Evangelicals in America: Embattled yet successful in the secular world

American Evangelicals are a deeply religious group in society. They are the least likely to question or doubt their faith, have the highest levels of church attendance and participate more frequently in church activities than other spiritual tradition. This devoutness extends beyond the church, as they also listen to Christian radio and watch Christian television more often than any other group. Evangelical’s intense spiritual connection with God is a uniting force that can pervade all aspects of life.

With their religious beliefs as a backbone, Evangelicals form a unique subculture and moral agenda, which are distinct from mainstream American culture. They engage with broader society by conversion efforts and spreading their beliefs. Christian Smith (1998) argues that although Evangelicalism has the highest rates of member retention and recruitment compared to other forms of Christianity, they struggle to make a broader social impact on powerful institutions in American society. He suggests that Evangelicals rely on conversion on a case-by-case basis but members typically fail to target  and succeed within large-scale secular social structures. Contrary to Smith’s argument, the recent Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell decision by the Supreme Court proves that Evangelicals can make their mark on our judicial system.

Hobby Lobby is a home decor and craft store with devout Evangelical Christian ownership. In opposition to contraceptives under employer health care, Hobby Lobby fought in the Supreme Court case Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell, and won. The Supreme Court concluded on June 30, 2014 with a 5-4 vote that for-profit corporations could be exempt from a law if the corporation religiously objected to the law. The corporation is now exempt from providing required birth control coverage, which was previously mandated under the Affordable Care Act of 2010. Using their own distinct moral code, Evangelicals strengthen and reinforce a group identity, which in turn propels their engagement in society. Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell illuminates how embattled Evangelicals engage with and impact the secular world by directly influencing our legal system.

Hobby Lobby also actively promotes Christianity in ways similar to other Evangelical groups.  The Hobby Lobby website states, “We are committed to: [h]onoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles” and, “[w]e believe that it is by God’s grace and provision that Hobby Lobby has endured. He has been faithful in the past, and we trust Him for our future.”  Hobby Lobby annually posts, in acceptance with their religious commitment, Christmas and Easter advertisements with messages aimed at converting others. For example, one ad ran: “If you would like to know Jesus as Savior and Lord, call the Need Him Ministry at 1-888-Need-Him (1-888-633-3446)” (Lake, 66). These bold statements are forthright in their Christian message, and this explicit religious ideology is central to many Evangelical’s sense of religious identity.

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Evangelicals tend to see themselves as an embattled group within society. Smith argues that Evangelicalism “flourishes on difference, engagement, tension, conflict, and threat”, which further reaffirms group identity (Smith,121). In Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell, the tension and conflict arise from  requiring employees to pay for birth control, which Evangelicals consider to be killing a life. Smith continues, “the implicit ‘us’ and ‘them’ is omnipresent in Evangelical thought and speech” (Smith, 124). The concept of “us” vs. “them”, inherently tied to Evangelicalism, prompted the owners of Hobby Lobby to take the case to the Supreme Court.  These clear distinctions regarding birth control create a sense of embattlement and strengthen internal Evangelical ties. The KCTV5 News Channel in Kansas City reported in January 2013 that “scores” of Evangelicals were prepared to support the Hobby Lobby in the case, either buy shopping in the stores or buying products online. These supporters are united by their belief in an ultimate truth and their own moral superiority. One Evangelical articulates his sense of moral superiority in stating, “in a Christian community you have more sharing, compassion, competition for others. A lot of the problems in the world stem from competition, putting down other people, self, concern, greed. And for a Christian, all that becomes less of a priority” (Smith, 130).

Hobby Lobby follows a different moral code based on religious values, but also challenges society to consider a religious perspective. Contrary to Smith’s argument that the Evangelical subcultural identity “limits their capacity to formulate appropriate and useful responses and solutions to social, economic, political and cultural problems” (Smith, 188), this case demonstrates the success of Evangelicals in a public sphere. By challenging the government, Evangelicals are not only just succeeding on a micro-level scale in converting others, they are achieving macro-level changes. Hobby Lobby vs. Burwell contradicts Smith’s argument, by showing how Evangelical mobilization can succeed in secular courts in addition to their case by case conversion strategy.

Christian Smith, Evangelicals: Embattled and Thriving, 1998

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One thought on “Evangelicals in America: Embattled yet successful in the secular world

  1. I enjoyed your introduction about Evangelicals beliefs being embedded in American culture. I am interested in learning about other cases that challenge the legal system in this way. I found it fascinating how the arguments in this case are supported/driven by the religious beliefs and moral codes of an organization that is part of a secular world.

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