What kind of person is an “evangelical”? For many New Zealanders, it’s someone they distrust. That’s the finding of a research survey from the Institute for Governance and Policy Studies, which set out to gauge trust in various religious groups in the wake of the Christchurch terror attacks. Of those surveyed, 37.5% said they had no or little trust in evangelicals. For comparison, the next worst groups, Catholics and Muslims, clocked in at 26.2% and 22.8% respectively.
It’s an interesting result, especially as I doubt many of those answering could accurately define an evangelical—though perhaps that’s not surprising given that evangelicals themselves debate about it. It’s also a little curious that the survey authors even chose it as a survey item, alongside the categories “Protestant” and “Catholic”, when “evangelical” is probably best understood as a subset of both of them, or as a Protestant quasi-denomination.
Source: “Who do we trust in New Zealand? 2016 to 2019,” Chapple & Prickett (2019)
It seems most likely that the survey authors, and the respondents, asked and answered as they did thanks to assumptions imported from the United States. In the US, “evangelical” has come to stand for a lot more than religious beliefs, and to extend to an entire set of political attitudes and voting patterns, many of which look genuinely dubious.
Some of the issues are canvassed in this recent column by David French, a self-described Evangelical and conservative commentator. His analysis reveals a complex situation, one that he and many others find deeply disturbing. French cites some specific examples, including the Evangelical embrace of President Trump and a kind of Christian nationalism applied to America. The issue is ultimately this:
many white Evangelical political positions—on matters of immense importance to many millions of Americans—do not flow naturally from Evangelical biblical orthodoxy. There isn’t a straight line from scripture to severe immigration restrictions, for example, or from scripture to confidence in American police. Instead the political gaps between white Evangelicals and the rest of America flow from a series of historical, cultural, and ideological commitments that are contestable at best and unjust at worst.
So far as I know, New Zealand evangelicals don’t share these “historical, cultural, and ideological commitments”, and yet seem to have been tarred with the American brush and regarded with undeserved suspicion.
It’s a difficult position that results from the global culture that we all increasingly inhabit, and whether or not you have any sympathy for evangelicals it’s a fate that could easily be shared by any other group with a distinctive and media-worthy international comparator.
So what can evangelicals in New Zealand do about this? Ultimately, not much, as there’s little that can be done to stem the tide of international media, but realising the effect of that media evangelicals may decide to create a stock of alternative self-descriptors. Beyond this, there’s not much point in worrying about things that can’t be changed, even when those things are undeserved reputations.
Instead, evangelicals should stay focused on living faithfully, serving others and, as someone once said, being “ready to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope you that you have.” Good advice when it was given, and good advice for evangelicals here and now.