US election: Evangelical Christians not always white and racist

As with Muslims, atheists or Catholics, we must not stereotype Evangelicals

The eyes of the world are focused on the US elections. Whatever the results, the most powerful nation in the world is bracing itself for an avalanche of outrage and recrimination. Meanwhile, I’m bracing myself for more media stereotypes about “right-wing Evangelical Christians”.

Religion and politics are often intertwined in the United States. For example, an Evangelical pastor is tipped to be elected to represent Missouri's 1 st Congressional District in the House of Representatives.

Nothing unusual there, you might say. The unexpected twists to this story are that Cori Bush (or Pastor Cori, as she prefers to be known) is an African-American single mother, that she is a Democrat, that she came to prominence as a community organiser during the 2014 Ferguson protests against police brutality and racism, and she belongs firmly to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

Alexandra Rojas, of Justice Democrats, commented on Bush's primary victory, "The Squad is here to stay, and it's growing." Pastor Cori represents a long-standing tradition of African-American Evangelicals who believe they are called by God to address the issue of race through political activism.


Many of my African-American friends, despite their pro-life convictions, will hold their noses and vote for Joe Biden because they perceive Trump to be racist

It was no accident that the successful fight against racial segregation in the US was headed up by Baptist ministers such as Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. Even on this side of the Atlantic, the lazy stereotype of Evangelical Christians is that they are overwhelmingly white, quite possibly racist, and fervent supporters of Donald Trump.

Pollster categorisation

Last year, at a Dublin book launch where I had contributed a chapter to a work on diversity and interreligious dialogue, I was buttonholed by a young Muslim who demanded to know why I had been invited to participate in such a project since “Evangelicals are right-wing and bigoted against everyone else.”

Part of the problem lies in the categories used by US pollsters. “Blacks” and “Hispanics” are treated as separate demographic groups, and “Evangelicals” is used as a subset within the white population (even though Evangelical Christianity is more prevalent among African-Americans than among white Americans).

So, while we are told that “81 per cent of Evangelicals voted for Trump” in 2016, that refers to white Evangelicals. In reality, when we factor in black and Hispanic Evangelicals, Trump received just over half of the Evangelical vote.

In the US, as in Ireland, there is a myriad of reasons for political affiliation and loyalties. Abortion, of course, is one hot-button issue, but so are immigration and race.

Some of my white Evangelical friends in the US despise Trump’s character and many of his policies – but will hold their noses and vote for him because they could not support the Democratic platform on abortion.

Many of my African-American friends, despite their pro-life convictions, will hold their noses and vote for Joe Biden because they perceive Trump to be racist. And a considerable number of Hispanic Evangelicals (possibly the fastest-growing segment of American Evangelicalism) will vote Democrat because immigration policy is the issue which affects them most.

Abortion debate

While a majority of Evangelicals on both sides of the Atlantic, including myself, stand firmly on the pro-life side of the abortion debate, this position is not uniform. A substantial minority of those Americans who identify as Evangelical support abortion being legal in most or all circumstances (31 per cent of whites and 45 per cent of African-American Evangelicals).

Pastor Cori Bush is a passionate abortion-rights advocate, using her own experience as a victim of violent rape to argue against proposed restrictions in Missouri.

The most prominent voices addressing racism in Ireland were those of black mothers who also happen to belong to Evangelical churches

Lazy stereotypes should no more be applied to Evangelicals than to Muslims, atheists or Catholics. Yes, it is true there are Evangelicals in the US who form Trump’s base, and there are some Evangelicals in Ireland who hold extremely illiberal views.

It is also true that, following George Floyd’s murder, the most prominent voices addressing racism in Ireland were those of black mothers who also happen to belong to Evangelical churches.

Given the diversity of Evangelicalism both in North America and in Ireland, it would be nice to read the word "Evangelical" in Irish media without it invariably being preceded by the words "right-wing".