Can African-Americans Be “Evangelicals?”
Recently I discovered that many pollsters taking surveys of adult Americans and who ask questions about people’s religious identities automatically assume, as a matter of governing policy, that African-Americans cannot be “evangelicals.” Furthermore, this trickles down to them from the movers and shakers of American sociology of religion who, generally speaking, categorize American’s religious identities such that “evangelical” cannot include African-Americans.
(I discovered that in a major survey of American religious identities survey-takers asked people if they consider themselves “evangelical or born again.” But they only asked that of white people, not of African-Americans. My guess is that IF they asked that of most African-Americans they would hear a resounding “yes” to the question.)
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Now, admittedly, if you ask most African-American Protestant Christians, most of whom are some variation of Baptist, Methodist or Pentecostal, if they are “evangelical” (without the “born again” phrase) they will say they are not. But the same is true of most moderate-to-progressive Baptists, Methodists and Pentecostals (to say nothing of other traditions that include many evangelical believers). And I think it would be true of many Southern Baptists whose denomination (the SBC) long denied being “evangelical”—thinking of that label as a “Yankee label.” But when survey takers add the “born again” phrase most Southern Baptists will say yes.
Who is deciding the meaning of “evangelical?” Who should be deciding the meaning of “evangelical?”
Well, clearly there are different definitions of the label. I define it historically-theologically and spiritually (as do two of the top expert-scholars of evangelicalism David Bebbington and Mark Noll). As I have said here and everywhere I can (most recently at the national annual meeting of the American Society of Church Historians), historically the word points to and names a theological-spiritual ethos, not a particular socio-political-class movement. That ethos is stamped, so to speak, by Protestant Pietism and Revivalism as well as by Protestant Orthodoxy. Its prototypes are Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley—both born in 1703—although it had precursors and includes people who would not even know who Edwards and Wesley were let alone consider them their spiritual ancestors.
Throughout the 19th century especially, African-Americans, by and large, were influenced by the Second Great Awakening which carried forward the Pietist-Revivalist and orthodox ethos of Edwards and Wesley (and their ilk). Numerous African-American denominations arose during that century (and more in the 20th century) and most of them were very strongly stamped by Pietism-Revivalism and were also doctrinal orthodox (Nicene).
The question this raises is: Is a philosophy, theology or spirituality defined by those who claim its label? The tendency to treat perception as reality and to define philosophies and theologies by the people who happen to claim them, regardless of history, is, in my opinion, evidence of nominalism. Eventually nothing really means anything; everything becomes a matter of opinion. “Name it and claim it” is a pejorative phrase some people use to describe the “Prosperity Gospel,” but it could also describe the popular tendency in America today to define concepts and categories by the dispositions, beliefs and attitudes of those who claim them as their identities. This would not be so wrong were it not that most people know almost nothing about the history of ideas. If their favorite radio talk show host claims to be “conservative,” then they can rightly claim also to be “conservative”—even if their favorite radio talk show host is an out-and-out libertarian or populist. (Yes, I know, these can be overlapping concepts and categories, but, generally speaking, they are distinct ones. Being libertarian does not automatically make one conservative. In fact, it could make one “classically liberal!”)
At the very least, I suggest, sociologists of religion and survey-takers ought to take into account the possibility that African-American Christians can be evangelical and not simply relegate them from the outset from that category. And if I had my way (which I know I never will) sociologists or religion and survey-takers ought to do more than approach research subjects with preconceived definitions of religious categories that have little or nothing to do with history, theology and spirituality.
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