As American society continues to grapple with the legacy of the Trump years and the authoritarianism of the Christian Right, evangelical flagship magazine Christianity Today has devoted space to the question of whether conservative, mostly white evangelical Protestants should call themselves something other than evangelicals.
Ever conscious of their image, evangelical leaders, who can be skilled at rebranding, revisit this issue from time to time. For example, in 2016, Russell Moore, who recently left the Southern Baptist Convention, suggested the term “gospel Christian” for those who, like him, were critical of white evangelicals’ overwhelming Trump support. Obviously, the term didn’t stick, although Moores’ co-religionists’ Trump support did, with 84% of white evangelicals backing the corrupt demagogue in 2020, up from 77% in 2016.
As a result, evangelicals’ brand is, deservedly, more toxic than ever. Although R. York Moore (no relation to Russell), the national evangelist for the college campus focused parachurch ministry InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, couldn’t have known it when he launched the latest iteration of the “what should evangelicals who are invested in respectability call themselves?” discussion, the latest PRRI findings show white mainline Protestants outnumbering white evangelicals. This surprising and sobering fact must be particularly galling to evangelical leaders, who have long exhibited a tendency to brag about their supposedly robust numbers in relation to the mainline decline that seems to have reversed itself. The median age of a white evangelical is now 56, making them the oldest religious demographic in the United States.
Now, not all evangelicals are white, and InterVarsity does a better job of embodying racial diversity than many other evangelical organizations. Still, it is fair to note that InterVarsity’s positions on culture war issues are mostly aligned with those of the Christian Right, making the organization, by and large, an extension of white evangelical subculture.
With that background in mind, let’s get to Moore’s argument for dropping the term evangelical, a position with which outgoing Christianity Today editor Ed Stetzer felt it necessary to disagree in an appended editorial note.
Most fundamentally, Moore maintains that the label “evangelical” now carries too much baggage to be associated with his kind of Christianity. But I would note in this connection that, as someone whose Amazon author bio boasts about how many people he has “brought to Christ,” Moore is still clearly as anti-pluralist as any evangelical. So what is it, exactly, that he finds so troubling about the label?
According to Moore, “At its core, evangelicalism is a global expression of Protestantism, which is patently ‘trans-denominational,’ and fundamentally concerned with the spread of the Christian message through mission and evangelism.” Gesturing toward the nebulous “global evangelical community” has become a commonplace for would-be ”respectable” American evangelicals wishing to distance themselves from the extremism of their U.S. coreligionists, but it is a rhetorical strategy that is far from convincing. After all, the most notable fruits of Western evangelical missionary efforts that we see ripening in the burgeoning charismatic communities of the Global South have been vicious homophobia and authoritarian politics.
Nevertheless, Moore maintains that there is, or at least once was, some sort of global evangelical movement that is distinct from American evangelical extremism. Although he gives us no details about what “global evangelicalism” is other than an attempt to “spread the Christian message” around the world—which, frankly, does not help his case—he wants us to believe that this “global evangelicalism” is a good thing. Never mind that Christian missions, whether Protestant or Catholic, have been part and parcel of imperial expansion and genocidal violence for centuries, of which the 751 unmarked graves recently found at the site of a Canadian residential school dedicated to Christianizing First Nations children may serve as a stark reminder.
Be that as it may, according to Moore, “Evangelicalism is a shadow of what it used to be, offering little to the world it once cherished and lived in as a good global citizen.” Again, I find this contention unconvincing on its face, and Moore provides us with no details, caveats, or clarifications regarding the ways in which evangelicalism “once lived as a good global citizen,” other than his general comments about missions. Moore does, however, tell us a little more about what he believes evangelicalism to have been when he converted, at age 20, in 1989.
“At the time,” Moore explains, “evangelicals cared deeply about intellectual engagement, spreading the message of Jesus to the world, working together to accomplish that mission, and had a commitment to personal spiritual transformation.” He contrasts this with the evangelicalism of today, which, in his view, “has devolved into a grasp for cultural and political superiority at any cost as we can see from its collapse into Christian nationalism.”
Now, I do not contest that evangelicals have been dedicated to missionary efforts and personal spiritual transformation. However, as an advocate for embracing pluralism and avoiding proselytizing as expressions of good citizenship in a democracy, I do contest that a) missions and “spiritual transformation” are inherently good things, and that b) they are incompatible with Christian nationalism. What are missions, after all, if not an expression of cultural superiority?
