Is ‘Evangelical’ Synonymous With ‘Hypocrite?’

Yes and no. Here's why.

Thousands of students, supporters and invited guests sing songs of Christian praise before then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump delivers the convocation in the Vines Center on the campus of Liberty University January 18, 2016 in Lynchburg, Virginia.

By Michael Brown Published on January 11, 2018

Last month, Pastor Timothy Keller wrote an important article in the New Yorker. He asked, “Can Evangelicalism Survive Donald Trump and Roy Moore?” And Keller, himself a respected evangelical leader, pulled no punches in answering his question.

“Evangelical” used to denote people who claimed the high moral ground; now, in popular usage, the word is nearly synonymous with “hypocrite.” When I used the word to describe myself in the nineteen-seventies, it meant I was not a fundamentalist. If I use the name today, however, it means to hearers that I am.

Is Pastor Keller right in his assessment? Is “evangelical” nearly synonymous with “hypocrite?” In particular, because of large-scale evangelical support for President Trump? I would say yes and no.

Why Yes

I say “yes” for several reasons.

In 1987, two prominent televangelists were exposed for moral failures. And since then, we have had more than our share of scandals. This has tainted our witness and made people wary of us. We have no one to blame but ourselves. One bad apple can make 1,000 good apples appear suspect.

Second, we have not always practiced or been consistent in what we preach. We’ve denounced one sin while overlooking another. We’ve condemned the sinner without offering him a helping hand.

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To give one case in point, we have rightly denounced same-sex “marriage” as sinful and aberrant in God’s sight. But we’ve paid far less attention to no-fault divorce in the Church. That is certainly worthy of the “hypocritical” moniker.

Third, many have offered President Trump unqualified and uncritical approval. Many seem unable to acknowledge any weaknesses or errors on his part. To the extent we do this, we seem to violate our own ethical standards. How can this not appear hypocritical to a watching world? Especially when that watching world is already suspicious of us?

Why No

On the other hand, I say “no” for several reasons.

First, the good being done by evangelicals far outweighs the bad. In virtually every city of America, evangelicals are on the front lines of caring for the poor, serving the needy, ministering to the hurting, and so much more. This is also the pattern worldwide. Just watch when the next major disaster hits anywhere on the planet. See who leads the way in sacrificial service.

Second, a very large percentage of evangelicals do practice what they preach. They seek to live their lives and raise their families in accordance with biblical values. In fact, this is one of the reasons why we are so hated. It is because we are different. We are willing to go against the grain.

Just look at the highly successful homeschool movement today. This is primarily the fruit of evangelical Christians. Many godly parents made quality (and sacrificial) decisions to pull their kids out of destructive educational settings, teaching them at home. This is called integrity, not hypocrisy.

I rue our many failings as evangelicals. But we will always be branded hypocrites, liars and charlatans by a hateful world.

Third, long before many evangelicals supported Donald Trump, we have been compared to Nazis, the KKK, and Islamic terrorists. We’ve been called bigots and homophobes and more.

Writing in May, 2005, John McCandlish Phillips, formerly a Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times reporter, pointed out how newspapers like The Washington Post and the Times told their readers that evangelicals and traditional Catholics were engaging in a “jihad” against America.

As he articulated almost 13 years ago:

In more than 50 years of direct engagement in and observation of the major news media I have never encountered anything remotely like the fear and loathing lavished on us by opinion mongers in these world-class newspapers in the past 40 days. If I had a $5 bill for every time the word “frightening” and its close lexicographical kin have appeared in the Times and The Post, with an accusatory finger pointed at the Christian right, I could take my stack to the stock market.

Today’s constant bombardment has simply upped the ante of extreme, inflammatory, false accusations. (I have documented this for some time now. See here, for example.) It is no surprise that we are called “hypocrites” by those who despise our values.

Fourth, it is ironic that the same world that calls us hypocrites for voting for Trump would be applauding had we voted for Hillary Clinton (or, before that, Barack Obama). But had we voted for these liberal candidates, we would have been hypocrites. We profess to be pro-life and they are pro-abortion. We profess to be pro-marriage while they support redefining marriage. Those are just two of the major issues that divide us.

