After Roy Moore lost Alabama's special Senate election, despite running a campaign on what he called Christian values, some evangelical voters seem to be considering that their label has been co-opted.
There's a growing concern that aligning with people such as Moore and President Trump has hurt evangelicalism in the public eye. But others connected to the movement say evangelicals, particularly white evangelicals, had a perception problem long before Trump and Moore became the faces of the community’s politics.
Moore’s promise to bring Christian values to the nation’s capital helped him win 80 percent of the white evangelical vote, similar to Trump in the 2016 election. But Moore was highly unpopular with people outside of evangelicalism, in part because of his incendiary comments about Muslims, gay people, people of color and people he perceived did not share his Christian faith.
Russell Moore, president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, the Southern Baptist Convention’s public policy arm, told The Fix: “This did not start with our recent national scene. The term 'evangelical' as applied to this movement was meant by Billy Graham and Carl F.H. Henry to carry a specific theological and missional content. For years, though, evangelicalism has been defined by the market, not by the gospel. Any label that can include both Bible-believing gospel Christians and prosperity gospel heretics is a label that has lost its meaning.”
The Washington Post's Julie Zauzmer and Sarah Pulliam Bailey detailed the relationship between white evangelicals and conservative politics:
For years, believers have debated whether Republican politics and culture-war battles have diluted the essence of their label “evangelical” — which means spreading the Gospel.
The term “evangelical” became popular decades ago as a way to tamp down differences, emphasizing that all people under its umbrella, regardless of denomination, agree to embrace the Bible and spread its word. But politicians such as Trump and Moore have shown how elusive shared faith and values are today.
Ekemini Uwan, co-host of “Truth’s Table,” a podcast for Christian women of color, said Moore and Trump supporters are the norm within evangelicalism, so attempting to distance them from the movement fails to address the real issues.
“White evangelicals who are now discarding the evangelical label are a day late and a dollar short,” Uwan said. “From its inception, there was an unholy triumvirate of Republicanism, patriotism and nationalism at the core of white evangelicalism. Trump is the very embodiment of white evangelicalism, and they must own him and their complicity. They may want to discard the label in the name of expediency, but fundamentally their ideology is rotten to the core. To reject the label for a new one is nothing more than putting lipstick on a pig.”
Part of evangelicals’ frustration is confusion with the label, which more than a quarter of Americans identify with, according to a Pew study. From the religious right’s earliest days, stances such as opposing abortion and same-sex marriage have been at the core of the movement. At this point, it's nearly impossible to dissociate the religious values from the politics.
Alan Noble, editor of Christ and Pop Culture, said that evangelicalism has long meant different things to different people.
“As long as I have heard the term ‘evangelical,’ it has been contested,” he said. “Probably one reason for this is that in the public square ‘evangelical’ tends to be a sociological term, whereas for many conservative protestant Christians it describes a theological stance.”
“For much of society, ‘evangelical’ describes a specific voting bloc — white, conservative Christians,” Noble said. “I suspect that the visibility of voting has much to do with this. It could be that voting is the most visible act that evangelicals as a body do, and so they shall know you by your vote.”
If anything, Moore and Trump tapped into the values that already existed within the faith movement — and found a home for their politics. The difference is Trump succeeded and Moore didn't. As Jerry Falwell Jr., president of the evangelical Liberty University, previously said, “I think evangelicals have found their dream president.”
White evangelicals are one of the groups that propelled Republicans in national and local elections. And all signs point to evangelicals having to carry the negative implications of the label long after some of these controversial politicians have left the political stage.