In the early summer of 2016, we bumped into some good friends we hadn’t seen in a while. At one time we’d attended the same church, but we had both gone on to different congregations. We were at a restaurant when we saw them. All four of us would qualify as “evangelicals.”
We chatted, and then we asked, “What are we going to do about the election? How can we vote for either Trump or Clinton?” Their response pretty well summed it up: “It’s a choice between the devil you know and the devil you don’t know.” It was a handwringing moment, and an ongoing struggle, for us all.
I mention that story because of the news media’s fixation with “81 percent of white evangelicals voted for Trump in 2016.” No one cared when 79 percent of white evangelicals voted for Mitt Romney in 2012, because Romney lost. (I should point out that the “81 percent” number has been examined and dissected by a number of people, and it may only be what the news media cartoonishly presented it to be. It’s as if the election was Donald Trump in a vacuum, that it was Trump or no one – when it clearly was anything but that.) But the news media rarely looks any further than its own narrative, and it missed the quandary so many of us evangelicals faced in the 2016 election.
In Who is an Evangelical: A History of a Movement in Crisis, Thomas S. Kidd, the James Vardaman Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, concisely looks at the history of evangelicalism, its American historical context, its increasing involvement in American politics in the post-World War II period, and what he believes is the crisis it faces today. He sees the crisis as the identification of evangelicals with politics as opposed to its mission of spreading the gospel.
In an interview with Samuel James at The Gospel Coalition, Kidd noted that it’s the news media who consistently identify evangelicals with politics. In his introduction to the book, Kidd notes that he is a “#NeverTrumper,” and an evangelical. He is someone always worth paying attention to. He’s written numerous books on American history, American religious and cultural history, and related topics. His subjects have included Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, the Great Awakening, Baptists in America, the religious history of the American Revolution, Patrick Henry, and a recent two-volume history of America entitled, appropriately enough, American History.
Who is an Evangelical? is, in part, a history lesson. It covers how evangelicals came to be, the role they played in the coming the of the Civil War, the controversy between evangelicals and “fundamentalists,” the importance of Billy Graham, the New Christian Right, and evangelicals from Reagan to Obama. (Evangelical support for Donald Trump can’t be understood without understanding evangelical reaction and response to the Obama era.) Kidd also tackles the “81 percent number,” noting that self-identification as evangelical included many Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, and that there were oddities in the polling process. And he notes the credibility crisis polling itself has been experiencing.
|Thomas S. Kidd|
He also points out that, cynics and critics (and the news media) aside, politics isn’t the only defining factor as to what makes an evangelical. In fact, it may be relatively small. What is more important to evangelicals Likely remains what it has always been – the gospel, worship, charitable activity, missions, and teaching.
Kidd’s book is an important one, whether you consider Trump an angel, a devil, or something in between. He’s telling us that evangelicals have a long history, predating the American Revolution and the Constitution, and will continue to have a history after this current “era of ill feeling” has passed. He’s warning that evangelicals are facing a crisis from too closely identifying with Republican politics. And politics is not what makes an evangelical an evangelical.
Top photograph by Robert Metz via Unsplash. Used with permission.