What is an Evangelical?

The furor around Hillbilly Elegy has largely died away. Much to nearly everyone’s surprise, a populist won the election. Many of his votes came from people who claim the title evangelical.

The exit poll results that indicate 81% of so-called evangelicals voted for Trump have been used as a cudgel against theologically conservative Protestants, many of whom identify as evangelical.

As Robert Wuthnow notes in his recent book, Inventing American Religion, however, there are significant differences between theological belief and political identity. The pollsters have tried to cross that boundary, but there are indications that the political label evangelical may not provide a strong theological indicator.

In J. D. Vance’s book, Hillbilly Elegy, he demonstrates why using the term "evangelical" as if it means deep conviction and meaningful participation in a certain brand of Protestant religion is faulty:

Despite its reputation, Appalachia—especially northern Alabama and Georgia to southern Ohio—has far lower church attendance than the Midwest, parts of the Mountain West, and much of the space between Michigan and Montana. Oddly enough, we think we attend church more than we actually do. In a recent Gallup poll, Southerners and Midwesterners reported the highest rates of church attendance in the country. Yet actual church attendance is much lower in the South.

This pattern of deception has to do with the cultural pressure. In southwestern Ohio, where I was born, both the Cincinnati and Dayton metropolitan regions have very low rates of church attendance, about the same as ultra-liberal San Francisco. No one I know in San Francisco would feel ashamed to admit that they don’t go to church. (In fact, some of them might feel ashamed to admit that they do.) Ohio is the polar opposite. Even as a kid, I’d lie when people asked if I attended church regularly. According to Gallup, I wasn’t alone in feeling that pressure. (Hillbilly Elegy, J. D. Vance, 93)

This is one of the reasons Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, penned his February 2016 Washington Post article arguing this election made him hate the term evangelical.

He notes:

The word “evangelical” has become almost meaningless this year, and in many ways the word itself is at the moment subverting the gospel of Jesus Christ.

Part of the problem is that more secular people have for a long time misunderstood the meaning of “evangelical,” seeing us almost exclusively in terms of election-year voting blocs or our most buffoonish television personalities. That’s especially true when media don’t distinguish in election exit polls between churchgoers and those who merely self-identify as “born again” or “evangelical.”

Many of those who tell pollsters they are “evangelical” may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.
Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Used by CC license: http://ow.ly/8G0x30aM4e7

Despite the consistently demonstrable unreliability of the label as any serious indicator of religious belief, the word continues to be used without definition and qualification. Careful readers and writers should be aware of this.

Much as when using any term, we must be discerning when we interpret information and express it so that we clearly understand or communicate those who we are speaking to.

Those of who are legitimate Gospel Christians should not stop when someone says they belong to a church or regularly attend. We should seek to know their conversion story and if they don’t have one to help them get one.

It may also be time for us to look for another way to describe ourselves. Since evangelical has become associated with political bloc voting, perhaps we need another term.

At the very least, we need to be careful when we communicate to define our terms. We should also be careful not to allow a bare profession of belief made once upon a time to substitute for authentic, action-inspiring faith.

Hillbilly Elegy - A Review

I’ve now read the much discussed book by J. D. Vance, Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. It was promised to be a gritty read, revealing the reality of poverty in the Appalachian region that is often overlooked. The book largely lives up to its reputation.

Vance notes early on that it seems odd for someone his age—he’s in his early thirties—to write a memoir.  Unlike the biographies of young Christian athletes that seem to lurk on the shelves of Christian bookstores, Vance’s memoir is not presumptuous but worth the time it takes to read it.

So much time and effort is spent in explaining urban poverty. The breakdown of the urban family. The overloading of the urban school systems. Often the term “urban” is a code word for racial minorities.

While cyclic poverty is an issue in cities, Vance exposes the reality of rural poverty and shows that in many ways it may just as severe a problem as the urban variety. In fact, for some, rural poverty has a strong potential to be more severe. One reason for this is that many of the resources the urban poor rely upon are simply unavailable for the rural poor, or they are located too far away to be useful.

Vance succeeds in painting an accurate picture of some of the worst off among the so-called hillbillies. Having grown up in the foothills of the Appalachians, surrounded by people that fit the description of Vance’s hillbillies, I’ve heard some of the stories, seen some of the stress on kids, and smelled some of the misery he’s talking about. Thankfully I’ve never lived it, but it was close by. (I’m thinking about, for example, my friend whose dad was in jail for killing his mom with a hammer while high on some form of drugs.) Reading Vance describe what he went through gives me a bit more empathy for some of my acquaintances who were surviving bad situations.

If there is one key takeaway from reading this book, it should be empathy. It is likely that Vance’s story represents both the low end of hillbilly culture with the drug addicted mother, revolving door father-figures, and unawareness of the outside world. At the same time, it also represents an atypical result where someone was able to overcome the difficult start and had the talent to make it to and graduate from Yale’s law school. However, reading about the domestic abuse and social stigma Vance dealt with should work to kill some of the unforgiving dismissal of hicks, bumpkins, and swamp people that is common in suburban and urban culture. (I state that it is common based on anecdotal data, rather than empirical evidence)

Just as telling the stories of ethnic minorities suffering simply because of their ethnicity are part of the narrative of identity politics on the left, so might listening to stories of legitimate hardship among the many white, rural poor are a necessary part of understanding the perspective of a large swath of the nation.

Vance’s story helps explain why it took me years to be able to understand the racially stilted form of identity politics common among some of my more liberal and well to do friends at the Naval Academy. I knew that poverty, broken families, and systemic disadvantages were not solely owned by today’s preferred protected classes. Thankfully, I’ve had good people patiently explain why systemic injustice is still largely a racial issue instead of screaming at me. I’ve also known enough ethnic minorities to hear their stories to understand the biases against them and lived in the South long enough to recognize the historical proximity of Jim Crow to today.

At the same time, many more cosmopolitan Americans still fail to recognize that being among the rural poor can be nearly as socially damning as being an ethnic minority, but without the protection of the media, the judicial system, and the cultural left. Hillbilly Elegy helps explain why some people don’t believe in “White Privilege” and think that affirmative action is a form of vile racism. They feel feel like they are on the bottom of the social ladder and the zero-sum game policies of the political left keep them down. In some cases, that’s likely the case. As Vance explains, being white doesn’t grant as much social capital as those who equate whiteness with established families and well-positioned social networks seem to believe. It’s not that there is no benefit in some segments of society to being white, but that it isn’t quite the pass to an easy life that some seem to describe.

Hillbilly Elegy doesn’t answer every question about the white working class and its struggles. It doesn’t offer a master theory that will unite the nation politically after a turbulent election year. The book is not an academic treatise that considers all potential historical causes, nor does it reconcile all of the possible sociological implications of rural poverty. However, this memoir of a kid who lived rough but is doing pretty well so far helps to give a view into a world that many people never see from the interstates. It challenges racial narratives and, if read for empathy’s sake, could break down some of the bubble many appear to live in.

Note: I received a gratis copy of this volume with no expectation of a positive review.