Who Is Carrying the Evangelical Torch? (A Survey, Synthesis, and Analysis of the Complex Evangelical Landscape)

The death of Billy Graham in 2018 signaled a sort of passing of the old guard for evangelicalism. Graham was the last surviving member of a small group of Christians that helped trailblaze the modern evangelical movement in the mid-20th century, along with Carly Henry, Harold Ockenga, Kenneth Kantzer and others. With his departure, it was left to see which leaders would take up the mantle and carry the torch of their legacy and the evangelical namesake.

Starting around the 1980’s, “evangelicalism” became increasingly associated with the Republican Party due to the rise of the Religious Right/Moral Majority of Jerry Falwell (some say it was “co-opted”). Together, they established “evangelicalism” as a powerhouse in partisan politics, a force to be reckoned with. Public perception of evangelicalism was that of a particular voting bloc and interest group.

But at the close of 2019, Mark Galli of Christianity Today changed all that.

Galli, retiring editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, wrote an opinion piece for the magazine stating that he believes Trump deserves to be impeached on the grounds of mounting evidence of his abuse of authority. The editorial was met with a mixture of both criticism and praise from differing sectors within the evangelical community, with detractors being quick to label CT as a “far-left” publication and others voicing their thankfulness at Galli for expressing what many had already been feeling about the current state of affairs.

I was not surprised by the CT editorial. What did surprise me was how much other people were surprised. News outlets were losing their minds, wondering if it signaled the beginning of the end of evangelical support for Trump, while others said (in so many words) “It’s about time.” Still others in the evangelical tent saw the editorial as treachery tantamount to Judas Iscariot.

Both reactions failed to recognize the nuance and complexity within the modern evangelical community. Galli’s CT editorial did not create a rift (let alone a seismic shift) in evangelicalism as much as it revealed something that was already there and had been there for quite some time. The opinion-piece (and the various reactions it garnered) unveiled a deep-seated fissure in the evangelical community, one that is not readily recognized by the general public. The article and its fallout revealed that “evangelical” moniker is not the sole property of the Republican Party and its card-carrying members. For much of the past decade, people have assumed that evangelicalism consisted of one monolithic mass. Yet rather than being the uniform voting bloc and interest group that it is often portrayed as by the popular media, evangelicalism has proven to be a complex mosaic of approaches to political engagement. And the existence of both Trump-supporting evangelicals and non-Trump-supporting evangelicals has been around for quite some time.

Before I continue, I should stress that I know many evangelicals that did not vote for Trump as well as many evangelicals that did (sometimes hesitantly). I understand the sentiment of those that did not see a viable alternative. The point of this post is not to tell you who to vote for during the 2020 election, but to dispel the myth that all evangelicals are uncritical Trump enthusiasts. This is as much for evangelicals as it is for the outsiders-looking-in whose perception of Jesus and his church hinges on the Republican Party.

So, now that we’ve established that, we can now engage the question…

Where did all this come from?

A Brief History of Evangelicalism

To understand these recent “developments,” we first need to understand the complex history of evangelicalism as a modern phenomenon. In a recent episode of “The Holy Post” podcast, co-hosts Phil Vischer[1], Skye Jethani, and Christian Taylor give an excellent, crash-course overview of the history of the evangelical movement as it grew in the 20th century.

The modern evangelical movement arose as a reaction to the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy in the 20th century. The Modernists were theologically liberal and dismissed cardinal Christian doctrines. The Fundamentalists were theologically conservative, but maintained a combative, antagonistic stance toward culture.[2] Billy Graham, along with the likes of Harold Ockenga, Carl Henry, Kenneth Kantzer, and others, sought to pave a “third way” or “third option” that didn’t fall to these extremes. The podcast episode reiterated what I had already previously written about upon Graham’s passing (below):

…the term “evangelical” originally rose to popular parlance in the mid-20th century as a viable alternative that differentiated itself from hardline fundamentalism on the one hand, and modernist liberalism on the other hand. As a matter of fact, fundamentalists used the word “evangelical” in a pejorative manner when referring to Graham and his cohort. On the right, Graham and his colleagues were attacked by the likes of Bob Jones of Bob Jones University… In other words, fundamentalists thought that Graham had “compromised”. Modernists believed he was too dogmatic.

