How Trump Is Remaking Evangelicalism

This fall, Christian students at Princeton dropped the word “evangelical” from the name of their fellowship. They felt the term is increasingly “confusing, or unknown, or misunderstood,” the director, William Boyce, told The Daily Princetonian. In the year since Donald Trump became president largely thanks to the support of white, self-identified evangelicals, this kind of quiet marketing shift has been happening in many elite Christian circles. As Allen Yeh, an associate professor at Biola University, wrote in a recent collection of essays called Still Evangelical?, “Evangelical Christianity has a PR problem.”

Under President Trump, the word “evangelical” has been tossed around a lot, used interchangeably with other broad terms like “conservative Christians” and “the religious right.” Evangelicals are portrayed as cohesive, all-powerful, and monolithic; they are almost always discussed in the context of politics, and the unspoken assumption is that they are white. This is a regrettable failure of description, since it does not remotely cohere to reality. But more importantly, this way of talking about evangelicals papers over significant disagreements among those who claim the label—fractures that will fundamentally shift how evangelicalism is perceived and expressed in the coming years.

Still Evangelical?, a new book from InterVarsity Press, captures the way a certain segment of Christian leaders are thinking about this moment of evangelical identity crisis. All of the writers hold prominent positions in the worlds of ministry, seminaries, and religious advocacy, but none are household names outside of the Christian world. This is part of the point: Many highly respected evangelicals with significant influence are basically ignored by the mainstream press, creating a skewed view of what evangelicalism is.

Yet this group is also arguably at odds with many Americans who call themselves evangelicals. They write from elite perches. Many are unabashedly progressive, and at least one is a female executive pastor of a church—a controversial role for women in some evangelical denominations. Although some are bona fide conservatives, none seems to be a full-throated Trump supporter. For the most part, these are Christians who feel disoriented by their brothers and sisters who supported Trump in the election. That fact alone means they sit in the minority.

But these leaders are worth listening to for two reasons. First, as many of them write, they show the diversity of evangelicalism. Their stories add range and depth to an often flat portrait offered by the media. Second, their reflections on evangelicalism provide a road map of what may lie ahead. Each writer agitates for some kind of reform in churches and institutions; each sees the current state of affairs as unsustainable. If the term “evangelical” survives the turmoil of Trump—if, after everything, these Christians agree that they are “still evangelical”—his presidency may be looked back on as a crucible for change. Having redefined politics with evangelicals’ support, Trump may redefine expressions of evangelicalism as well.

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