ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
In 2016, white, evangelical Christians helped elect Donald Trump. This year, some prominent evangelical leaders have heartburn as they reflect on that reality. They worry that their core gospel message has been overlooked. NPR's Tom Gjelten reports.
TOM GJELTEN, BYLINE: The word evangel comes from the Greek word evangelion, meaning a bearer of good news. So by definition, evangelicalism is about spreading the gospel, a good news message of salvation through Jesus Christ. It's not about politics.
COLLIN HANSEN: For those of us who care so deeply that our neighbors come to know the love of Jesus Christ, this is a tragic moment.
GJELTEN: Collin Hansen is editorial director for The Gospel Coalition, an organization dedicated to restoring the beliefs and practices of evangelicalism. For him, the association of his faith with support for politicians like Donald Trump is an unwelcome development.
HANSEN: When we talk about the evangel, the good news that makes us evangelicals, our neighbors hear...
GJELTEN: They hear something else.
HANSEN: ...A political agenda, or they hear a kind of anger or frustration or retribution.
GJELTEN: In recent weeks, some leading figures in evangelical circles have disowned the evangelical label. Others are saying it's time to clarify what evangelical means. This month, the LifeWay Research organization affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention reported that fewer than half of self-identified evangelicals actually hold evangelical beliefs. Scott McConnell directed the study.
SCOTT MCCONNELL: These findings arrive at the same time that many evangelicals are questioning whether the term is still a term we ought to be using since there's so much political discussion that circles with the term evangelical. And it's a reminder to this community that evangelical is about beliefs.
GJELTEN: But many self-described evangelicals in recent years have focused on culture wars and have mobilized politically around that passion. For them, the big issue is increasing secularism. In his new book "God And Donald Trump," author Stephen Strang argues that evangelicals supported Trump because of their evangelical beliefs.
STEPHEN STRANG: My belief system affects everything about me, including the way that I vote. It has become political mainly because there are forces in our culture that want to take God out of the public square.
GJELTEN: This politicalization of the evangelical movement troubles leaders like Mark Galli, editor-in-chief at Christianity Today, the magazine founded by Billy Graham. He acknowledges that these are troubling times for Christians, but he doesn't see increased political activism as the answer.
MARK GALLI: There's a uniquely Christian way of responding to those times and situations. And I'd say people mostly on the right right now - but I see it on the left as well - are just responding by thinking, if we just pass one more piece of legislation, we'll be that much closer to the kingdom of heaven. I just think that's a huge mistake.
GJELTEN: It's possible, perhaps likely, that this political evangelicalism will weaken on its own as the demographics shift. University of North Carolina historian Molly Worthen specializes in the study of conservative Christianity.
MOLLY WORTHEN: When I've traveled to Christian liberal arts schools, you know, places that I think an outsider would comfortably label evangelical, I'm always struck by how many students really reject that label. I think this is particularly common among the millennial generation. I think there's a kind of exhaustion with aggressive, Moral Majority-style politics that has rubbed younger evangelicals especially the wrong way.
GJELTEN: Part of that rejection of aggressive politics may be that younger evangelicals are more likely to have social relationships across racial and ethnic lines. Research shows that in multiethnic churches, politics are less predictable. Tom Gjelten, NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF SUMMER HEART SONG, "I WANNA GO")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. 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 NPR’s programming is the audio record.