What is it About Evangelicals?
What is the white evangelicalism with which 25% of Americans identify, of which, according to exit polls, 81% voted for Donald Trump? In the past when I have spoken or written on this subject, it has been a topic of little more than specialist interest within academia. Now, none can deny the pertinence of the question.
Here I want to explore five questions.
1) What is meant by “evangelism” in its original gospel sense?
2) What is usually meant by “evangelicalism”?
3) Why might evangelicalism be prone to prejudicial binary worldviews?
4) How might Donald Trump’s psychohistory so connect, including into Anglo-American exceptionalism?
5) Can evangelism, if not evangelicalism, transcend myths of redemptive violence?
1. Original Evangelism and Social Justice
Theologically speaking, an evangelist or evangelical should be a “bearer of good news”. The term derives from the Greek – euangelion . It is made up of eu, meaning good as in euphoria, and angellein as in angel, a divine messenger. The word should therefore be taken to mean an “angel of good news”.
Luke’s gospel uses the Greek term, euangelisasthai (“proclaim good news”), when Jesus reads out his mission statement in the temple at Nazareth at the start of his ministry. In contrast to white American evangelicalism, this is not a message of personal salvation, of privatised religion. Rather, it is a full-on social and spiritual gospel.
The full scale of Jesus’ mission statement is encoded both within the original Greek of Luke 4:18-19, and in its Hebrew backdrop from the prophet Isaiah. The scripture passage states that he (Christ as Messiah) has come to address material poverty, to remove the scales of spiritual blindness, to liberate the prisoner and the oppressed, and to heal the broken-hearted.
Also coded within this proclamation is “the acceptable year of the Lord” – the Jubilee of the Hebrew prophets. This was a periodic full scale programme of economic and environmental reform to restore justice. It included radical land reform, ecological restoration by resting both the soil and all of nature, the cancellation of debts and the freeing of slaves.
Such, then, are the “good tidings of great joy” (euangelizomai) heralded at the start of Luke’s gospel (2:10). Personal salvation is, of course, central to this. But to salve means to heal, and the healing is to restore right relationships. What can one say, but give us more such evangelists.
In contrast to this social evangel (or gospel), the 16th century Protestant reformers, starting with Luther, narrowed down their usage of the term to focus on personal salvation. Why that shift from the social to the personal? In principle, there ought to be no contradiction between the two. The Reformers probably assumed that. To be an evangelist or evangelical should be the same thing. There is no etymological difference. However, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, “evangelical” has come to be: “Applied to those Protestants who hold that the essence of the Gospel consists in the doctrine of salvation by faith in the atoning death of Christ, and deny the saving efficacy of either good works or the sacraments.”
In other words, a personalised slant and a number of filters have become applied to the original gospel concept. The pivotal principle here is atonement. The term only entered English with the Reformation in the 16th century, and specifically so, in its sense of at-one-ment with the divine nature – usually held to be through Christ’s blood sacrifice that makes good for human sin.
In Calvin’s view, God is “armed for vengeance”. Christ on the cross is not about the power of love absorbing the violence of the Roman empire and of corrupt religious authorities.. Rather, as Calvin put it, he “undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted … he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God”
An obsession with sin and the driving power of its associated guilt had long lain at the heart of the Jewish temple’s economic system, as shown in the Hebrew Bible or “Old” Testament. Animals were sacrificed to propitiate sins. Jesus, as a Jewish reformer, turned over the temple money changers’ tables. He repudiated their corrupt religious economic system. Much Christian theology – Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox –understands Christ’s death on the cross as a transfer of that propitiation system. Christ became the blood sacrifice instead of animals. Christians are thereby freed from having to make animal blood sacrifices, because the buck stopped at the cross.
The Protestant reformers successfully challenged the medieval Catholic Church’s re-invention of a temple economy. Here, “indulgences” where paid to priests in the belief that this could acquit sin, and that Christ’s mercy could thereby be bought. Arguably, however, the Reformers failed to grasp the full significance Christ’s ministry to the crippled man: “Take up your bed, and walk.” In other words: be absolved of the past and now get on with your life, and stop wallowing in your obsession with your karma. As the great Hindu-Catholic theologian Raimon Panikkar put it, “Only forgiveness breaks the law of karma,” and this is the depth psychological strength of the Christian message. How many times, forgiveness? Jesus taught not seven times, but seven times seventy times. In other words, shit happens in life, and we cause it to happen, but we are looking at a depth of cosmic love that provides perpetual letting go – for-give-ness.
