Evangelicals Left Out and Left Behind

Evangelicals Left Out and Left Behind October 22, 2012

Some people want to reclaim a supposed original meaning for the world “evangelical.” Lillian Kwon, at CP, recently wrote up a story about a rant by someone who says evangelical is basically a kind of Reformation theology, and the rant included pointing fingers of compromise at Carl Henry and Christianity Today, a magazine he evidently doesn’t read carefully and a theologian whom he must be ignoring, but his rant does raise an issue many care about: What is evangelicalism and who gets to define it? Before we get to that question, a clip of the CP piece:

More specifically speaking, it’s someone who believes the Gospel is centered on the doctrine of justification by faith and the principles of sola fide (by faith alone) and sola scriptura (by Scripture alone), he added. “The Gospel is a message about redemption, it’s a call to repentance from sin … and a summons to yield to the Lordship of Christ.”

Abuse of the term “evangelical” is not new. Nineteenth century preacher Charles Spurgeon had decried the fact that the modernists of his day wanted to be called evangelicals even though they abandoned all the evangelical principles, according to Johnson. Such a label would give them “instant credibility” and easy access to people who believed the Bible, he said.

Johnson, who serves as an elder at Grace Community Church, also believes the magazine Christianity Today has had a negative impact on how “evangelical” is defined today.

“The abuse of the term evangelicalism and the corruption of the evangelical movement really started, I think, with a core of people who included the founder of Christianity Today who wanted a new kind of evangelicalism and that was their term – new evangelicalism,” Johnson said on the radio show.

“They wanted to do away with certain evangelical distinctives and embrace a kind of ecumenical diversity instead. And slowly and gradually that’s what they did. My argument would be today, these days, you could read Christianity Today, you barely will find any actual theological evangelicalism in the magazine at all,” he added.

Johnson also listed the emerging church and the seeker sensitive movements as contributing to the murkiness of evangelicalism.

But what he has found more disturbing is how politicized the term has become over the last few decades.

Defining “evangelical” has become somewhat of a game, but it all comes down to who defines it and why. This piece wants evangelicalism to be old-fashioned fundamentalism, the kind that pre-Carl Henry and pre-neo-evangelicalism’s coalition and pre-John Stott. But more disconcerting perhaps is the deliberate ignoring of the important work of the best historians of evangelicalism: Mark Noll and David Bebbington, both of whom embrace a four-fold characteristics of evangelicalism: crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism. Evangelicalism isn’t  so much a doctrinal statement as it is a movement and one can legitimately call it “variations on the gospel theme.”

Which leads me to discuss the evangelicals who did get left behind in the rise of the Moral Majority, those whom David Swartz calls the “moral minority” in his new book Moral Minority. Their story, which I’ve told in two parts (here and here), depresses me as the story of squandering potential for reformation and revival. Ron Sider was at the top of his game and the hope was high in 1973 but by 1975 the coalition of progressive evangelicalism was torn to shreds into separate identity groups. I emerged theologically in the days of this hope.

The best book I’ve read this year.

What do you think can unite evangelicalism? Is it unifiable at all? From where I sit these days, is say No. What say you?

Instead of reformation and revival, the moral minority devolved into identity politics. In the heat of the civil rights movement, black evangelicalism  was realized by significant black leaders to be a form of white evangelicalism rather than genuine black Christian faith.  As Swartz summarizes it: “The impulse by early black leaders to create an integrated evangelical community lost momentum as a younger generation embraced racial separatism” (190). The principal voices here are those of John Perkins, Charles Marsh, William Bentley, Columbus Salley, Clarence Hilliard and others like Wyn Wright Potter.

Female evangelical feminists discovered the moral minority was a new version of male-led evangelicalism, and they often pointed to the lack of interest in the ERA (Equal Rights Amendment). A significant protesting voice was Evon Bachaus and she asked for 50% representation in the meetings. Evangelical feminism in the early 1970s was undeveloped and unorganized. Others included Letha Scanzoni, Nancy Hardesty, Lucilled Dayton, Virginia Mollenkott, and Neta Jackson. Inclusive language was already being seen as a formidable issue. ERA support was part of their activism. Then there arose women’s ordination. But many in the progressive group did not support it. They, like the disenfranchised blacks, began to form their own movement — the Evangelical Women’s Caucus. Don Dayton showed an alternative history to American evangelicalism, one in which women played major roles.

