The Line Between Good and Evil Cuts Through Evangelical America

I’m afraid that an exit poll question has confused America.

Every four years, voters are asked, “Are you a white evangelical or born-again Christian?” And every time, voters from a broad range of Protestant Christian traditions say yes, compressing a diverse religious community into a single, unified mass.

It’s not that the question is misleading. People who answer yes do represent a coherent political movement. Not only do they vote overwhelmingly for Republicans; they’re also quite distinct from other American political groups in their views on a host of issues, including on disputes regarding race, immigration and the Covid vaccines.

But in other ways, this exit poll identity misleads us about the nature and character of American evangelicalism as a whole. It’s far more diverse and divided than the exit poll results imply. There are the rather crucial facts that not all evangelicals are white and evangelicals of color vote substantially differently from their white brothers and sisters. Evangelicals of color are far more likely to vote Democratic, and their positions on many issues are more closely aligned with the American political mainstream. But the differences go well beyond race.

In reality, American evangelicalism is best understood as a combination of three religious traditions: fundamentalism, evangelicalism and Pentecostalism. These different traditions have different beliefs, different cultures and different effects on our nation.

The distinction between fundamentalism and evangelicalism can be the hardest to parse, especially since we now use the term “evangelical” to describe both branches of the movement. The conflict between evangelicalism and fundamentalism emerged most sharply in the years following World War II, when so-called neo-evangelicals arose as a biblically conservative response to traditional fundamentalism’s separatism and fighting spirit. I say “biblically conservative” because neo-evangelicals had the same high view of Scripture as the inerrant word of God that fundamentalists did, but their temperament and approach were quite different.

The difference between fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism can be summed up in two men, Bob Jones and Billy Graham. In a 2011 piece about the relationship between Jones and Graham, the Gospel Coalition’s Justin Taylor called them the “exemplars of fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism.” Jones was the founder of the university that bears his name in Greenville, S.C., one of the most influential fundamentalist colleges in America.

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