As for our vote for President Trump, many of us were loud and clear. We wrestled with our vote because of his immoral past, because of his sometimes offensive behavior, and because we were not sure he was a true conservative. But given the choice between voting for a known, evil entity and voting for someone who gave us a ray of hope, it was easy to choose the latter. And in many ways, he has done more than we expected.

Welcome to the Club

I rue our many failings as evangelicals. We have no excuse for these failings. And I’ve called for self-examination since the 1980s. But I recognize that we will always be branded hypocrites, liars and charlatans by a hateful world.

And this reminds me of an accusation brought against the early Christians. It was recounted by Tertullian (160-225):

We are charged with being irreligious people and, what is more, irreligious in respect to the emperors since we refuse to pay religious homage to their spiritual majesties and refuse to swear by them … Christians are considered to be enemies of the State, enemies of the public well-being.

Yes, it’s always those dangerous, untrustworthy Christians. This will always be the accusation against us as long as we march to the beat of a different drummer. Welcome to the club.

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  • Andy6M

    I like this article.

  • m-nj

    Well, Keller also disparages the term “fundamentalist”, which is sad.

    • Paul

      Yea, I’m curious what his disdain is for fundamentalist. There’s a whole subtext here about what words mean to him and we’re missing that part of the story.

      • Ken Abbott

        It comes out of the fundamentalist-modernist debate that took place in this country about a century ago. Fundamentalism came to be identified with a retreat from the culture and a form of anti-intellectualism. The way the Scopes Trial was pitched to the rest of the country by elitist east-coast journalists (like Mencken of the Baltimore Sun), to be a Bible-believing Christian was to be an uneducated hayseed. Doctrinally conservative Protestants started looking for a way to distinguish themselves from this stereotype; the modern evangelical movement was born in the 1950s and “caught fire” in the 60s and 70s with the born-again phenomenon and the Jesus People. To this day, fundamentalism tends to get tarred with being backwoods, science-denying, authoritarian, and typified by cult of personality.

      • Jeff Reynolds

        Paul and m-nj, Ken’s on target. I consider it a compliment to be considered a Fundamentalist, but I also see why some would have a negative view. Some think Fundamentalism includes being King James Only and not listening to contemporary music. Also, Fundamentalists not only separate from false teachings but from those that fellowship with those they consider false teachers. For example, a Fundamentalist may not be active with a pro-life group because there are Mormons and Catholics involved, and would further not support a true Christian active in that pro-life group.

      • One of the most enlightening books about all this is the great George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American culture. Should be required reading for every conservative Christian in America.

  • Hmmm…

    If you heed the transient world and world influenced media and followers, you will be continually off balance. They do not define our foundation and purpose. I am disappointed with Timothy Keller and hope he becomes more established in God’s Word basics. Those are the fundamentals with which we need to be concerned. Some people will always ascribe near adulation to anyone not despising whom they despise. Because God has called some to be in public office for this time, to fulfill many of his purposes does not mean they are perfect or even rightly aligned with him in the main, certainly not on all points. He hasalways used flawed vessels, mainly because that’s the only kind he has.

  • Bryan

    I think some are missing the implication that words don’t mean what they literally mean when they are being used as an identifier. They mean, just like they did in the 1970’s, what everybody thinks they mean. In other words, in the 70’s people associated bad things with the word “fundamentalism”, therefore other people came up with a new word to identify with, i.e. “evangelical”. Literally both are good words and in many ways could be used interchangeably as identifiers. However, the connotations ascribed to those words in the public’s hearing left one as relatively good and one as relatively bad. That was the 1970’s. Now the word “evangelical” has bad connotations in the public and some other word is going to replace it.
    If one were to discuss matters with Pastor Keller directly over coffee, I’m sure they would not find more that a few real differences on things like doctrine, biblical fundamentals, catechism, etc., and many of those would be some of the classic differences between denominations as a whole. I wouldn’t rush to judge the Pastor because the word “evangelical” is being associated with the word “hypocrite” just as the word “fundamentalist” was 40 years ago.

