September 23, 2019 - 11:11am

The term ‘evangelical’ has been so distorted by American politics that is meaning is now a million miles away from its historical formulation – so laments Thomas Kidd in a bracing new book Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis.

What began in the eighteenth century as a movement for renewal within the ailing Church of England has morphed into a white nationalist God-and-country movement within the United States, with those who self-identify as evangelicals often not having the faintest idea of its history or how far it has strayed from its roots.

Writing about this book in The Atlantic this week, Alan Jacobs claims:

So we now have a peculiar situation in which people who don’t know what the term evangelical historically connotes and who massively distrust one another—God-and-Country moralistic therapeutic deists on the one hand, and a press that simply doesn’t get religion on the other—have combined to take the term away from those of us who know and care about its history.
- Alan Jacobs

The shift, according to Kidd and Jacobs, came with Ronald Reagan. The Republican president – though himself divorced – drew support from those alienated by the increasingly liberal social attitudes adopted by the Democrats. His breezy and optimistic patriotism came to be fused with the idea of America as a Christian nation, thus creating a political base for the GOP among those who had not been especially political before that.

These folks, almost all of whom are white, may not attend church often or at all, but they know this much: They believe in God, and they believe in America, and they love Donald Trump because he speaks blunt Truth to culturally elite Power, and when asked by pollsters whether they are evangelicals, they say yes.
- Alan Jacobs

The word evangelical is originally taken from euangelion, the word used in the Greek New Testament to describe the “good news” of Jesus message. The “good news”, as first expressed by Jesus in a sermon at his local synagogue in Nazareth, is that he is the messiah, the one anointed to bring “good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the prisoners, sight to the blind, to liberate the oppressed”.

This doesn’t sound much like Trump to me.

Giles Fraser is a journalist, broadcaster and Vicar of St Anne’s, Kew.