Evangelicalism Is a Subset of Protestantism

Evangelicalism Is a Subset of Protestantism December 19, 2017

With some born-again Protestants in the United States feeling nervous about evangelicalism as an identity — thanks to the EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT!!! — who voted for President Trump, along comes one of the premier historians of fundamentalism and evangelicalism to reassure the faint-hearted. George Marsden wrote a guest post that argued for seeing evangelicalism from the perspective of the big picture. That larger outlook means acknowledging that evangelicalism is so much bigger — a worldwide movement — than the political identity now associated with born-again Protestants:

I am as guilty as anyone of sometimes speaking of “evangelicalism” as though it were one thing, even while going on to point out its diversities. But what if we started with the diversities?

In fact what we call “evangelicalism” is made up of a vast number of different churches and organizations from around the world that are mostly disconnected with each other, even though they share a number of basic common features (notably, “biblicism,” “conversionism,” “crucicentrism,” and “activism,” as defined by David Bebbington). And if we start our thinking about “evangelicalism” by recognizing this fundamental diversity, that invites a second thought experiment: what if we thought first of “evangelicalism” in the light of its many majority world manifestations, instead of first through an American lens?

A helpful habit of mind for thinking clearly about “evangelicalism” as fundamentally a collection of diverse, but loosely related, phenomena is to think of it as analogous to a biological genus. The genus of mammals, for instance, includes wide varieties of species that share some essential identifying traits, but we are not in the habit of thinking of them as one thing. So we immediately recognize that in most respects it is a fallacy to generalize from the character of house cats to say what giraffes are like. So also it should be easy to see that it is a mistake attribute the characteristics of white Baptist Trump voters to prosperity gospel pentecostals in Kenya, or to confuse either with the attitudes of the evangelical Christian Union in Oxford.

With evangelicalism as the genus, THE EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT!!! is merely a species.

assigning the term “evangelical” just to white Americans, as the pollsters typically do, is equivalent to the fallacy we would be committing if we assigned the term “mammal” just to house cats. “Evangelical” for the pollsters becomes mostly an older-stock white ethno-religious political category of people who have been locked into voting overwhelmingly Republican for a long time.

In the year of the Reformation 500th anniversary, are we really supposed to think that Martin Luther was the chief catalyst of evangelicalism with Billy Graham as the theological descendant of the Lutheran pastor and theologian who baptized babies, drank beer, swore, and worried that enthusiasts of his day had “swallowed the Holy Ghost feathers and all”? That’s a stretch.

What if we use the biological analogy and make Protestantism the genus and evangelicalism the species? That would mean that evangelicalism is just one more variety of Protestant in a world that includes Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, Anabaptists, Wesleyans, Pietists, Pentecostals, liberals or modernists, fundamentalists — the list could go on. Yes, evangelicalism in its post-World War II iteration, the one that gave us the most significant institutions that were responsible for branding evangelicals — the National Association of Evangelicals, Christianity Today magazine, and Fuller Seminary. Those evangelicals formed a cooperative endeavor to rival the ecumenical network that mainline (read liberal) Protestants had instituted in 1908 with the Federal Council of Churches. The evangelicals who looked to Billy Graham, Carl Henry, and Harold John Ockenga for leadership, were able to include a variety of Protestants disaffected with the mainline in their efforts to provide a forum for a socially responsible and faithful voice in national affairs. But those evangelicals did not include a large swath of Lutherans, Presbyterians, Baptists, Anglicans, Mennonites — Protestants who already had ecclesiastical homes and other sets of loyalties.

The least we could do in 2017, a year we’ve spent so much time thinking about the Reformation (or not), is not read Billy Graham’s Los Angeles crusade of 1949 into Wittenberg’s church life of 1517. Some Protestants are not evangelical even if most evangelicals are Protestant.


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