When you go to the voting booth, you can guess with near-certainty how most American evangelicals are going to vote, but you would be mistaken in thinking that all evangelicals share the same motivation in voting.
America is currently home to two different kinds of evangelical Christians: one is a group rooted in a historical tradition; the other is a voting bloc with an unhealthy approach to politics. There are many similarities between the two, but the former is more interested in spreading the gospel than influencing public policy, while the latter seeks primarily to change public policy to create a better country for Christian citizens.
When it comes to politics, American evangelicals have comprised a regular voting bloc in national and state elections since the 1970s and ’80s, taking public stances on social issues such as religious freedom, abortion, and same-sex marriage. But there is more to evangelicals than their voting trends. Many Christians who closely align with historic evangelicalism take an active yet balanced approach to the realm of politics, in contrast with those evangelicals who connect politics with biblical doctrines.
The orthodox evangelicals of today find their beginnings in the Protestant Reformation kindled by theologian Martin Luther in Wittenberg. The term “evangelical” comes from the Greek word “euangelion,” which means “good news” or “gospel.”
In an article for The New Yorker, Timothy Keller, a Presbyterian author and pastor from New York City, points out that at the height of the Reformation, the term “evangelical” came to be associated with Luther.
Keller cites historian David Bebbington in saying that evangelicals have been marked by a certain set of beliefs.
“Evangelicals have generally believed in the authority of the whole Bible, in contrast to mainline Protestants, who regard many parts as obsolete,” Keller says. “They also see it as the ultimate authority, unlike Catholics, who make church tradition equal to it.”
But one of the main tenants of evangelicals, according to Keller, is a conversion experience: “everyone needs a profound, life-changing encounter with God,” something achieved through faith alone in Christ, he writes.
In the heated political climate of Reformation Europe, though, evangelicals had to deal with the same struggle that has faced the church since the beginning: the relationship between the secular government and the spiritual institution of the church.
What hath Calvin to do with the United States?
The question of the church-state relationship was particularly relevant for European Christians during the Reformation as many states had government-sponsored churches. In examining the trajectory of evangelicalism as it spread through Europe and eventually over to the New World, Pastor Alan Conner of Northwest Bible Church in Oklahoma City argues that there was an influence of John Calvin’s political theory in the American founding.
“From the time of the Reformation, there were certainly pretty strong beliefs about Christians and politics,” said Conner in an interview. “Calvin had a clear view of the role of the church and the government, and that spread to John Knox.”
Calvin’s political views, according to Conner, influenced thinkers such as John Locke and Montesquieu as they worked out consistent theories of the role of religion and government. These thinkers, in turn, strongly influenced America’s Founding Fathers.
“Most of them said we did have responsibilities, particularly when it came to dealing with tyrants. They began to develop more of an understanding of civil disobedience and when it is just,” Conner said. “Calvin said the individual doesn’t have the right to revolt, but lesser authorities could. These lesser magistrates were the God-ordained authorities who were to deal with a superior tyrant.”
These theories made their way to America with the Puritans and pilgrims as they brought aspects of their Christian faith into the governance of the early colonies.
“All of the different theories came over and influenced our Founding Fathers,” Conner said, adding that not all of the founders were orthodox Christians. “You can see it in the Declaration of Independence. When they set forth their grievances, they carried out their understanding of the proper, biblical method of dealing with a tyrant or a government that has violated its biblical bounds as seen in Romans 13 and 1 Peter 2:14.”
Conner says that over time, though, the church lost more and more influence in the broader secular culture. “The church was burying its head in the sand” during the 20th century, he said. It withdrew from the culture with the rise of Darwinian evolution and a higher view of the role of science. As a result, Christians began losing their confidence in the authority of the Bible.
Eventually, the church was worried by the power of the government. Conner points to the Johnson Amendment of 1954, which strips churches of tax-exempt status if and when they endorse or oppose a political candidate.
“This so intimidated the church that they withdrew from politics out of fear of losing their 501(c)(3),” he said. “The church was very silent for the most part.”
But there has been a different story recently, Conner says. In the last 10 to 15 years, he believes evangelical Christians have become bolder about taking public stances in matters of policy and social issues.
Strife in the religious right
Since evangelicals began taking a more active role in politics once again, this has led to a split within Evangelicalism. In the broader, secular perception of evangelicalism, Keller says they are considered to have “two qualities: they are both self-professed Christians and doggedly conservative politically.” But Keller helpfully dubs Protestants who are not defined by politics “little-e” evangelicals to set them apart from modern America’s “big-e” Evangelical voting bloc that dogmatically aligns with a political party above all else.
America’s Evangelicals seem to be the kind of people who would say Republican policies are the way to go for followers of Jesus Christ. These are the kinds of Christians who will defend President Donald Trump in all he does (“We aren’t voting for a pastor,” they told the anti-Trump conservatives back in 2016), rather than recognizing that he has done and still does many things unworthy of praise from the Christian community. This approach requires the Evangelical to toe the party line instead of applying biblical principles and doctrines to individual public policy or social issues.
A LifeWay Research study published in 2017 found that only about 45 percent of self-identified evangelicals actually affirm core historic beliefs of evangelicalism. Party affiliation and race could have a greater influence on voting than one’s faith for many self-proclaimed evangelicals, according to the study.
“People who once called themselves the ‘Moral Majority’ are now seemingly willing to vote for anyone, however immoral, who supports their political positions,” Keller says, specifically in reference to politicians such as President Donald Trump and Roy Moore, former chief justice of Alabama’s supreme court.
