John Blake, CNN, February 3, 2024
That’s how critics have described White Christian nationalism, a deviant strain of religion that has infected the political mainstream. White Christian nationalists believe the US was founded as a Christian nation, although the Constitution never mentions God and enshrines the separation of church and state. Its adherents twist biblical language to justify violence, sexism and hostility toward people of color.
But there is another cost to the spread of White Christian nationalism that no one mentions.
The relentless coverage of White Christian nationalism is spreading a racist myth: that Whiteness is the default setting for evangelical Christianity.
This is one of the unintended consequences of the media and public’s fascination with the subject. Feeding this perception is an avalanche of books, articles and now a Hollywood film on the beliefs of White evangelical Christians — the biggest followers of Christian nationalism. In a February 2023 survey, nearly two-thirds of White evangelical Protestants qualified as sympathizers or adherents to Christian nationalism.
The constant linking of Whiteness with evangelical Christianity, though, obscures another major story. There are millions of Black, Latino, African and Asian evangelical Christians who are already profoundly changing America. They represent what one scholar calls the “de-Europeanization of American Christianity.”
And these non-White evangelicals will likely not only save the American church but transform the nation’s politics.
The true definition of “evangelical” has nothing to do with a color or a political party. Evangelicals are loosely defined as Christians who share a “born-again” dramatic personal conversion, who take the Bible seriously or literally and believe they’re supposed to spread their faith to others.
Today, however, the definition of an evangelical Christian has been reduced to one category: a White conservative Republican.
Click on any story about evangelicals and you’re liable to see a White person, usually a man, clutching a Bible.
But it may surprise some people to learn that in 2024, the face of evangelical Christianity in the US is more likely to be brown than White.
The numbers tell the story:
—According to a 2017 survey, one in three American evangelicals is a person of color.
—The fastest-growing segment of evangelicals in the US are Latino Americans.
As Carolyn Chen, a professor at UC Berkeley who is an authority on Asian American religion, said during a 2022 speech: “Today’s evangelical leaders are not just White men with degrees from Oral Roberts University.”
Two Asian Americans, for example, hold leadership positions at major evangelical organizations. Walter Kim, a Korean American, is the president of the National Association of Evangelicals (NAE). And Tom Lin, a Taiwanese American, is the president of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship/USA, a nationwide campus Christian ministry.
This change of complexion often produces a change in political perspective. Scholars say non-White evangelicals tend to be conservative on issues like sexuality and abortion but more progressive in politics. A majority of Black evangelicals, for example, say that opposing racism is an essential part of their faith.
Chen predicts that “America will become more secular, and Christianity less conservative” as non-White evangelicals increase in number.
Chen says the browning of Christianity in the US owes much to the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act. That law paved the way for millions of immigrants from Asian, Africa, and Latin American countries to come to the US.
“When we tell the story about American Christianity, we might start with the Puritans — it’s basically a European story,” says Chen, author of “Work Pray Code: When Work Becomes Religion in Silicon Valley.” “But what if we were to tell the story of American Christianity by what it’s starting to look like and how it’s changing today? That story begins in a place like Taiwan, Korea, or Mexico.”
It may soon be impossible to ignore the importance of non-White evangelicals because of one reason: demographics.
At first glance, the numbers don’t look good for Christians in America. Commentators have longed warned that Christianity in the US is dying.
Church membership in the US has been declining and in 2020 fell below 50% for the first time. Church leaders fret that the American church is poised to follow the path of West European churches: soaring Gothic cathedrals with empty pews and shuttered church sanctuaries converted into nightclubs.
The numbers look grim for White evangelicals as well. They are the oldest religious group in America, and their numbers are declining, Chen, the UC Berkeley professor, says.
But for evangelicals, the migration of non-White immigrants to the US from Latin America and Asia could represent a more earthbound form of salvation.
The US has more immigrants than any country. Many of them are evangelicals and they, along with their children, are bringing their religious fervor with them and planting churches.
“For so long we’ve talked about Christianity or evangelicalism as a White phenomenon,” says Chen, who is also the executive director of the Asian Pacific American Religions Research Initiative.
“We’re on the cusp of this demographic change and there’s evidence of it all over. But we don’t even see it because we’re so focused on this population that’s dying out.”