Evangelicals Don’t Have a Brand Problem, They Have a Product Problem

Evangelical brandOk, Evangelicals do have a brand problem—but they also have a major product problem.

Bible-believing born-again Christians, aka Evangelicals, have had a brand problem since Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority sold the Born-again movement to the Republican party in exchange for political power a generation ago, forging the Religious Right.

The Republican party has been using Christianity’s good name to cover bad deeds ever since, all the while tapping Evangelical media empires and churches as communications and organizing platforms to bring ordinary believers along with the merger. Having become true-believers themselves, Evangelical leaders have offered themselves up as trusted messengers for this New-and-Improved political gospel project.

And it has worked.

Born-again Christians haven’t given up their core beliefs: that the Bible is the literally perfect word of God, Jesus died for their sins, and folks who don’t accept this gift will burn forever in Hell. Rather, most white Evangelicals (and a number of Blacks and Hispanics) have appended parts of the Republican policy agenda and the underlying conceptual framework to this list. Religious beliefs and political beliefs have become, for many Evangelicals, indistinguishable objects of devotion, beyond question. Political tribe and religious tribe now have the same boundaries.

When I outlined Evangelicalism’s brand problem in early 2016, few of us had any idea how bad it could get. Now the world associates the term Evangelical with the Trump election—over 80 percent of Evangelicals gave him their vote—and with the candidacy of theocrat, Roy Moore, who despite credible allegations that he pursued and pawed young teens while an assistant district attorney, received comparable support from white Alabama Evangelicals.

In the aftermath of Moore’s campaign and (merciful) defeat, the minority of Evangelical Christians who found him horrifying are doing some public soul searching—well, except not really. Many recognize only the brand problem and are, more than anything, simply scrambling to get away from the term Evangelical itself. “After Trump and Moore, some evangelicals are finding their own label too toxic to use,” reports the Washington Post.  “The term feels irreversibly tainted,” agrees Evangelical author Jen Hatmaker.

Jemar Tisby is president of a faith-based media company catering to Black Evangelicals, but he says that “It’s counterproductive to identify as evangelical. . . . What’s happened with evangelicalism is, it has become so conflated with Republican politics, that you can’t tell where Christianity ends and partisanship begins.”

At Wheaton College, my old alma mater, the Executive Director of the Billy Graham Center, Ed Stetzer, said, “I don’t want ‘evangelical’ to mean people who supported candidates with significant and credible accusations against them. If evangelical means that, it has serious ramifications for the work of Christians and churches.”

At Princeton University, the “Princeton Evangelical Fellowship” renamed itself “Princeton Christian Fellowship” to get away from the negative associations. But is Evangelicalism tainting Christianity itself as a brand? Five years ago, Campus Crusade for Christ–which spends over $500,000,000 annually to recruit and retain Evangelical college students–changed its name to the less transparent “Cru.” Mark Galli, Editor in Chief at Christianity Today, wrote of the Moore race, “There is already one loser: Christian faith . . . No one will believe a word we say, perhaps for a generation. Christianity’s integrity is severely tarnished.”

What even thoughtful Evangelical leaders like Galli fail to recognize is that people shouldn’t believe a word they say—not about politics, not about morality, and not even about theology at this point. The problem isn’t skin deep. Their brand problem is a function of their product problem, and as Emmett Price at Gordon-Cornwell Theological Seminary put it, “Ditching a term is simply ditching a term.” Abandoning the term Evangelical is the most superficial fix conceivable.

Real soul searching would mean asking what it is about the Evangelical worldview that has made Evangelical leaders and ordinary Bible-believers susceptible to courtship by authoritarian, bigoted, sexist, tribal, anti-intellectual greedmongers who dangle the carrot of theocracy. But few Evangelical leaders are asking this question because that would mean revisiting the peculiar status they grant to the Bible itself. And that is off-limits.

When one treats the Bible as the literally perfect and complete word of God—which most Christian scholars don’t but most Evangelicals do—it isn’t hard to find support for every item in the ugly list that now darkens the Evangelical brand. The Bible contains some really bad ideas.  The opposite is also true, mind you. It also contains support for compassion, love, generosity, inclusion, and humility—and many other virtues that humanity values widely across both secular and religious wisdom traditions. The Bible is morally inchoate. It documents and sanctifies humanity’s moral infancy; and idolizing the book binds believers to the worldview of the Iron Age, leaving them susceptible to justifying all manner of misbehaviors in the name of God.

That is precisely what the Republican operatives of the Religious Right have done; and as Evangelical leaders got sucked into the merger of biblical theology and conservative dogma, that is precisely what they have done; and as they have spread this infectious product to the followers who trust them, that is precisely what they have done too. At the bottom of this shit-flow sequence sit children born into households of true believers who isolated them in homeschooling and church schools, then send them to institutions like Bob Jones or Liberty University or Wheaton so that, identity cemented, they can carry forward the project unquestioned.

So, Evangelicals have three enormous and interrelated problems with their product at this point. One is that their whole enterprise is built on an indefensible view of the Bible.  This has facilitated the merger of biblical Christianity with Republican dogmas and will leave believers vulnerable to this kind of exploitation until the theology itself is fixed.

The second problem is that millions of Christians have now been so thoroughly indoctrinated into Bible-sanctified Republican ideology that it could take a generation to move them away from the beliefs and priorities that elected Donald Trump and nearly elected Roy Moore. It took a generation to bind them into this tangled web and there is no reason to think that journeying free will be easier.

The third problem is that this whole state of affairs has been a profound violation of trust. People trust religious leaders to be honest and moral, and when that is gone little influence remains. Young people who see through the mess are leaving Evangelicalism and Christianity. They are losing faith in faith itself.

This much is clear. Simply swapping in the term Christian for the term Evangelical will only damage Christianity’s brand at large, which Evangelicals have already done—with help, of course, from the Catholic hierarchy. As a former Evangelical Christian, now a spiritual non-theist, I don’t necessarily think of that as a bad thing, but Christians should. Some reformers are attempting real change from within Evangelicalism. Tony Campolo, Rachel Held Evans, Rob Bell and John Pavlovitz, to cite a few are fighting hard to save the soul of a faith they cherish. But a path to broad reformation remains unclear.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org.  Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel.  Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt and Deas and Other Imaginings. Founder - www.WisdomCommons.org.
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22 Responses to Evangelicals Don’t Have a Brand Problem, They Have a Product Problem

  1. Steve Ruis says:

    You hit the nail on the head, Valerie! Christianity would never have become a major religion had it not endorsed slavery. Can you imagine the Roman Empire adopting Christianity if it taught that slavery was immoral? That would have been a quick road to obscurity.

    And I just notice you have a new book out. Did you tout this? If so, I didn’t notice. I have to wait for a check to come in, but when it does I will buy a copy! (Hint: none of us have access to your horn, so you have to toot it!)

    Happy holidays, my friend!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Steve. It’s actually just an updated version of the same book! Don’t buy it if you have the old one. :)

      Like

      • Steve Ruis says:

        Ah! I have been wanting to buy it for some time, so I went ahead and got a copy. I am about a quarter of the way through and find it, as usual, quite well-written and often poignant. I tend to believe that the upbringing you received lies somewhere on the border of good intentions and child abuse. You are probably a stronger person for what you experienced, but as I often claim “experience may be the best teacher, but it is usually brutal.”

        You raise enough issues, I will probably write a book review on my blog a) to address those points and b) to maybe get you a few more sales.

        Happy holidays, my friend!

        Liked by 1 person

      • madagascanlemur says:

        Valerie, you know Vickyie Garrison, I hope. I’m sure she’d agree with Steve’s assessment. The way you were indoctrinated is spiritual abuse of children. Just my two cents…

        Like

  2. One of the conveniences for Evangelicals is having a massive “God-breathed” tome covering a wide span of time with material from several cultures and a verse to justify practically anything. (God is Love/God is a Consuming Fire). The GOAL of Evangelical Christianity is to convert the world into its own image. It doesn’t stop to consider effects or ramifications . It marches forward with one agenda “onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war” and anything that defies it, attempts to hold its own against it is of “the Devil and his servants of darkness” which means it can be destroyed if and when it has the power to do so.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. madagascanlemur says:

    I nodded my head, agreeing your every point until you brought me up by the short hairs with: “Real soul searching would mean asking what it is about the Evangelical worldview that has made Evangelical leaders and ordinary Bible-believers susceptible to courtship by authoritarian, bigoted, sexist, tribal, anti-intellectual greedmongers who dangle the carrot of theocracy. But few Evangelical leaders are asking this question because that would mean revisiting the peculiar status they grant to the Bible itself. And that is off-limits.” I’ve deployed each of those adjectives about the Trumpbots who confabulate their religious derangement with Right-wing politics except “tribal.” That’s next. And later, you wrote, “This much is clear. Simply swapping in the term ‘Christian’ for the term ‘Evangelical’ will only damage Christianity’s brand more broadly, which Evangelicals have already done with help from the Catholic hierarchy.” I can enumerate the myriad ways the Catholic hierarchy have taken a collective dump on Christianity’s brand, but I can’t see a logical connection between at least four decades of Catholic shit storm and this Evangelical one. What did I miss?

    Like

    • Oh, I didn’t mean that the Catholics helped with this particular shit storm, just the overall brand damage. However, in reality, the Catholics helped hugely with this shit storm in that they are the ones who very systematically in the 1970s began moving Protestants away from approval of abortion and contraception, which were big factors in Evangelical support for Moore.

      Liked by 2 people

      • When I realized exactly what the anti-abortion culture war was about, it hit me like a thunderbolt. I was a true-blue Pentecostal lass at the time. Got my hands on a Pearson manual–you probably know about those but for those who don’t, it’s basically the how-to guide to set up a fake “crisis pregnancy center” style of clinic to trick women into bearing children–and by the time I finished the last page, I was devastated. I ended that hour a pro-choice-forever crusader. And not much time passed before I realized that my religious movement used much the same tactics as that Pearson manual had outlined, and felt my lifelong fervent faith just fall away from me like a silk shroud.

        Protestants got in bed with Catholics over abortion purely to gain political power to fight integration, if I’m reading the sources correctly. It was 100% a cynical and callously-engineered deliberate polarization of Christians to get them voting and campaigning in the proper directions. The enemies of the culture wars stand for serious threats to Christian power and dominance, so they must be eliminated. And now that Christians more or less realize they’ve totally lost their war against LGBTQIA folks, they’re going to turn their swivel-eyes around to remember abortion–and start devoting their entire energies there. Saw a Christian Post interview back from like 2011 where a leader of the religion was advising his tribe to maybe start devoting resources elsewhere (https://www.christianpost.com/news/focus-on-the-family-were-losing-fight-against-gay-marriage-50445/). And since misogyny sells a lot better with non-Christians than bigotry-for-Jesus and doesn’t use the same overtly religious arguments and talking points, that Handmaiden theocracy fantasy has a better chance of succeeding. All that stops them is a legislative and legal system whose wholeness is far from assured.

        Scary stuff… We keep fighting.

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      • Wow, fascinating, Captain Cassidy. I’ve never heard of the Pearson manual.

        Like

  4. janis aimee says:

    Today’s post is more of a study piece than a discussion piece, so I will need to read a few more times. A couple of thoughts: I first took the fundamentalist xians seriously when I read “Late Great Planet Earth” decades ago. I pulled it off the oldest, dustiest book shelf early this year to see how close the Evan-political movement has followed this script. It remains the script for “end times” virtually word for word. That book has always been my ‘go to’ piece in my eagle-eye for xain intervention into secular affairs. (I’m not absolutist – I know not all xians are out to get me.) Rev. Hagee was the next bridge connecting Hal Lindsey to today’s mega-church audiences. I really did dig his giant posters explaining the march to Armageddon. (I still am puzzled by “crowns, and baskets, and seals…” But like any good story, I paid attention.) This is where I made my own ‘bridge’ = words

    Grover Noquist and Frank Luntz are both geniuses in word-play in the same vein as Orwell. And thus, your topic of “branding” – which of course IS simply ‘choice of words’. The erosion of the ‘left’ began seriously when Luntz, etal, took control of ‘words’ – “the big lie”. The Repub’s were amazingly successful in redefining all ‘words’ on the ‘left’ and then in the ‘center’ and now even on the ‘right’. We are astonishingly is a political space where Jeff Flake and (sorry) John McCain are Congressional heroes. The “center” is now Ayn Rand’s toady, Paul Ryan. This slide has helped define “Evangelical” as now used as a political identity. That is why I always choose “fundamentalist”, as I think it IS the true definition of this mis-named political identity. (altho I do understand some of Evangelical history as a theology as opposed to a political identy, and have understanding as to why it would make some Evan’s mad that their ‘word’ has been stolen.) Fundamentalism – as identity term – puts them in a ‘class’ with other fundies world wide, regardless of who they believe is their prophet. Their bond is “end times” and Armageddon. (I was happy to see that Samantha Bee devoted most of her show this week to this topic – cheering fundies and all – “hooray we’re all going to the ultimate war of the world”.)

    Well, you get my point = WORDS must be reclaimed. Even “liberal” doesn’t mean what many think it does – let’s reclaim that definition as it original = “classic liberalism” a founding principle of our democracy. (And, of course, I would argue in a different forum, it was a lousy economic system.) We cannot keep changing OUR words because a Frank Luntz poll says “the R’s won that word-war”. We have already helped to advance the re-writing of history by giving in on words, such as “Confederacy = heritage”, “Evangelical = god’s truth”. We must learn to be better arguers, and defenders of our language. Choose our words with deliberation. Thanks so much, as usual, for your wonderful and thought provoking writing.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Jim Lee says:

    With the Islamic religion leaving its mark all around the world these days, surely some Christians should begin to wonder how their own faith can be without question. From my own understanding most of New Testament scripture and the Old Testament is “hear say”, and “hear say” is really open to question by serious thinking folk.

    Like

  6. David Philip Miller says:

    It’s a bad time for the idea of religion.

    Like

  7. Matilda says:

    ….’losing faith in faith itself’ puts it excellently and in a nutshell… I spent decades in evangelical churches and have watched so many dwindle and close here in the UK. We are a post-christian society. I spent the last 10yrs before deconverting puzzling how to and trying hard to reverse the trend locally. Discovering Captain Cassidy’s ‘Roll to Disbelieve’ was a lifeline. She says the same, evangelicals are flogging a product no one wants anymore, mainly because of the hypocrisy and bigotry of its adherents. All that evangelicals have left, she says, is an admonition to ‘jesus more and jesus harder’ with no self-awareness that they are flogging a dead horse, that the ship sailed long ago..to mix metaphors.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. George West says:

    Nothing to add except to say, “thank you once again, Valerie” for yet another insightful and spot on article about the horrors produced by religions that poison everything.

    Like

  9. I will keep this short.

    I agree with what I read (not all of it) and the comments I read are evidence of people who read more carefully and completely than I did.

    One thing that many people say is that the leaders of the christian right believe the nonsense they shovel into the empty crania of their inditnorant and critical thinking deprived followers. I think NONE of them actually believe it or they would be driven mad by the knowledge that their lives and their souls are forfeit for their hypocrisy.

    Just my $.02. Captain Cassidy likes you; that’s a good recommendation for me. I prolly won’t be here much. I swear–a LOT–and you seem to not have a lot of commenters who would welcome that.

    Keep up your good work.

    Like

  10. Shoulda been: “indignorant and critical thinking…”.

    Like

  11. philipswenz says:

    Hi Valerie,

    I’m not sure if this is the way to contact you about your article “Evangelicals don’t have a brand problem, they have a product problem,” but it’s the only way I could find on your site to share a bit of a Rumi poem I found. The poem is “The Force of Friendship,” and it appears in the book The Essential Rumi (translated by Coleman Barks.” Rumi’s precient advice to Evangelicals (from several centuries ago) is:

    “Never ignore those intuitions. When you feel some slight repugnance about doing something, listen to it. These premonitions come from God.”

    Like

  12. Frank Barthold says:

    Hi Valerie. I hadn’t heard of the Pearson manual either but searched a bit after reading your article here. My search lead me to a video about Crisis Pregnancy Centers in general. Geez . . . such deception. I confess to being out of the loop on this issue as there are so many deceptions going on it is getting hard to keep track . . . which shoots a big hole in any notion of Christian claims to “the gift of discernment.” All I can say is google “the gift of discernment” and you’ll be lead to many opportunities to enrich yourself and others, LOL.

    Thanks again for “Trusting Doubt” (I read the earlier version). You, Marlene Winell, Calvin Mercer, and a few others saved me from a future of chronic self-loathing and slavery to faith.

    Like

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