Many people are mystified by “evangelicals.” It’s a word the average non-religious person doesn’t often hear in the US — 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 drives 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.
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.
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.
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 to them to be. The main product of this version of evangelicalism is morally serious, loving people.
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 US, 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 non-white evangelicals and certainly among evangelicals around the world. The main worry of political evangelicals is public policy and election results, and the main product is political activism.
These categories are not mutually exclusive. But they do represent very different flavors, or tendencies, among evangelicals. 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.