Saint John the evangelist taught, in his New Testament letters, that “God is love.” That “perfect love casts out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 John 4:16-18). However, evangelicalism’s focus on blood atonement in the sense that “Christ died for our sins” hinges on a disturbing mix of love expressed through wrath. In John Calvin’s view, God is “armed for vengeance”. Here, Christ on the cross is not about the power of love absorbing the violence of the Roman empire and of corrupt religious authorities. Here is not a testament to the power of nonviolence. Rather, as Calvin put it, Christ on the cross “undertook and paid all the penalties which must have been exacted … he endured the death which is inflicted on the wicked by an angry God” (Institutes, 2:16:10).
This theory of what the cross represents is known as Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA). It holds that Christ was our substitute in taking the punishment for sin from God. It parallels an earlier Roman Catholic teaching of Saint Anselm’s, and in the backdrop is Augustine and Paul. Anselm, the Archbishop of Canterbury who was put in place by a son of William the Conqueror’s, held that God, like a feudal superior, held order by the honour system of fealty, and required his honour to be “satisfied” (or punished) in the face of human sin. This, it is argued, out of a greater love.
In sharpening Anselm up by bringing to bear his lawyer’s mind, Calvin became the cornerstone of traditionalist Presbyterians. Also, of such groups as “particular” (or Calvinistic) Baptists. Such a schema, especially today in the Bible Belt, forms the bedrock of white American evangelicalism. Calvinists would argue with me, and between themselves, as to how I have presented PSA here. At the end of the day, what counts politically is not so much this doctrine of the cross, but the psychology of how it plays out, for it turns out that not all are “saved”.
3. Prejudice and Predestination
Conservative evangelicalism – like some conservative Catholic and Orthodox theology – does not accept that salvation is universal. There is ongoing debate as to whether the gift of God’s saving grace is provided for all, or only to the “chosen few”. Most Presbyterians, at least in Scotland today, teach the offer of free grace, and do so looking back to figures such as Karl Barth and Thomas Boston. But the ultra-conservatives have a point that this does not sit well with the Reformation creeds.
Conservative evangelicalism does not accept that salvation is universal…. The Damned are quite literally, the Godforsaken. As Patti Smith, the “godmother of American punk” put it in her lyric, Gloria: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
The problem is that, because Hell is believed to exist literally (and not just in a purgatorial sense, that we bring upon ourselves, and need to burn off, as it were), then Hell has to be populated. As God is sovereign over the cosmos, and as Calvinism lacks a deep theology of kenosis, or divine letting go, the evangelical belief is that from before the foundations of the earth were laid, God chose the Elect and the Damned. In Calvin’s words: “All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation and, accordingly … we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death” (Institutes, 3:21:5). Nothing that we can do – whether through prayer or good works – is able to alter that foreordained fate.
Here, then, is a worldview that posits not the equality of humankind, but the fundamental inequality. It is known as “double-predestination” because it understands human souls as being helplessly pre-ordained for either Heaven, or Hell. Following from this, Calvinism derives the doctrine of “limited atonement”. This holds that Christ’s atonement on the cross was not for the benefit of all. Its benefits were “limited” to the Elect alone. The Westminster Confession of Faith of 1647 remains, to this day, the “subordinate standard” (subordinate only to the Bible) of most British Presbyterianism, and similar statements have replicated across the former Empire. It states the doctrine of limited atonement very clearly. “Neither are any other redeemed by Christ … but the elect only” (3:VI).
Traditionally, the Damned are held to be the greater part of humankind. The countervailing notion, universal salvation, such as was taught against Calvinism by the 17th century Quaker, Robert Barclay, was deemed a heresy. In 1830 the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland removed the Rev John McLeod Campbell of Rhu from his parish on heresy charges, precisely for challenging limited atonement and thereby, disavowing the Westminster Confession.
Under double predestination and limited atonement, the Damned are quite literally, the Godforsaken. As Patti Smith, the “godmother of American punk” put it in her lyric, Gloria: “Jesus died for somebody’s sins, but not mine.”
Leaving aside the emotional impact of such authoritarian religion, the political impact is to legitimise a binary worldview that sees social realities in terms of an in-group and out-group, with us or against us, good state or bad state. A desire for black and white certainties is characteristic of the authoritarian personality, and this obsession with purity plays through into racial prejudice. The backing of the Dutch Reformed (Calvinist) Church for apartheid is well known, though it has been repudiated in the post-Apartheid era. However, in its time it justified racial segregation. As C. W. de Kiewiet wrote in the seminal, A History of South Africa, the Boers believed in their own manifest destiny from God “setting them apart from the unelected pagans about them [and] bred in them a sense of special destiny as a people.” A quick look at the websites of white supremacist groups in America shows the same sorry theology playing through.
