Here's an exercise I'd like you to try. Close your eyes and picture an evangelical Christian. Have you done so? OK, let me guess: You're envisioning a white, middle-aged man who voted for Thom Tillis, is pro-life and says things like "the gay agenda." No? Oh, you must have been thinking about the 30-something woman who worships Hobby Lobby and pulled her child out of social studies class because he was learning about Islam then. Same difference.
On Nov. 5, as our country blazed in red from sea to shining sea, evangelicals were given most of the credit for the Republican victory. According to the Pew Research center, 61 percent of Protestant Christians voted Republican. That number jumps to 78 percent when you focus just on white evangelicals. For progressive Christians like me, those statistics, and the generalizations to which they lead, can be very disheartening.
Which is why I was really glad to hear that Loretta Lynch, President Obama's nominee for U.S. Attorney General, comes from a long line of Baptist preachers. As a matter of fact, her brother, Leonzo Lynch, happens to be the head pastor of Ebenezer Baptist church on Sugar Creek Road in Charlotte.
Loretta Lynch is staunchly committed to civil rights, a passion that stems directly from her church upbringing. When she was a toddler, her father opened his church in Greensboro for anti-segregation organizers to plan their boycotts. And her grandfather, also a pastor, risked his life hiding blacks under his floorboards when they had gotten in trouble with the law. He knew that the accused, whether wrongfully or not, had no other recourse in the Jim Crow South.
As she said in 2012 when she accepted the Emory Buckner Medal for Outstanding Public Service about growing up evangelical, "... one gains a sense that we are all here to work for something greater than ourselves. One is taught that service is the rent we pay for living here on this Earth, and that helping someone else is the best way to feel better about one's self."
When the media focuses most of its Christian coverage on stories of bigoted actions against the LGBT community or Christian outrage over things like institutionalized prayer in schools, it's easy to forget the pivotal role Christians and the church have played in promoting justice and equality. Of course, the church has also gotten it wrong. Plenty of Christians are responsible for atrocious behavior, from supporting slavery 150 years ago to the continued marginalization of gays and lesbians today, but why should they get to be the face of Christianity? Why are theirs the pictures we conjure up when we think about what it means to be an evangelical in this country?
In Ferguson, as the community waits for the jury to make a decision about the indictment of Darren Wilson, the white officer who shot and killed unarmed black teenager Michael Brown over the summer, church leaders are preparing their sanctuaries to welcome protesters. They are gathering food and plan to have their church doors open 24 hours for prayer and reflection. Last month, a group of faith leaders, including evangelical Christians, marched to the Ferguson police department to pray with officers and ask them to repent for the teenager's death and other instances of police brutality against blacks. The clergy ended up being arrested for their act of civil disobedience.
In Florida, Arnold Abbott, a 90-year-old Christian man has been cited three times by police for feeding the homeless and could face a $500 fine and 60 days in prison. He is in violation of Fort Lauderdale's recently passed "public health and safety" ordinance prohibiting charitable groups from passing out meals in public, but Abbott says he will continue to feed the poor "as long as there is breath in my body."
Across the nation, evangelical pastors have been urging President Obama and Congress to act on immigration reform. Earlier this year, the Rev. Jim Wallis spoke on immigration, saying, "Fixing this broken system right now is the moral test for the common good of this Congress."
So, why can't these be the faces of evangelical Christianity? What if, when asked to imagine an evangelical, we saw a pastor helping organize anti-racist actions? What if we imagined a bad-ass old man feeding the homeless? What if we saw a reverend pushing on immigration reform?
It's time to take a more complete look at who evangelicals are in our country and start including those fighting for justice and equality into that definition. Who knows? When the picture of an evangelical changes in people's minds, so might their votes.