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Kristin Kobes Du Mez: Five myths about evangelicals

By Kristin Kobes Du Mez Special to the Washington Post

Once commonly referred to as “born-again” Christians – in contrast to mainline Protestants such as Presbyterians, Episcopalians and Lutherans – evangelicals have, in recent decades, become increasingly influential in American religion, culture and politics. Their movement is associated with figures such as Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell Sr. and is particularly strong in the South. It represents a range of communities and beliefs, but myths abound.

Myth No. 1

Evangelical beliefs come strictly from the Bible.

The National Association of Evangelicals’ website says a key tenet of evangelicalism is a belief in the “infallible” authority of the Bible. Evangelicals often identify as “Bible-believing Christians,” meaning that they believe the Bible is literally true; one Beliefnet article instructs that to be a Bible-believing Christian, you must “believe that all 66 books of the Bible are the word of God” and “100 percent accurate.”

But evangelicals’ beliefs are often molded by political and cultural allegiances, not just biblical texts. Political scientist Michele Margolis has demonstrated that politics can shape religious choices, just as religious belief influences political convictions. That explains why critics of the English Standard Version, a popular evangelical Bible translation, allege that accurate translations were sacrificed to promote conservative views on gender. Similarly, several evangelical theologians have advanced an interpretation of the doctrine of the Trinity that contradicts centuries of Christian orthodoxy in order to promote the subordination of women. Based on their doctrinal commitments, 44% of African Americans could be categorized as “evangelical,” but one 2015 survey showed that only 25% identify themselves that way.

Increasingly, those who identify as evangelical are aligning not primarily with a theological system but with a cultural and political identity.

Myth No. 2

Evangelicalism is traditional Christianity.

“America needs a tidal wave of the old-time religion,” inveighed 1920s evangelist Billy Sunday, self-proclaimed preacher of that “old-time religion.” In 1963, when an Episcopal clergyman accused Billy Graham of “putting the church back 50 years,” Graham responded: “I’m afraid I have failed. I had hoped to put the church back 2,000 years,” suggesting that evangelicalism was a return to a pristine, ancient Christianity.

As historian Timothy Gloege explains, however, early-20th-century evangelicals called their movement “old-time religion” even as they pioneered a new, consumer-oriented faith. Frequently sidestepping traditional denominational structures, evangelicals have excelled at using modern promotional techniques to deliver their message through celebrity spokespeople and an elaborate Christian media empire – think of ubiquitous televangelist Joel Osteen. Prioritizing an individual’s personal relationship with God and plain reading of the scriptures, they also created new standards of orthodoxy, including the “inerrancy” of the Bible. These innovations were often sold as “traditional” Christianity, but they developed the faith beyond what even Reformation innovators could have imagined.

Myth No. 3

All evangelicals are conservative Republicans.

“The policies endorsed by the leadership of the Republican Party have been much more consistent with biblical teachings” than those of the Democratic Party, writes evangelical theologian Wayne Grudem in his 2010 book, “Politics – According to the Bible.” In December, one Georgia voter told the Deseret News that she would vote for that state’s GOP Senate candidates because their side “aligns with Biblical values.”

It’s true, more than three-quarters of White evangelicals backed Republican President Donald Trump in November, close to the 80% who voted for him in 2016 and the 78% who supported Mitt Romney in 2012. But White evangelicals haven’t always been so closely associated with the political right. When he ran for president in 1976, Democrat Jimmy Carter described himself as a born-again Christian. He roughly split the evangelical vote and won the election, but it was the last time a Democrat would achieve that level of success among evangelicals. In the 1970s, an evangelical left advocated against sexism, racism, economic inequality, Christian nationalism and American militarism. As historian David Swartz chronicles, the evangelical left was always a “moral minority” within the broader movement, but its existence demonstrates that evangelical theology does not inevitably find expression in conservative politics. Even today, there are influential evangelicals like the Rev. Jim Wallis who argue that true evangelicalism embraces a progressive social vision, not the “bigotry, xenophobia and misogyny” of the Trump era.

Myth No. 4

Opposition to abortion drives evangelical politics.

Last year, prominent Southern Baptist leader Albert Mohler explained why he came around to supporting Trump, whom he’d earlier described as “beneath the baseline level of human decency”: the issue of abortion. The German publication Deutsche Welle asked, “Why does rejecting abortion matter more to [evangelicals] than any other issue?”

Today, many evangelicals identify as pro-life, yet abortion appears to be less salient than many claim. Political scientist Ryan Burge observed that White evangelicals rank abortion surprisingly low on their list of priorities, behind such concerns as jobs, national security and taxes. (Abortion ranked ninth among younger evangelicals and 11th among older age groups.)

And until the late 1970s, abortion wasn’t even a mobilizing force for the religious right. In 1968, the evangelical magazine Christianity Today presented a range of nuanced views on the issue, declining to condemn abortion out of hand but instead weighing valid reasons to end a pregnancy, including “individual health, family welfare, and social responsibility.” In 1971, the Southern Baptist Convention promoted legislation that would allow for abortion in the case of “rape, incest … severe fetal deformity, and … damage to the emotional, mental, and physical health of the mother.” Only in 1979 did conservative strategist Paul Weyrich identify abortion as an issue superior to school desegregation around which the religious right could organize.

Myth No. 5

Evangelicals betrayed their values for Trump.

In 2018, Washington Post columnist Michael Gerson opined that “Trump evangelicals have sold their souls.” Writing for the Atlantic last year, Peter Wehner argued that evangelicals “set aside the tenets of their faith to support Donald Trump.”

But characterizing such support for Trump as a betrayal of evangelical values is to misunderstand what many evangelicals value. As I argue in “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation,” over the past half-century, conservative evangelicals have reoriented their views to champion strong masculine protectors who fight for faith, family and nation. A 2015 survey found that a majority of White evangelicals “believe that immigrants threaten traditional American customs and values”; in 2017, Pew Research Center found that compared to other Christian groups, more evangelicals see Islam as a threat. They have the highest rate of racial resentment of any religious group, and are likelier than other Americans to own a gun. By November 2016, large numbers of White evangelicals shared Trump’s nationalism, Islamophobia and nativism. They condoned his “nasty politics” and demonstrated a preference for strong, solitary leadership – and for breaking the rules when necessary. In reality, evangelicals did not cast their vote despite their beliefs but because of them.

Kristin Kobes Du Mez is a professor of history at Calvin University and the author of “Jesus and John Wayne: How White Evangelicals Corrupted a Faith and Fractured a Nation.”