The “Evangelicals” Who Are Not Evangelicals

The “Evangelicals” Who Are Not Evangelicals July 8, 2014

At the Wall Street Journal, Barton Swaim recently reviewed Steven Miller’s excellent book The Age of Evangelicalism, which I also reviewed at The Gospel Coalition. In my review, I suggested that evangelicals’ necessary engagement in politics has defined evangelicals by their politics and politicians, such as George W. Bush and Sarah Palin.

Swaim helpfully raises the problem of the use of the term “evangelical” in the media:

For the past 20 or 30 years, [“evangelical”] has designated nearly any Christian believer, Protestant or Catholic, who feels strongly about his or her faith. Which is to say that it’s not a very helpful word. Indeed, many evangelicals, or rather people who might otherwise be known as evangelicals, have long since disavowed the term. Steven Miller in “The Age of Evangelicalism: America’s Born-Again Years” doesn’t work very hard to define it; he says only (in a parenthetical aside) that evangelicalism is “the label commonly given to the public expression of born-again Christianity.” That definition is at once too narrow and too broad. It’s too narrow because it deals only with “public expression”—that is, politics—as if evangelicalism were primarily a political creed. And it’s too broad in that it conflates people who want nothing to do with one another. What, other than perhaps a rough similarity in voting patterns, do followers of the mega-church Texas pastor Joel Osteen have to do with members of the primarily northeastern Orthodox Presbyterian Church? Not much.

Many readers will know historian David Bebbington’s standard definition of evangelicals as Protestant Christians marked by biblicism, crucicentrism (the centrality of Christ’s work on the cross), activism, and conversionism. I have argued – and continue to argue in my forthcoming biography of George Whitefield – that for eighteenth-century evangelicals, an emphasis on the ministry of the Holy Spirit was also a defining mark, one that set them apart from their forebears more than biblicism, crucicentrism, and activism.

I agree with Swaim that the term evangelical, as used in the media, obscures fundamental differences between those lumped together as people who “feel strongly about their faith.” There are at least four types of Christians who often get cast as evangelicals who really are not evangelicals, if that term has any meaning.

The first and most obvious are theological liberals who, because of their background in evangelical churches or seminaries, still get lumped in with evangelicals. A substantial evangelicalism must embrace basic orthodoxy, in accord with historic Christianity and the great creeds. So, for example, when Rob Bell declared himself a universalist, he put himself beyond the evangelical pale (implicitly denying the need for conversion, among other problems). Yet some in the media will still refer to him as an evangelical. The media has a particular interest in calling such folks evangelicals, because it allows for the ever-popular narrative of the liberal evangelical dissenter (“evangelical pastor denies hell,” “evangelical pastor conducts gay wedding,” etc.).

The second group are Reformed/confessionalist Christians, often associated with traditional Presbyterian or Reformed denominations such as the Orthodox Presbyterian Church. This is the easiest category of the four, because many of these Christians would tell you that they are not evangelicals, even if the media would regard them as such. Some of these folks will tell you that they might be evangelicals, but that the doctrines and confessions of Reformed Christianity are the center of their faith, not the born-again feelings of typical American evangelicals. D.G. Hart is one of the preeminent examples of the Reformed critics of evangelicalism.

The next two groups are more difficult cases, because they might well affirm evangelical distinctives when asked, but they put other emphases at the center of their public message. One is advocates of the prosperity gospel. The line here is a fine one, because most evangelicals would tell you that, aside from being true and salvific, faith in Christ is also helpful in negotiating the challenges of life (finances, marriage, work, etc.). But when person-centered therapy – ways to overcome barriers in order to have “your best life now” – becomes the center of a church’s teaching, they’re not evangelical any more. I once heard a prosperity preacher tell a congregation repeatedly at the end of a sermon, “Do you want your dreams to come true? Accept Jesus.” If this does not give you pause, you’re likely not an evangelical.

The fourth group – and the one that presents the most critical problem, given the public’s impression of evangelicals described by Steven Miller – are those for whom American politics and patriotism are the center of Christianity, at least as communicated in public. We see this problem more clearly on July 4th weekend than at any other time. Evangelicals are grateful for the blessings of the American tradition, not least religious liberty. But we cannot tie our faith to American civil religion.

This takes me back to my earlier thoughts on what I call “paleo evangelicals” and the controversy over the work of history writer David Barton. As I wrote at Patheos, that 2012 blowup illustrated that

there are many evangelicals who have reservations about the blending of American national history with their faith. Our faith needs to be focused on Christ, the paleos say, and rooted in the deep, wide tradition of orthodox church history. We do not base our faith, in any sense, on the personal beliefs of Jefferson, Washington, or Adams. Especially when viewed from the perspective of the global church, American civil religion looks peculiar, at best. Yes, Christianity played a major role in the American founding, but that fact does not place the founding at the center of Christianity. The paleos admire many of the founders, but do not wish to read the founders alongside Scripture, as Barton would have us do in his Founders’ Bible.

I know that some readers will bristle at efforts to draw boundaries for who’s in, and who’s out, as an evangelical. But if the term is going to have any utility, “evangelical” must mean more than those the media designates as serious Christians.

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