Furthermore, as an exvangelical who attended Christian schools in the period Moore is painting as “the good old days of evangelicalism,” I can speak to the claim of “intellectual engagement” as well.
To be quite frank, I find it laughable that anyone would locate a golden age of “pure” evangelicalism in the 1980s, a period when America’s conservative, mostly white evangelicals embraced the machismo of President Ronald Reagan, gleefully painted AIDS as God’s punishment for homosexuality, and “engaged in global citizenship” by decisively rejecting President Jimmy Carter after one term, treating Oliver North like a hero after the Iran-Contra scandal broke, and pushing for a destabilizing foreign policy that would, in their view, bring about the “Rapture,” i.e. the return of Jesus to take the faithful up to heaven before the rest of us are “left behind” to suffer unimaginable apocalyptic horrors. Oh, and on the “intellectual” front, let’s not forget that the 70s and 80s were the heyday of that wonderfully terrible genre, low-budget evangelical apocalypse movies. And yet Moore claims that the evangelicalism of those days was not “rife with conspiracy theories.” I guess he isn’t counting all the speculation about the Soviet Union, Gog, Magog, and whether barcodes or computer chips would prove to be the “mark of the beast,” to say nothing of the “New World Order” obsession fueled by Pat Robertson in the early 1990s or the endless panics about supposedly Satanic gangs kidnapping children for purposes of ritual abuse (which has metastasized in the current day into QAnon conspiracies, which exist alongside beliefs about literal demons and “spiritual warfare”).
Most “respectable” evangelicals who find it necessary to hearken back to some golden age in the defense of their tradition at least have the good sense to locate that imaginary era beyond living memory, in the nineteenth century, by highlighting the second Great Awakening and evangelical abolitionism (while conveniently downplaying the influence of slaveholder Protestantism on the subsequent development of evangelicalism). On that front, Moore, I suppose, gets points for originality. But to argue that the evangelicalism of the 1980s is somehow incompatible with what evangelicalism has become is simply nonsense. As scholars such as Anthea Butler and Kristin Kobes Du Mez have recently shown, the evangelical embrace of Trump is the natural culmination of what evangelicalism was in those decades. Today’s evangelical authoritarianism is anything but some sort of inexplicable deviation.
Perhaps the real problem for Moore is that, as he says, “being an evangelical has become cumbersome and a source of embarrassment,” given its association with MAGA nationalism. According to Moore: “For many outsiders, the word evangelical summons amorphous images that are homophobic, misogynist, anti-scientific, and racist.”
As a former insider, I can say unequivocally that evangelicalism was those things when I was growing up, in Moore’s “golden age,” although we were the kind of evangelicals who denied we were racist (while still upholding white supremacism with our politics). The founding of segregation academies and Christian schools in fact started earlier, and in the Christian schools I attended, I was explicitly taught many “alternative facts,” including, of course, young earth creationism, as well as being inculcated in Christian nationalism by, among other things, participating in sing-a-longs of Lee Greenwood’s excruciatingly terrible “God Bless the USA” at the end of our school talent shows. In any case, bigoted claims of superiority are a natural consequence of maintaining the arrogant, exclusionary belief that one’s religious group has a monopoly on absolute metaphysical truth, and it’s easy for such religious othering to carry over into nationalism.
In fairness, I give Moore and InterVarsity some credit for their efforts to oppose racism, but when it comes to homophobia, he is clearly being disingenuous. InterVarsity, after all, infamously purged all their LGBTQ-affirming staff in 2016, doubling down on enforcing the teaching that homosexuality is a sin—at least for any people who actually enter same-sex intimate relationships instead of remaining celibate. Since Moore still works for the organization, we can be confident that he is not LGBTQ-affirming.
In any case, whether Moore is clear-eyed but cynical about this or really believes his own nonsensical argument, the evangelicalism of the 1980s was essentially the evangelicalism of today. The only real difference is that, today, in the wake of evangelicals grabbing unprecedented power under Trump and the January 6 insurrection, more people have noticed the authoritarian nature of the movement.
Just as American movement conservatism naturally led to Trump, the movement evangelicalism of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s naturally led to the evangelical embrace of Trump. Moore and those like him can drop the label “evangelical” if they want, conveniently allowing them to paint themselves and their Christianity as far more innocent than they are. They cannot do so, however, in a way that is fundamentally intellectually honest.