Graham, Ockenga, Henry, and others opted for a more constructive and dialogical approach with their cultural surroundings.

The group would go on to found several institutions and seminaries (or buttress existing ones). Harold Ockenga founded the organization “War Relief” (which gave aid to post-WWII countries and would later become the organization “World Relief”) and the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE).

And it was Carl Henry that Billy Graham would team up with to found Christianity Today, which would serve as the theologically conservative alternative to the mainline-liberal publication, The Christian Century magazine, and be the mouthpiece of the evangelical movement. Though not well-known amongst the laity, Henry was instrumental in the founding of evangelicalism and left an indelible mark on the movement (seminaries such Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Southern Baptist Theological Seminary have centers and institutions named after him, respectively; and, ironically, these are the two places where I have done seminary education). The fledgling evangelical movement was gaining momentum.

It wasn’t until Bob Jones University was made to accept racial integration by the government in the late 1970’s that evangelicalism started to become associated with the GOP. Jerry Falwell Sr., alarmed that the federal government would step in to a private Christian school even for something as poignant as racial segregation, had had the last straw. He organized the Religious Right and wooed a huge portion of the evangelical vote by appealing to pro-life stances on abortion. But subscription to the Republican Party also came with a constellation of other policies. As theologian and biblical scholar N.T. Wright commented just last month, “Everything gets bundled up together, whether it’s abortion or gun rights or homosexuality or whatever. All issues are seen as either you’re on that side, and it’s the whole package, or you’re on this side, and it’s the whole package.” Like a well-crafted subscription pitch, evangelicals were implicitly communicated that they needed “the whole package” if they wanted to be a true evangelical.

Theological conservativism soon became equated with political conservativism. Over the next decade, evangelical association with the Republican Party would be solidified in public perception, and the two became virtually synonymous.

Yet throughout it all, there always remained a large segment of evangelicalism that did not become uncritically tethered to the Republican Party (or the Democratic Party, for that matter). Billy Graham himself expressed concern at the rise of the Religious Right, maintaining that he felt uncomfortable with the evangelical church’s association with a single political party.[3]

Throughout its existence, Christianity Today has retained theological orthodoxy (including a traditional stance on sexuality and marriage) all the while remaining politically centrist unless the ocassion was deemed fit (there were similar articles calling for the impeachment of Nixon and Clinton–the recent editorial is nothing new). Vischer and Jethani, the latter of whom worked at CT for a number of years, contend that the magazine hasn’t budged an inch in its theological convictions and approach to political and cultural engagement. Instead, they seek to carry on the vision of Carl Henry. The few times they’ve critiqued any administration, it was strictly non-partisan.

Galli, along with people like Vischer and co., represent a sizeable portion of the evangelical community that remain theologically conservative yet have expressed growing concern of the current administration on several fronts, not to mention the oft-spoken marriage of evangelicalism to partisan politics.[4] On average, these evangelicals tend to live closer to multicultural environments or urban centers, have more of a cosmopolitan outlook, are more engaged in academia, and are in regular dialogue with other Christian communities.

(This should come as no surprise. In reality, evangelicalism has always sought to be a “big tent,” containing people of varying political persuasions that nonetheless agree on the authority of Scripture. As one journalist put it, ” American evangelicalism is vast and diverse.” Yet our nation’s political discourse seems to also have shaped our one-sided understanding of evangelicalism.)

So if this is the case, where have these people been since the 2016 election?

What’s Really Going On?