Writers such as Erich Fromm and Richard Steigmann-Gall have argued that Lutheran and Calvinist thought was at the root of Nazi ideology. Luther, for his explicit writings against the Jews, and Calvin, for his positing of basic inequality. Erich Koch, the Nazi commissar of East Prussia who sent hundreds of thousands of Jews and Gypsies to their deaths, described Hitler’s project as “Luther’s unfinished Reformation.”
It wasn’t just the Protestant Nazis. Like many of the far right in France today, Goebbels was of Catholic provenance. His twisted reading of the gospel was that “Christ is harsh and relentless.” Only laïcité wins, secularism, which is perhaps the point. Roman Catholic theology from before the Vatican II reforms of the 1960s, historically had an even more pernicious effect on Native American history than evangelicalism has had. Catholics projected their own binary worldview: one of “Christian” versus “pagan”, or “civil” versus “barbarian”, and these linked to the teaching of “no salvation outside the Church.” However, my focus here is on Protestant evangelicalism. It wasn’t the Catholic vote that swung it for Donald Trump in the White House.
Clifford Longley and other writers have shown that in Anglo-American Protestant political thought, the presumption of being God’s “chosen people” drove an imperial sense of “manifest destiny”, justifying American exceptionalism as the God-given right to lord it over lesser nations. If this sounds like an overstatement of the case that religion has been weaponised, check out the words of national charter songs like Rule! Britannia, or America’s national anthem, The Star-Spangled Banner. Few parts of the world reveal this weaponisation of religion more strongly, and lastingly, than in Highlands and Islands of Scotland.
After the Battle of Culloden in 1746, redcoats of the fledgling British state were positioned in villages across the land. A line of garrisons, from Fort William in the west to Fort George in the east, marked out the north-west frontier of a fledgling British state that was still in the process of consolidating its own “internal colonisation” on the “Celtic fringe”. To win the hearts and minds of “rebels”, the Patronage Act of 1712 was invoked, allowing landowners to appoint clergy of their choice. State funds – the king’s Royal Bounty – were already in place following earlier uprisings. These as well as other fundraising in the metropolitan south – form Edinburgh to London – paid for evangelisation by which to win over erstwhile Catholics to the “true Protestant religion”. With it, came loyalty to the British state, and military service to its sovereign “Defender of the Faith”.
In the eyes of the evangelical writers of Ross-shire, religion on the Isle of Lewis had become lax by the early 19th century. The chasing out of priests by Redcoats in the aftermath of Culloden had left a spiritual vacuum that the Church of Scotland, as by law established, had failed adequately to fill. Practices that were held to be “pagan” or “Papist” persevered. To get a feeling for this gentle, folk and nature-centred spirituality that had been indigenous to the Hebrides, we only need to look at the six volumes of Carmina Gadelica, collected by the ethnographer Alexander Carmichael in the second half of the nineteenth century.
In 1815, the whole of Lewis was inherited by Lady Hood, Mary Elizabeth Frederica Mackenzie. Her father, the Governor of the Barbados slave colony had exhausted his liquid assets in gambling, and begun the clearance of villages in the south east of Lewis (Pairc) to make way for commercial sheep ranching. Her husband, Vice-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood, had commanded the British fleet out of Madras where Lady Mary lived what contemporary writers described as a wayward life. Indeed, T.B. Macaulay considered her a “wicked woman”.
Following the death of Admiral Hood, her second husband, also impoverished, continued clearances of people from their ancestral lands to make way for sheep, this time in south-west Lewis (Uig). According to research undertaken by CNN, two lines of Donald Trump’s mother’s ancestors were evicted from their homes in these areas. Although the evictions would have taken place just over a century before Mary Anne Macleod left Lewis and met Fred Trump, the driving force of emigration in 1920s and 1930s Lewis was pressure on the land, caused by both evictions and a rising population. It could be argued that we owe The Donald to the Highland Clearances.
For reasons that are not yet adequately researched, Lady Mary took on evangelical religion, and used her power of patronage to hand pick ministers from the mainland. Island historians agree that the first of these, the Rev Alexander Macleod of Assynt in 1824, set the tenor for those who would follow.
