EVANGELICALISM’S FATAL FLAW
The leading Free Methodist author, Rev. Dr. Howard Snyder, provides an insightful historical and theological study of why the Evangelical church has lost its way. Though most Free Methodists identify as Wesleyan rather than Evangelical due to the reasons noted in this study, it is important to understand what has and is happening within a large branch of American Christianity.
Evangelicalism’s Fatal Flaw
Howard A. Snyder
Evangelicalism in the U.S. suffers from a fatal flaw.
What in the world is “evangelicalism”? The term is contested and variously defined. In the United States however it has come to mean doctrinally conservative Protestants, especially white Protestants, who are also very conservative politically. That perception has taken hold in the media and is backed by evangelicals’ voting record in the past several Presidential elections, going back to Ronald Reagan.
What is evangelicalism really though, theologically speaking? British Baptist historian David Bebbington formulated a definition in the 1980s that is now widely accepted. According to Bebbington, evangelicals are defined by four marks: biblicism (a high view of biblical authority); crucicentrism (central focus on Christ’s atonement); conversionism (conversion by faith in Jesus Christ is essential); and activism (the Christian duty to evangelize).
I have never liked this definition. It doesn’t really click with my own experience growing up in the Free Methodist Church. I always felt something was missing, especially for those of us in the Wesleyan and holiness tradition.
I used to think Bebbington’s definition wasn’t quite right. Given recent trends, however, I’ve changed my mind. I think the problem with Bebbington’s definition is precisely that it is on target.
Look at the four elements Bebbington lists. Notice anything odd?
At first glance it seems OK. But—where is discipleship? Where is holiness? Where is obedience to Jesus Christ? Unmentioned.
According to Bebbington, an evangelical is one who holds Scripture in high authority, focuses on Christ’s cross, believes one must be born again, and thinks Christians should evangelize. Those are all matters of belief, not so much of action. What is missing is discipleship: actually living out the gospel as Jesus said we must. That is the very thing, of course, that John Wesley focused on.
Here is U.S. evangelicalism’s fatal flaw. It’s a flaw evangelicals have exported all over the world. Evangelicals believe certain essential things. Discipleship is a good idea, but really optional. This same flaw has compromised the main currents of Christianity since the time of Roman Emperor Constantine. Discipleship was demoted to the category of “counsels of perfection” to which some might be called. The insistence on discipleship (obedience, holiness, whatever term was used) then became the passion of reform and renewal movements like Anabaptists, Quakers, early Methodists, and many renewal movements and orders down through history.
The American Experience
Now back to modern America. In the 1800s and before World War II, most evangelical and fundamentalist Christians tried hard to live like Jesus. Christian congregations taught members the Jesus way, stressing Christian faith and ethics through Sunday and weekday services and a strong emphasis on family prayer and daily devotions. There were blindspots, of course. Racism often lay just below the surface in white congregations, both North and South. (I remember the racist jokes among good church people.) Still, the central focus of most Christians’ lives was actually living out the Gospel, not just believing. Most Christians lived frugally and faithfully all through the Great Depression.
World War II though brought big changes—three in particular.
First, a big surge of patriotism. Americans rallied to support the troops and defeat Germany and Japan and their fascist cronies.
Second, post-war prosperity. The vast wartime industrial machine shifted to domestic production—cars, refrigerators, TVs. Suburbs thrived as the boys returned from overseas, went to college on the GI Bill, and found pretty good jobs in new suburban schools, the auto industry, or the professions.
For U.S. evangelicals, this led to a third shift. As American patriotism grew stronger, Christian discipleship grew weaker. Put another way: patriotism and piety merged. Meanwhile suburban congregations flourished as inner-city ones struggled or fled.
In this period U.S. voters elected both Democrats and Republicans to Congress and state offices and also to the White House—Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, Carter, (though Ford was not actually elected). Republicans and Democrats fought in the House and Senate but worked out compromises and got things done without name-calling or threats. Christians argued (mostly good-naturedly) over politics, but generally agreed that America was Number One and always would be. Many white evangelicals were roiled though by the Civil Rights Movement; most didn’t really think there was much of a problem.
The story of these shifts has often been told and retold. Often it is told partly as the postwar transition from fundamentalism to evangelicalism. The thing I am stressing here, however, is the importance of this third shift for U.S. politics.
By the 1970s, white suburban evangelicals had become at most a subculture, certainly no longer a counterculture. Evangelical roots spread horizontally in dominant white American soil; tap roots into the Gospel and Christian history withered. Denominational distinctives lost relevance. Evangelicalism because generic. I remember these developments well from my late teen years.
Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama
How then did we get to today? Two Presidencies were crucial: those of Jimmy Carter and Barack Obama.
Evangelical Jimmy Carter was elected President in 1976 but lost to Ronald Reagan in 1980. For white evangelicals, Carter had the right personal morality but the wrong politics. He was an evangelical and a Democrat. Conservative white evangelicals wanted a Republican more than they wanted an evangelical.