In the case of these particular Evangelical conservatives, Conner says they take an extreme approach to the public realm and are “consumed with politics.”
“They think that politics is kind of a savior,” he said. “They say we’ve got to make America a Christian nation again.”
Conner says we do see Christian principles in our nation’s heritage, but according to him, some Evangelicals approach that heritage in the wrong way.
“In principle, I think there’s a role to play in sanctifying the culture, but for some people, it consumes them,” he said. “It becomes something we have to do, and God isn’t sovereign in that. They say we can make it if all of the pastors in the pulpit would start preaching on social issues. It’s very man-centered.”
If Christians aren’t careful, Conner says, they can easily make having a Christian nation become a kind of idol.
“The church does not need to be in a Christian nation for it to thrive and prosper; we can do that under any government,” he said. “The danger is that it becomes the focus of the ministry. We’ve got to stand for biblical values — there’s a legitimate message there. But we can’t make politics or morality an idol that we try to save. The gospel should always be our focus.”
The political balance of a dual citizenship
While American Evangelicals might be blindly following secular politicians, Keller’s “little-e” evangelicals have a much more balanced view of the Christian’s role in politics. For Conner, looking to the biblical teaching of St. Augustine on the church and state helps relieve some of the conflict between the two. In his “City of God,” Augustine makes the distinction between the kingdom of man and the kingdom of God, arguing that a Christian’s highest calling is to citizenship in the kingdom of God.
This is not to say that Christians don’t have a responsibility as political citizens in their country, Conner says. He argues that the Bible provides the balance we need: Christians have a responsibility to the government – to “render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s” – without impinging their higher calling to follow God.
According to Travis Wussow, vice president for public policy and general counsel at the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, since the church has been placed by God in a world of politics, Christians cannot completely avoid political issues.
Politics, he says, “boils down to the question of how we live out our moral and ethical obligations together as a group.” The Christian must be willing to follow his convictions.
“Sometimes that will be in the center; sometimes people might call it extreme,” he said. “If we are clear about where our citizenship lies first, it can be easier to navigate political and social questions.”
In this approach to politics, Christians don’t have to vote according to a political party’s mandates; they are able to vote as a citizen of an earthly kingdom in light of their higher citizenship in the heavenly kingdom. While modern Evangelicals often vote with the intention of making life better for Christians, the historic evangelicals interact with the culture hoping to make life better for everyone. There might often be overlap in the voting habits of political Evangelicals and historical, orthodox evangelicals, but the rationale behind each vote could be very different.
Wussow points out that Jesus gave us the two greatest commands: to love God and to love your neighbor. This is the foundation for Christians in determining how to behave in politics.
“We have an obligation to love our neighbor and to care for them, especially if they are vulnerable and largely invisible to us,” he said. “Part of the obligation for the church in all generations is to help the rest of the country.”
Wussow says that evangelicals should recognize that Jesus places a mandate on every believer to live with other believers and to live in the broader context of our nation. Christians must learn to live not only according to justice, but also according to righteousness and mercy.
“We have obligations that follow the strain of justice and the strain of righteousness in Jesus’ commands,” he said. “It can be tempting to focus on one and not the other.”
Practicing Christians have to apply these strains in dealing with social issues and helping the vulnerable groups Wussow mentioned. Providing aid and care for groups such as the unborn or the elderly or foreign refugees is something evangelicals do primarily to follow Christ’s commands to minister to the world, not because we want to see a certain party’s pet policies put in place. Wussow points out that on a global scale, this also applies to the persecuted church.
“The world is an increasingly troubled place,” Wussow said, “especially when you look at persecuted religious minorities all over the world. For people who believe that God has determined the boundaries of just government and that God alone is lord of the conscience, it should bother us. We should, to the extent we can, work to counteract it.”
Gospel life for the evangelical
A society that lives in accordance with God’s commands tends to function better, Conner says, and the church has the opportunity to show the world how God’s moral law functions in a society.
“Government is instituted by God as an expression of his common grace,” he said. “No one will get saved by politics, but government is ordained by God and is therefore accountable to God.”
The church should be involved in certain issues, such as advocating for a pro-life view of humanity, but even if the church is loving but firm in its stances, Conner says there will be negative reactions.
“But that helps to purify the church; it challenges us,” he said. “We have to ask ourselves, ‘Do I want to stand up for God’s values and take the repercussions?’ We don’t want to do this in an ugly way, but we can stand up and make our legislators aware that we believe things like the sanctity of human life are values of God.”
Conner points to passages such as Proverbs 14, which says that sin is a reproach to any people. The church’s goal is not to win political battles or arguments—its goal must be to align our laws with God’s for the sake of having a better society.
“Calvin’s view was that the church should have a prophetic voice to the government,” he said. “There are positive benefits even for unbelievers if there’s true justice.”
The way Evangelicals and evangelicals vote might have similarities, but the evangelical is free to live in the world by applying biblical beliefs to policy, while members of the Evangelical voting bloc are constrained to consider all public policy as it stands with a political party. Christians can and should continue to call themselves evangelical, but they must do so while distinguishing themselves as those who hold to the doctrines of the church over any political party.
Nolan Ryan is a senior at Hillsdale College, where he is editor-and-chief of the student newspaper, The Collegian. He has previously interned with The Detroit News and The Tennessean.