The Changing Face of Evangelicalism (ASCH 2017 Roundtable)

One of the privileges of being in academia that miss is the opportunity to share my research and, hopefully, encourage a better future for society and the Christian movement. As a contributor to The Future of Evangelicalism in America (edited by Candy Brown and Mark Silk), I was invited to share a short summary and reflection at a roundtable devoted to the book this past January 7, at the American Society of Church History 2017 Annual Meeting in Denver, CO. Mark Silk wrote a press release about the roundtable. Here is an overview of the roundtable program:

asch-panel-2017

My remarks about my chapter “The Changing Face of Evangelicalism” (updated Jan. 11, 2016) follow:

When I first joined this research effort, oh so many years ago, writing a chapter on the recent racial-ethnic transformation and influence on evangelicalism seemed an impossible task. But in recent years, more studies about Evangelical People of Color (I’ll call them EPOCs – hopefully never to be confused with Ewoks of Star Wars fame) have been published. So my chapter, hopefully, contributes to this growing awareness of evangelical diversity.

Of course, media attention is still drawn to white Evangelicals – especially during the recent Presidential campaign where 81% of white evangelicals were said to have voted for Donald Trump. Media attention to EPOCs remains spotty. In a Faith and Freedom Coalition post-election survey of 800 people, however, 59% of non-white evangelicals voted for Clinton and 35% for Trump.[1] A LifeWay survey conducted shortly before the elections indicated that only 15% of nonwhite evangelicals said they would vote for Donald Trump; 62% would vote for Hillary Clinton.[2]

pre-election-evangelical-survey

More recent media attention had been given to Latino evangelicals, particularly on the issue of immigration reform. The Evangelical Immigration Table and G92, for example, are recent collaborative efforts to garner evangelical voice around immigration reform and paths to citizenship. When it comes to immigration reform and the election campaign of Mr. Trump, EPOC appear to vary from white evangelicals. On issues like abortion and same-sex marriage, EPOCs are generally aligned with white evangelicals and swimming against the views of most people of color in general, but there are signs of a generational divide among EPOCs, too. For example, Deborah Jian Lee’s book Rescuing Jesus: How People of Color, Women & Queer Christians are Reclaiming Evangelicalism claims that “believers of color have changed church demographics and church politics. Women are rising in the ranks. LGBT Christians are coming out and issues like global AIDS and the environment have become priorities in many Evangelical congregations. Young people are returning to evangelicalism.”

Well, maybe not – in light of recent decisions by InterVarsity Christian Fellowship to request staff who support same-sex marriage to voluntarily resign. In any event, I think my thesis remains salient – namely, that “American evangelicalism, when viewed as a religious ethos rather than as an organized movement, has always been [multiracial] multicultural and multiethnic, and…will become increasingly so in the future.” (174) However, EPOCs and their concerns will continue to be marginal to mainstream white evangelicals unless adjustments in theology and practices that account for racial and cultural differences are made at both high and the grass-roots levels.[3]

Before I address these proposed adjustments that conclude my chapter in the book, I wanted to highlight the changing demography of evangelicalism based on the recent ARIS and Pew surveys. And then I reviewed the history of race and ethnicity in American Christianity.

Briefly, the surveys show that Latino and Asian American Christian affiliation with the evangelical label has increased in the last twenty years.[4]

increasting-racial-diversity-christians-pewFor Latinos this represents a shift away from Roman Catholicism, though I’m not certain if this movement is increasing. The percentage of Asian American Christian affiliation has declined overall, but that is due to the rise of immigrants from South Asia and Islamic countries. But Asian American Christian identification with mainline Protestantism has diminished as most now identify with recognizably evangelical organizations. African Americans have a more established history and remain less inclined to adopt the evangelical label despite sharing its theological and spiritual ethos.

As I alluded to earlier, the impact of the growth of EPOCs upon mainstream evangelicals will most likely be felt how well mainstream evangelicals embrace EPOC’s concerns about racial justice, economic policy, and immigration reform. I also wonder, however, that as mainstream evangelical organizations like the NAE, World Relief, and many Christian colleges begin to engage the concerns of EPOCs, might they alienate rank and file white evangelicals and repeat the white flight from mainline Protestantism in the 1970s.