Emma Green of The Atlantic refers to what many have called “the silent majority,” or those evangelicals “who may not see political activism as central to their religious identity, or those who might tend to vote Republican but describe themselves more as church people than party people.” She references people like Leith Anderson, outgoing president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE) that Ockenga had helped found. But just because the likes of Anderson are not poster-boys for a political party does not mean that they are silent. As the article itself notes, under Anderson’s leadership the NAE and others advocated on behalf of immigrants and refugees to the current administration.

But that’s not all that is going on.

As it turns out, there appears to be a disconnect between many evangelical leaders and the populist, grassroots laity that make up the bulk of Trump’s voting base (the 81% of white evangelicals that is often cited by the media). As Vischer points out, a good size of evangelical pastors turn out not to be avid Trump supporters (emphasis on the word “avid”). Having been personally familiar with two major evangelical institutions near Chicago, I have made this observation myself. Trump supporters just happen to be the loudest voice in the room. Carl Trueman and Ralph Reed have commented that these so-called “evangelical elites” are “out of touch” with the populist evangelical base, the latter dismissively.[5]

Thomas Kidd, a Southern Baptist historian, agrees, writing, “…there is a rift between ‘Republican insider evangelicals’ and the white evangelical leaders–some of them quite conservative–who have criticized Trump,” counting evangelicals such as fellow Southern Baptist Russell Moore and John Piper of Desiring God ministries among them.[6]

This brings me back to my first point: the CT article does not mark the beginning of the end for “evangelical” support for Donald Trump because the base is still there and shows no sign of changing. Instead, all that it really did was reveal the disconnect between two sectors of evangelicalism that already existed. And as it turns out, geography has a lot to do with it.

A “Case Study”

As an example, it might help to examine two contemporary evangelical figures: Tim Keller and N.T. Wright. Last month, The Atlantic profiled and interviewed these two in separate articles written by different authors (here and here). Keller is Presbyterian and Wright is Anglican. Keller is a pastor/practitioner who is well read in the academy, while Wright is a scholar who has done pastoral work. But both have become well-known names in evangelicalism. Both have been hailed as “the next C.S. Lewis” on separate occasions, with Keller being lauded by Billy Graham himself. And both similarly do not fit neatly into Republican or Democratic categories despite being white, theologically conservative evangelicals.

Take Wright, for instance. Wright has gently but firmly held his ground against the tide of theological (and sexual) progressivism within the Church of England. And yet The Atlantic also writes, “Over his career, he has won the admiration of those who follow what they describe as orthodox teachings, but he has also called on Christians to more actively seek out opportunities to lift up the poor and the marginalized.”

Similarly, the article on Keller describes him as following in the footsteps of Graham: “The upshot of Keller’s position is that whereas individual Christians should be engaged in the political realm, the Bible makes it impossible as a Church to hitch your wagon to one political party, especially in these times. ” Keller himself goes on to say, ” To be honest, I think the ‘woke’ evangelicals are just much more influenced by MSNBC and liberal Twitter. The conservative Christians are much more influenced by Fox News and their particular loops. And they’re [both] living in those things eight to 10 hours a day.”

Both Wright and Keller have been critical of certain aspects of both political parties. Both favor a more “faithful presence” in culture as an approach to cultural engagement, which means that “we’re not going to assimilate, [but] we’re going to be distinctively Christian. It’s about an attitude of service, uncompromising in our beliefs, but not withdrawing and not trying to dominate.” Such an approach arguably mirrors that of the people of God in exile in Babylon, or the early church under the reign of Caesar’s Roman Empire.

What’s in a Name? The “Evangelical” Label

So who is carrying the evangelical torch? If we were judging strictly by whose approach to cultural/political engagement is most similar to evangelicalism’s founders, then I would argue that the torch goes to people like Wright, Keller, Piper, Leith Anderson, Vischer Moore, etc. But it is precisely these type of evangelicals that have become increasingly under fire from both the Left and the Right (usually for not being partisan enough), not unlike their evangelical predecessors that came before them in the mid-20th century.

