The past week has produced a fascinating cluster of essays, articles, op-eds, blog posts and assorted other thumb-suckers and navel-gazers revisiting the perennial question of evangelical identity.
Everyone agrees that “evangelicals” are some kind of Christian. Protestant-types mostly. Beyond that, things get murky and disputed. What are the boundaries of this “evangelical” identity and how are they best determined? Are they theological, or doctrinal, or cultural, or political? (And by “political” do we mean that they correspond to non-sectarian partisan politics or that they are boundaries shaped by power-struggles from factions competing for influence and money within the sub-culture or sect or movement or whatever of “evangelicalism”?)
Here are several of the key posts/essays in this recent cycle of this evergreen conversation:
• “‘Evangelical’ Is Not a Political Term,” by Neil J. Young at Religion & Politics
• “A Political Sociology of Evangelicals,” by John W. Hawthorne at Sociological Reflections
• “Recalibrating the ‘Evangelical Paradigm,'” by Tim Gloege at The Anxious Bench
• “How Much Do Politics Matter to Evangelicals?” by Chris Gehrz at The Pietist Schoolman
There’s a lot going on there, with links from all of those pieces to earlier cycles of the same discussion. And it all gets more confusing once you realize that no two people seem to be using the words “evangelical” or “political” to mean quite the same thing.
I think we can cut through some of that confusion by taking a slightly different approach to understanding the boundaries of this group. One way to understand such boundaries of identity is to look at who gets kicked out, and why. Trying to figure out who is — or who still is — an “evangelical” is notoriously slippery and difficult. But it’s far easier to determine who is no longer accepted within the group, and why.
This approach still involves a lot of static because, again, “evangelical” identity has always been fiercely disputed within evangelicalism. We could almost say that all disputes within evangelicalism involve the attempt to banish or to disqualify others from membership within that category. Some Pentecostal/charismatic evangelicals, for example, would say that only those who have been “baptized by the Holy Spirit” and thereafter spoken in tongues can truly be evangelical. While some anti-charismatic evangelicals would say that “tongues have ceased” and anyone who follows that practice cannot truly be evangelical.
But we can filter out the static and noise of that perpetual disputation by looking at only those deemed illegitimate by all sides of all of these disputes. The charismatics and anti-charismatics disagree over the status and legitimacy of potential evangelicals who do or do not speak in tongues, but both sides agree that anyone who does not seek to criminalize abortion cannot be a real, true evangelical. The Calvinist and Arminian factions within evangelicalism argue that their counterparts should be disqualified, but both factions agree that anyone who doesn’t affirm full human personhood from the moment of ejaculation* cannot be an evangelical. Pre- and post- and mid-tribulation dispensationalists are perpetually at one another’s throats, attempting to cast out the apostates of their competing eschatologies as illegitimate members of the true evangelical community, but they will rally together in unity when it comes time to denounce anyone who strays from the required evangelical “stance” of uncompromising opposition to legal abortion.
That seems true, as well, for all of the other many reasons some evangelicals sometimes get farewelled — drinking, dancing, doctrine, random insubordination, etc. Every such cause for banishment also involves others “guilty” of the same infraction but who are, nonetheless, not banished. The no-exceptions exceptional cases are abortion politics and LGBTQ politics. Stray from the tribal party line on those — and particularly on the politics of those — and you’re out. Period.
The community states many different forms of boundaries and describes its identity in a host of compatible and incompatible ways. But the few boundaries that are consistently enforced are political ones. The identity that seems to matter most is political.
Note: I made this same argument five years ago, going even further to suggest that these two political identity markers were coming to eclipse every doctrinal and religious boundary for the evangelical tribe. That 2012 post included the outlandish claim that evangelicals would even be prepared to embrace as one of their own a philandering, corrupt casino-mogul who did not affirm or understand the broadest outlines of the gospel just so long as such a person “signaled his willingness to toe the line on abortion and homosexuality.” Got a lot of pushback on that at the time. The extreme example I suggested was criticized as rude and uncivil. It was just absurd, I was told then, for me to be suggesting that evangelical identity was so utterly yoked to partisan politics that white evangelicals would ever rally behind a man like Donald Trump.
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* No, not from the moment of conception, but from the moment of ejaculation. Otherwise it wouldn’t make any sense for evangelicals to oppose birth control, claiming that it is a constitutionally protected doctrine of their faith that birth control is “abortifacient.”