Theology broke the unity down as well. This was a coalition, not a theological party. The Reformed and the Anabaptist and black evangelicals and Calvinists and “non-aligned denominations” and churches and leaders. So Yoder came into conflict with Stephen Mott and Rich Mouw. Robert Webber proposed greater senses of unity that brought the coalition together, but his “plea failed spectacularly” (206). Wallis exited; Bentley left. It became a Babel of identity voices. The Anabaptists formed Evangelical for Social Action and the more radicals into Sojourners. More of the Reformed opted for the Association for Public Justice. And others went in other directions.

The Moral Minority became the minority when the Moral Majority became the majority. That happened in the late 1970s and 1980s when the Democratic Party became pervasively more “secular” and the Republican party appealed to evangelicals of a more conservative order. While the evangelical left had hope under Carter, he did not side enough with the conservative Christian Democrat and Reagan played the right cards… and by the end of the 80s the parties were ideologically rigid and divided. Identity politics sent the Democrats themselves into some tailspins but by the time Clinton’s years were over the Moral Minority was politically ineffective.

One cannot say the same today; while the numbers of evangelicals who are progressive remains low, the younger evangelicals offer to some of the progressive leaders some hope for engaging the political forum with a more robust evangelical progressive politics. I have little confidence in the evangelical political left’s longterm impact on evangelicalism or politics. It has shifted from an identity politics to social justice, but until the evangelical left can put forward a compelling economic theory alongside its appeal to care for the poor it is unlikely to influence American politics decisively.

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  • Rick

    “What do you think can unite evangelicalism? Is it unifiable at all? From where I sit these days, is say No.”

    So much of this post is about the political strains, with theological issues seeming secondary. However, I think the theological is the area which must be bridged in order to stay united.

    The on-going debate/dialogue between Denny Burk and Rachel Held Evans is a good example. After Rachel stated some positions, Denny asked if Rachel was, in fact, an evangelical.


    But as Denny stated in his follow-up post, there is a key theological distinction between the two of them:
    “The discussion that we’ve been having the last several weeks has not been about how we feel about the Bible. Rather the discussion is about what the Bible is.”


    Such an issue is behind much of the lack of unity. Until common ground can be found on topics such as that, people will continue to be in very separate camps.

  • scotmcknight

    Rick, if unity is unachievable until we sit down and agree on theology, we’re in trouble. We are one in Christ according to Paul and the prayer of Jesus in John 17, so we need to live that unity out. Debating who is and who is not an evangelical is endless because there is no one to say what the term means; it means something to Burk and to Evans and to Wallis and to … CT … to Billy Graham … to John Stott. No one speaks with final clarifying authority among evangelicals so the game is fruitless. I say, Give the game to Bebbington and Noll, let’s just agree to agree, and then let’s move on.

    Four terms:

    Biblicism: the term does describe those who form theology by focusing on the Bible.
    Crucicentrism: the term focuses on the saving, substitutionary atoning death of Jesus.
    Conversionism: the term focuses on the necessity of personal faith and witness.
    Activism: the term was more focused on missionary and evangelistic work, less on justice, but it meant both.

    You fit those? You are evangelical. You don’t? You aren’t.
    I can have my opinions about who is and who is not, but it won’t get us anywhere. Except it can get some folks into trouble if someone says they are not evangelical.

  • Kenton

    Huh. I think I’m losing my evangelical identity according to your 4 points.

    I focus my theology less on the bible per se, and more on the person of Jesus.
    I question the model of substitutionary atonement and focus more on the resurrection than the crucifixion.
    I think God cares less about how we identify religiously and more about how we live our lives.

    So what does that make me?

  • CGC

    Hi Scot,
    I am not against what your suggesting but the problem is so many people will follow different rules, a different playbook altogether than Bebbington and Noll and there will continue to be this messy nebulous map all over the place with little to no self-understanding of what being an “Evangelical” really means or should mean.

