At Bearings Online, we seek to examine relationships between religion and culture, and to that end we are starting a new series on evangelicals in the era of President Donald Trump. We are interested in listening to voices with deep investment in this expression of Christianity in order to understand how the current political reality impacts ordinary lives. We invited writers to address their changing relationship with evangelicalism and will share their unique perspectives each Thursday this month. Amy Peterson starts us off with her essay below. To read more in this series, click here.
Last semester I taught a class at a Christian college on the life and work of Dorothy Sayers, who was a friend and contemporary of C.S. Lewis. Sayers was a poet, dramatist, novelist, and public theologian—a renaissance woman who wrote best selling mystery novels as well as Christian plays that were performed on BBC radio. One week in class, we discussed a few essays from her 1946 collection Unpopular Opinions.
In the essay Christian Morality, Sayers wrote: “There are a great many people now living in the world who firmly believe that Christian morals, as distinct from purely secular morality, consist in three things and three things only: Sunday observance, not being intoxicated, and not practicing… immorality.”
I asked my students if they thought the reputation of Christians had changed from Sayers’s time to ours, and they all nodded their heads emphatically.
“If you were going to summarize how those outside the church would characterize Christians, or Christian morality, today, what would you say?” I asked.
“They see us as the people who want to tell them what they can’t do,” one student offered.
“To most people,” another said, “evangelical is a political description, not a religious one. Evangelical means white Republicans who want to make abortion and gay marriage illegal.”
“Surely, though,” I clarified, “there’s a general understanding that there’s a difference between Westboro Baptist types and evangelicals, right?”
In fact, my students told me, there is not. People no longer hear Christian and think, as they did in Sayers’s day: “Oh, those people who go to church on Sundays, don’t get drunk, and don’t have sex.” They hear Christian and think evangelical and then conclude: “Oh, those are the people who voted for Trump.”
“Do you still call yourself an evangelical?” Natalie asked near the end of our conversation.
“Actually, no,” I said. “But let me explain why.”
Evangelical was never a word that had a lot of personal significance to me, even though I grew up in evangelical churches. I understood it to be a synonym for Christian. Later in life, of course, I learned that it comes from the Greek word euangelion, which means “good news,” and later still, I learned that historians say evangelical Christians are those within any denomination who emphasize conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism. And so, sure, on those terms, if someone asked me if I were an evangelical, I’d have said yes.
That is, until about a year ago. It wasn’t that I stopped believing in the importance of the cross, the Bible, a change of heart, and a move towards activism. It was that the Trump tape came out.
I listened to Trump detail his method of assaulting women, and then I waited for the evangelical leaders of my youth to publicly rescind their support of him. Some did, certainly. But others doubled down in support of him, and still others — perhaps the majority — stayed publicly silent. What I heard in their support and their silence was that women’s bodies — including my body — were pawns they could afford to lose in order to maintain their political power.
These were men who had been at the forefront of the purity culture of the late Nineties, promising that true love waits. I had believed they cared about protecting women from men like Trump. Now I saw that they didn’t. Now I wondered if the purity campaign had all along been just another ploy to maintain control over women’s bodies. I wondered if all of the virtues they touted had been about maintaining power, not about following Jesus.
A few weeks later, self-proclaimed evangelicals voted en masse for Trump, and I knew that the word evangelical had lost its saltiness. And as Matthew writes in his gospel, “if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot” (Matt 5:13).
It didn’t feel like a great loss to me, giving up the word. Evangelical is a lovely word, but I still have Christian, or Episcopalian. I still have Jesus. But it is a great loss to see the reputation of Christians, of so-called evangelicals, sullied by association with a political leader who embodies the opposite of many of the values Christians claim to hold.
If I thought the word were salvageable, I might try to save it, but I think we’re too far gone. It has become a political descriptor, not a religious one. To try to save Christian, we need to drop evangelical.
Dorothy Sayers bemoaned the fact that in her day, Christians were known as the people who went to church, didn’t get drunk, and didn’t sleep around. Today, evangelicals would be lucky if people thought those three descriptors still fit.
But when I look at the young people I have in class – their compassion and intelligence, their sharp critical thinking skills, their care for the Word of God – I have hope for new forms of renewal. These fresh-eyed 20-year-olds give me hope that one day, Christians will be known as we ought to be known, as those people who work for justice and who love mercy.