Thomas Kidd

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

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.”

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Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

Covering the life and times of Rachel Held Evans: Focus on doctrines, not political choices

I just did a Google Images search for the words “American Evangelicals” and it yielded — on the first screen — as many images of Vladimir Putin as of the Rev. Billy Graham. If you do the same thing on Yahoo! your images search will include several pictures of George Soros.

I don’t need to mention the number of images of Donald Trump, a lifelong member of the oldline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). Do I?

The obvious question — one asked early and often at GetReligion — is this: “What does the word ‘evangelical’ mean?” But that really isn’t the question that needs to be asked, in this context. The more relevant question is this: “What does ‘evangelical’ mean to journalists in the newsrooms that really matter?”

I raise this question because of a remarkable passage in the New York Times feature about the tragic, early death of Rachel Held Evans, a highly influential online scribe whose journey from the conservative side of evangelicalism to liberal Protestantism has helped shape the emerging evangelical left. The headline: “Rachel Held Evans, Voice of the Wandering Evangelical, Dies at 37.”

Before we look at that news story (not a commentary piece) let’s pause to ask if the word “evangelical” has content, in terms of Christian history (as opposed to modern politics).

For background see this GetReligion post: “Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books.” That points readers toward the work of historian Thomas S. Kidd of Baylor University, author of the upcoming book, “Who Is an Evangelical?: The History of a Movement in Crisis.” Here is a crucial passage from Kidd, in a Vox explainer piece:

The most common definition of evangelicalism, one crafted by British historian David Bebbington, boils down to four key points. First is conversion, or the need to be born again. The second is Biblicism, or the need to base one’s faith fundamentally on the Bible. The third is the theological priority of the cross, where Jesus died and won forgiveness for sinners. The final attribute of evangelicals is activism, or acting on the mandates of one’s faith, through supporting your church, sharing the gospel, and engaging in charitable endeavors.

In today’s media, “evangelical” has shifted from the historic definition to become more of a rough political and ethnic signifier.

The news media image of modern evangelicalism, he added, “fails to recognize most of what was happening in the weekly routines of actual evangelical Christians and their churches. As Bebbington’s definition suggests, most of a typical evangelical’s life has nothing to do with politics.”

Now, from my perspective, the most important thing that needs to be said about the work of Rachel Held Evans is that she openly challenged the DOCTRINAL roots of evangelical Christianity, as opposed to focusing merely on politics.

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Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Whoa! You mean Southern Baptist 'messengers' are not of one mind on Trump-era life?

Well now. It appears we have a 2018 Southern Baptist Convention angle that will draw news coverage, maybe even from TV networks, since many newsroom managers weren't interested in America's largest Protestant flock wrestling with domestic violence and sexual abuse.

In other words, the Donald Trump angle has arrived -- with Vice President Mike Pence's appearance at the gathering in Dallas. And here is the shocker! It appears that not all Southern Baptists are united when it comes to baptizing their faith in partisan politics. You mean there are divisions among evangelicals in the age of Trump? 

There must be, because I read it in The Washington Post. But hold that thought, because I have a bit of picky religion-beat business to handle first.

If you've covered SBC life for a couple of decades, you know that SBC leaders really need to post a sign over the press facilities at this event that screams: "HEY! The people at this convention are MESSENGERS, not DELEGATES! Please get that right."

Why is this particular burr under the journalism saddle bother Southern Baptists so much? 

The bottom line: The Southern Baptist Convention is a convention, not a denomination. It exists when it's in session, with "messengers" from its rather freewheeling local congregations. In other words, this "convention" is not a formal "denomination" structured like those dang (Baptist speak there) Episcopalians, Presbyterians, United Methodists and what not.

There's even a FAQ book to help reporters handle these kinds of questions, for sale right here. Item No. 1? 

Who are the messengers? They are the folks who actually compose the convention when it meets. Why “messengers” and not “delegates”? Read the book. 

