Evangelicalism isn’t just a white people thing

In the wake of the 2016 election, as a Chinese American Christian, I and many others adopted a dreadful new pastime: musing over why white evangelicals support President Donald Trump.

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Since CNN reported that 80% of white evangelical Protestants cast their vote for the belligerent, thrice-married Trump in 2016, reporters have often questioned why self-described “value voters” would rally behind a man who stands so evidently against their alleged principles, and why they’re likely to do so again.

The New York Times attempted to provide a definitive answer last week in a story titled, “‘Christianity Will Have Power’.” Framed around the small, predominantly white, town of Sioux Center, Iowa (where then-presidential candidate Donald Trump uttered those words at a 2016 campaign speech), Times’ reporter Elizabeth Dias makes the case that white evangelical support for Trump is rooted in a desire to regain lost control.

Writing that “the Trump era has revealed the complete fusion of evangelical Christianity and conservative politics,” The Times’ framing presumes the real evangelicals, the “mainstream” ones, are white. While Dias masterfully depicts white evangelicals’ deep infatuation with power, her framing poses an essential question: Why do mainstream reporters keep conflating Christian nationalists with all evangelicals?

Despite religion reporters, like CNN’s Daniel Burke and The Washington Post’s Sarah Pulliam Bailey, who clearly distinguish the term’s theological definition, journalists’ imprecision surrounding Americans’ religious backgrounds is consistent: A recent op-ed in The Washington Post conflated all “religious voters” with conservative Catholics and a Los Angeles Times report on evangelical voters cited only white adherents. 

But “evangelical” is particularly misused, with the term used as short-hand for power-driven white, conservative Christians. And when the term is divorced from its theological roots, the consequences are clear: the views of evangelicals of color are obscured. 

“When you speak of the fusion of Evangelical Christianity with conservative politics, you obscure a theological tradition shared by people of color in the U.S. and Christians globally with no connection to American conservative,” Rachel M. B. Atkins, a Black postdoctoral fellow at New York University, tweeted in response to the Times story. “Please be more precise with your language.”

Though the doctrinal definition of evangelical can be hazy, the National Association of Evangelicals and LifeWay Research—a publishing division of the Southern Baptist Convention—has established a series of four broad criteria for adherents of evangelical theology:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.

  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.

  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.

  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

When examining those who self-identify as evangelical, the institute’s 2017 study found that less than half (45%) “strongly agree” with those core statements, demonstrating a fundamental disconnect between those who claim the movement’s name and those who adhere to its beliefs. (77% of white evangelicals by belief still cast their vote for Trump.)

A recent Public Religion Research Institute (PRRI) study concluded that “the more racist attitudes a person holds, the more likely he or she is to identify as a white Christian and vice versa.” While it’s necessary to interrogate why white racists feel so at ease in the evangelical flock, attempts to write about white evangelicals should not come at the expense of precision.

Failure to differentiate the respective theological and cultural definitions of evangelical paints an improper picture of the country’s religious topography. The same study concluded that 31% of those who are evangelical by belief decidedly reject the label altogether.

“I don’t think evangelicals of color are even looked at [by journalists],” Rev. Dr. Michael Carrion, an Afro-Latino pastor who sits on the executive board for the National Latino Evangelical Coalition, told me. “The white right has co-opted the term evangelical and the voice, ministry, and advocacy of the Latino and African American evangelicals are not even considered.”

The use of “white” to modify evangelicalism is a helpful distinction, but journalists often demonstrate little conception of what theological evangelicals of color want or believe. 

To Dias’ credit in her piece for The Times, she includes the perspective of one of the region’s Hispanic pastors, but if cultural power and the desire to legislatively impose their views are going to be defined as evangelicalism’s distinguishing factors, then the term leaves no place for Americans who have rarely been privy to the movement’s white power structure. 

Many, like Carrion, have distanced themselves from the label for this reason.

“Journalists are missing the champions that are on the margins,” said Carrion. “These leaders aren’t chasing power, they’re chasing people. Our job is not to chase power, but to empower the powerless.”

If power is to be fundamental, then this framing is perhaps best defined by what a 2018 Oxford study calls “Christian Nationalism,” an identity divorced from theology and instead informed by cultural affinity. 

In his book American Prophets: The Religious Roots of Progressive Politics and the Ongoing Fight for the Soul of the Country, Jack Jenkins, a national reporter for the Religion News Service, argues that Christian nationalism “largely exists outside of a specific religious moral code,” operating “less like a rigid litany of ethical rules and more as a vague set of ideas and symbols that can easily trigger the demonization of others.”

This alternative framework clearly distinguishes the attitudes of those who hold theologically evangelical views from those who advocate making the United States a “Christian nation.” And while the two groups may overlap, they are not predicated on race, meaning neither exclude people of color.

Opinions on how to properly categorize evangelicals will be debated for the foreseeable future, but it’s irresponsible to define the movement in ways that dismiss the perspectives of its non-white adherents. In the United States, 42% of Asians, 77% of Latinos and 79% of Black Americans claim the Christian faith, yet the impact of their religious beliefs are less covered by reporters and the coverage that exists is often framed against the backdrop of their white counterparts.

“By all accounts, the center of growth in the evangelical church is in the global south,” Atkins, the postdoctoral fellow at NYU, told me. “I find it frustrating that our U.S. news treats the evangelical movement as though its only expression is in the U.S. and dominated by whites.”

Self-identified evangelicals in the U.S. are slowly becoming less white and the opinions evangelicals of color hold about the president contrast greatly with those of their white peers. With the country’s religious landscape undergoing drastic reconstruction, reporters must stop framing the beliefs of people of color against their white counterparts—or mainstream publications primarily white readership.

They deserve to have their stories told on their own terms. 

Curtis Yee is a contributor for The Objective. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Image sourced from Andrew Seaman.

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