Time to take back ‘evangelical’ label from white nationalists says theologian
A leading Christian theologian has called for the term “evangelical” to be reclaimed and not be used as a form of name-calling.
Dr David Muir, head of Whitelands College at Roehampton University, told the Religion Media Festival “Exploring Belief”, that Christians needed to “give up ridiculous labels” such as whether they are an evangelical, learn from each other and be at the forefront of saying certain things are downright wrong.
Although part of mainstream Christianity, he warned that unless evangelical Christians thought beyond their own little theological tribes, started to think about the common good and ask what they could do as citizens that benefited everyone else, they were “going to be in a pretty awful place”.
Speaking during a discussion, What Is an Evangelical?, chaired by Rosie Dawson, Dr Muir and other panellists explored how the term was used in America and how the UK experience differed.
Dr Andrea Hatcher, professor of politics and pre-law at the University of the South in Tennessee, explained that the significant decline in church attendance among self-identified evangelicals in the United States since 2008, along with evangelicals who attended church weekly being five per cent less likely to identify as a Republican, meant the term was more of a political label than a religious one.
When it came to studies, she said, white and black evangelical Protestants were treated in two distinct categories because their political attitudes and behaviours were so different.
“Evangelical use in the USA today typically means cultural white conservative, but that has a different political connotation, when one includes black evangelicals. They are quite conservative on social issues, more liberal on economic issues, but unlike white evangelicals, they don’t vote on the cultural issues; they tend to vote their economic interest” - Dr Andrea Hatcher
Dr Matthew Guest, reader in the sociology of religion at Durham University, said the UK was so heavily secularised that pollsters were more likely to see things in terms of Christian and non-Christian. Until recently, British evangelicals would tend to be fairly conservative on issues of personal morality, but fairly left-leaning on political issues.
“Because of the historical linkages between the Church of England and the Conservative Party, and the Labour Party and the Catholic Church, and the Liberals and nonconformists, the Christian vote has always been split. So there hasn’t been a natural party home for evangelicals, indeed all Christians, within the British political system,” he said.
Over the past decade, Dr Muir said, white evangelicals in the US had shown their true colours with few speaking up when it came to race and social justice. Linking Donald Trump and the rise of white evangelicals in America, he said: “Those divided lines have become so stark now that maybe white evangelicals have got to do a bit of soul-searching and ask themselves not only why they have changed their minds.
“If you are an evangelical, you believe in the Bible and in some kind of social action. But they must also think socially about the impact of racial justice. White evangelicals in America have done that extremely badly.” – Dr Muir
Dr Hatcher agreed, adding: “This idea that Christians own the nation and that any attempt at pluralism requires that they take our country back is the narrative that we hear a lot. Take our country back from the secularists, the liberal immigrants, Muslims, homosexuals — any group that challenges their supremacy.
“So white evangelicalism, Christian nationalism, is a belief system based on an in group and out group division, whereby anyone who is not white conservative Christian is out.” – Dr Hatcher
Dr Guest said this captured the main difference between the UK and the US, where the ethno-nationalism associated with Trump has been linked religiously, to the evangelical faction. He suggested that if there was a group in the UK associated with politics structured around a quest to reclaim the country or get back something that has been lost, it was seen in the rhetoric around Brexit that was most popular among members of the Church of England and not necessarily evangelicals.
The panel agreed that one area American and British evangelicals shared was religious practice, often sharing the same conferences, leaders and songs.
Referring to initiatives such as the Global Leadership Summit by the American megachurch, Willow Creek, which was exported around the world, Dr Guest said the US took the lead.
“Many evangelicals in the UK look to the US model of success as they see it,” he said. “They see larger churches, richer churches, churches that are more vibrant and higher levels of personal commitment. It’s only natural that one would want to find out more about the secret of their success.”
One notable exception going in the other direction, he said, was the Alpha course, now a global brand.
Dr Muir said many white churches were also asking what they could learn from African and Caribbean churches that were enjoying growth.
In cities such as London, the kind of missionary zeal, evangelism and dynamic preaching seen in the Redeemed Christian Church of God (RCCG), one of the largest Pentecostal churches in Europe, could be what the future of Christian Britain would look like: evangelical, charismatic and young.
“Most of the leaders in some of the RCCG churches are getting much more biblically and theologically educated because they really believe they are here to stay — unlike perhaps their parents’ generation who came over in the 1950s — and that God has actually called them to evangelise the UK.”
He also said he was encouraged by the inter-generational and international insurrection that occurred after the death of George Floyd and how journalists reported on evangelicals was important because community mattered.
“I think we have all got to reflect, especially in America where white evangelicals have got to reflect on the evangelical road to Donald Trump, and then they have to repent. Evangelicals are sometimes bad at that.
“We may start to see a renewal of issues to do with social justice and community cohesion — so evangelicals matter because we are talking about the Gospel, about truth and about life and death. Isn’t that what it’s all about? Unless we can actually bring the Good News to our world, we must pack our bags,” he concluded.
Watch the entire panel discussion on the RMC's YouTube channel.
This article by Anna Averkiou first appeared on the Religion Media Centre Website in May 2021.