At Bearings Online, we seek to examine relationships between religion and culture, and to that end we are publishing a series of essays written by evangelicals on their understanding of faith in the era of President Donald Trump. This week, Abram Kielsmeier-Jones shares his experience as a pastor and why he continues to identify as evangelical. To read more essays in this series, click here.
Often a new attendee or community member inquires about the church I pastor: is it evangelical?
My ever-evolving, nuanced reply begins this way: The majority of our members would likely self-identify as evangelical, as long as they were the ones defining “evangelical”! Or, if I’m feeling particularly Socratic, I might ask: “What do you mean by evangelical?”
I understand an “evangelical” to be someone who believes in, shares, and lives in faithful response to the gospel of Jesus. Although etymology alone does not determine word meaning, “evangelical” comes from the Greek euangelion (Latin evangelium), which translates as “gospel, good news.” Evangelicalism, however else anyone defines it, is gospel-centric. For evangelicals Scripture is the primary–though not exclusive–locus of God’s revelation.
David Bebbington’s four-fold understanding of the movement is as useful as ever:
“There are the four qualities that have been the special marks of Evangelical religion: conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross. Together they form a quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism.”
But how many twenty-first century U.S. inhabitants understand an evangelical to be simply part of a voting bloc, whose primary goal in the public square is to elect Supreme Court justices who will overturn Roe v. Wade?
Then there is this often repeated statistic: 81% of white evangelicals voted for Donald J. Trump for President. I don’t know anyone who would claim that conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism are part of Trump’s worldview. In fact, it’s easy to make the case that he speaks and acts in ways that work against those key evangelical distinctives.
Yet white evangelicals have not supported any other recent presidential candidate at such a high rate.
While it may still be incumbent on 81% of white evangelicals to explain how they could support a candidate who so publicly opposes their own values, the other 19%—especially those of us in positions of public ministry—have had to consider how we talk about Donald Trump in our communities and congregations. And in the quest to more clearly understand a word, a movement, and its modern expressions, many are asking: Should we do away with the term “evangelicalism” or seek to redeem it?
Perhaps the easiest conversations for me as a pastor have been one-on-one conversations and informal discussions with a small handful of people. I don’t broadcast my political affiliations, but neither do I hide my theological convictions that drive me to stand against a man like Trump.
Dialogue with local clergy colleagues has helped. And our fall adult education class was already working through a unit on faith and politics in the fall of 2016, so discussion (and prayer) was natural in that venue.
More vexing has been discerning how (or if) to address a Trump presidency from the pulpit.
The Sunday after the election, one of the lectionary readings was Isaiah 65, where God promises through the prophet the creation of “new heavens and a new earth.” Sounds “of weeping and of crying” (plentiful among the Christians I know, after Trump’s election) would “be heard… no more.”
I held this biblical vision of the future before my people that Sunday. I knew enough to preach, “We followers of Jesus in our prophetic voice need to hold even the leaders of a secular state to certain standards.” I already expressed my need to warn the people of God: “We just can’t normalize race-based dismissiveness, the devaluing of women’s bodies, xenophobia, inflammatory rhetoric, nor any other sinful behavior. We must not explain it away or look past it as if it’s not there, or as if we could just make the best of it.” It wasn’t comfortable for me, but I named the President-elect in what I understood to be a biblically inspired response. I’ve been concerned not to repeat the mistake of the false prophets in Jeremiah’s time, who said, “Peace! Peace!” where there was no peace.
I’ve preached similar messages Sundays since then—but I don’t often name Trump like I did that first Sunday. Besides, prophets in the Christian tradition don’t just resist injustice; they also cast a God-given vision for reshaping the world with justice, calling people to a reality full of God’s shalom. Pursuing biblically articulated visions of peace is an enduring Christian call, whoever is in office.
Evangelicalism’s conversionism, activism, biblicism, and crucicentrism—perhaps more than ever before—compel me to preach the Gospel in and out of the pulpit, as best as I know how.
I do not presume to speak for all the members of my congregation, but I, for one, am not ready to cede the term “evangelical.” I am inspired by how often Scripture and carefully considered Christology have driven evangelicals to exercise leadership in important social justice reform movements, such as the abolitionist and Civil Rights movements. And I take solace in knowing that non-white and global evangelicals are telling a different story about Trump. As always, white evangelicals would do well to listen and follow the lead of evangelicals in different settings.
But perhaps I should not be surprised: if Scripture teaches that all of creation needs Christ’s redemption, why shouldn’t white evangelicalism also need to be redeemed? For now, when people inquire about the nature of my church’s faith affiliation, I will continue to answer: many of us are evangelical, even if it’s complicated.