Do Evangelicals Share a Common Story?

Do Evangelicals Share a Common Story? November 28, 2017

It could be that the Trump-era crisis of the evangelical mind is a parochial phenomenon, confined to theologians and academics and pundits and a few outlier congregations…

If so, this post might be an exercise in futility. For I’m not sure that Ross Douthat is wrong about evangelicals like me, intellectuals who have spent much of 2016-2017 worrying what the support of self-identified evangelicals for the likes of Donald Trump and Roy Moore means for evangelicalism. It could very well be that it’s my kind,

…not the cultural Christians who voted enthusiastically for Trump, who represent the real evangelical penumbra, which could float away and leave evangelicalism less intellectual, more partisan, more racially segregated … but as a cultural phenomenon, not all that greatly changed.

After all, I’m not convinced that evangelicals’ “relationship to [Trump’s] identitarian nationalism was transactional and didn’t reflect any deep congruence.” I still think that no small number of “evangelicals support Trump not in spite of their religion, but because of it.”

But I also think that scholars like Tommy Kidd are right to insist there is something more to evangelicalism than what Douthat calls “white Christian tribalism and a very American sort of heresy.” I think that “evangelical” has been a meaningful, albeit contested, descriptor of certain Protestant Christians for several centuries now, not just the “rough political and ethnic signifier” Kidd says it has become for the media.

I even dare to think that evangelicalism — for all its historic failings and deep-seated tensions — still has much to offer.

If so, then those of us who see a future for “the kind of winsome and multiethnic evangelicalism” Douthat opposes to the Trumpish variety may want to think about his column in light of another recently featured on the New York Times opinion page: David Brooks’ call for Americans to find a “new national narrative.”

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It’s not a new theme for Brooks, who this past March complained that “[o]ne of the things we’ve lost in this country is our story. It is the narrative that unites us around a common multigenerational project, that gives an overarching sense of meaning and purpose to our history.” For several centuries, he argued, Americans told versions of the story of Exodus about themselves — and might yet again: “It should be possible to revive the Exodus template, to see Americans as a single people trekking through a landscape of broken institutions.”

But in his Thanksgiving column last week, he conceded “that many today do not resonate with this story.” With today’s narratives “predicated on division and disappointment,” Americans are left with “no shared way of interpreting the flow of events. Without a common story, we don’t know what our national purpose is. We have no common set of goals or ideals.”

The “common national story” idea was developed at greater length in a 2011 essay by historian Johann Neem, who argued that globalization made it all the more important to teach national history:

Johann Neem
Johann Neem – Western Washington University

History’s power is its ability to shape our collective identity. By teaching national history, we help create nationals. All identities are premised on shared stories. To be a member of a community is to identify with its past and to seek to sustain that community in the present to better it in the future. That is as true for nations as for religious, ethnic, and professional communities. As the political scientist Rogers Smith argues in Stories of Peoplehood (Cambridge University Press, 2003), national identities are based on the vitality of shared narratives that place us in the stream of history. Stories make us who we are.

Now, we’re probably using “history” and “story” too interchangeably here. (More on this before I end.) But while not identical, they are interconnected. “National histories can foster thick stories,” continued Neem, “those that unite people into a cohesive community, prompting other-directed acts of good citizenship.”

So what’s the “thick story” that Brooks proposes? “The story of America,” he now proposes, “can be interpreted as a series of redemptions, of injury, suffering and healing fresh starts.” Nowhere has the story been told more powerfully, in Brooks’ opinion, than in Abraham Lincoln’s 2nd Inaugural Address, which

combines Christian redemption with the multiculturalist’s love of diversity. In one brilliant stroke, Lincoln deprives Christian politics of the chauvinism and white identitarianism that we see now on the evangelical right. He fills the vacuum of moral vision that we see now on the relativist left. He shows how American particularism always points to universalism — how the specific features of our settler’s history and culture point to vision of communion for all mankind. This is a story we can join and live into.

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So why is this important for evangelicals?

First, as “alien citizens” who are “in the world but not of it,” we need to be aware of the thickness of such national stories — whether Trump’s story of resentment or Brooks’ story of redemption. By their very nature, national narratives are compelling — all the more so when they adopt the language of Christianity.

