What does it mean to be an evangelical?

NICK EICHER, HOST: Thanks for listening today! It’s Friday, April 20th. Good morning, I’m Nick Eicher.

MARY REICHARD, HOST: And I’m Mary Reichard.

First up on The World and Everything in It: What does it mean to be an evangelical?

That’s never been an easy question to answer, but it’s become even more difficult since the 2016 election.

Despite misgivings for many self-identified white evangelicals, exit polling showed 8 in 10 of them voted for Donald Trump.

EICHER: Symbolic of that support were several high-profile evangelical endorsements: Politically active figures like Jerry Falwell Junior, James Dobson, and Tony Perkins came out for Trump.

But when the Stormy Daniels story emerged, Perkins gave possibly the most memorable and widely quoted response. It came in a podcast interview with Politico. Listen.

TONY PERKINS: Evangelical support is not unconditional. If the president were to all of a sudden revert back to some of that behavior as president, the evangelical support will not be there for him.


PERKINS: Um, so it’s based on, we kind of gave him alright, ‘You, you, you get a mulligan, you get, you get a do-over here, you can start

DOVERE: A mulligan for 70 years of his life?!

PERKINS: They, the guy committed, this is what he’s committed to. And as long as he commits to that and continues on that, he will have the support of evangelicals.

REICHARD: This week a diverse group of evangelical leaders met to discuss what they see as the damaged brand of evangelicalism.

They met at Wheaton College, and WORLD Radio’s Laura Finch is based near there. She joins us now. Laura, what do we know about this event?

LAURA FINCH, REPORTER: Well, first, the location is notable. Wheaton is sometimes called the “Harvard of Evangelicalism” and is one of the most widely respected Christian institutions. The school was founded by abolitionists and was actually a stop on the Underground Railroad. So lots of symbolic significance there.

The other thing that jumps out is the timing. Last week The Washington Post broke the news about this meeting, and the headline read: “Dozens of evangelical leaders meet to discuss how Trump era has unleashed ‘grotesque caricature’ of their faith.” Now, this came right on the heels of an announcement that about 1,000 Christian supporters of the president are trying to hold a summit with him in June. That meeting would basically be to congratulate President Trump for standing strong on pro-life issues. So this almost looked like a response to that larger meeting.

I see. So who organized this Wheaton event, and who attended?

FINCH: The organizer was Doug Birdsall, briefly president & CEO of the American Bible Society and honorary chairman of the Lausanne Movement. Doug envisioned this gathering starting last year.

The co-chairs were Jenny Yang of World Relief, Reverend Gabriel Salguero of Florida and Bishop Claude Alexander of North Carolina. The original guest list was about 30 people and that expanded to 50. It was never released, but I’ve learned a good many of the names.

Attendees included U.S. leaders like Pastor Tim Keller, but also church leaders from around the world. There was one from Lebanon, one from Brazil. Many ethnicities and ages were represented. Almost as notable, though, is who wasn’t there. So, names like Franklin Graham were noticeably absent. And no current member of President Trump’s evangelical advisory committee was present.

So was this meeting about President Trump? What should evangelicals do about him?

FINCH: After speaking with several participants, I really don’t think this meeting was about President Trump. Everyone I spoke to emphasized that he was not the issue. However, it’s impossible to talk about being an evangelical today without acknowledging our political context. So I think we could say this event examined the long-standing issues that have been exposed by the current political climate. Reverend Gabriel Salguero described it to me as a time of introspection and even lament. Repentance, basically.

And another big reason for the event, and for this particular guest list, was to ask international pastors about the perception of American evangelicals abroad. Wissam al-Saliby, a Lebanese pastor now working at the UN in Geneva, said it’s a major problem.

WISSAM: I mentioned during the conference, if you Google today, in Arabic, the word evangelical, one of the first results after wiki was the Trump porn star and evangelicals. If you google who are the evangelicals you will get Muslim preachers talking about evangelicals end times, and missing completely is the gospel.

There was lots of open mic time, lots of time to speak out and to disagree with each other in a safe space.

So are there any next steps? Is this going to be an annual event?

FINCH: Hard to say. Reverend Salguero said he hoped the next steps were not necessarily national—or to replicate this meeting— but to inspire similar, small conversations in the church around the country.

Laura Finch is a WORLD Radio correspondent based near Chicago. Thanks for your reporting on this.

FINCH: You’re welcome, Mary.

(A sign at one of the entrances to Wheaton College in Wheaton, Ill./Facebook)

WORLD Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of WORLD Radio programming is the audio record.

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