    It’s almost like there is so authority, no structure, much less real identifying borders or boundaries to being an Evangelical anymore (despite the attempt at a description that Bebbington and Noll give which I like but so what?). Look at the issue of substitutionary atonement for example. Evangelicals are all over the map on this one. There is no unity or consensus even on the descriptors they use because like the Bible, they are all up for grabs and for radical revision and reinterpretation.

    I have been and still am committed to Evangelicalism but all I can say is Evangelicalism is its own worst enemy and is in great need of solid indentity boundaries and theological substance. I don’t see how this can happen when the prevalent Evangelical mindset is nobody has any authority or power to say who is an Evangelical much less to define what an Evangelical is. There is nobody to turn in your “I quit being an Evangelical” card to and Evangelicals keep continuing to make things up and fly by the seat of their pants as they go. It is no surprise to me why there are many Evangelicals that are becoming Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox within such a wishy-washy confused culture of Evangelicalism.

  • Paul Mast Hewitt

    I think we spend too much time worrying about who is with us and who is not and it distracts us from living out the Gospel. The word Evangelical is not even in the Bible. I appreciate your pointing out that some people who have self-identified as Evangelical, are left out/left behind by some who want to define Evangelical very narrowly. Tony Campolo and Shane Clairborne have come up with a response to give the word Evangelical to those who want to define it narrowly while they claim a new identity as “red-letter Christians.” But if we are focused on ministry, then work with those who are motivated to minister with you and don’t worry about what you call yourselves. That we feel a need to identify ourselves as “Emergent,” “Missional,” “”Red-letter Christians,” “Evangelicals,” or “Fundamentalists” distracts us from the work of the Gospel.

  • Scott Gay

    Evangelism has had and continues to have a crusading spirit which is wrong. “My God, why have you forsaken me?” is the Jesus who is the risen King. It is the reversal of normal concepts of God and history. It forever excludes the conception of history as the triumph of one of the “causes” within history.(“cause” could be Christianity, any religion, Marxism, science, a copernicum thought revolution,……whatever). The deepest cause of our disunity is trying to make our cause the center. If you combine good friday and easter you have a concrete center of history. In the light of the highest human standards of truth and righteousness, and to many of the noblest and sensitive among other faiths and ideologies, this Jesus appears as a subverter. He advocates being defeated, condemned, excommuniucated. It is only in overturning the traditional and accepted values that he is seen as a fulfiller. In the Rezurrection band lyrics- when you lose, you win…….that’s the way it is……that’s when the love comes down.
    We once were a world similar to living in a forest with competing tribes hardly mingling. Now we’re like a city- maybe a slum- totally plural. To those actually actively listening to the others who are different, we notice evidence of levels of commitment, family, of devotion, of experience of truth, honesty which can make today’s average Christian aware of his or her prejudice in former thoughts. The old evangelistic models do not fit this new situation. We are slowly learning to live together.
    Because all imperialism or “causes” are programs for unity, it is an empty word until its content and commitments necessary to hold it together are realized. It’s like striving for world peace, until you find peace as defined in Washington or Moscow. It may be that evangelism is left out or left behind. That’s not sad if it holds on to those definitions that evolved from a position of power( a crusading type of evangelism).
    There will always be a group that knows the basis for their unity. The one center in history. The commitments which hold their adherents together with a loyalty which transcends all the other proposals which by human nature have to be potentially divisive. Our responsibi;ity is to learn, with ALL( the light shines on all)other men and women, how to be agents of his purpose to draw all to himself. We don’t know that in the future that group may be given a name we haven’t thought.

  • Kristin

    Part of the problem with these labels is the rise of “non-denominational” Christianity. Personally I hold no denominational affiliation and for awhile I (naively) assumed that meant I was evangelical, but by those 4 points I am not. So what am I? I would be nice to say “I follow Jesus” and leave it at that, but there are lots of folks with bones to pick about various theologies on these topics of inerrancy, atonement, etc. It also makes it difficult to simply explain to people my worldview. For example if someone says they’re a Calvinist I kind of know what they mean. Evangelical means nothing, but I don’t have another word for it either. Can I call myself a Wright-ist? 🙂

  • DMH

    Kenton #3 “I focus my theology less on the bible per se, and more on the person of Jesus.”