I even find myself wanting to “join and live into” Brooks’ story. But there is a Christian story of redemption as well — and it’s not identical to the American version, however nobly and persuasively told.

That Christian narrative has been told for hundreds of years in hundreds of tongues by peoples inhabiting hundreds of national, ethnic, and other communities. As much as anything, it makes Christians one.

But it has never been told identically. For better and for worse, there are variations on that larger narrative that help “make us who we are” as Catholics and Protestants, as contemplatives and activists…

As evangelicals?

John Wesley preaching outdoors
John Wesley preaching outdoors – CC BY 4.0 (Wellcome Collection)

What story do evangelicals share? What tale do we evangelicals tell about ourselves that helps us “to identify with [evangelicalism’s] past and to seek to sustain that community in the present to better it in the future”?

Perhaps most often, it’s been a story of awakening.

That’s what struck me as I lectured on 18th century evangelicalism last week in Bethel’s Christianity and Western Culture class. As I told stories of John Wesley, Jonathan Edwards, and George Whitefield (the same individuals emphasized by Kidd in the Vox piece I quoted above), I found myself thinking of other evangelicals from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries — plus their Puritan and Pietist predecessors from the 17th — who also helped wake up Christians from spiritual slumbers that had left them insensitive to material injustice and suffering.

(Inevitably, one of my students fell asleep less than five minutes into my storytelling.)

The awakening story is so powerful, first, because it starts with an honest appraisal of the church itself. There are other Christian stories that make outsiders their villains. For example, in what Douthat calls “white Christian tribalism,” immigrants and Muslims become scapegoats for the loss of this supposedly Christian nation’s supposed greatness. But every evangelical story of awakening has a moment when Christians realize that they themselves — and their institutions — are the problem. “The thing is,” Kidd explained, “evangelical Christianity was founded to combat nominal Christianity, meaning a Christianity that is more a cultural label than a vital, active faith.”

Then second, in this story the hero is not a nation, its ideals, or its leader, but the living God attested to in Scripture: to whose Son we prodigals come back through conversion and by whose Spirit we start to revive the church and renew the world. So it was in the Atlantic world of the 18th century. So it was in 19th century Sweden, where my spiritual ancestors participated in an evangelical revival inspired by Pietism.

So it may be again in 2017, as we wake up to the ways that we have stripped Christianity of its redemptive, prophetic power. Seen in this light, is it so unreasonable to expect the evangelical story to add a post-Trump chapter?

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I’m sure there are better people to tell the story. And maybe better stories. (A problem with the awakening narrative is that it leaves evangelicals ever on the hunt for “nominalism” — and prone to find it in forms of Christianity that simply don’t match their expectations.)

But one way or another, I do think that having a common story is essential, if — and it’s a big if — evangelicalism is to continue in some form. And I think it’s important for historians like me to consider our role in helping tell that story:

First, there’s little point simply telling this story to ourselves. I’m not yet prepared to dismiss millions of American evangelicals as “less intellectual,” not without making every effort to convince them of the importance of our past.

Second — and making #1 trickier — what Johann Neem writes as an American historian advocating for national stories, I would adapt as an evangelical historian advocating for evangelical stories: they “should be both celebratory and critical…. Celebratory stories foster love… while critical stories ensure that love does not become blind devotion.”

(For a critical assessment of how we have and haven’t done this, see this recent Twitter thread on evangelical historiography by “ex-vangelical” theologian David Congdon.)

Finally, we historians can amplify the voices of those evangelicals whose version of the story has been too rarely heard. That includes evangelicals who are not white and evangelicals who are not American. But most of all, I mean women: who, by any count, make up the majority of evangelicals, but have long been kept by some strands of evangelical theology from the preaching and teaching ministries that have always played such an important role in telling and retelling the evangelical story.

Of course, evangelical women have always found ways to shape evangelicalism. So as a closing charge for a post concerned with awakening, let me quote one of the lesser-known choruses written by one of evangelicalism’s best-known hymn writers, Fanny Crosby:

Wake from slumber; wake, rejoicing;
Come and hail the blessed light;
Worship Him whose eye beholding
Kept us safely thro’ the night.

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