitment and aspiration: our deep desire that the daunting and urgent hope of Jesus Christ will transform us so our speech truly proclaims and our life faithfully enacts God’s good news of love, justice, and mercy.
This seems to me to be a wise, credible and coherent reason for holding on to the term. And it reflects by continued commitment to the term ‘evangelical’. God has amazing good news for the world. But it has often been obscured at different times because people either add something to it or take something away—perhaps by saying ‘You must do additional things or believe additional things to earn the grace of God’ or by saying ‘You cannot trust what God has said in Scripture and you need to trust yourself instead.’ The passion of evangelicals is to be faithful to what God has said in the person of Jesus as faithfully testified in the Scriptures, because this is the hope for the world.
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