Meet the four types of evangelicals; not all are political (COMMENTARY)

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Redeemer Presbyterian Church, one of the most influential evangelical churches in the country, is led by author and speaker Tim Keller. Photo courtesy of Godwell Andrew Chan

Redeemer Presbyterian Church, one of the most influential evangelical churches in the country, is led by author and speaker Tim Keller. Photo courtesy of Godwell Andrew Chan

(RNS) Many people are mystified by “evangelicals.” It’s a word the average nonreligious person doesn’t often hear in the U.S. — except for when it is time to nominate another GOP presidential candidate. Then we hear about who those millions of “evangelicals” are supporting, always under the assumption that all evangelicals are into politics and all will support a Republican.

As an evangelical myself, this is just one of the many misunderstandings of evangelicals that drive me up the wall. It’s a problem I’ve tried to address in several of my books, most recently “Evangelical Ethics” (Westminster John Knox Press).

Let me take another brief crack at it here. I want to propose that there are four different kinds of evangelicals, or evangelicalism, yielding four very different results.

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaks with the press on Oct. 5, 2015. Photo by Emil Handke, courtesy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary

Albert Mohler, president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, speaks with the press on Oct. 5, 2015. Photo by Emil Handke, courtesy of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary


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DOCTRINAL. Let’s call doctrinal evangelicals those who focus on believing, protecting and proclaiming some version of traditional, orthodox Protestant Christianity. They tend to be most concerned about theological truth as they understand it. The great enemies of doctrinal evangelicals are those who compromise traditional Christian beliefs, such as belief in Jesus as the Son of God, the Virgin Birth and the bodily resurrection. The main product of doctrinal evangelicals is theological declarations and the defense of evangelical theological boundaries.

Evangelist Billy Graham stands on the rooftop of a skyscraper in New York City with the midtown skyline behind him to symbolize his New York crusade. Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Ill.

Evangelist Billy Graham stands on the rooftop of a skyscraper in New York City with the midtown skyline behind him to symbolize his New York crusade. Religion News Service file photo courtesy of Archives of the Billy Graham Center, Wheaton, Ill.

MISSIONARY. Let’s call missionary evangelicals those who focus on spreading the Christian message by word and deed. Some go around the world preaching and serving, but a broader missionary spirit is visible among many evangelicals who never leave their home country. They want people to know about Jesus Christ and to believe in him. They want to serve the world in Jesus’ name. The main worry of missionary evangelicals is that people might die never having heard or experienced the good news of Jesus. The main product of missionary evangelicals is preaching and serving, leading sometimes to conversions and social uplift.


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Shane Claiborne is founder of The Simple Way and author of many bestselling books including, 'Jesus for President', 'Red Letter Revolution,' and the forthcoming 'Executing Grace: Why It’s Time to Put the Death Penalty to Death.'  Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

Shane Claiborne is founder of The Simple Way and author of many bestselling books including, ‘Jesus for President’, ‘Red Letter Revolution,’ and the forthcoming ‘Executing Grace: Why It’s Time to Put the Death Penalty to Death.’ Religion News Service photo by Sally Morrow

LIFESTYLE. Let’s call lifestyle evangelicals those who focus on living out the Christian way of life as they understand it. They are very serious about (some version of) Christian living. At times this has looked like a stern abstention from the world’s vices. But lifestyle evangelicals at their best are outward-focused, generous-spirited people who will do just about anything to demonstrate God’s loving care for people. The main worry of these evangelicals is that they might fail to be who God wants them to be. The main product of this version of evangelicalism is morally serious, loving people.

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, speaks Nov. 5, 2014 at the National Press Club. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

Ralph Reed, founder and chairman of the Faith & Freedom Coalition, speaks Nov. 5, 2014 at the National Press Club. Religion News Service photo by Adelle M. Banks

POLITICAL. Finally, political evangelicals are those who focus on advancing (their understanding of) Christian values in the public arena. They do political organizing, lobbying and electioneering. In the U.S., the majority of visible, politically engaged white evangelicals are very conservative Republicans. This is who we hear about every four years. But there are progressive white evangelicals, and political visions are much different among nonwhite evangelicals and certainly among evangelicals around the world. The main worries of political evangelicals are public policy and election results, and the main product is political activism.


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These categories are not mutually exclusive. But they do represent very different flavors, or tendencies, among evangelicals.

Rev. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and Director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. Photo courtesy of Mercer University

Their core commitments take them in very different directions. If you meet an evangelical, never assume what they most care about or what their faith means to them. And never assume that the political activists gathering under the evangelical label represent all evangelicals. That is simply not true.

(Dr. David Gushee is Distinguished University Professor of Christian Ethics and director of the Center for Theology and Public Life at Mercer University. He is the author or editor of 20 books in his field and was recently elected vice president of the American Academy of Religion.)