Evangelicalism: A Mish-Mash?

Evangelicalism: A Mish-Mash? August 6, 2018

Brief, but deadly accurate:

It can be a tough pill to swallow. If we want to be brutally honest, however, we need to acknowledge that religion is about something besides religion. New survey data confirm our hunch that a religious identity isn’t necessarily about religion itself, but about something more complicated.

In my recent book about evangelical higher education, I argued that we can only understand fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism if we abandon our tendency to define these things theologically. After all, there wasn’t really an orthodoxy involved in fundamentalism. There couldn’t be. Although fundamentalism and conservative evangelicalism were certainly religious movements, their institutions were not driven solely by theological considerations. Instead, as with every human endeavor, evangelical colleges jumbled together religion, culture, politics, and other factors to come up with a mish-mash of beliefs, beliefs that “felt right” to students, professors, alumni, and parents.

Seth Dowland recently made a convincing case along these lines. As Professor Dowland argued,

what most distinguishes white American evangelicals from other Christians, other religious groups, and nonbelievers is not theology but politics.

Surveys have shown that a majority of evangelical Protestants don’t actually hold traditional evangelical core beliefs. They might call themselves “evangelical” or “born again,” but only a minority of them agree with all four of these notions:

  • The Bible is the highest authority for what I believe.
  • It is very important for me personally to encourage non-Christians to trust Jesus Christ as their Savior.
  • Jesus Christ’s death on the cross is the only sacrifice that could remove the penalty of my sin.
  • Only those who trust in Jesus Christ alone as their Savior receive God’s free gift of eternal salvation.

Being an “evangelical,” then, is not a theological position. It might INCLUDE theological tendencies, but it is something more than a religious identity. And, of course, it’s different for different people. Plenty of evangelicals ARE defined by their theological beliefs. Just not a majority.

Today we see more survey evidence that evangelicals and other Protestants don’t restrict their beliefs to evangelical or Protestant theology. A large majority think that God wants them to prosper financially. Among evangelicals, a solid 75% majority think so.

We might think that these prosperty-gospellers simply don’t know because they don’t really go to church. But prosperity beliefs are STRONGER among those who attend church more frequently.

What’s the takeaway? Like all of us, evangelical Protestants are complicated. For those of us trying to understand evangelical history, the vital message is clear: “Evangelical” identity is about much more than simple theology.

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