    • Jeff Reynolds

      Bryan, just a comment. “Evangelical” is not a word from the ’70’s. The National Association of Evangelicals started in ’42. And centuries before that, “Evangelical” was a term used to describe Martin Luther and the other Reformers. I read a book that mentioned Lutherans use the term to describe themselves, but don’t consider themselves part of the evangelical movement we have today.

      • Ken Abbott

        Yes, exactly. After all, “evangelical” is just another word for “gospeller,” one who affirms the good news of Jesus Christ as set forth in the Bible.

      • Bryan

        I probably didn’t make it as clear as I could have. I didn’t mean to imply that evangelical was a new word in the 70’s. Just that people started to distance themselves from the identifier “Fundamentalist” and started identifying with “Evangelical”. Evangelize has it’s roots in ancient Greek if I’m not mistaken. So it’s certainly not a new word, just new meaning ascribed to it. That was my point.

        • Ken Abbott

          “Euangelion,” or “good message/news.”

    • Chip Crawford

      i’m sure you’re trying to be an agent of peace, but that last interchange of words was too big a stretch. And, it’s hard to “fix” someone else’s wording …

  • Todd Wilhelm

    I submit hypocritical evangelicalism has much less to do with who a person voted for and much more to do with giving standing ovations to a pastor who admitted to congregants of sexually assaulting a 17 year old girl. Unfortunately this (churches supporting the perp rather than the victim) is not an isolated occurrence.

    • Ken Abbott

      There is a decided lack of conscientiously-applied church discipline and an unwillingness to be humble and Christ-centered. Far too often the church looks just like the world, failing to be a witness and a rebuke.

  • jamie campbell

    I miss the days when the church had a leader and His name was Jesus.. now they expect a politician to be a spiritual leader instead of uphold the constitution and protect the country in the best interest of freedom. What a tangled mess it is. We are still responsible to God individually in walking out a relationship with Jesus, but in todays society the church building and those thereof can be more of a hindrance than a help. Find your fellowship with those who truly love the Lord and leave off the rest.

    • Chip Crawford

      Really? There is even one person actually expecting a politician to be a spiritual leader ?? That would be beyond pathetic and hard to believe anyone would really be there.

      • commonsensebeliever

        Yeah, I voted for a president whose platform most closely reflected the direction I felt the country needed to go. I wasn’t voting for a pastor.

  • Tex Taylor

    Well said. We are all hypocrites to one degree or another. It’s when one won’t admit to their own hypocrisy that I can identify a Pharisee masquerading as Christian.

    But let’s not kid ourselves. When the choice became binary in the 2016 election, any clear thinking American realized Donald Trump, for all of his personal foibles, was clearly the better choice for the Christian Church.

    One simple point. Both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were and are proponents of unfettered access to abortion. That clearly is a line of division for any real Christian.

    • Chip Crawford

      I heard words I thought were gone – the articulation of the losses we’ve suffered in many arenas, the downgrading of our nation by former leaders, and some clear sincere words of caring for the individuality of our nation, the homeland, I felt God was going to use this man who had this strong unction to do something about all the erosion. After that, it’s praying for him and that God’s will be done, to get beyond the current snag as it arose, etc. Never did I think that God using the man indicated he was a spiritual leader or even an example of a good Christian. People are so naïve on that score – Christians who think like that and accusers who claim that’s what we think. Most do not. But I did see Mr. Trump impressed with and touched by the spiritual leaders whom he allowed to pray for and give input to him. I feel God is dealing with him and hope he will respond with more commitment to the Lord. But he will be and is being used to right our ship regardless of those things.

      • Tex Taylor

        Agreed. I’ve lived long enough live under a whole host of Presidents. My first vote for President was for a man named Reagan. It will still the best vote I ever cast.

        Reagan was far from perfect and carried a degree of baggage. But he was, without doubt, the best President of my lifetime and did more to carry the banner of freedom and liberty, those endowed rights by our Creator, than any President of memory within the last century.

        Trump so far, has done much the same. Donald Trump need not be a mature Christian to be a friend to the Christian Church. His predecessor was anything but and I’m afraid it would have been no different under Trump’s opponent.

    • Tirzahbeloved Joyrose

      Yet with a Republican President, control of Congress; there is no mentioned of abortion. Same thing when evangelicals had unfettered access to Ronald Reagan; nothing. Aborted babies are pimped by the evangelicals to get money and political power and tax cuts for the rich. Hypocrites!!!