The word “fundamentalist” did not initially have a negative connontation until the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy, which is why evangelicals eventually distanced themselves from the title. Now, it is “evangelicalism” that has garnered an increasingly negative reputation (even among evangelicals) to the point where some evangelicals have questioned whether or not they should keep the label. (This is ironic considering that “evangelical” comes from the Greek word meaning “good news.”) But N.T. Wright says that “evangelical” is too good a word to simply let go of. Others like Russell Moore agree. And, for the moment, so do I.

Concluding Comments

So what’s the point? Where does this leave us?

First of all, people should know that the evangelical movement is more complex and diverse than people give it credit for. There are whole segments of evangelicalism that differ on how to approach the political arena, but that does not make them any less evangelical. Some may sigh with relief while others may experience a cognitive dissonance, but that is the reality.

Thomas Kidd in an article on The Gospel Coalition website writes of the evangelical Trump base, “though they are a real and formidable cohort, [they] hardly reflect the whole evangelical community at large, even among white Americans,” adding, “However moderate CT has become politically, there is little question that its origins and current constituency are thoroughly evangelical.” (Kidd, himself a critic of the current administration, nevertheless cautions that CT remain careful and sensitive in their political discourse, “lest they become just another type of Christian partisan outlet.” Given their history, I see no reason for concern.)

Finally, theological conservativism is not necessarily equivalent to political conservativism, at least on a neat 1:1 ratio. And “Evangelical” is not equal to “Republican.” There are things that a biblical worldview makes clear, that are black and white. The sanctity of the unborn life and the Bible’s vision of sexuality are included among those, yes. But there are other things that require wisdom and discernment, and thoughtful and faithful Christians have landed in different places.

Wherever you land, Galli was right about at least one thing: our witness to the broader culture matters. That we can all agree on. Christianity will always be at odds with the surrounding culture to some degree. But if it is to be offensive, let it be offensive for the right reasons. Let it be offensive because of the gospel of Jesus Christ.


NOTE: CT President Timothy Dalrymple also wrote an even-handed update regarding the various responses the publication has received.


[1] Yes, the same Phil Vischer of VeggieTales fame.

[2] Vischer lists six markers of historic Fundamentalism: 1) a tendency to “declare war” (the “culture war” mindset); 2) resentment of media and culture; 3) “us vs. them” mentality; 4) obsession over end-times prophecy; 5) deep mistrust of science; and 6) echoes of implicit or latent racism.

[3] Graham was quoted saying in 1981, “It would concern me if there was a wedding between the religious fundamentalists and the political right. The hard right has no interest in religion except to manipulate it.” Graham would later comment in 2007 when asked why he never associated himself with Falwell’s Moral Majority: “I’m all for morality, but morality goes beyond sex to human freedom and social justice….Evangelists cannot be closely identified with any particular party or person.” An intra-familial debate ignited within the Graham family as to whether Billy voted for Trump, with some claiming that he did while others claiming he was too bed-ridden in the last couple years of life.

[4] When Galli wrote his opinion-piece, Richard Land from The Christian Post responded with vehemence. Land was the former president of the Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission of the SBC (Southern Baptist Convention) before being asked to step down due to racially insensitive comments following the Trayvon Martin shooting (the SBC had been doing some soul-searching due to its history of racism). He was succeeded by Russell Moore, a socially conservative Southern Baptist evangelical who nonetheless has also been critical of the Trump administration. Vischer makes a case for how Moore (and Galli) are closer to the old Billy Graham evangelicalism than Land is.

[5] See Samuel James’ response to Trueman.

[6] Thomas Kidd also writes about the history of evangelicalism in his book Who Is an Evangelical?, which he talks about in a Mere Fidelity podcast episode. https://mereorthodoxy.com/evangelical-dr-thomas-kidd/

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