The narrative traced above left white evangelicals, raised in the patriotic fervor of World War II and the America-first prosperity of the 1950s and 1960s, wide open to political manipulation. Tim Alberta explains this pretty well in his book The Kingdom, the Power, and the Glory: American Evangelicals in an Age of Extremism (2023). Alberta uses Jerry Falwell, Liberty University, and the founding of the (so-called) Moral Majority in 1979 as a primary case study.
Jimmy Carter himself comments on what happened in his book A Full Life: Reflections at Ninety (2015). Carter tells how Falwell and other conservative Christian leaders met with him during the 1979–80 election campaign. Falwell then fabricated a false report of his conversation with Carter, denounced the candidate, and swung Moral Majority support to Reagan, the Republican. Falwell settled on abortion as his basic issue—something that hadn’t been much of a political issue among evangelicals previously. Carter writes, “The religious right supported Ronald Reagan, despite his previous incompatibility with their [professed] basic principles.” He adds, “The melding of the religious right with the Republican Part has been permanent since then.”
In May 2018, Jan and I attended Jimmy Carter’s Sunday School class in Plains, Georgia. Carter had just returned from giving the commencement address at Liberty University the day before. He had been very surprised, he said, to be invited by Jerry Falwell, Jr., then Liberty’s President, to speak at the school. Carter then summarized for us how the elder Falwell’s support of Reagan in 1980 cost him his reelection. (Carter was very forthright, but not bitter; no name- calling. He is a Christian, after all.)
Why did Falwell and the white evangelical tribe back Reagan rather than fellow evangelical Jimmy Carter? In short, white evangelicals felt threatened by the growing ethnic and racial diversity of the country; the Civil Rights Movement; increasing public acceptance of homosexuality; and other “family values” issues. White suburban evangelicals naturally wanted to protect their lives and cultural prominence. They didn’t want to lose out to African Americans or Native Americans or new immigrants and refugees from Vietnam and Cambodia and later from Iraq and Afghanistan—people who didn’t look like them or believe like them. Perfectly understandable, of course, especially since evangelical identity was now based more in the culture than in the Gospel. More and more evangelicals wanted pro-business, pro-America, pro- military, and preferably white Protestant folks running the country. (That is, a return to the 1950s.)
To a significant degree, these political changes were fed by the country’s changing demography. Robert Jones documents this in his 2017 book, The End of White Christian America. White evangelicals felt under threat and began to see themselves as a persecuted minority. This continues today—in remarkable contrast incidentally to the early church, which really was a persecuted minority but considered itself the highly privileged people of Jesus’ coming new kingdom, focused not on defense but on confident witness, out to change the world through the power of the Gospel. We often forget that the church always thrives best when it’s a minority. Power corrupts.
Jimmy Carter lost in 1980. Then came Barack Hussein Obama in 2008 —and many white evangelicals were really alarmed. After the election a well-to-do relative of mine posted on Facebook that for the first time in his life, he had bought a gun. I was shocked. I gradually came to realize how much irrational fear a black President sparked in white America.
Obama’s election especially stirred up white nationalists and white supremacists, and not just in the South. (Michigan also, it turned out.) Obama’s elections in 2008 set in motion the backlash that led to Donald Trump’s narrow election in 2016.
White evangelicals were of course part of this picture. They voted against Carter in 1980 and against Obama in 2008 and 2012, calling him “socialist” or worse. To justify voting for Trump, evangelicals invented the story that Trump was like the pagan king Cyrus in the Old Testament. A scoundrel, maybe, but God’s scoundrel. God can use him just as he used King Cyrus. (This is crazy biblical exegesis, of course, but we’ll skip that for now.)
This line of thinking laid white evangelicals open to many farfetched parallels between Trump and Jesus. Jesus was persecuted by his enemies; now Trump is being persecuted by his enemies, taken to court by a “weaponized” legal system to prevent his reelection. His breaking of laws was excused.
White evangelicals rejected Carter over civil rights and social justice. They rejected Obama over similar issues, but the added energy was supplied by race. “Race” was not named, of course, in polite society. But the 2016 Republican candidate invoked race constantly with code words and dark warnings about refugees, immigrants, his various political enemies, and in fact anyone who disagreed with him.
White evangelicals felt, of course, that they had legitimate issues and rights to defend. One evangelical friend said, “I’m voting for Trump because of the Supreme Court.” He wanted justices who would ban abortion—even though that meant justices who would likely undermine environmental protections, make guns more plentiful, weaken checks on big business, and undercut help for widows, children, and aliens.
Something quite strange has happened since 2016, however. People who loathed Trump but voted for him anyway have come to honor, even love and revere, him. This is idolatry and unfaithfulness, pure and simple. It is declaring that in politics, “Caesar is Lord!” If so, according to the Bible, Jesus Christ is not. The New Testament calls this “apostasy” (2 Thess 2:3).