A decade or so ago, Baptist Press published an "Understanding the SBC" piece that noted:

Southern Baptist churches meet annually in convention. They do so by electing “messengers” who attend the Convention, and participate in the business of the Convention. In Southern Baptist parlance, representatives from churches are “messengers,” not “delegates.” Theoretically, they bring no authority from the churches over the Convention, and they take no authority from the Convention back to the churches. ...

Each Southern Baptist church can send as many as ten messengers to this annual convention meeting. The cap on the number of voting messengers is intended to ensure equality of small and large congregations alike.

Now, back to what really matters these days -- Trump-era political shouting. The headline on the relevant Washington Post piece proclaims: "Why Southern Baptists giving Mike Pence a platform is so controversial."

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Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Yes, 'evangelical' is a religious term (#REALLY). You can look that up in history books

Over the years, your GetReligionistas have asked variations on the following question many times: What does the word "evangelical" mean?

Faithful readers will recall that, in 1987, I had a chance to ask the Rev. Billy Graham that question and, basically, he said that he no longer felt confident that he knew the answer. He then proceeded to frame "evangelical" in terms of ancient Christian doctrines, saying that he defined an "evangelical" as someone who believes all the doctrines in the ancient Nicene or the Apostles creeds. Graham stressed the centrality of belief in the resurrection and that salvation is through Jesus, alone.

However, if you follow the news, you know that most pollsters, politicos and journalists no longer believe that "evangelical" is primarily a religious word. During this week's "Crossroads" podcast (click here to tune that in), host Todd Wilken and I discussed this puzzle as we tried to make sense out of a recent "Newsmax's 100 Most Influential Evangelicals in America" list.

Take a second and scan that list, if you will. Note that, after the predictable Billy Graham nod at No. 1, the next nine are Graham’s son Franklin, Joel Osteen, Mike Huckabee, Pat Robertson, Rick Warren, Jerry Falwell Jr., Joyce Meyer, Vice President Mike Pence and the married Hollywood duo of Mark Burnett and Roma Downey.

In my new "On Religion" column on this topic, historian Thomas Kidd made the following observation about the Newsmax list:

Disputes about the meaning of “evangelical” are so sharp that “several people on this list would not even agree that some other people on the list are ‘Christians,’ let alone ‘evangelicals’ as defined by any set of core doctrines,” said historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, whose research includes work on American religious movements, including the roots of evangelicalism.
Making this Top 100 list, he added, seems to be linked to “some kind of prominent position in media or politics or both,” as opposed to “leading successful churches or Christian organizations. ... I would imagine all these people believe that Jesus is the Son of God and they may even share some ideas about the authority of scripture -- but that’s about it.”

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Wait! Donald Trump isn't the anointed leader of the Religious Right after all?

Wait! Donald Trump isn't the anointed leader of the Religious Right after all?

OK, is everyone ready for tonight's next big contest linked to good and evil and the religion beat?

No, I am not talking about game two in the World Series, although as a new semi-New Yorker (living in the city two months out of the year, including some prime baseball weeks) I will be cheering for a comeback by the team that I totally prefer to the Yankees. And when it comes to baseball and God, as opposed to the baseball gods, you still need to check out Bobby's post on that missionary named Ben Zobrist.

No, I am talking about the latest gathering of GOP candidates for the White House, which is always good for a religion ghost or two or maybe a dozen.

Right now, the mainstream media has its magnifying glasses out to dissect the theological and cultural views of the still mysterious Dr. Ben Carson, which was the subject of my GetReligion post this morning ("A complicated trinity in the news: Dr. Ben Carson, Donald Trump and Ellen G. White").

This is a very interesting development, in part because -- when it comes to press coverage of moral conservatives -- it represents such a snap-the-neck turnaround from the gospel according to the pundits that was in fashion just a few weeks ago.

What has changed? Check out this material at the top of this New York Times pre-debate poll story!

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