      • Tex Taylor

        Abortionists and fetal tissue pimps like you invariably are also innumerate. Those tax cuts for the “rich” involve over 90% of the U.S. population.

        Apparently, math, finance and economics aren’t your bag either. Back to the mill for you, Jezebel.

  • Dant e

    I dont know any of the histories of these names, in my mind to evangelise is to spread the word of God as the Lord Jesus commanded and to be a fundamentalist follower of God is someone who really does zealously follow Him, someone on fire for Him. If the Holy Spirit is truly and strongly guiding that person then very few issues will arise from his/her part. there isnt much having a humble and charitable heart cant solve.

    • Paul

      Your post perfectly highlights the issue of word definitions. This stuff isn’t universally understood.

      • commonsensebeliever

        The liberals are indeed changing the definitions….just read an article saying there are now 29 different names to describe all the gender types! There is really only two for me, man or woman….

  • Patmos

    The cries of hypocrisy generally come from the secular realm, and it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense for someone who doesn’t believe to try to use God’s word as a measuring stick. To prove this point those cries are pretty easily beaten back by none other than God’s word.

  • commonsensebeliever

    Dr. Brown, I am so discouraged with what seems to be a total lack of teaching or discipline applied regarding not only the rate of divorce, often between believers, but totally ignoring God’s word regarding whether you are allowed to remarry! And they remarry and divorce and remarry again, with no thought that they are violating scripture and truly living in an adulterous relationship! Civil Law and God’s Law are two separate standards.

    • Chip Crawford

      Jesus and Paul said different things about divorce … Any idea why that would be?

      • Chip Crawford

        They were each speaking to different groups of people under different covenants. Jesus ministered to those under the covenants first instituted. His sacrifice and work of redemption made a difference in availability from God and the standing of those coming to him. He ushered in another and better covenant, from which Paul spoke.

  • LGM

    Christians will never measure up to God’s Holiness, and it is futile to expect Christians to be perfect. We are the most weak, faulty, hurting, damaged, and need the most help of all. Jesus cares more about our confessions of failure and our need of Him, than any ‘good’ that we may do. Society’s mistake is to look at Christians….haha ha. Look at Jesus, He alone heals.

    • Chip Crawford

      Sir/Madam: I suggest you get saved and believe the Gospel: Good News and the living Word of God it is based on. And, please, the next time you get tempted to speak such a slap in God’s face about his finished work of Calvary, put your hand over your mouth instead. Repent and keep studying and asking God to turn on the light of your understanding and reveal his amazing salvation. Jesus is not a sorry failure sir, and he is our substitute … We become justified by his blood, his sacrifice. Substitution, sir/madam. We got what he deserved and he took what we deserved. Please …. He loves you and will help you out of your consummate ignorance. In the meantime, do not repeat any of that trash to anyone and abandon whatever channel from which it derives.

  • Grn724

    There are Christians that proverbially fall into two classes and within these there will be hypocrites, the devout and the lukewarm. One can argue the devout would be Catholic, no watering down of the Christ message, the consumption of the body and blood of Christ as instructed by Jesus and the life of sacrifice we must all lead as demonstrated by Jesus Himself. Within the devout, the hypocrites are easily seen by their fruits. I venture to suggest that no more than 20% of Catholic’s are devout. We know the 75% percent of Catholics do not attend mass weekly or even regularly, therefore, they cannot be directly involved in what the Church teaches and administers.
    The lukewarm are those who follow the water down version of Christ as first promulgated by Martin Luther. Lukewarm Christians are what I call, cafeteria Christians. They or the denomination they follow pick and chose what parts of the Christ message they wish to follow and conveniently disregard the rest. This is most evident in teaching on sex and marriage.
    Lastly, every human, every Christian will fall short of the chosen idea but I believe God knows our heart and with that, knows how true we are all doing in our best to follow Him. Our relationship with God is the most personal of all of our relationships and so our honesty about our attempts will be measured by God. We measure our honesty by our actions and our words and careful contemplation will leads us to the truth about ourselves, if we dare look.

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