How important is a politician’s personal morality? In 2011 the Public Religion Research Institute asked U.S. voters whether a political leader who was personally immoral could still serve in office with integrity. Less than a third of white evangelicals thought such a person could. But in 2016, just five years later, well over two thirds (72%) thought an immoral person could be a good leader. As Tim Alberta puts it, “Something had changed” since Barack Obama became President in 2009. Before Obama, “Conservative Christians still believed character was a prerequisite of public office”; now most evangelicals didn’t. Someone must be found to stop the dark drift of the country, even if that person was blatantly immoral.
On the Sunday before Barack Obama’s reelection in 2012, Pastor Robert Jeffress of the First Baptist megachurch in Dallas, Texas, said President Obama was “paving the way for the future reign of the Antichrist.” Later, midway through the Trump presidency, Jeffress said on Fox News that even if it was true that Trump had an affair with a former porn star, “it doesn’t matter,” since policies are more important than personal morality.
With a black President, many white evangelicals felt personally threatened. This is absurd, of course, from any rational standpoint. It shows that something much deeper and more emotional than reason was at work. Fear. And fear is easy prey for political exploitation. Fear gets people to the polls when hope and idealism won’t. It is easier to crank up fear and a sense of being under siege than to awaken hope and a passion for social justice.
Racism was not the only or even the predominant issue. But it was a potent motivator for many. If Obama had not been elected in 2008 (or had been 100% white instead of 50%), Trump would not have been elected in 2016. This now seems clear.
The Challenge Today
This brings us back to the main point. If evangelicalism’s fatal flaw is the theological dismissal of discipleship, the solution is a return to Jesus and his teachings.
Jesus asked his disciples, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46). The Apostle John wrote, “Whoever says, ‘I abide in Jesus’ ought to walk just as he walked” (1 John 2:6). The Holy Spirit said to the church at Ephesus, “I have this against you, that you have abandoned your first love” (Rev 2:6).
The challenge today is to make Jesus Lord in every area of life and to guard jealously and zealously against political idolatry, divided loyalties, or making lame excuses for public immorality. Jesus does not need Cyrus or Caesar. Jesus needs faithful, obedient disciples—a devout, growing, boldly witnessing and serving and reforming church. Among other things, this means assessing political candidates in the light of Jesus, not evaluating Jesus in light of our politics or reducing Jesus to the size of our partisanship.
Anyone with a low commitment to Jesus is vulnerable to a high commitment to politics.
Many evangelicals adhere to or at least honor the Ten Commandments but bypass Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. This may look like more of an Old Testament faith than a New Testament one. Not so however, for the Old Testament from beginning to end is about God’s covenant relationship with people and the land and our responsibility to care for each other and the garden where God has placed us as we share the Good News of God’s worldwide kingdom and walk in the way of peace and justice.
Generic evangelicalism is lowest-common-denominator evangelicalism. It is not what Jesus taught.
Today the United States faces a unique challenge because more and more political leaders, some candidates, and even a good number of evangelicals have given up on representative, constitutional democracy. Some are even ready to abandon the Constitution and support a functional dictatorship. This betrays the very idea that the founding of the United States was somehow God-guided in its constitutionalism. More importantly, it is both undemocratic and un- Christian. It would impose a tyranny of the minority on the country and end the tradition of free elections.
No one should fly the Stars and Stripes who is not committed to the Constitution that the flag represents. It we “Appeal to Heaven,” it should be to be faithful citizens and stewards in our earthly home.
A Call for Prophetic Denunciation
When political leaders refuse to play by the Constitution’s provisions or submit to the rule of law, our response must be prophetic denunciation.
Any political leader (Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Independent) who does not pledge to adhere fully to the U.S. Constitution and abide by the outcome of elections must be declared unfit for office.
Any political leader who describes other people as “vermin” must be rejected.
Any candidate who says immigrants are “poisoning the bloodstream” of the nation must be sharply censured.
Over the years I have voted for both Republicans and Democrats for President (and once for Independent John Anderson, a good man). But I would never under any circumstances vote for any candidate—Democrat, Republican, Socialist, Independent—who would not pledge to uphold the U.S. Constitution, obey just laws, and submit peacefully to elections outcomes.
The Apostle Paul warned about people who are “slanderers, . . . insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil” (Rom 1:30). For “in the last days distressing times will come. For people will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, arrogant, abusive”; be “ungrateful, unholy, . . . slanderers, profligates, . . . swollen with conceit,” “holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power. Avoid them!” (2 Tim 3:1-5).
Jesus said, “Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, ‘I am he!’ and, ‘The time is near!’ Do not go after them” (Luke 21:8).
“All those who are arrogant are an abomination to the Lord; be assured, they will not go unpunished” (Proverbs 16:5).
Jesus’ words are shattering: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only those who do the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name’ [and maybe vote in your name]? Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers’” (Matthew 7:21-23).
Lord help us be true Christians and worthy citizens, living in total allegiance to the kingdom of God and never to any nation or party or candidate.
In 2024 America, it’s not just about politics. It’s about the Constitution and the rule of law within the framework of faithful Christian discipleship. It’s about “liberty and justice for all,” not just for me and my friends.
[2,939 words — 2/2/24]