Evangelicalism and Its Electoral Discontents

Attempts to explain Evangelical politics face a simple but vexing question: Does Evangelicalism even exist as a unitary movement?

The third problem facing those who would explain the religious politics of “Evangelicalism” is that the politics of born-again Protestants are more obviously shaped by local and national, rather than international or even religious, agendas. Evangelicals do not speak with one political voice or advance a universal political agenda.

 

A new interest in Evangelicals on the part of political scientists and media commentators has been one of the most striking consequences of the recent rise of populist politics in Europe and the Americas. The results of the Brexit referendum and the election of Donald Trump, as well as the more recent appointment of Scott Morrison as the Australian Prime Minister and the election of Brazil’s new President, Jair Bolsonaro, have prompted analysts and journalists to consider voting communities whose political preferences and electoral behavior may have contributed to what they represent as the sudden populist, and often distinctively rightward, turn.

And so, in a manner unseen since the later 1970s, when both Jimmy Carter and his critics in the Christian Right were identified with an emerging Evangelical movement, newspapers and other media outlets have been trying to explain to their audiences who Evangelicals are, and why they tend to vote as they do. But there are a number of problems with this approach.

The first problem is that “Evangelicalism” does not exist as unitary movement. As the American historian D. G. Hart has demonstrated, in Deconstructing Evangelicalism (2004), born-again Protestants are not united by any shared theological commitment. In fact, the most recent survey of theological and ethical opinion among Evangelicals, released only this past month, indicates that many of these believers openly question the most time-honored doctrines and behavioral expectations in Christian religion. Lacking a common confession, organizational structures, or a clearly defined leadership, and often being acutely aware of doctrinal contradiction within what they are persuaded to believe is their movement, “Evangelicals” have been gathered together by pollsters who need to find some category to describe a series of often competing religious subcultures.

In most of those cases, as in this one, it has suited many leaders within these “Evangelical” subcultures to own this generic religious identity, for it provides this collection of anomalous believers with an identity and significance that is markedly bigger than the sum of its parts. This “movement” gains the illusion of unity though an infrastructure that combines news and lifestyle magazines, television and internet channels, and—perhaps most importantly of all—the manufacturers and distributors of the holy hardware that provides a self-identified community with its material culture. As American historian Benjamin Huskinson argues, “Evangelicalism” is less a movement than a marketplace. The visible props of the performance of Evangelical religion cannot conceal an immaterial culture. Held together by a common commitment to the necessity of some kind of religious conversion, and by very little else, Evangelicals belong to a movement that doesn’t actually exist.

The second problem attending the media interest in identifying Evangelicals and explaining their electoral behavior is that born-again Protestants do not share a common political platform, as they might if they were members of a movement.

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