What are the politics of the term “evangelical”?

What are the politics of the term “evangelical”? July 19, 2012

By Michael J. Altman:

The real question for historians of American religion and especially historians of American evangelicalism is “what are the politics of the category evangelical?” Why do we want more African Americans in a list of evangelicals? Why do we want more women? Because it is a privileged category. It is also a constructed category. It is, to use my favorite Jon Butler phrase, an interpretive fiction. It is an invention, first within the minds of Protestants since the Reformation and then within the minds of historians from Robert Baird to the guys at Patheos. Rather than worry about who is or isn’t an evangelical or adding more diversity to the list, historians should be investigating the process of this invention. We should be tracing the politics of the term and what is at stake in various places and times when people take, leave, fight for, argue about, or compromise over what it means to be “evangelical.” We don’t need more or different histories of evangelicalism or evangelicals, we need a genealogy of the term. We need to trace the invention of American evangelicalism. We need to stop assuming that evangelicalism is something out there for us to track down in the archive or research field and label correctly. Instead, let’s pay attention to how various subjects imagine evangelicalism and the political, cultural, and social forces at work in those imaginings. Let’s find out what’s at stake when people get included or excluded from “evangelicalism.”


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  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    Interesting . . . Here is the process I have witnessed first hand. Evangelicals grew up and wanted to be distinguished from fundamentalism (even if they still used many of the same hermeneutics and still believed in the great fundamental doctrines of Scripture). Fundamentalism has become the famous whipping boy of everyone. One can speak about a muslim Jihadist and conservative Christian all in the same breath. Nobody wants to be associated or called a “Fundamentalist” anymore (well, that’s a different story).

    The Evangelical story that started for me was at the “Evangelical Affirmations” Conference in 1992. Evangelicalism was already having an identity crises nor was it sure which direction it should be heading for the future? Evangelicals decided they wanted to be “big tent” Evangelicals and be inclusive and just about include everybody (except the universalists). Since this decision, Evangelical universalists may stake the claim that this is where everybody needs to end up under the big tent Evangelical umbrella.

    Carl Henry gave a talk on “What is an Evangelical?” and when he was finished, one not only still did not know what an Evangelical was, but one wondered if Henry did either? Now twenty years later, many people either have left behind being an Evangelical, call themselves a “post-Evangelical” or simply have a love/hate relationship (more probably hate than love) with it.

    I for one almost left Evangelicalism behind myself but I find myself firmly planted now. Do I see a great future for Evangelicalism? For the progressives, they are probably happy with the trends within Evangelicalism. I for one wish Scot would bring back to the table proposals like Sviegel’s “RetroChristianity.” Now that is a conversation that desperately needs to happen among Evangelicals and even non-evangelicals.

  • Scot McKnight

    CGC, never heard of Sviegel’s proposal. What is it?

  • Tim Stidham

    I think CGC is right that the term emerged to separate conservative Christians who wanted to embrace culture in order to transform it, rather than withdraw from it. I think the success of Billy Graham captured the essence of what was happening. He was praying with Presidents AND preaching forgiveness of sins to all through Christ. But as theological and social categories began to harden during the “Moral Majority” period, groups started leaving each other out. I would say the late 80’s was the last time there was much consensus on what it means. Seems to me since then it has often been used as a political rallying point for Right, Center, and Left groups. The Sojourner’s brand of evangelical attempted to bring people together at first, but once again collapsed into a left version of evangelicalism after some heated political debates over healthcare and poverty.
    What I sense of the term Post-Evangelical is sometimes similar to the motivation for creating the Evangelical term to replace Fundamentalist in the first place. Trying to preserve some of what’s best about the term but wanting to avoid the heated political debates that divide. But sometimes it’s used by people who simply used to be Evangelical but now aren’t sure what they believe… Either way, Evangelical is the new whipping boy and/or politicized label and I think it may have run its course. The culture is so different now, I don’t think the category label is nearly as relevant (even if one believes nearly the same things as non-fundamentalist conservative Christians did in the 40’s and 50’s.) Since popular culture now sees Evangelical as the Anti-Gay, Anti-Abortion, Anti-Government Aid to the poor category label, authentic Christians who want to share their faith without spending most of their energy on political issues that divide need another label. Will there ever be a day when Christians don’t focus constantly on who’s in and who’s out? (with oneself as always “in” and those different than oneself always “out”)

  • TJJ

    I think the term is still useful. It still represents a middle way or third way between more polarized positions, whatever those more extreme positions/movements might be from time to time.