    Just wondering how you do this. Do you mean a less holistic approach to the canon in favor of just the part about Jesus? Honest question, not trying to corner and shoot.

  • Jerry

    “Robert Webber proposed greater senses of unity that brought the coalition together, but his “plea failed spectacularly” (206).”
    Scot (or readers)–what was Webber’s plea/proposal? How and why did it “fail spectacularly?”

  • Kenton

    DMH (#8)-

    I think so. I guess that depends on what you mean by “a less holistic approach to the canon.”

    I was thinking about Luke 4 while I drove into work after I posted. Jesus redacts the line about “the day of vengeance” in Isaiah 61- what I believe his hearers would have thought of as the best part. That strikes me as a moment where one has to choose between Jesus claiming a year of favor that extends even to those “outside the circle,” (v 24-27) and Isaiah who speaks of a “wrath to enemies/retribution to foes” (59:10) and a time when “foreigners [would] rebuild [their] walls and their kings [would] serve [them]” (60:10).

    Yes, the canon gives us the clearest picture of who Jesus is, but I think we’ve almost made the bible to what Islam makes the Quran. I don’t think the bible is a divine dictation, and I think God is revealed more in person of Jesus than in the words on the pages.

  • @Kenton #3 – I too would be interested to know what it would look like to focus one’s faith on Jesus apart from making some fairly significant assumptions / commitments about the nature of at least the New Testament as Scripture…same with focusing on the resurrection. I would also suggest that, in a biblical sense, there is no difference between “how we identify religiously” and “how we live our lives.” Those are intended to describe the same state of affairs, or at the very least two sides of the same coin.

    Scot, it seems to me that in order for evangelicalism to be unified, the following would need to happen:

    – a majority of evangelical leaders would have to consistently lead the way and point to specific broad reasons for their agreement;
    – a majority of average evangelical believers would need to be convinced that said unity is not secretly corroding or betraying the Gospel (insert some other alarmist / doomsday phrase here);
    – there would have to be a clear and consistent delineation between first-order and second-order doctrines, perhaps plotted using Noll’s and Bebbington’s four-point rubric, and that backed up by Scripture.

    One of the most contentious areas of disagreement seems to be those who will not accept any less than the word ‘inerrancy’ to describe the Bible. If they would be ok seeing other ways of describing / living out biblical authority as at least evangelical options, much headway might be made.

  • Kenton

    Rory Tyler (#11)-

    I’m guessing we cross posted on the first point, so I’ll refer to #10 there.

    Point 2: I’m answering the term “crucicentrism.” In a sense we have stopped celebrating Easter, and we only celebrate Good Friday. My church recently played a video of a guy rapping something about how the payment was made on Friday and the resurrection on Sunday “showed that the check had cleared.” That is so missing the point in my mind. The point isn’t “God died for your sins so you don’t have to pay a debt you’re unable to pay.” The point is that “God has conquered death so we no longer have to fear it.”

    As for this: I would also suggest that, in a biblical sense, there is no difference between “how we identify religiously” and “how we live our lives.” Those are intended to describe the same state of affairs, or at the very least two sides of the same coin.

    In a sense, YES! YES!

    Although we all know people who live their lives in sync with how God would want them to who don’t self-identify as Christians. Behind the term “conversionism” (point 3), is the idea that we’re compelled to get those who don’t self-identify as Christians to do so. I don’t see Jesus compelling those who self-identified as “the wrong religion” to convert.

  • EricW

    As you and many others here probably know, several years ago D. G. Hart in Deconstructing Evangelicalism argued the following, per a reviewer’s comments:

    What is an evangelical? When the boundaries of a definition are broadened wide enough, eventually the definition collapses in on itself, and the meaning of the movement becomes meaningless.

    D. G. Hart writes a great book declaring that “Evangelicalism” is not a real identity, but instead is a well-intended construction of conservative Christians in the post-World War II climate of modernism vs. fundamentalism. Seeking to define a segment of Christianity in opposition to either the Fundamentalism or modernism, a large swath of pastors, theologians, pollsters, historians, evangelists, musicians, etc. worked to create a unified “Conservative Protestantism”. The resulting edifice is known as “Evangelicalism”.