Macleod refused to baptise children until the parents were thoroughly catechised. Such was their anxiety, that at one stage the parents marched en masse with bairns in arms across the moors to Tarbert, there to have them liberally sprinkled by the “moderate” Church of Scotland minister of Harris. This was when, as Dr Michael Newton puts it, “baptism was understood by the ‘popular Gaelic mind’ as bringing the child from the unsafe, wild space into the safe, humanized, domesticated space – fully human and part of the community” (pers. com.).
Macleod’s diaries show that he relished using fear to drive the unconvinced into his congregation. Such “strictness” became the norm. As another evangelical preacher, Dr John Kennedy, would write: “The power of the pulpit was paramount in Ross-shire and the people became, to a great extent, plastic to its influence.”
By cultivating a conviction of sin, shame is stimulated, with relief offered through the hope and powerful in-group bonding of being Elect. Mary (Trump) Macleod’s parents had been married in the Free Church of Scotland at Back on the Isle of Lewis. The church holds firmly to the Westminster Confession, and double predestination would have been central to the family cosmology. It remained so, even into my childhood. More to the point, however, is that this cosmology played out over large parts of America. Loraine Boettner, who died in 1990, was America’s leading evangelical writer on predestinarian theology. As he described it: America represented “one of the brightest pages of all Calvinistic history…. Our forefathers believed in it and were controlled by it.”
There is little evidence that Trump feels strongly about faith. He will, however, carry an intuitive understanding of the drivers of evangelicalism, and how to work its levers to advantage.
5. Beyond the Myth of Redemptive Violence
In critiquing American evangelicalism, I do not want to conflate it inappropriately with today’s island faith. In particular, the Free Church of Scotland – the “wee frees” and their offshoots – are too easily set up to be a whipping boy. Some counterpoint is in order. It is common these days to hear Free Church sermons preach against the “prosperity gospel” brought over from America, and celebrity ministry. Although I have known a Free Church minister (now deceased) who claimed to be able to discern the Damned from the Elect, such a binary would rarely play out strongly in the preaching today, where in practice, salvation is taught as being freely offered to all.
The wall with Mexico echoes a deep inner schism, projected out onto the world. A wall that separates the barbarians from the civilised. The Damned from the Elect. A wall for which native Americans, and the black community, have long been paying.
Reformed churches are, by definition, in the ongoing process of reforming, and the Free Church is a prime example of this. It was established in the Disruption of 1843, explicitly to break the patronage of landed power. The human warmth of Free Church communities such as the one in which I was raised reveal the evangel of a social gospel deeply embedded, and not segregated off. Both Professors Donald Meek, James Hunter have shown that such grassroots Highlands and Islands Presbyterianism comprised a prototypical liberation theology, that helped to fuel the land rights agitation of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. My own research has demonstrated how it strongly legitimised the modern Scottish land reform movement. Neither was all of Calvin the trumping of divine mystery by cold human logic. He also had sublime moments, very relevant to the ethos of the isles. Passages like:
“Mankind is knit together with a holy knot … we must not live for ourselves, but for our neighbours.”
I say this because, if we are not to succumb to authoritarian theology, we must be careful not to push our neighbours into black and white corners. Spiritual life grows by having breathing space. However, the island has had its son, Donald Trump, forced back upon it. Right now, there is embarrassment about Trump, worry for what he augers for the world, and concern for the privacy of his extended family and the unwanted attention that has come to fall upon them.
Donald Trump says he wants to build a wall with Mexico. In island humour, with all the sheep, they’re saying that at least he’ll know a thing or two about fencing. Joking apart, the wall with Mexico perhaps a deep inner schism, projected out onto the world. A wall that separates the barbarians from the civilised. The Damned from the Elect. A wall for which native Americans, and the black community, have long been paying.
In the end, the bottom line of Christian teaching is that “only forgiveness breaks the law of karma.” Only non-retribution breaks the spiral of violence, defuses the myth of redemptive violence, trounces the temple sacrificial system. The island has had many prodigal sons. In its churches, those of Presbyterian and every other hue, they’ll be praying for the President-elect, just like they pray for every other prodigal. Such is the nature of the island’s heart. A spiritual community. Where walls get knocked down by the wind, and doors are rarely locked.
This article builds on Alastair McIntosh’s previous Bella Caledonia piece about Donald Trump and the Second Sight, and from research in his books Soil and Soul (2001), Island Spirituality (2013), and especially Poacher’s Pilgrimage (2016). He is Fellow of the Centre for Human Ecology, an honorary fellow of the School of Divinity at the University of Edinburgh, and a senior honorary research fellow (visiting professor) at the College of Social Sciences, University of Glasgow.