    Social justice gospel/saved is all that matters gospel
    Rigid Biblical literalism/Bible not supernaturally inspired
    All gays go to hell/gays lifestyle fully embraced by God

    Etc, etc

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    Michael Svigel “Retro-Christianity” is one among many renewal proposals which desires Evangelicals to reclaim the early church fathers and the whole of the ancient Christian faith. It is different than paleo-orthodxy in that it values contributions from of every era of church history and not just the patristic period. It is different than Webber’s ancient-future faith which emphasizes the fourth and fifth centuries and goes beyond certain traditions like Reformed or Puritan or now postmodern approaches.

    I believe Scot you did a quick take on his book a while ago suggesting that he is too critical of the Catholic and Orthodox traditions and there was another great point you gave which alludes me at the moment. If I remember correctly, you said you did want to come back to Svigel’s book so I hope you do.

  • Tim Stidham

    TJJ, if that’s what it would really stand for, sure, I would agree. As a conservative Christian influenced by John Wesley, I like middle-ways!
    I just think that’s not what it stands for to most people anymore. To the broader culture and to many in Christianity its: individualistic-saved-is-all-that-matters gospel, Rigid Biblical Literalism, and All gays go to hell plus a few other mostly politics-related issues… the most rigid neo-reformed groups and social gospel groups have hi-jacked the term destroying it’s clear meaning. It didn’t help that the NAE leader ended up in a scandal related to one of the hot-button issues. That was kind of the death-knell…

  • Paul W

    I’ve got to admit that the meaning and significance of the label Evangelical among the masses has been more than somewhat elusive to me. I find myself interested, infuriated, mystifyied, sympathetic, and curious about them. Probably more than anything I feel pity for so much of the spiritual hand wringing that many Evangelicals suffer through in their religious experience. Ultimately, I just don’t ‘get them’ but for whatever odd reason I sort of wish I could.

    It also has seemed to me that for more than a few who are Evangelical (by professional occupation) the label is important in order for them to get access to the areas of influence, power, and money they desire.

  • Golly. It’s beginning to seem as if taking an interest in the use of the Evangelical label ends one up somewhere between skepticism and cynicism.

    From what I’ve seen here and elsewhere over the last several years is that the term applies to those Christian believers over the last 3 or 4 generations who claim a literal interpretation of scripture (though, in my observation, only certain sections of scripture are taken precisely literally and others only loosely so) and who privilege the New Testament’s substitutionary metaphor for salvation above all other metaphors in the NT witness. Scholars will argue with me about this, but in my experience this description applies to, say, 95% of the many Evangelicals with whom I’ve discussed our faith in depth.

    So I’ll put apply that definition with reference to a conversation I had just 2 days ago with an Evangelical woman in which we were discussing the work camp we had found ourselves involved with together. Within a few sentences she asserted (1) a sampling of beliefs she held in common with other Evangelicals, and (2) her disgust with Obamacare.

    The coupling of these topical notions of faith and politics is by no means universal among Evangelicals, I’m sure, but they’re common enough to appear typical. I suspect one significant reason for the current interest in the political relevance of Evangelicalism arises from similar observations by many, and so, to me, it make sense that it is culturally meaningful that we’re having this discussion.

  • TJJ

    Tim, no doubt there are Evangelicals who fit your definition, but to me, they are at the right ( far right) end of the continuum. I acknowledged they are a part of the wider movement, but I don’t see them as the core of the movement. Of course the “core” is a bit of a moving target. One that to me is/has moved somewhat to the left in recent years. Not dramatically, but incrementally. I know I fit that trend.