    Fifty+ years later it is painfully obvious that the only “unity” of evangelicalism is a unity that is so devoid of biblical theological substance that… who cares about evangelicalism? In a nutshell, Hart argues that it is time to dump the idea of Evangelicalism.

    Reading all the Reader Reviews will give you a good idea of Hart’s thesis and argument, one with which I tend to agree.

  • makes me reflect on our use of language and how it affects us

  • scotmcknight

    EricW, Hart’s a bit of a crab on this issue; he’s also vested in a Reformed theology that disavows its evangelical interest. Furthermore, that opening set of lines is ambiguous enough to be meaningless. Of course “broadened enough” leads to meaningless, but the issue is whether Bebbington and Noll have a defined a recognizable movement; I say Yes.

  • scotmcknight

    By the way, EricW … “evangelical” is insufficient for a sustainable local church, as Michael Horton has stated so well. But it is good enough to define a movement.

    One of the problems with theological-less megachurches is they have defined themselves as “evangelical” and no further … and it isn’t enough to sustain a local church.

  • Steve

    The answer is that no one gets to define what “Evangelical” means. That’s why it immediately become overused and abused.

    This is also the reason why the theology became washed out. When two people are disagreeing about what the true interpretation of Scripture is, who can force a resolution to the issue? If two people (or parties) are obstinate in their conviction that THEY are correct, there are only two pathways available.

    Water Down: Both parties agree that it isn’t a “core-doctrine” and agree to maintain communion while disagreeing. Unity is maintained on… whatever is left.

    Divide: Both sides agree that the issue is important and demands a resolution. But with no way to force a resolution and bind others to its veracity, this resolution is impossible. So the two sides disfellowship one another.

    So that’s what you see today. On the one side are congregations splitting up over issues like gay marriage, the role of women, abortion, and a host of theological issues. On the other end you see theology getting watered down until there is nothing to disagree about and every sings nice-sounding songs.

  • RPierard

    I find it fascinating as a bona fide member of the old guard to follow the discussions of the younger adherents to something roughly defined as evangelicalism. I felt we lost it when Republican politics got the upper hand over the social sensitivities of Scripture and we were effectively sidetracked by dubious causes like abortion and homosexuality. After all, these in no way whatsoever impinge on wealth and power in our country and effectively sidetrack us from the real issues–poverty, industrial power, urban decay, environmental destruction, subordination of women, pervasive racism, militarism and war, just to mention the most obvious ones. Eric #13 likes the book by D G. Hart. I think it is a bad one, not only because he sees me as part of the enemy, even in my advanced age, and dedicates several pages to attacking me as well as a number of other evangelicals who stood for justice some decades ago. The struggle is now in your hands–don’t lose it as we did.

  • EricW


    I don’t like Hart’s book because he attacked you; in fact, I don’t even remember that part. What I mainly took away from the book was the too-fuzzy-around-the-edges or too-able-to-include-too-many-groups-depending-on-what-you-are-discussing nature of the term “Evangelicalism” when you try to define it, thus rendering it in many ways useless.

    Maybe I need to re-read it so I don’t wrongly bring it up in discussion if I’m misremembering or misrepresenting it.

  • Brent Hoover

    Perhaps a quote by Tom Oden would help…“The agenda for theology at the end of the twentieth century, following the steady deterioration of a hundred years and the disaster of the last few decades, is to begin to prepare the postmodern Christian community for its third millennium by returning again to the careful study and respectful following of the central tradition of classical Christian exegesis.”

    If we would take our cues from contemporary culture and even theological trends, we will continue a downward slide similar to the historical one Oden referred to.

    Evangelicals have been those who wanted to stop that trend. We have believed and followed “Classical Christianity” (the term CS Lewis preferred). The key of course is going back to actually reading the Bible and following it. The four categories of Noll pretty much covers the key stuff.

  • Thanks so much for this essay topic. I’ve raised it personally with colleagues and wondered what the best label is for me. Of course we need a sense of historical consciousness and to listen to good scholars like Noll and Marsden on the issue as it relates to fundamentalism. And of course we also need to remember that our tradition and subculture grows and develops over time as well.

