The rise of Donald Trump and his allies on America’s social and political Right has brought renewed attention to Evangelical Christians. After all, a poll that made headlines demonstrated that 81% of White Evangelicals voted for the Trump-Pence ticket (Renaud, 2017). It can seem that most Evangelicals are right-wing culture warriors, seeking to “Make America Great Again” in their image (Burleigh, 2017).
While this can be true of some Evangelicals, it is not true of all. Many are shocked at the current state of affairs and are actively working to make a difference. We (Kevin and Chris) recently interviewed a handful of such Evangelicals that are modeling what we call a “neighborly faith” by striving to be good neighbors to people of other faith and non-faith traditions.
We interviewed five Evangelicals in higher education: two professors, a chaplain, a scholar, and a student leader. Each held traditional faith convictions, but were living them out in non-traditional ways when it comes to being a good neighbor.
All Christians highly regard Jesus’s teaching to “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:31). Yet, we all know that not all Christians live this out as they should. Evangelicals have been good at doing this in some ways like, for example, caring for disaster victims (Stetzer, 2017). However, many have been slow to adopt this neighborly love to a new multi-religious America. Fears of the religious “other” are common, short-circuiting the benevolence of even the most sincere Evangelical (Baylor Religion Survey, 2017).
The people we talked to are trailblazers that were finding new ways to live a neighborly faith. We were impressed to see the variety of ways they were doing this.
Most of the people we interviewed told us that they lived in a place of tension between their faith-based convictions to proselytize others and to love them. Some of our guests expressed that proselytization is a tad outdated and especially inappropriate for their contexts as leaders in higher education. Instead, they live out their faith by being hospitable to those who are different.
A common theme during our interviews was people’s desire to find public ways of being hospitable–a sharp contrast to the xenophobic Evangelicals we read about in newspapers. All were upset about the current political ethos, and were taking small, personal steps to be a change.
Two of our interviewees who work in administration at public universities voiced something very interesting: that their public offices gave them the opportunity to apologize on behalf of Evangelicals for abuses, either ongoing or past. They are aware that their group is not perfect. However, being a part of this faith, they want to say: “I’m sorry. Tell me your story. How can I change to be a better neighbor?”
These interviews were enlightening and refreshing for us–however, we know they do not represent all Evangelicals. There are things that need to change among us who share the handle. Yet, we remain hopeful that Evangelicals can change course. The primary reason why we started our podcast was to provide Evangelicals with models of neighborly faith that they can aspire to be like. In our experience, we’ve noticed that Evangelicals are the most willing to trust voices and perspectives from within their fold. Our hope is that the podcast will gain traction with persons of influence within Evangelical communities (pastors, thought-leaders, scholars, etc.), because they are in the best position to make a lasting difference.
Launching our podcast with a spotlight on higher education professionals was a no-brainer. Evangelicals working in higher education are playing a formidable role in shaping the next generation, which will likely be more hospitable to worldview diversity. A 2017 Pew Research study found that millennial Evangelicals are more socially conscious and politically progressive than older generations of Evangelicals (Diamant & Alper, 2017). Furthermore, the Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS) included 3,200 incoming Evangelical students from 122 colleges and universities across the country. IDEALS found that 82% of respondents identifying as Evangelical felt it was important that their colleges and universities “provide a welcoming environment for people of diverse religious and nonreligious perspectives” (Crandall et. al, 2016). Moreover, 71% scored highly on the IDEALS “Goodwill/Acceptance Scale,” signaling that a majority have positive attitudes toward people with different worldviews and believe that interreligious understanding will make for a more peaceful world.
One of the professors we interviewed was recently invited to join a committee on religion that was organized by the president of their large public university. The purpose of the committee is to support worldview diversity on campus and coordinate activities that promote a pluralistic community. This is how our interviewee characterized their experience on the committee so far:
As a group of students, faculty and staff from all over campus, we’ve had some difficult conversations at times, but we’ve learned to listen closely to each other rather than make assumptions about each other. At the beginning, if you would have asked “What is [the Evangelical] going to think about x, y, or z issue,” I think there would have been a lot of assumptions made. We’ve learned to trust each other, to respect each other, and to not jump to assumptions. It goes to show the value of building relationships in these initiatives (Personal Communication, August 1, 2017).
