Since the late 1970s, American evangelicalism has been largely identified with right-wing politics. Conservative religious values entered the political sphere through movements such as Moral Majority and Focus on the Family that opposed gay rights, abortion, feminism and other liberal issues.
Evangelical leaders have influenced national elections and public policy. They have been instrumental in pushing the Republican Party toward increasingly conservative social policies. They have generally been the most consistent voting bloc within the Republican Party.
But, evangelical Christianity, as we have known it, is changing. While old guard evangelical leaders are vocally supporting Republican nominee Donald Trump for president, there is a groundswell of opposition from within evangelicals.
My research focus is on vibrant religious congregations. I am seeing the emergence of a new generation of evangelicals that has a very different view of what it means to be a “Jesus follower.”
This generation is abstaining from the political theology of the earlier generation and focusing their attention, instead, on improving the lives of people in their local communities.
History of evangelicals
The groundwork for American-style conservative evangelicalism was laid several decades before the rise of the Moral Majority and Focus on the Family movements. Evangelicals, and their forbears the “fundamentalists,” had long made education and mass communication a centerpiece of their efforts.
Starting in the late 19th century, they established post-secondary Bible training schools and utilized various mass media outlets, such as their own magazines and radio stations to get their religious message out.
After World War II, these efforts expanded to include elementary and secondary schools – now numbering almost 3,000, along with approximately 150 evangelical colleges and seminaries in the U.S. In addition, evangelicals expanded their media efforts in publishing (books and national periodicals such as Christianity Today), radio and television.
Even though these schools and media outlets were independent from each other, they were unified in a shared theological and moral perspective that served to reproduce evangelical culture and beliefs, and to disseminate the religiously tinged political message of the religious right.
This once-unified movement is now dividing over whether to support Donald Trump in the general election.
Old guard evangelicals such as the founder of the Focus on the Family movement James Dobson and Jerry Falwell Jr., son of the Moral Majority founder and current president of Liberty University, are warning of dire consequences for the U.S. if Trump is not elected.
According to Dobson, without a Trump presidency, the U.S. will “see a massive assault on religious liberty,” which would “limit what pastors… can say publicly,” and would “severely restrict the freedoms of Christian schools, nonprofit organizations, businesses, hospitals, charities, and seminaries.”
But not all evangelicals are supporting Trump, even though they remain true to the Republican Party. These evangelicals are alarmed at what they see as the vulgar and immoral lifestyle that Trump exemplifies.
In the past, mobilizing this vast religious and political machinery would have resulted in overwhelming and unquestioning support for the Republican candidate. This was first seen with Ronald Reagan in 1980 who won the White House with widespread support of evangelicals, and has been repeated in each election since.
But this time, a call to support Trump has exposed deep divisions within evangelicals that have gone unnoticed until now.
The point is that Trump represents to many the very antithesis of the kind of moral probity that evangelical leaders have spent their lives defending.
Differences over social and moral issues
How did this happen? While the mostly white religious right was gaining political and cultural power over the last 40 years, evangelicalism became as much a political and racial identity as a religious or theological one.
Survey research and election polls have failed to differentiate the differences within the movement between whites, Latinos, African-Americans and Asians who all share the same basic evangelical theology, but who may part company over other social and moral issues.
For example, in most surveys and political polls, “evangelical” is limited to white believers, with others who may be similar theologically being classified into other racial/ethnically identified categories such as “Black Protestant,” “Latino Protestant” or “Other nonwhite Protestant.”
Further, as with all religious groups in the U.S., the evangelical movement began struggling to keep its young people in the fold. Recent research shows that among young adults who were identified as evangelicals as teenagers, only 45 percent can still be identified as such.
Click here to read more.