    Two additional thoughts come to mind. You mention something that Roger Olsen did recently by way of defining evangelicalism in terms of “crucicentrism, biblicism, conversionism, and activism.” But how these are defined is crucial. In terms of crucicentrism, some like my colleagues Ross Clifford and Philip Johnson rightly argue in their new book The Cross is Not Enough that evangelicals have tended to emphasize the crucifixion at the expense of Resurrection. On biblicism we need to be careful to emphasize biblical authority but not at the price of a problematic fundamentalist literalism, and which is also open to the witness of natural revelation and the voice of the Spirit. On conversionism, if this is defined too narrowly as event rather than process then it becomes difficult. As to activisim I’m all over it! But perhaps you see the problem with these terms in connection with definitions.

    Secondly, we know that with uncomfortable questions and issues being raised in Evangelicalism by self-professed Evangelicals on topics like inerrancy, evolution, homosexuality, and approaches to engagement with other religions that Evangelical gatekeepers are increasingly defining “Evangelical” in more and more narrow ways in some senses, but also in expanded ways in others so that more fundamentalist approaches are seen as the only appropriate definition. Thus, they seek to withhold the label to those troubling the Evangelical waters, and in so doing leaving others out and behind as your title indicates.

    Thanks again for this thought provoking post.

  • RPierard, I understand you don’t like From Billy Graham to Sarah Palin, but Deconstructing Evangelicalism doesn’t mention you. Or is it all about you?

  • Brent Hoover


    Noll once wrote, “Evangelicalism has always been made up of shifting movements, temporary alliances, and the lengthened shadows of individuals,” (Scandal of the Evangelical Mind” p 9).

    If that is true, then what do you think is reasonable to hope for?

    And if you had a moment to get practical, if one’s own church appears to be fading in its own Evangelical distinctives, what would you propose a believer do?

  • Luther Perez

    Why use the term Evangelical? What does it get you that “Protestant” wouldn’t?

    This seems to be an argument grounded in modern American politics, and less about theological questions.

    If people would identify which type of Protestant tradition they are working from, that would explain the form of their “Evangelicalism.”

    An Evangelicalism that is separated from their Protestantism seems to be something that’s more socio-political, than theological.

    Either way, ALL Protestants are evangelical. If we were to accept that, how many of you would then argue “Who is a Protestant?”

  • scotmcknight


    1. I’m not sure all you are asking… but I would hope evangelicalism can unite around its four core ideas in some robust ways for mission and cooperation; the four are not enough for a local church. But I have little hope for any kind of evangelical progressivism taking hold among evangelicals in the USA the way it has done in Europe.

    2. Tough one. Is if fading from its own doctrinal statement or from a perceived evangelicalism? Has it actually shifted or has a person — say you — solidified in some areas the church has not ever had? How central are the issues where the fading is evidenced?

    3. If it is fading, I’d say use proper channels and not public statements (like blogs or SS classes). Talk to the elders or deacons or pastors and see where it goes…

  • Luther Perez

    We can still be active (to a certain extant) to change our society, without claiming the Gospel told me to do it. I’m active in labor (ie wages, unions and the like) but I wouldn’t claim that I’m engaged in bringing the Gospel to workers. I would never claim socialism is Christianity, I argue for these things because they help my community, not because Jesus commands social justice. When I attend church, I wouldn’t expect my pastor to endorse my views from the pulpit, or enforce the arguments for management as well.

    Now I’m willing to accept part of the criticism from scotmcknight, leveled at Hart, since I’m Calvinist as well. “EricW, Hart’s a bit of a crab on this issue; he’s also vested in a Reformed theology that disavows its evangelical interest.” Right, engaging in mass conversions and lowest common denominator theology seems to be an aspect of particular forms of the Protestant tradition; but to claim we disavow our “evangelical interests” because we have no interest in their form of evangelicalism seems to go too far. Who made him Pope of Protestantism? So now low-church folks get to dictate how all Protestants need to form their evangelicalism?

    Now I’m sounding crabby.