It is 11 a.m. on a Sunday in the San
Francisco Bay Area and I am headed to brunch.
It’s an unusual scene for me because where I grew up
the type of dedication I’m showing to eggs was reserved for this. Church — where the enthusiasm comes from food for the Soul and not the stomach. Today, fewer people in the United States
are keeping the faith. Protestants no longer make up the majority of U.S . adults.
Yet, discussions about evangelicals seemingly dominate the political
landscape. We’re going to protect Christianity. The right to keep and bear
arms it’s not bestowed by man but granted by God and Christians
overwhelmingly. Made up the majority of Congress in 2016. So how does this
national focus on Christians affect their perceptions, their politics, their
beliefs, and the nation? So I believe that many people believe evangelicals are
part of a political party rather than a subset of the Christian faith. The word
evangelical is sort of been hijacked and has become to be known as more of a
right-wing purist type of political term. Hey fam. I’m Imaeyen. This is AJ+ and this Sunday we’ve traveled in hopes of finding out
what it really means to be an evangelical and whether faith and
politics should be interwoven. Only 6% of adults in the U.S. are
evangelicals, and yet the candidates and the news media were obsessed with them.
And they still are. How much support do you think Donald Trump has within the evangelical community? God bless the great state of Florida. It’s revenge of white America.
It is revenge of evangelical right-wingers. And I noticed a curious
thing. Whenever I would hear the word evangelical, it was almost always synonymous with white Christians. And a series of campaign controversies didn’t stop him from winning 81% of the white evangelical vote. This overwhelmingly
white depiction of evangelicals is vastly different from what I had known
growing up as a kid in the south. These images made me question the actual
definition of evangelical and who gets to be one. Are they evangelical? Or them?
To be evangelical means different things to different people and that’s part of
the reason why it’s so difficult to define the term. To get a better understanding of the
term evangelical, and the people who identify as such, I visited one of the
most Bible-minded cities in America: Houston Texas.
That’s where I met Avis Blake-Thomas. An evangelical Christian really is — in my
opinion — about the basic doctrines, the basic beliefs, the core beliefs of
Christianity. Evangelical Christian to me s a little bit of redundancy because every Christian knows that one of the key components of being a Christian is
to spread the good news — to spread the gospel of Jesus Christ.
Blake-Thomas is a pastor and co-founded the open Bible Academy, a nonprofit organization that gives free theological biblical training. She says she’s seen
the word evangelical be co-opted. You have people that identify as evangelical
but don’t share evangelical belief. I am an evangelical, but not from a political
viewpoint. I’m an evangelical from the basic understanding of what it means for
the Christian faith. She believes many of the people identified as evangelicals are totally unfamiliar with the Bible, the tenants of the Christian faith, and
the history of evangelism. In most cases Christians in America, particularly today,
don’t have a good understanding of the Bible. So, they don’t know what they
believe. They don’t understand that it’s more than going to a two-hour service on
Sunday. The evangelical movement began as a populist revolt in the 18th and 19th
centuries. It was anti-intellectual and anti-elitist, and it was often spread by
untutored preachers who used common storytelling to spread their message. And then a little quirky decade called the 1980s happened. The 80s are when a former
actor named Ronald Reagan — who was divorced and rarely attended church —
watched an alliance between the Republican Party and religious leaders
emerge –one that helped him win the White House. It was a political act by
the political right which created the religious right. It was politically
created for the sake of the Republican Party. Christian writer and evangelical Jim Wallis says the GOP’s plan was a
concerted effort. Literally there were operatives, political operatives, from the right who came to mega-church pastors and said, “I’ll make you a household word.
Give me your list.” And that’s how they created the Religious Right. Soon faces
like this one became one of those associated with the religious right.