Perhaps white evangelicals will not repeat history, but I was pessimistic in my chapter. Indeed, I argued that white evangelicals are even less equipped to handle the challenge of racial-ethnic diversity, in part, because of their history of defining themselves against mainline Protestantism. I have no intention of valorizing mainline Protestantism, but there is ample evidence of cross-racial and multicultural relationships in the history of mainline Protestantism. Hispanics began converting to Protestantism in the wake of the post-Mexican War annexations; Asians, after the Gold Rush; Blacks, as part of post-abolition missions to the freedmen; and Native-Americans through Christianizing missions. Thus, in the 19th century, American Protestantism was already becoming ethnically diverse.

And through the nadir of Jim Crow and scientific racism, racial reform resurfaced among mainline Protestants after the mainline-fundamentalist split. Now influenced by the Social Gospel and Niebuhrian realism, mainline churches turned traditional missions into social work and leaned on the social sciences, which led to an explicit engagement with race and the civil rights movement.

But fundamentalists and neo-evangelicals aligned with segregationist social mores and rejected the social sciences as worldly. Instead they focused on soul-winning which led them to ignore racial realities. Where fundamentalists did experience multiculturalism it was primarily through church planting and overseas missions. Ironically, this racial separation gave Hispanics and Asians the freedom to do missions more effectively leading to their rapid growth.

Given this development, one might say that the history of EPOCs is one of realignment from mainline Protestantism to evangelicalism since in the twentieth century. Certainly there were people of color who were engaged with the mainline Protestant ethos. I’d like to refer you to two recent studies tell the stories of how liberal and progressive Asian American Protestants advocated civil rights during the early and middle 20th century. Stephanie Hinnershitz’s Race, Religion, and Civil Rights: Asian Students on the West Coast, 1900-1968 and Anne M. Blankenship, Christianity, Social Justice, and the Japanese American Incarceration during World War II. Despite this, the new wave of immigration from Latin America and Asia was disconnected from mainline Protestants and, instead, fueled the EPOC dominance we witness today. As history Juan Martinez quips, “Mainline churches opted for Latino civil rights; but Latinos opted for Pentecostalism.” (p 185)

So it would appear that the color-blind, but Anglo-normative, individualistic, but American nationalist gospel of white evangelicals succeeded in winning over racial-minorities despite their ignorance and antipathy towards people of color. But will mainstream evangelicalism be able to truly listen to EPOC voices in the future?

Thus my conclusions about adjustments that white evangelicals would have to make in order to fully embrace the changing face of evangelicalism:

  1. Biblical Theology in Context
  2. Recognizing Structural Racism
  3. Grappling with White Privilege and Racial Equity for Intentionally Multicultural Organizations

Mainline Protestant success among EPOCs came as they made these adjustments. But just as they started to experience multicultural success within their denominational structures, they started to experience massive decline at the grass roots – white flight to evangelicalism. Would that be repeated among white evangelicals?

On the other hand, perhaps evangelicalism won’t repeat mainline Protestant history. Jim Wallis of Sojourners believed that the 2012 re-election of Barack Obame might have signaled “a new evangelical agenda for a new evangelical demographic.” If this is the case, then “the promise of American evangelicalism will be fulfilled only when white evangelicals are no longer hesitant to seek a multicultural and multiracial future characterized by racial equity. Although much work remains, there are promising signs that American evangelicals are willing to allocate resources to face, embrace, and shape a racially diverse future. Indeed…that future has arrived. So, too, have new opportunities to build a global and multiracial evangelical future.” (196)

Notes

[1] Todd Beamon, “Faith & Freedom Coalition Poll: 81 Percent of White Evangelicals for Trump” NewsMax (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.newsmax.com/Politics/poll-white-evangelicals-voted/2016/11/09/id/758096/

[2] “2016 Elections Exposes Evangelical Divides” http://lifewayresearch.com/2016/10/14/2016-election-exposes-evangelical-divide/

[3] This is confirmed by the results of the 2016 presidential elections, which may be leading to an even greater gap between white evangelicals and EPOCs. Carol Kuruvilla, “After Trump’s Win, White Evangelical Christians Face A Reckoning: There’s a growing divide in evangelical Christianity and it has a lot to do with race.” Huffington Post (Nov 9, 2016) http://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/evangelicals-election_us_5820d931e4b0e80b02cbc86e

[4] See also Pew Research Center, “America’s Changing Religious Landscape” (May 12, 2015) http://www.pewforum.org/2015/05/12/americas-changing-religious-landscape/

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