A new interest in Evangelicals on the part of political scientists and media commentators has been one of the most striking consequences of the recent rise of populist politics in Europe and the Americas. The results of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, as well as the more recent appointment of Scott Morrison as the Australian Prime Minister and the election of Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, have prompted analysts and journalists to consider voting communities whose political preferences and electoral behavior may have contributed to what they represent as the sudden populist, and often distinctively rightward, turn.
And so, in a manner unseen since the later 1970s, when both Jimmy Carter and his critics in the Christian Right were identified with an emerging Evangelical movement, newspapers and other media outlets have been trying to explain to their audiences who Evangelicals are, and why they tend to vote as they do. But there are a number of problems with this approach.
The first problem is that “Evangelicalism” does not exist as unitary movement. As the American historian D. G. Hart has demonstrated, in Deconstructing Evangelicalism (2004), born-again Protestants are not united by any shared theological commitment. In fact, the most recent survey of theological and ethical opinion among Evangelicals, released only this past month, indicates that many of these believers openly question the most time-honored doctrines and behavioral expectations in Christian religion. Lacking a common confession, organizational structures, or a clearly defined leadership, and often being acutely aware of doctrinal contradiction within what they are persuaded to believe is their movement, “Evangelicals” have been gathered together by pollsters who need to find some category to describe a series of often competing religious subcultures.
In most of those cases, as in this one, it has suited many leaders within these “Evangelical” subcultures to own this generic religious identity, for it provides this collection of anomalous believers with an identity and significance that is markedly bigger than the sum of its parts. This “movement” gains the illusion of unity though an infrastructure that combines news and lifestyle magazines, television and internet channels, and—perhaps most importantly of all—the manufacturers and distributors of the holy hardware that provides a self-identified community with its material culture. As American historian Benjamin Huskinson argues, “Evangelicalism” is less a movement than a marketplace. The visible props of the performance of Evangelical religion cannot conceal an immaterial culture. Held together by a common commitment to the necessity of some kind of religious conversion, and by very little else, Evangelicals belong to a movement that doesn’t actually exist.
The second problem attending the media interest in identifying Evangelicals and explaining their electoral behavior is that born-again Protestants do not share a common political platform, as they might if they were members of a movement. Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic express a wide variety of political opinions, and some reject any form of political participation at all. This variety has been illustrated in Lydia Bean’s study of The Politics of Evangelical Identity (2014), which reflected upon the year she spent in Evangelical communities on either side of the American-Canadian border. While Bean’s interviews with American Evangelicals confirmed their proclivity for hyper-patriotism, her discussions with Canadian congregants revealed their hesitation about involvement in political campaigning, and this despite the “covert Evangelicalism” of Prime Minister Stephen Harper.
There are signs that evangelicals in the United States are coming to share this hesitation. Steven P. Miller’s The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-again Years (2014) describes the rise and eventual crisis of Evangelical religious nationalism, while The New Evangelical Social Engagement (2014), edited by Brian Steensland and Philip Goff, shows how younger Evangelicals in particular are identifying with issues of social justice that have been more traditionally seen as the political property of the Left. One of the consequences of the religious diversity among Evangelicals is that born-again Protestants may and do support competing political positions. And, if Evangelical responses to President Trump demonstrate anything, it is that this trend toward political diversity is accelerating.
The third problem facing those who would explain the religious politics of “Evangelicalism” is that the politics of born-again Protestants are more obviously shaped by local and national, rather than international or even religious, agendas. Evangelicals do not speak with one political voice or advance a universal political agenda.
Bean’s ethnographic study of congregations on either side of the American-Canadian border illustrates a point that born-again Protestants in Europe would easily recognize—that the conservatism of American Evangelicals is more easily explained by their cultural geography than by the tenets of their faith. This is why journalists and commentators in the United Kingdom have not rushed to explain the result of the Brexit referendum with reference to the aspirations or behaviors of British believers. It is not simply that Evangelicals in the United Kingdom are smaller in number and less politically significant than are their American counterparts (though that is certainly the case). Nor is it simply that Evangelicals in the United Kingdom are more likely to identify with well-established denominations than with any of the multitude of para-church “ministries” that currently organize the majority of American believers, supply their media, shape their beliefs and activities, and claim to represent them. Nor is it merely explained by the fact that Christians in the United Kingdom have not been subject to the kind of polling that at once interrogates and constructs the American “movement.” It is simply that the views of Evangelical politicians are more obviously shaped by their ambient social and political environment than by their religion.
This observation explains the fourth problem facing those journalists and media commentators who attempt to explain the electoral character of Evangelicalism—and that is the striking contrast between the most successful Evangelical politicians on either side of the north Atlantic. While “Evangelicalism” is constructed to embrace a bewildering variety of religious subcultures and communities, even one of those subcultures can produce a bewildering variety of politics. Thus, the same kind of conservative Calvinism that produced a young and energetic conservative Republican, in the form of U.S. Senator Ben Sasse, also produced the former leader of the most progressive party in mainstream British politics, Tim Farron of the Liberal Democrats. For Evangelical politics is not, fundamentally, about religious beliefs, but about the social, cultural, and geographical contexts that produce them.
So those who would seek to understand the relationship between politics and an Evangelical movement are left to consider a paradox. As Hart’s work emphasizes, “Evangelicalism” is a creation of pollsters rather than denominations or religious communities. The pollsters who have created this category now seek to analyze its political preferences in terms of supposed religious convictions that do not in fact define it or hold it together. This is weird, and not good—and besides: There are far better ways to understand America’s current political problems than to blame a huge share of it on religious people. For American Evangelicalism is a political, not a religious, community, and there are better ways to understand its electoral discontents.