Discrimination Against Evangelicals and the Evangelical Victimization Narrative

Evangelicals 2

Earlier this month I was at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in the Boston area for a panel discussion with Dartmouth religion scholar Randall Balmer on “Evangelicals and Politics.”  Mark Massa of Boston College’s Boisi Center served as the moderator.

Massa asked us if evangelicals had a “distinctive political style.”  I suggested, as I did in Believe Me: The Evangelical Road to Donald Trump, that much of evangelical politics is defined by fear, power, and nostalgia.

Balmer summarized evangelical’s political style in one word: “victimization.”  I thought about his answer again after reading Griffin Paul Jackson’s recent piece at Christianity Today: “Half of Americans Say Evangelical are Discriminated Against.”  Here is a taste:

Though evangelical Protestants remain the largest faith group in the country, as clashes over their beliefs turn up in the public square, half the country has come to believe evangelicals face discrimination in the US.

A new report from the Pew Research Center reveals that Americans see discrimination on the rise or holding steady across demographic groups, with evangelical Christians and Jews experiencing a significant uptick over the past few years.

Fifty percent of US adults agree that evangelical Christians are subject to discrimination, up from 42 percent in 2016. One in five (18%) say that evangelicals—about a quarter of the population—face “a lot” of discrimination.

Read the rest here.

Evangelicals only represent about 25% of the American population.  This means that a lot of non-evangelical Americans also believe that evangelicals face discrimination.  As the readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of the victimization narrative that defines much of political discourse on the Christian Right.  Balmer is right.  But I also think some of the discrimination of evangelicals is probably real.  Perhaps we brought it upon ourselves, but it is nonetheless real.  I wrote about this a few years ago at Aeon.

A Visit to Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

Gordon Conwell

I spent Monday night at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary in Hamilton, Massachusetts (Boston-area).  Thanks to Gordon-Conwell president Dennis Hollinger for the invitation and Mary Ann Hollinger for her hospitality.

The Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life sponsored conversation on evangelicals and politics that included Boisi director (and Jesuit theologian) Mark Massa, Dartmouth historian of American evangelicalism Randall Balmer, and yours truly.

A few takeaways:

  1. Gordon-Conwell is a seminary founded by mid-century evangelical stalwarts Billy Graham, J. Howard Pew and J. Harold Ockenga.  Over the last fifty years it has been an institutional fixture on the evangelical landscape.  During the course of the evening I did not meet a single Trump supporter.  This is the first time that I have been at a self-identified evangelical institution where I did not meet someone who wanted to make the case for Trump.
  2. I talked with several pastors-in-training (MDiv students) who wanted advice about how to deal with Trump supporters in their future congregations.  My advice:  preach the Gospel in season and out of season.   I hope they will avoid bringing politics into the pulpit, but rather preach in a positive way about what the Bible teaches regarding truth and lying, welcoming the stranger, caring for the “least of these,” loving neighbors,” the dignity of human life, and the pursuit of holiness.  I encouraged them, to borrow a term from Virginia sociologist James Davison Hunter, to be “faithfully present” in the congregations and communities where God calls them to serve.
  3.  All of the evangelical millennials I chatted with were fed-up with Trump and the Christian Right.  It seems like a sea-change is coming.
  4.  During the formal conversation, Gordon-Conwell theology and missions professor Peter Kuzmic talked about how his fellow evangelicals in Eastern Europe were appalled that American evangelicals supported Trump.  I asked him publicly if the evangelical support of Donald Trump was hindering the work of the Gospel in Eastern Europe.  He did not miss a beat in saying “yes.”  This is tragic.  It is the case I have been making during the Believe Me book tour.  I told Kuzmic that I would like to take him with me on the road.  His testimony was a powerful one.  While court evangelicals continue to take victory laps over securing an originalist judiciary that might overturn Roe v. Wade, the witness of the Gospel is becoming more difficult, especially for missionaries.
  5. We talked a lot of about “fracture” within the evangelical community.  The days of a unified neo-evangelicalism (if there ever was such a thing) are over.  George Marsden once said that an evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham.  Well, Billy Graham is now dead and there will be no one to replace him.  This is not a statement about whether or not there are any potential heirs to Graham.  It is rather a statement about the current state of American culture, a state that Princeton historian Daniel T. Rodgers has called the “Age of Fracture.” I want to write more about this.
  6. It was an honor to share the stage and the evening with Randall Balmer, a scholar who has taught me so much about evangelicalism.