American evangelicals are not likely the first thing to pop into one’s head when searching for examples of intellectual humility in public life. After all, white evangelicals played no small role in electing as president of the United States an individual who arguably represents the embodied antithesis of intellectual humility and openness to the other.
For many, President Trump’s successful political mobilization of conspiracy theories, “alternative facts,” and fake news find their origins in evangelical vanguards of our “post-truth society.” Similarly, President Trump’s “America First” exceptionalism, xenophobic and patriarchal rhetoric, and combative style map uncomfortably well onto the apocalyptic ethnoreligious nationalism and culture war conservatism found among dominant expressions of American evangelical and Pentecostal religion.
But what about the other evangelicals?
There are more of them than you think. Political scientist John Green calls some of them “populist evangelicals” (in the late nineteenth-century progressive era sense); they constitute roughly 35 percent of the American evangelical population. Others are “cosmopolitan” or intellectually oriented “Christianity Today evangelicals” after the flagship evangelical periodical. Many younger evangelicals fall into this category as well. They have long since rejected the fiery brand of old-guard Christian Right politics represented by the Jerry Falwells and James Dobsons of the world. However, they remain deeply conflicted about how to reconcile political convictions that cut across the liberal-conservative divide. Between 15 and 30 percent of white evangelicals identify as politically left-liberal and/or Democratic Party supporters.
I have spent much of the past decade studying these “other evangelicals”: progressive evangelicals, new monastic evangelicals, emerging evangelicals, social justice evangelicals, the evangelical left, and other evangelicals occupying a contradictory cultural location between the religious right and secular left. How do these evangelicals engage diverse social others across boundaries of race, class, gender, sexuality, and religious difference? With what spirit do they enter the public and political arena? And what lessons can they teach us about the relationship between evangelical religious conviction and intellectual humility across difference?
At times, the other evangelicals’ styles of public and political engagement look uncomfortably similar to the conservative evangelicalism against which it is constructed. They reduce complex political issues to dogmatic religious positions. They develop litmus tests to assess the purity or pollution of fellow believers and their political views. They ignore race and its role in maintaining contemporary social, economic, and political inequity. They use strident religious language that suppresses dialogue and dissent. In these moments, despite being substantively opposed to Christian Right style public and political engagement, the other evangelicals, like a mirror, reflect and reverse the original image.
More often, however, I have observed the other evangelicals demonstrate real capacity and commitment to the practice of intellectual humility across difference in American public life. Conducting ethnographic fieldwork across the country in such diverse places as Portland, Atlanta, Boston, Los Angeles, and urban core settings across the industrial Midwest, I witnessed evangelicals engage diverse racial, economic, religious, political, and moral-cultural others in a spirit of flexibility, openness, collaboration, and self-critical reflection and adjustment. Partly due to this spirit, they have done so while operating across a wide range of public and organizational settings less common among evangelicals: democratic community organizing, community development, new monastic and intentional communities, progressive advocacy, and multi-faith service-volunteer work.
In Portland, for example, an offhand conversation between a mayor and local evangelical nonprofit leader developed into an “unexpected partnership” between city hall and the evangelical community involving over twenty-five thousand volunteers and five hundred evangelical churches mobilized annually to address a city-identified list of public problems such as hunger, homelessness, public school maintenance and beautification, free medical and dental clinics, and anti-human trafficking initiatives. One might expect a partnership requiring evangelicals to restrict evangelism, refrain from pro-life activism, and work closely with members of the LGBTQ community on public projects would be difficult for many evangelicals to swallow. Surprisingly, it was not. After months of intensive fieldwork with key organizations and faith leaders across the city, it was apparent that evangelicals in the greater Portland area wanted desperately to be seen as trusted participants and partners—rather than disengaged and combative culture warriors—pursuing together their city’s common good.
Across the country in Atlanta—in a decidedly different social and political environment—I encountered the same spirit of openness and intellectual humility across difference in multiple evangelical contexts. In a disadvantaged historically black neighborhood in Atlanta, for example, white evangelicals are getting an immersive crash course in intersectional inequality through “strategic relocation”—the intentional practice of moving into disadvantaged urban contexts in order to learn from and participate with residents in projects of social empowerment and transformation. Their experiences have transformed these white evangelicals’ understanding of racial and economic inequality, politics and social change, their faith, and themselves. Strategic relocation has also led them to abandon ineffective and paternalistic strategies of social engagement in favor of collaborative strategies built on reciprocal relationships across difference. These evangelicals consistently demonstrate commitment and capacity for self-critical reflection and adjustment across a wide spectrum of race, class, gender, religion, political views, and moral-cultural divides.
In Los Angeles and Boston, I found white evangelicals joining forces with Jewish, Muslim, Catholic, mainline Protestant, black Protestant, and secular individuals and institutions in grassroots democratic organizing efforts to combat pernicious incursions of big business and environmental racism in disadvantaged urban neighborhoods. Recognizing the need for a new style of pluralist political engagement beyond the culture wars, these white evangelicals are learning to think differently about race, power, immigration, religious difference, and democratic politics: An affluent, conservative chemical engineer becomes an unexpected champion of undocumented immigrant rights. A female nonprofit leader overcomes evangelical gender messaging to confront domineering male politicians and business leaders in the name of Jesus. A young evangelical pastor mobilizes his community to join the organizing efforts of Hispanic Catholic and immigrant neighbors against a corruption-ridden billion-dollar casino project in his lower-income neighborhood, which he refers to as “God’s house.” As they enter public life in new ways, these other evangelicals are learning how to talk, pray, and work alongside racially, economically, religiously, and politically diverse others for the sake of Christ and ethical democracy in America.
In light of white evangelicals’ overwhelming and well-documented support for Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election, it would be easy to write off these evangelicals as unimportant curiosities, abnormal outliers, non-representative distractions from an otherwise dogmatic and tribal conservative evangelical monolith—a tiny ripple of hope amongst a churning sea of angry white Christian nationalists.
This would be a mistake. It is simply not true, and it is unnecessarily alienating. Many evangelicals—even conservative ones—are deeply opposed to Trump’s brand of racist, sexist, self-serving politics. I just spoke with one of them: a deeply conservative rural white male who looked in the mirror and renounced his previously unquestioned loyalty to Republican Party politics in light of the 2016 election. More broadly, large numbers of center-right evangelical voters wrestle deeply with political standpoints that cut across the liberal-conservative divide in American politics; they have no interest in imposing an ethnoreligious theocracy on American soil. Like their progressive evangelical siblings, many of these conservative and centrist evangelicals hold strong religious convictions whilst simultaneously demonstrating capacity for moral and intellectual humility across difference in the public arena. For both sociological and political reasons, it is important to understand these evangelicals rather than flatten them into caricature.
The idea that individuals and communities must abandon all their deeply held religious convictions in order to practice intellectual humility across difference in the public sphere is an old secularist conceit, as is the notion that political liberals and progressives have a monopoly on the practice of respectful, reasonable, pluralist forms of democratic discourse and engagement. It is time to let them go.