This testimony is a far cry from those that Evangelicals are used to hearing from polarizing figures like Liberty University president Jerry Falwell, Jr., who made national headlines in 2015 for making flagrant remarks about Muslims at an all-University assembly. Unfortunately, the detailed critique written by student leaders from Wheaton College didn’t garnish nearly as much press, which exhorted Evangelical leaders to take seriously the “opportunity and responsibility to guard our words and protect the pillar of unity and love of neighbor which the [New Testament] gospels command us to pursue” (Heath & Horton, 2015).
This is precisely why we’re so excited to share the testimonies of our interviewees through our podcast. There are Evangelicals that are seeking the welfare of their religious and nonreligious neighbors, and they are hoping for opportunities to contribute positively to the religious and nonreligious diversity on their campuses. This may require some campus gatekeepers to set aside their presuppositions about Evangelicals, like the president’s committee on religion that invited our interviewee to participate.
We recognize that this is easier said than done. Many of the reservations that people have about Evangelical Christians are completed warranted. However, we hope that our podcast can dispel the myth that all Evangelicals are as described in the first paragraph of this article. We’ve met some that are poised to be good religious neighbors, and are eager to display neighborly faith. If you are interested in listening to our interviews, please check our website: NeighborlyFaith.org. We are releasing them this Winter and would enjoy your feedback.
Pronouns: He, His, Him
PhD Student, North Carolina State University (Higher Education)
Graduate Assistant, Interfaith Diversity Experiences and Attitudes Longitudinal Survey (IDEALS)
Adjunct Professor of Religious Studies, College of DuPage and Waubonsee Community College
Co-Founder, Neighborly Faith
Contact: Kcsinger@ncsu.edu, Twitter: @kevinsinger0
Pronouns: He, His, Him
PhD Student, Theology, University of Toronto (St. Michael’s College)
Co-Founder, Neighborly Faith
Burleigh, N. (2017, October 06). Does God believe in Trump? White evangelicals are sticking with their “Prince of Lies”. Retrieved December 09, 2017, from http://www.newsweek.com/2017/10/13/donald-trump-white-evangelicals-support-god-677587.html
Crandall, R. E., Snipes, J. T., Staples, A., Rockenbach, A. N., Mayhew, M. J., & Associates. (2016). IDEALS Narratives: Incoming Evangelical Students. Chicago, IL: Interfaith Youth Core.
Diamant, J., & Alper, B. A. (2017). Though still conservative, young evangelicals are more liberal than their elders on some issues. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/05/04/though-still-conservative-young-evangelicals-are-more-liberal-than-their-elders-on-some-issues/
Findings from the Baylor Religion Survey Wave 5: American Values, Mental Health, and Using Technology in the Age of Trump. (2017). Retrieved December 09, 2017, from https://www.baylor.edu/baylorreligionsurvey/doc.php/292546.pdf
Heath, N., & Horton, C. (2015, December 10). Opinion | Why we, Wheaton College students, are condemning Jerry Falwell Jr.’s remarks on guns and Muslims. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2015/12/10/why-we-wheaton-college-students-are-condemning-jerry-falwell-jr-s-remarks-on-guns-and-muslims/?utm_term=.9917ca0fb150
Renaud, M. (2017). Myths Debunked: Why Did White Evangelical Christians Vote for Trump? | The University of Chicago Divinity School. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from https://divinity.uchicago.edu/sightings/myths-debunked-why-did-white-evangelical-christians-vote-trump
Stetzer, E. (2017). Remember teachings of Mr. Rogers and the Good Samaritan in Harvey relief efforts. Retrieved December 01, 2017, from https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2017/08/31/harvey-relief-efforts-remember-teachings-mr-rogers-and-good-samaritan-ed-stetzer-column/615904001/