What happens when whites are no longer the majority of evangelicals?
This female faith leader is not allowed to preach, so she tweets.
What’s your identity?
Will the growing numbers of evangelicals of color mean less influence for white Christian conservatives?
From Attorney General Jeff Sessions citing scripture to justify the separation of families at the U.S.-Mexico border, to former Focus on the Family vice president Kelly Rosati disagreeing with him via Twitter, most media attention has focused on the religious and political beliefs of white evangelicals during the past week’s debate over the controversial Trump administration policy.
After all, conservative white Christians have had an enormous influence in American politics for nearly four decades and were instrumental in electing Donald Trump to the White House. Although some joined the chorus of criticism that prompted Trump to end the practice of separating children from their parents who enter the country illegally, white evangelicals generally give Trump high marks.
But how will the rapid growth of evangelicals who are people of color — and some immigrants themselves — affect political debates in the future?
“While their influence might not be immediate, there is no doubt that within the next 15 years, evangelicals of color will become a more powerful force in the evangelical community as a whole,” says Janelle Wong, American studies professor at the University of Maryland.
A local police officer and a U.S. Border Patrol agent watch over a group of Central American asylum seekers before taking them into custody near McAllen, Tex. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Evangelicals — Christians who focus heavily on salvation through Jesus Christ and the global acceptance of the gospel — are predominantly white and Republican.
About 34 percent of self-identified evangelicals are black, Asian or Latino — and the latter groups are quickly growing, Wong says. She attributes the growth not only to the rising numbers of people of color in the U.S. population overall, but also to the “demographic decline” among white evangelicals and the departure of young people from their ranks.
“There is simply no other source of growth in evangelical communities,” she said, “and with the small but extremely dedicated group that make up progressive white evangelicals, the ‘evangelical vote’ will no doubt change.”
According to new research presented in Wong’s book “Immigrants, Evangelicals, and Politics in an Era of Demographic Change,” evangelicals of all races lean conservative on issues such as abortion and LGBTQ rights.But evangelicals of color begin to diverge from their white counterparts on social issues that deal with race and government support.
Nonwhite evangelicals are less than half as likely to agree with the statement “immigrants hurt the economy” than white evangelicals. These views provide additional context to the January Washington Post-ABC poll that found that 75 percent of white evangelicals viewed the federal crackdown on undocumented immigrants as positive, compared with 25 percent of nonwhite Christians.
Nonwhite evangelicals also differ from white evangelicals on the need for a U.S. apology for slavery and disapproval of the Black Lives Matter movement.
Protesters with the Poor People’s Campaign outside the South Carolina statehouse call for a “moral revival” of the health care system and an immediate expansion of Medicaid. (AP Photo/Christina Myers)
But despite their growing numbers, nonwhite believers are unlikely to drastically change overall evangelical politics anytime soon, particularly on the intensifying issue of border control.
White believers still have a stronghold on the evangelical vote, and they remain the most conservative religious group when it comes to immigration, Wong says. While there have been a few defectors in recent days, notably leaders such as Franklin Graham and organizations such as the Southern Baptist Convention, “the rank and file are going to keep quiet.”
White evangelicals “never moved on DACA and ‘dreamers,’or a path on citizenship, even when some leaders did,” Wong says. “I don’t think they will move on [the zero-tolerance border strategy], either.”
The silence by white leaders and congregants has led to a growing frustration among evangelicals of color whose faith is informed by their experiences as racial minorities.
The idea of God as all-powerful being who watches over the Earth from his throne in heaven is no longer as widely accepted by Americans, although most believe in some form of higher power, according to a recent Pew study.
Pew found that only 56 percent of Americans believe in God “as described in the Bible.” But the vast majority of Americans, including those who don’t identify as religious, believe that some kind of spiritual force exists in the universe. “Indeed, nearly three-quarters of religious “nones” (72 percent) believe in a higher power of some kind, even if not in God as described in the Bible,” Pew reported.
Slightly less than half, 48 percent, believe that God or some higher power has a direct hand in all or most of what happens in their lives. A much higher share, 77 percent, think that God or a higher power has protected them and 67 percent believe God has rewarded them.
Evangelist and author Beth Moore speaking in Nashville in 2014. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for Dove Awards)
How Beth Moore is helping to change the face of evangelical leadership
Beth Moore is standing onstage before a large audience of women at Prestonwood Baptist Church in Plano, Tex. She’s teaching from the Book of Mark, but now, a little over halfway through her message, she has hit her theme: “Jesus, Because Life Is Complicated.”
Moore, one of the nation’s best-known Southern Baptists and known for her ministry to women, talks about her own “complications.” She lists one in particular — aging. As Moore, 61, tells a funny story about wanting her body parts to operate in harmony, she also insists that life gets better as you get older. After all, she says, at a certain point you “no longer feel like you have to meet your husband at the front door in your bathing suit” — a quick, insider reference to the conservative marriage manuals that tell women their job is to always be alluring. She has her audience laughing, tearing up, and clapping, much like they would listening to any great preacher.
Her books are often bestsellers and her Bible study resources circulate well beyond Southern Baptist circles, as people enjoy her humor and her outsized emotiveness. In 2010, Christianity Today called Moore “the most popular Bible teacher in America.” No surprise then that one blogger made the inevitable comparison, promising to explain “why the Bible teacher with the big Texan hair may just be our female Billy Graham.”
Moore is one of the evangelical leaders today who represent the future of the global church, in which people outside Europe and the United States will be dominant. Even within this country, where evangelicals are heir to the world created by white men such as Graham and Jerry Falwell, the evangelical community is increasingly diverse, with people of color an ever-higher percentage of those who describe themselves as “born again.” Thought leaders among evangelicals are diverse, including people ranging from megachurch pastor and author T.D. Jakes to Nikki Toyama-Szeto, the new head of Evangelicals for Social Action. Moore represents this transition, which is shaping even the most conservative corners of evangelicalism.
Although she might be as popular as some male evangelical leaders, unlike them, Moore is not a pastor — not officially even a “preacher.” As a Southern Baptist, she is part of a denomination that does not support women as church pastors and whose leaders often argue that women should not “teach” or “have authority” over men. (They are drawing from specific statements by Paul in 1 Timothy and 1 Corinthians.)
What do you do when you believe you have a message, but your tradition does not allow you to preach? You teach. You write books. And you tweet.
Like other teachers who focus on women, Moore has her own organization, Living Proof Ministries, with its blog and numerous archived lessons. And she is active on Twitter, where she has almost 1 million followers. Moore is not alone: Social media is a hothouse of evangelical conversation, and Twitter in particular includes people from around the world swapping Bible verses, commenting on issues and debating issues.
This spring, Moore also became a leading critic of sexism in the evangelical church and a player in the #MeToo reckoning that roiled the Southern Baptist Convention, leading to the resignation and disgrace of one of the denomination’s most revered leaders.
Not surprisingly, the #MeToo movement has traction among evangelicals and others, who often use the hashtag #ChurchToo. As someone who has written about her own difficult life history, Moore herself has been no small player in this conversation. In the fall of 2016, Moore spoke out against revelations about Donald Trump’s sexually predatory attitude toward women with two tweets on Oct. 9 that provoked a firestorm.
Suddenly, the blond Bible teacher in colorful outfits began to seem to be far more confrontational. And many evangelicals, especially white evangelicals who supported Trump’s campaign for president, castigated Moore for becoming “political.” She did not back down.
This essay was adapted from an article that originally appeared in Origins, a publication of the history departments of Ohio State University and Miami University. Read McAlister’s full article about how evangelist Billy Graham, who died earlier this year, influenced subsequent generations of religious leaders.
How do you identify yourself?
Can you believe it has been six months since the first edition of About US? We can’t, either. To celebrate, we want to hear from you. Since the start, we pledged to explore the traits, life experiences and loyalties that make up our identities. And we’ve tried to do so in the broadest of terms: not just talking about race or ethnicity, gender or sexual identity — but also about culture, religion, politics, generation, even the sports teams we root for. But maybe there’s a few we’ve missed. With that wide lens in mind, we want to know: How do you identify yourself? What does being an American mean to you? Send us a short description at aboutus, along with a photo (selfies welcome!) no later than Friday, July 6. We will use some of them in our 25th edition, on July 13, and post others on washingtonpost.com.
Thank you, as always, for reading About US.