Last Sunday to mark the feast of Christ the King, and the anticipation of advent, our congregation sang Charles Wesley’s great hymn,
Rejoice in glorious hope! Jesus the Judge shall come,
And take His servants up to their eternal home.
We soon shall hear the archangel’s voice;
The trump of God shall sound, rejoice!
Compared with many North American Christians I suspect our mixed bunch of inner city worshipers are not particularly “rapture ready”. Indeed, the Advent season for us is rather more focused on the incarnation, on the practical mission of caring in our local community and sharing some signs of Christ’s Kingdom in the very earthly here and now. In this I suspect we are fairly typical of mainstream English evangelicalism today.
In contrast most churches and Christians who bear the label “evangelical” in the USA adopt a more literal and fundamentalist interpretation of scripture and a “pre-millennial” understanding of Christ’s second coming. Their focus on a heavenly future, and conviction that society will experience moral and religious decline until the parousia, predisposes them to a conservative world view and a degree of (a)political pessimism. It may also help to explain why 81% of white evangelicals who voted in the recent presidential election supported Donald Trump. Faced with the choice between two morally unsatisfactory candidates, Trump’s hostility to abortion, LGBT rights and to Muslims won them over. These are touchstone issues for the Christian “moral majority”, which since the 1980s has been tightly bonded to the Republican party, and persuaded many, though far from all, evangelical leaders to endorse his bid for the White House. Widely circulated “prophesies” referring to Trump as God’s anointed “Cyrus”, coupled with the myth of America’s manifest destiny as a chosen nation under God, added to the probability that it was the white evangelical vote “wot won it”.
Pluralists, progressives, women and ethnic minorities across the world may rightly be fearing the beginning of a new fascist apocalypse. At the very least we now all live in frightening and uncertain times, where there is implicit permission for racism, misogyny and distortion of the truth.
Undoubtedly other political and economic currents were at work in the election. Furthermore, there is evidence that the vote for Trump had a similar demographic to those who voted to leave the EU in the UK referendum in June. In two nations facing economic crisis and growing inequality, similar culture wars pitch two equal halves of the electorate against each other. Some detailed examination of the exit polls makes clear that there were larger majorities for Trump and for Brexit among white, older, working class, men, living in provincial areas. There was a widespread fear of immigration and multiculturalism, coupled with a nostalgia for a myth of society in the 1950s and a distrust of metropolitan governing elites. While that does not mean everyone who voted to leave was a racist or had evil motives, such views are likely to correlate with authoritarianism and hostility to minorities. It may be a last-ditch effort by insecure white males, threatened by some loss of their traditional privilege to “claim back their country” and “make the nation great again”.
There was however, a subtle difference in the religious dynamics of the voting patterns on the two sides of the Atlantic. While over four in every five white evangelicals voted for Trump, British evangelicals seem embarrassed about this and are distancing themselves from their American brethren. In the Brexit referendum polling paid far less attention to religious affiliation and makes it difficult to identify evangelical Christians. The best we have is an Evangelical Alliance (EA) panel survey taken by 1,453 self defined evangelicals in April 2016; of those expressing an intention to vote 51% were intending to vote Remain, 28% Leave and 21% not yet decided.
However, in a YouGov representative sample of over 2,000 English voters surveyed after the referendum 67% of those who identified as Church of England (CofE) said they had voted Leave. It may be more enlightening to say that of the 53% who had voted Leave 34% said they were CofE (compared to 20% of Remain). Given that the likelihood of identifying as CofE is declining rapidly among younger generations, and that among older people this was a default, often nominal religious affiliation, it is unwise to assume that active church going Anglicans are especially likely to sympathise with right wing nationalism.
Nor can this be said of the British evangelical constituency as a whole. EA data has shown that their politics is diverse and rather than being right wing reflects the voting patterns of the UK population. On diversity issues they are positively progressive. In a survey prior to the 2015 general election, immigration to the UK was only seen as the most important single issue by 6% percent of evangelicals compared with 21% of the population at large. While immigration was the most frequently mentioned single issue in national polls, for evangelicals it was poverty and inequality (31%).
Nonetheless a religiously illiterate media has assumed that British evangelicals are identical to American fundamentalists. As a result, evangelicals are often portrayed as killjoys, prudish, anti gay, racist if respectable, too heavenly minded to be any earthly use, or at best as happy-clappy worshippers. Journalists often seek out extremely conservative spokes-people to articulate traditional theological views on gender and sexuality in adversarial debates on controversial issues. The strength of solidarity, mutuality, inclusiveness and outgoing sacrificial service in local communities by evangelical churches is usually ignored, and the root meaning of the term evangelical as good news is rarely highlighted.
In the response to Trump’s victory progressive Christians, including many thoughtful evangelicals in the USA, have responded in various ways, from suggesting Republicans cannot be Christians, through commitments of resistance to Trump’s policies, to calling on Christian Trump voters to be true to the gospel in avoiding hate. Some are working hard to redeem the “good news” meaning of the label, while others have given up on it for good. Internationally anxious evangelical leaders are debating their concerns for the church and its mission, and much of this debate is reviewed from a UK perspective by Ian Paul.
Even before the populist rightwards turn in politics, and the scandal of the overwhelming white Christian vote for Trump, UK evangelicals were becoming embarrassed by the label itself. Only 26% of self-identified evangelicals in the EA survey in April 2016 frequently use the word evangelical when describing myself as a Christian, and the proportion was lower among women and those who were not church leaders. 20% said they would never use it. A typical comment was “I use it to describe my church place and origins to other Christians. It’s a negatively loaded term outside the church and so I don’t use it with non-Christians”. Now as never before, the numerically dominant and most vibrant constituency of the British church needs not so much to change its theology and practice as to re-brand and live up to its calling to proclaim and be Good News. It is surely time for the counter productive and toxic “E” word to be killed off.
Greg Smith is an Associate Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation