A Tale of Two Evangelicalisms

Joel Halldorf
Joel Halldorf is associate professor in church history at the Stockholm School of Theology. He is author of a number of books on evangelicalism, modernity, and politics, most recently Pentecostal Politics in a Secular World (Palgrave MacMillan, 2020) which delves deeper into the topic of this essay. He contributes to a number of newspapers and magazines in Sweden, where he lives with his wife and children. He can be found on twitter as @joelsh.

I left Sweden for the United States in the summer of 2000, and arrived in the middle of a captivating election cycle: the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore. I was a young Pentecostal, and my newfound friends mostly belonged to the evangelical camp. We shared theology, and the globalization of evangelicalism had made sure that we sang the same songs and read the same spiritual writers. But politically, we were worlds apart. I had never before met Christians who defended the death penalty or desired a stronger military. And little did I know that the Bible could be read as supporting welfare cuts.

I have been back many times since, and during several elections—but the conversations have not become easier. In fact, the distance now seems so wide that we can barely begin a discussion on political matters. Back in the early 2000s, our divisions concerned financial and foreign policy. Today, white evangelicals are a key voting bloc for Donald Trump, whose populist politics horrify most Swedish evangelicals. The populist equivalent in Swedish politics are the Sweden Democrats, who, like Trump, desire a more homogenous society. But although they give Christianity a prominent place in their vision, they have been rejected by evangelical voters.

This is a riddle I have been trying to solve for decades: How can those whose theology and spirituality are so similar hold such widely different political opinions? There is a sense, especially among theologians, that differences between churches ought to have theological explanations. That is, after all, what should guide churches as well as individual Christians. But in this case it is not enough to explain the differences. Instead, we must look for the answer in the histories that shaped, and continue to shape, evangelicalism in Sweden and the United States.

Democratic Avant-Garde

When Alexis de Tocqueville set sail for the United States, he was not convinced. It was the early 1830s, and he was on his way to a young nation that was experimenting with democracy. Tocqueville, like most intellectuals since Plato, saw it as a high-risk project. His philosophical misgivings were compounded by the fact that his father had barely survived the French Revolution, strengthening his suspicion that egalitarianism would lead to disintegration and chaos, before ending in tyranny.

How can those whose theology and spirituality are so similar hold such widely different political opinions?

But his visit left him impressed. Tocqueville toured the nation for almost a year and concluded that the Americans seemed to have pulled it off. This was due to what he famously labeled “the art of associating”—their untiring practice of small-scale organizing: clubs, congregations, and associations. This fostered democratic virtues and shaped citizens able to achieve democracy on a national level. He was particularly fascinated by the churches that spread all over the nation, founded as it was on the idea of religious freedom. They contributed by preaching and practicing solidarity and patience, virtues necessary to sustain a democracy.

The story of democracy in Sweden begins in a similar way, albeit a century after the inauguration of democracy in America. Here too the art of associating was vital for the development of democracy—and evangelicalism was instrumental in fostering it. But it took time. In the nineteenth century, Sweden was one of Europe’s least democratic countries. Religious freedom was established only in the 1860s, and before that evangelicals were fined, imprisoned, or ostracized for their convictions. When the first Baptist congregation was founded, in 1848, it had to be done in secret. But this congregation was the very first democratic association in the country.

With religious freedom came a rapid growth of evangelical denominations—or free churches as they are called in Sweden—in contrast to the established Lutheran state church. This changed the political culture, for most evangelicals formed democratic associations. As a grassroots movement these free churches fostered civic virtue through the art of association. Many evangelicals also became involved in national politics and worked diligently for democratization, particularly religious freedom and other liberal reforms.

The free churches belonged to the democratic avant-garde of Swedish modernity. They introduced the organizational forms that the other popular movements—the worker’s movement and the temperance movement—would copy: democratic associations with protocols, budgets, and membership rolls. In Sweden it took until 1921 before women were given the right to vote in parliamentary election. By then they had already had this right in evangelical denominations for seventy years.

Progressive Evangelicalism

During the nineteenth century, evangelicals in Sweden and the United States had similar political instincts. As the late historian Donald Dayton and author Marilynne Robinson have both shown, large parts of evangelicalism in this era were politically progressive. They spearheaded the fights against slavery, economic injustices, and discrimination of women.

This is a sadly neglected chapter of American church history. The famous revivalist Charles Finney is mostly remembered for his revivals on the East Coast in the 1830s. But it is a less-known fact that he preached that personal salvation must be tied to social justice. “Revivals are hindered,” he wrote, “when ministers and churches take wrong ground in regard to any question involving human rights.” His revivals inspired the founding of Oberlin College, the first university to allow not only women but also people of all colors to study together.

But the United States was politically very different from Sweden, and seeing this will help us understand the political differences between evangelicalism that would eventually develop in these two countries. For while the United States was founded as a democracy—albeit a flawed one—Sweden was still in the late nineteenth century a monarchy with a parliament open only to the well-off. In order to be elected or even vote in elections, you had to own property or have a certain income. In 1896, a mere 6 percent of the Swedish population had the right to vote—figures in neighboring Norway and Denmark, as well as Great Britain, were almost 20 percent. Furthermore, Sweden had established a reputation as one of the most economically unequal countries in Western Europe.

To change this, a massive political mobilization became necessary—a struggle to replace the old regime of king, state church, and nobility with a democratic and more equal society. Evangelicals were part of this mobilization. They joined hands with liberals and Social Democrats and fought against the conservative establishment to shape a modern nation with democratic rights and economic justice. Evangelicals wanted society to imbue those democratic values and practices that they had come to take for granted in their churches. As the political scientist Lydia Svärd concludes, “For people who had gotten used to voting in their congregation, temperance association, or local union, it was a natural thing to seek the right to vote in state and municipalities.”

Evangelicals’ political instincts and historical circumstances placed them firmly in the liberal camp. They were pro-democracy and pro-solidarity, but against revolution. They wanted to change society through reform, and were highly involved in the process of doing so. In 1908, forty-three evangelicals had seats in the second chamber of the parliament, and the majority of those (twenty-five) belonged to the Liberal party. This meant that 20 percent of parliament and almost 30 percent of the Liberal party were evangelicals. Those are substantial numbers given that evangelicals at the time made up 5 percent of the population.

A few Social Democrats were radical Marxists who rejected religion of any kind, but most were ready to join hands with evangelicals for a common cause. Accordingly, liberals and socialists could work together for democracy and economic justice, united against a common enemy: the conservative establishment.

Swedish Evangelicalism in the Twentieth Century

The struggle for democracy and economic solidarity shaped Swedish evangelicalism into a liberal, left-leaning political movement. This identity was strong and enduring. In the 1956 election, 58 percent of the evangelicals voted for the Liberal party (Folkpartiet), which was more than twice the figure for the party in the general election (24 percent). The second largest party was the Social Democrats, with close to 30 percent of the evangelical vote. The Conservative party gained 10 percent of the evangelical vote, a mere half of the support among the general electorate.

Compared to secular voters, Swedish evangelicals are more engaged in environmental issues, more supportive of migration and humanitarian aid, and more critical of military export.

The politics of Swedish evangelicalism changed somewhat in the 1960s, when Lewi Pethrus, leader of the Pentecostal movement, founded the Christian Democrats. Pethrus was culturally conservative, and wanted to halt secularization, particularly of schools and entertainment. But he was still in favor of progressive economic politics. In their first official political declaration, the party began by affirming the “appreciation and respect” for the welfare state, and declared that it was ready to “wholeheartedly support and develop it further.” They described unions as “indispensable,” and warned against fiscal and corporate centralization. Pethrus, a theologically conservative Pentecostal, emphasized his whole life that “Christianity and social justice are intimately connected.”

Swedish evangelicals were skeptical of socialism, not social justice—even when that justice was mediated through state-sponsored welfare. Polls from the late twentieth century show that Swedish evangelicals continue to be against the death penalty, and for welfare, migration, humanitarian aid, and the environment. Compared to secular voters, Swedish evangelicals are more engaged in environmental issues, more supportive of migration and humanitarian aid, and more critical of military export.

White American evangelicals tend toward the opposite in all those issues. They are, as we shall see, shaped by another and very different story.

The Great Reversal in American Evangelicalism

In the 1960s a young evangelical named Donald Dayton began his studies at one of the movement’s colleges. All around him, the world was changing: the civil rights movement marched against racism and students took to the streets to protest the Vietnam War. But nothing of this reached his college. Here, politics peaked when the students protested the ban against TV on Sundays.

It was, Dayton thought, like living in a bubble.

Like so many in his generation, he felt squeezed between the progressive spirit of the age and an evangelical movement that wanted to preserve status quo. He had to choose between evangelical piety and political involvement, and—again like many—he picked the latter. He moved to New York City, started attending black churches, and began his studies at Columbia University. He was saying farewell to evangelicalism.

But as he was working on a paper at his new university, he discovered that this today rather complacent movement had radical political roots. Evangelicals had fought hard against slavery, protested discrimination of women, and championed economic justice. But somewhere along the way that had changed, and Dayton would spend his life trying to explain what had happened.

Historian George M. Marsden later labeled this change “the Great Reversal”: The rejection of progressive politics, including support for welfare through state politics—and in some cases even skepticism of private or church-sponsored charity. In the early twentieth century, the branches of evangelicalism in Sweden and the United States were moving away from each other politically. They swam in different waters, and were carried away by different currents. In America there were neither landed nobility nor state churches. Democratic rights, including religious freedom, were already in place. Accordingly, there was no need for political mobilization where evangelicals joined hands with liberals and socialists in order to overthrow a conservative establishment. The strong alliances that shaped Swedish evangelicalism—and for that part much of European evangelicalism—never took place in the United States.

Further, the state played a different role in their political imaginations. In the story of Swedish modernity, the democratic welfare state transformed an unjust and elitist society into a more just one. But the founding myth of United States is not a story about freedom through the state, but freedom from the state. There is a strong anti-statist theme in American politics and culture, which has its roots in the flight from the oppressive Old World and the struggle against the British rule. This theme was baptized by Puritans, and later evangelicals, who saw it as part of the divine destiny of the United States: to be a shining beacon of freedom to the world. In this story, the state is associated with the oppressive structures of the Old World and should be kept to a minimum. Freedom is that pristine moment when the pilgrims arrived or the birth of the Republic, when the British yoke was broken. Welfare is seen as an unsound expansion of the state—something that undermines individual thrift and responsibility, and is financed by taxes that rob people of the freedom to do what they please with their money.

From these narratives came two developments in the early 1900s that pushed American evangelicals even further away from progressive politics. The first was the modernist-fundamentalist conflict. During this period, the social gospel movement emerged, uniting liberal theology with an emphasis on social justice. In response, Reformed theologians formulated a series of pamphlets titled The Fundamentals in order to establish the nonnegotiable basics of Christian dogma. Soon, evangelicalism became firmly entrenched in the fundamentalist camp. According to the logic of theological battles and bundling, they had to firmly reject whatever the other embraced, including social justice. Marsden argues that “the factor crucial to understanding the ‘Great Reversal’ is the fundamentalist reaction to the liberal Social Gospel after 1900. . . . By the time of World War I, ‘social Christianity’ was becoming thoroughly identified with liberalism and was viewed with great suspicion by many conservative evangelicals.”

Swedish evangelicals also rejected liberal theology; this movement was never strong enough to pose a real threat to them. Liberal theology was something distant, a sign of the corruption of already failing churches, and evangelicals did not fashion their theological identity in opposition to it. Swedish evangelicals did not have to choose between conservative theology and progressive economic politics.

But in the United States, this either/or binary became even more entrenched after World War II, when American identity was formulated in opposition to the Soviet Union. Now communism and socialism become the great enemies: they were not only anti-Christian ideologies but also pressing existential threats to the nation. While 30 percent of Swedish evangelicals voted for the Social Democrats in the 1950s, in the United States this was the decade of McCarthyism and the Red Scare. Some evangelicals connected the dots of the three themes and claimed that the progressive politics of the social gospel were inspired by communism and stood in opposition to the divinely sanctioned American spirit. State welfare was anti-Christian as well as un-American.

In Trumpism, the state plays a bigger role as protector of what is described as a “traditional” American way of life against the threatening forces of secularization, pluralism, and migration.

These are two very different stories, and they go far to explain the differences between me and my American friends in 2000. I was the product of an evangelical movement tied to political liberalism, with an emphasis on social justice. In US history, a number of intersecting themes had moved them in a different direction: the anti-statist impulse shaping American culture and a theological battle that led to paranoia over social gospel and the Cold War fear of socialism. For them the state was no natural ally, but rather an obstacle to overcome in order to become free. In my history, the modern state was what guaranteed freedom from unequal and undemocratic structures.

In the end, the strongest argument I met was not political but moral. Evangelicals then dreamt of placing a born-again Christian in the White House. This reflected the tactics of the Religious Right, who wanted to elect Christian men to political positions. But two decades later, this has changed. Donald Trump is no model of piety, and his politic are of a different kind. In Trumpism, the state plays a bigger role as protector of what is described as a “traditional” American way of life against the threatening forces of secularization, pluralism, and migration. This is a new chapter in the story of evangelical politics.

The Turn to Populism

The alliance between white evangelicals and the GOP was formalized in the 1970s through organizations like the Moral Majority. During this period a number of Supreme Court decisions perceived as secularizing—particularly the legalization of abortion—drove evangelicals into politics. They were motivated by a desire for a stronger Christian ethics in society and a fear that state regulations would interfere with their own institutions.

From Ronald Reagan onward, evangelicals had the sense that the Republican Party listened to their case and supported their cause. They were granted access to presidents and prominent politicians. In 1980, 65 percent of white evangelicals supported Reagan, and by the time of George W. Bush the figures approached 80 percent. But despite the fact that the Republicans controlled all three houses from 2003 to 2007, very little changed in terms of the core issues that motivated evangelicals. Disillusionment started to spread. Pastor and subsequent Trump supporter Robert Jeffress recalls,

I remember very well back in 2004, being on a conference call with religious leaders and how disappointed they were with George W. Bush, and how they felt like he had just really misled us. . . . I don’t want to disparage him at all, but what came out of that eight years? A $7 trillion war in the Middle East.

The Republicans seemed either unable or unwilling to make good on their promises. Change continued to accelerate in a way that made many evangelicals feel increasingly left behind. In 1997, a quarter of the population identified as white evangelicals, but two decades later that figure is down to 17 percent. Religious pluralism is growing, and so is tolerance of divorce and LGBTQ rights. Some evangelicals worry that these developments will lead to regulations of their own schools, hospitals, and other institutions. They sense the contempt from the liberal cultural establishment, which views them as bitter people who “cling to guns or religion,” as Obama infamously put it.

The liberals are after them, and Republicans seem unable to protect them. This feeling is the context for evangelical enthusiasm for Trump. After forty years of constant defeats, evangelicals were ready to try something else. A Christian character might be good for much but not, it seems, for winning battles in the cultural war. Sure, Trump is a brutal, crude strongman—but he is their brutal, crude strongman. The now disgraced Jerry Falwell Jr. articulated the new strategy in a tweet:

Conservatives & Christians need to stop electing “nice guys.” They might make great Christian leaders but the US needs street fighters like @realDonaldTrump at every level of government b/c the liberal fascists Dems are playing for keeps & many Repub leaders are a bunch of wimps!

Evangelicals worry about cultural, religious, and demographic changes. Historian John Fea argues that this worry reflects a fear of losing their own privileged position in the nation. His colleague Thomas Kidd similarly claims that evangelical politics is rooted in a desire to return the nation “to a nostalgic past of Christian cultural establishment while exhorting individuals to reject mere cultural Christianity and to be born again.” Trump seemed strong enough not only to protect evangelicals from the state interventions orchestrated by liberals but also to return the nation to a more homogenous Christian past.

A Christian character might be good for much but not, it seems, for winning battles in the cultural war.

Sweden: The Rejection of Populism

In Sweden, the political rise of populism is manifested by the Sweden Democrats, a nationalistic party that made it into parliament in 2010 with 6 percent of the vote. In 2014 that figured doubled to 13, and in 2018 they became the third largest party, with support from 18 percent of Swedish voters. The party wants to limit immigration and protect what they describe as a traditional homogenous Swedish culture. Christianity is important in their nationalistic project, and they see the church as a central part of the national identity. This desire to return to a Christian, more homogenous past clearly mirrors Trump’s political vision.

Given the fact that Sweden is one of the world’s most secular countries, one would expect that a party which highlights the role of the church would attract many evangelicals. But instead, evangelical voters are among the most reluctant to support the Sweden Democrats. For two decades, the number of evangelicals doing so has been between one-third and one-half of the figures of the regular voter. The reason is that Swedish evangelicals are repelled by the populist rejection of migration and pluralism. Political scientist Magnus Hagevi concludes that “individuals who are regular free church goers tend to have comparatively positive opinions towards refugees and towards Sweden as a multicultural society.”

Political scientist Magnus Hagevi concludes that “individuals who are regular free church goers tend to have comparatively positive opinions towards refugees and towards Sweden as a multicultural society.

Behind this openness are of course theological convictions, but again, the wider political context seems to be an important factor. In this case the fact that Swedish evangelicals have been a minority since the beginning is significant. The fight for religious freedom was, as we saw, central to the original political mobilization of the nineteenth century. During the 1900s Sweden became a secular country with a Lutheran state church, which further underscored the minority status of the free churches. As a minority, they depend on a state that accepts religious pluralism. The embrace of this principle has lead evangelicals to argue for tolerance of other religious traditions—including Muslims. Polls show that evangelicals are more open to a multicultural society than the average Swede, and that they oppose bans of religious building such as mosques.

It seems like churches that are at arm’s length from power and the cultural mainstream are in a better position to develop the Christian virtue of hospitality. As a majority religion intertwined with the state, Christianity often becomes more rigid, less hospitable, and at times hostile—even to other Christian minorities. Pluralism is seen as a threat, since it might mean that Christianity will lose its privileged position. In contrast to this, a minority can never expect to set the rules for any encounter. Instead they must find ways to negotiate and live with difference. Accordingly, they become well equipped to live as a creative minority in a pluralistic society.

It seems like churches that are at arm’s length from power and the cultural mainstream are in a better position to develop the Christian virtue of hospitality.

This explains why Swedish evangelicals are less threatened by immigration, pluralism, and the growth of Islam than are their US evangelical counterparts, to say nothing of the Swedish secular majority. To a minority, pluralism is not the big threat. In this case, diversity is a step up from the traditional homogenous secular-Lutheran society. It levels the playing field, and makes clear that there is no neutral ground, only competing perspectives. The development of what Jürgen Habermas called the post-secular society is a welcome development to a minority. Swedish evangelicals are aware that any attempt to homogenize the culture would marginalize them.

Evangelical Political Theology

This historical sketch does not cover every factor shaping the politics of either Swedish or American evangelicalism. The latter has also been formed by multiple wars and the heightened patriotism in their wake, strong businessmen, and deeply unresolved issues pertaining to race. White evangelicals did to a large extent sit out the civil rights movement, and since the Civil War they have rarely been in the frontline for the struggle against racial injustice. This is something the movement needs to reckon with. The fact that Donald Trump’s xenophobic remarks have not deterred evangelical voters, but according to some scholars is part of their attraction to him, makes the problem even more acute.

To a minority, pluralism is not the big threat.

Interestingly, the political attitudes of Swedish evangelicals are similar to African American evangelicals. They too tend to oppose the death penalty, support humanitarian aid, and embrace social justice. Swedish and African American evangelicals share the experience of being minorities in their respective nations: the first in the shadow of a secular-Lutheran mainstream, the other of the WASP culture. This is another indication that sociology and historical circumstances strongly shape evangelical political theology.

The conclusion of this cannot be, however, that minority status leads to a “good” politics, while being in the majority—or expecting to be—is always problematic. Instead, it is better to note that both positions come with temptations as well as possibilities for faithful witness. The political theology of Swedish evangelicalism has many deficits. It has tended toward individualistic pietism, and has not reflected enough on what it means to build institutions shaped by a Christian political imagination. In its embrace of the welfare state, it has too readily accepted being sidelined on matters concerning caritas. It has neglected the public debate and not built institutions that safeguard the formation of intellectual representatives of the movement. In all these matters, American evangelicalism has been stronger—and sometimes also more faithful.

Interestingly, the political attitudes of Swedish evangelicals are similar to African American evangelicals.

But one inevitable conclusion from the stories told above is that there is no straight line from evangelical theology and spirituality to one particular political identity. This is an important insight given the growing homogenization of white evangelical political identity. The intertwining with the Republican Party has gone so far that the term “evangelical,” as Kidd notes, has become “fundamentally political in popular parlance.” Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary, concludes that “evangelical” has “morphed from being commonly used to describe a set of theological and spiritual commitments into a passionately defended, theo-political brand.” Evangelical names a white, self-identifying Christian who votes for the Republicans but does not necessarily go to church.

There is no straight line from evangelical theology and spirituality to one particular political identity.

This means that theology has succumbed to ideology, and the church to a political party. In the age-old combat between state and church, white evangelicalism has de facto lost its independence. In tying themselves to Trump, they not only reduce their faith to ideology but also make their future dependent on a political project. There is an ominous parallel here to the secularization of Europe, which to a large extent was a political reaction against churches that were perceived to be politically corrupt. For the state churches were allied with the old political order, and defended the monarchy against the growing demands of democratic reform. The religious establishment picked the wrong side, with the result that being pro-democracy meant being anti-church. In countries such as England and Sweden the evangelical movements, who were Christian as well as pro-democracy, made it possible to combine Christian faith with progressive politics. But when this was lacking, as in France, it resulted in rampant secularization.

In the age-old combat between state and church, white evangelicalism has de facto lost its independence. In tying themselves to Trump, they not only reduce their faith to ideology but also make their future dependent on a political project.

The alliance between the established state churches and the monarchy gave these churches access to the halls of power, but when the political winds shifted they found themselves supporting a regime that lacked legitimacy. There are similarities here with what seems to be going on in the United States. Already there are signs that people—especially young people—who reject Republican politics also feel inclined to leave the church. American secularization might arrive a century later but for the same reason as in Europe: as a reaction against the politicization of the church.

Today, America is characterized by a political polarization that seeps into all aspects of life: culture, the universities, workplaces, and even family dinners. In this moment, the church needs to look at what has been its main political mission throughout history—namely, to keep the peace and, crucially, to embody peace. As historian John Bossy has noted, the liturgy and practices of the church in medieval Europe were designed to foster peace and friendship in a world where struggle, conflict, and war always seemed close.

American secularization might arrive a century later but for the same reason as in Europe: as a reaction against the politicization of the church.

This does not mean abandoning politics. Rather, one expression of such a politics would be to create spaces where people of different convictions are able to gather and explore a unity that is not based on political agreement. But this demands that Christians, instead of using politics as a theological shibboleth, listen—though of course not uncritically—to what has shaped individual convictions. For behind each conviction lies a story, and knowing it often leads not to consent but to some kind of understanding. But reductionism is always a temptation: to reduce individuals to their political convictions, and the church to a branch of a certain party. Withstanding it demands a richer anthropology, a deeper understanding of the church as the body of Christ and a realization that the political mission of the church is to work for unity. Not to keep quiet, but to keep the peace.