“Cultural Evangelical” Is Now A Thing. It Shouldn’t Be.

Okay, one more post about evangelical identity. At least until my next post.

Some of us in the evangelical world were masochistic enough to follow the aftermath of the 2016 election. For we unhappy few, one number stands out: 81. That’s the supposed percent of white evangelicals who voted for Trump.

Depressing? Sure. But I’ve already dwelt on that enough. Instead, I want to make a few points about the weirdness of polling “evangelicals.”

First, the 81 number underscores a weird phenomenon–there are now cultural evangelicals. We’re all used to people who are “cultural” versions of other religious groups: culturally Catholic, culturally Jewish, culturally Greek Orthodox. Pretty much every religion worldwide has this–people who are raised in a culture where everybody is assumed to have the same religion, so they identify on a surface-y level even if they don’t follow any of the religion’s tenants.

In my younger and more vulnerable years (for instance, 2015) I liked to think evangelicalism was different. In fact, I liked thinking that “Cultural Evangelical” was a contradiction in terms. After all, the point of evangelicalism is that each individual’s personal relationship with God is important. Relying on some corporate identity isn’t enough. So how could there be a “cultural” version of a religious movement predicated on each individual’s faith?

Contradiction or not, these folks clearly exist. As I pointed out around the 2016 election,1 Trump’s earliest supporters were people who called themselves evangelical, but didn’t really go to church, read the Bible, or do anything else we’d associate with a healthy spiritual life. It appears that a sizeable segment of the population doesn’t really follow any of Christianity’s teachings or practices, but still calls themselves evangelical. For them, “evangelical” is more a political than a religious signifier.

All that makes me wonder how important that 81 percent number really is.

There’s another reason I wonder about the 81 number. But that’s (*cue LOST theme music*) for my next post.

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1  Ah, the good old days. What simple times they were…

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Photo by Tom Prete

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