“When we disagree strongly with people who claim the same category that we do, we start to wonder what the identifying term even means. This is why definitions are helpful; they set parameters. In the noise of culture, we must return to the definitions again and again.”
Having worked in church and culture research for over a decade, I can tell you that one of the most-asked questions is about the category of Evangelicals.
It has been this way for a long time, but this election has brought it to the top of everyone’s list.
With 4 of 5 White Evangelicals voting for Donald Trump, everyone on both inside and outside of Christianity is trying to understand just who this group is. And among self-identifying Evangelicals who did not support Donald Trump, many are wondering how they can share the same label. This is the moment when more people than ever are asking: What exactly is an “Evangelical” Christian?
And, Evangelical does not mean “White Republican Who Supports Trump.”
Some have said they don’t want to use the label anymore, embarrassed because of its identification with Donald Trump. But that’s backwards. It’s not the label that supported Trump, it’s people—White Evangelicals, primarily.
But it’s not politics that unite all Evangelicals; it’s the gospel.
You see, most Evangelicals did not support Donald Trump; it was White Evangelicals who did.
Yes, researchers say “Evangelical,” and that’s a demographic category, but usually they mean “White Evangelicals.” But Evangelicals did differ, precisely around racial and ethnic categories, during this election.
I’m not embarrassed by fellow Evangelicals who’ve voted for or against Donald Trump. And you can stop using the term, but you still have the same people, just called something else, in your Evangelical church. However, I do wish the categories were more clear.
Disagreeing on Politics While Agreeing on the Gospel
When we disagree strongly with people who claim the same category that we do, we start to wonder what the identifying term even means. This is why definitions are helpful; they set parameters. In the noise of culture, we must return to the definitions again and again.
This is not a new conversation. I’ve written other articles about this here and here as well. When you have a movement as broad as this one, with so many people calling themselves the same thing, confusion sets in. It is helpful to talk about what Evangelical beliefs really are.
When I was at LifeWay Research, we collaborated for two years with the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) to answer this question. Our reason for doing this was related to research methodology—if we were going to identify a particular subset, then we needed to be clear about what it meant.
We defined it by theology instead of self-identity or denominational attendance. In other words, we focused on belief rather than behavior and belonging, both of which are valid categories. However, perhaps a belief definition might be of the most help today.
The definition is not a creed or even a complete standard, but it is a research construct—now formally adopted by the NAE—that statistically measures Evangelicals by some rather robust beliefs, including that you strongly agree with the following four statements:
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 my sin.
Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.
That’s a robust standard, and when applied, it shows that Evangelicals are diverse in regards to politics.