Thinking 'evangelical,' again: As always these arguments pit theology against politics

Like many bitter dodgeball contests linked to religion these days, the fight began on Twitter.

On one side was a historian who has written several books on the roots of evangelicalism — defining the term (a) in doctrinal terms and (b) in a global context. When you put those two things together, you end up with lots of people, in lots of places, throughout Protestant history, who are “evangelicals.” It helps that the word is used this way around the world in many different church settings.

On the other side were other historians, as well as woke, post-evangelical voices. The key here? You guessed it: that famous 81 percent number, as in the percentage of white, self-identified “evangelicals” who — gladly or reluctantly — voted for GOP candidate Donald Trump (or against Democrat Hillary Clinton). Thus, “evangelicals” are white, conservative Republicans with racist roots (and lots of homophobia).

In other words, “evangelical” has evolved into semi-curse word that cannot be separated from contemporary American culture and Trumpian-era politics. We know this is true, because this is the way the term is used in most elite media coverage of politics.

The argument focused on an article at The Gospel Coalition website by Thomas Kidd of Baylor University with this title: “Phillis Wheatley: An Evangelical and the First Published African American Female Poet.”

The problem is that Wheatley is a black, heroic figure. Thus, it is wrong to identify her as an “evangelical,” even in an article that is striving to get modern evangelicals to pay more attention to the lives and convictions of evangelicals in other cultures and in other times. The piece ended by noting: “Evangelicals, of all people, need to remember her today.”

This is an argument that really matters, if you care about church history and believe that, when talking about evangelicalism as a global movement, the “saints” are relevant and may have the right to vote.

This leads me to a Religion News Service commentary by another historian, Kristin Kobes Du Mez of Calvin College. The headline: “There are no real evangelicals. Only imagined ones.” The RNS tagline informs readers that this piece was “adapted from a presentation she gave at a joint session of the American Historical Association and the Conference on Faith and History.”

No matter where one falls in these debates, this is a think piece worth reading. For some journalists, there are nuggets of historical information in this essay that they need to see. Here’s a crucial section, on the political side of things::

Even before Trump secured the nomination, white evangelicals contested purported levels of evangelical support. The president of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, Russell Moore, insisted the word “evangelical” had become “almost meaningless.”

According to Moore, a big part of the problem was the media, who rely on self-identification: “Many of those who tell pollsters they are ‘evangelical’ may well be drunk right now, and haven’t been into a church since someone invited them to Vacation Bible School sometime back when Seinfeld was in first-run episodes.” When the dust settled after the election, Moore said, the time would come “to make ‘evangelical’ great again.”

During the Republican National Convention, Kidd himself echoed these sentiments in The Washington Post. He expressed frustration with “time-strapped pollsters” who “just let people tell them that they are evangelicals, without probing what that means.”

Somehow, an entire generation of Americans had gotten “the wrong idea about evangelicalism” — a “pop culture” definition had usurped a proper historical and theological one, resulting in a large number of “supposed evangelicals” who had no clue about “the formal definition of ‘evangelical.’”

So here is one of those links to save: Kidd and many others point to the work of a British historian, David William Bebbington, who has synthesized the beliefs at the heart of diverse world of evangelicalism into what is commonly called the “Bebbington quadrilateral” — biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism and activism.

Those seeking more background on that can head here, an essay entitled “What is an Evangelical?” on the website of, logically enough, the National Association of Evangelicals. Here’s the crucial overture:

Evangelicals are a vibrant and diverse group, including believers found in many churches, denominations and nations. Our community brings together Reformed, Holiness, Anabaptist, Pentecostal, Charismatic and other traditions. As noted in the statement “Evangelicals — Shared Faith in Broad Diversity,” our core theological convictions provide unity in the midst of our diversity. The NAE Statement of Faith offers a standard for these evangelical convictions.

Historian David Bebbington also provides a helpful summary of evangelical distinctives, identifying four primary characteristics of evangelicalism:

— Conversionism: the belief that lives need to be transformed through a “born-again” experience and a life long process of following Jesus
— Activism: the expression and demonstration of the gospel in missionary and social reform efforts
— Biblicism: a high regard for and obedience to the Bible as the ultimate authority
— Crucicentrism: a stress on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross as making possible the redemption of humanity

These distinctives and theological convictions define us — not political, social or cultural trends. 

Ah, note the post-evangelicals, that’s a DOCTRINAL definition.

Doctrine, you see, is the problem. Why? Let’s end with this crucial piece of the Du Mez commentary:

During the 2016 election, Ed Stetzer of LifeWay Research and Leith Anderson of the National Association of Evangelicals teamed up to conduct a poll with the intention of disrupting two faulty notions: “That ‘evangelical’ means ‘white’ and that evangelicals are primarily defined by their politics.”

By defining evangelicalism by belief (and basing their model on Bebbington), they ended up with a much more diverse “evangelicalism.” Twenty-nine percent of whites end up in this category, along with 44 percent of African-Americans and 30 percent of Hispanics. (A poll by PRRI puts the percentage of evangelical Protestants who are white at only 64 percent).

It’s not hard to see how this might change our understanding of evangelicals today.

If the movement is far less white than generally assumed, it clearly cannot be primarily motivated by racism.

Lots to think about here. Read it all.

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