That’s conservative activist Jerry Falwell and along with the political
action group called the Moral Majority. He pushed for a more conservative
religious agenda. The Moral Majority mobilized conservative Christians in
politics. Wallis says Falwell’s politics and interpretation of the faith
represented a major change in how evangelicals were seen. Before Falwell,
people like evangelist Billy Graham were the face and the voice of mainstream
Christianity in the United States. Do you love God? Do you love him with all your
heart? With all your soul and your mind? And by Wallis’ definition, this guy is
also an evangelical. King spoke frankly about the racial divisions within the
American Christian Church. And actually this obelisk behind me is dedicated to
his memory outside a modern chapel in Houston, Texas. I think it is one of the tragedies of our nation, one of the shameful tragedies that 11 o’clock on
Sunday morning is one of the most segregated hours and if not the most
segregated hours in Christian America. 50 years after King’s assassination the
exact same problem still plagues the American Christian Church, racial
division, according to Wallis. And we saw that firsthand in the aftermath of the
2016 election cycle when the vast majority of white evangelicals voted for
Donald Trump but the majority of evangelicals of color didn’t. Evangelicals, if they’re gonna be really evangelical, should name and denounce
racism as a sin from their pulpits. How many white churches have done that? You’re a chosen race. You’re not a black Christian or a white Christian. You’re a Christian who’s white or a Christian who’s black. Pastor Ikki Soma says part of what
keeps the church divided is the variation and how black and white
parishioners see the world. For many white evangelical Christians and black evangelical Christians, the way that they view the world is different even though
they read the same Bible and trust the same Jesus. The lenses that we study the
Bible through this colored by our culture. Soma is a Japanese born U.S.
citizen who grew up attending mostly white churches and was naturalized 15
years ago. He doesn’t identify as either a Republican or a Democrat, but says he’s
seen how politics is intersected with religion. In fact when you hear the term
evangelical you’re probably more likely to see it presented this way.
Jesus himself gave us the flu shot. A person for their Christian convictions
is going to be put in jail because they refuse to bow to a decision that is
suspect at best. You’re gonna be held seriously, seriously to account by God if
you don’t vote. The word evangelical has a different meaning in the United States than it does internationally, according to Wallis. And he says that’s because
the U.S. does a poor job of representing people of color in general. In fact, there are more than two billion Christians
worldwide, according to Pew. That’s about a third of the global population and
Christians are so widespread that no one region can claim to be the center of
global Christianity. About 26% of Christians live in Europe, 37% in the Americas, and sub-Saharan Africa is home to 24% of the population. For Wallis
being a Christian means a commitment to the Bible, Jesus, and the poor. “America first,” for example, is a heresy. It’s not “America first,” it’s Jesus first. But if our
gospel isn’t good news to the poor, it is not the gospel of Jesus Christ, period.
And white evangelicals in America are not known to have a gospel that is good
news to the poor. The Bible also has two thousand verses about the poor compared to just twelve on homosexuality, according to Wallis, but you’ve
probably heard much more about those verses on homosexuality in news coverage. We’re talking about marriage. We’re talking about an institution that has survived and served this civilization for over 5,000 years with one definition. You are never going to stop AIDs until you stop treating homosexual sodomy as a civil right and start treating it as a form of conduct to avoid. Do these types of depictions really mean that the news media doesn’t understand religion?
Wallis thinks so. And he says that the news media’s portrayal of faith is a big
part of the problem. Media, who are not very faith friendly, like to paint Christians in the worst possible way. And And so if you make religious right synonymous with Christian or evangelical synonymous with white evangelical then that makes
Christians look bad. If the media have a religious literacy problem, it’s not alone. Americans don’t know much about religion. Pew Research says that
those most likely to be knowledgeable about religion in the U.S. have an
advanced college degree. This lack of understanding may explain the public’s
perception — a perception that makes it much more difficult for self-identified
Christians, according to Blake-Thomas. Those of us who are true evangelicals
get a bad rap because they see the evangelical term used in the political
sphere. The challenge is that in the marketplace when people hear the term
“evangelical,” and they then see how those same people their values may not match or
their understanding does not seem to match ours. She says she believes it’s just one reason why the Christian faith is on the decline in the U.S. When you have people that just simply identify with it from a political standpoint, they don’t bring to the table those same sets of
beliefs. They they see it as political expediency versus a belief system versus a part of religion. So how do evangelicals go about fixing what seems to be a public relations problem? Well the first thing
can be realizing that faith doesn’t have a political party. We shouldn’t be religious right or really just left. I don’t take that on either. We should be Christians. It’s Jesus first. And just because you’re evangelical, it
doesn’t mean that you don’t struggle with understanding issues of identity,
race, gender, and sex. The Christian can still struggle with sins like racism,
prejudice, and things like that. So I would say the place that the church has in politics is [to] encourage their members to be upright citizens. Either we’re Christian or we’re not. And we will be known by our fruit that we bear.