Commentary: Who are the evangelicals?

Ian Chapman

Throughout the Republican primary campaign, candidates sought the support of evangelicals. They spoke of their belief in God, of their commitment to the Bible and to family values.

This was understandable. Evangelicals represent a significant and influential voting bloc. According to the Pew Research Center they constituted 1 out of every 5 voters in recent elections. About 8 in 10 have voted Republican in at least one election. However, it is hard to understand why so many evangelicals enthusiastically endorsed candidates when they disagreed with their beliefs and behavior. I suspect that some did so hoping that electing a political conservative would give them leverage to reverse the culture war losses on traditional marriage and sexuality.

History shows that such a strategy damages the evangelical cause rather than helping it. Hoping the political structures will advance the evangelical agenda never works. One example is when David is preparing to battle the giant Goliath and King Saul offers him his own armor and weapons. But Saul’s armor and weapons don’t fit David and his purpose. It’s a hard lesson to learn, but the weapons of the political world don’t fit the church. Evangelicals usually lose the culture wars by depending on political power.

During the recent primary campaigns, the media gave the impression that evangelicals are all cut from the same cloth. It is assumed that evangelicals are white, suburban, American, southern and Republican. But evangelicals are incredibly diverse. Andrea Butler, associate professor of religion at the University of Pennsylvania, has said “Watch the 2016 election. When they talk about evangelicals again, they won’t go to Bible-believing black evangelicals. They’re going to talk to white people. Blacks tend to be evangelical in theology but will vote Democratic, while whites who hold similar evangelical beliefs will tend to vote Republican.”

Some years ago I attended a Roman Catholic Mass. It was Pentecost Sunday and the altar was decorated with long strips of red cloth that shimmered as the air moved. It was a beautiful sight. As the homily ended, the priest asked, “How can you know the Holy Spirit?” He answered, “By believing in Jesus Christ.” The priest and I would not agree on several points of doctrine. He may not identify himself as an evangelical. But he and I shared an evangelical belief in Jesus Christ.

Martin Luther first used the Latinized form of the word evangelium to describe the non-Catholic churches birthed by the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. Religious fervor spread across the country in the 17th and 18th centuries during the Great Awakenings led by passionate preachers like Jonathan Edwards and George Whitfield. Due to their influence, evangelicalism became a synonym for revivalism. However, the early years of the 20th century liberalism, which denied orthodox doctrines, brought sweeping changes to the churches.

After the devastation of the First World War, Alexander Solzhenitsyn was asked why in 1914 a Europe “bursting with health and abundance” had “fallen into a rage of self-mutilation.” The Russian writer offered the same explanation as he did for all the disasters of the early 20th century. Man had “forgotten God.” By mid-20th century, God was again in vogue and evangelicalism flourished. GIs, who had experienced God through traumatizing events on the battlefields of WWII, gave leadership to evangelical colleges, seminaries and youth organizations. Billy Graham’s crusades changed lives and the churches were full.

So, who is an evangelical? One of the clearest definitions comes from the research of Dr. David Bebbington, professor of history at the University of Stirling in Scotland. His research shows that evangelicals in 18th- and early 19th-century England had four defining characteristics. These were biblicism, a love of God’s word; crucicentrism, a focus on Christ’s atoning death on the cross; conversionism, the need for new life in Christ; activism, the need to live out faith in action.

The National Association of Evangelicals describes Bebbington’s criteria this way: “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 our sin. Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.”

Who are evangelicals? While evangelicals are diverse we can agree on the following: we are a people of good news and faith who have given our lives to Jesus Christ as our savior.

Dr. Ian Chapman, of Edinburg, is a retired seminary president and professor.