Is Evangelical the Only Kind of Protestant?

Is Evangelical the Only Kind of Protestant? November 26, 2018

Roger Olson observes that the current critics of evangelicalism, the so-called voices from the margins, want to be free from the white-male dominated power structures responsible for defining evangelicalism:

After listening to the panelists’ papers and the ensuing open discussion, I wondered if 1) white, heterosexual men (like myself) have any place in this conversation anymore (I think not), and 2) if “evangelical” is now losing all meaning.

Again, for all our faults and failures, we at least attempted to come to some kind of consensus about the “center” if not the “boundaries” of this spiritual-theological type called “evangelical.” I did not hear that at the symposium. I heard a lot of finger-pointing and complaining and calling for (seemingly) unlimited diversity “at the table” whenever “evangelical” is being discussed.

My only qualm is the SEEMING “unlimited diversity.” Nobody said that, but once LGBTQ people are taken for granted as part of the conversation on equal footing with everyone else…I have to wonder.

Now, one of my points here is simply to report that this was, I think, the first time I ever heard evangelical scholars ASSUME that LGBTQ people can be evangelicals equally with “straight” evangelicals AND that they MUST have a role in defining evangelicalism—equally with every other group of people.

At the end of the two hour long symposium I was beginning to wonder if “evangelical” has any meaning. There was a general sense (to my mind, anyway) that the conversation about that conducted over many years by people like Mark Noll, George Marsden, and David Bebbington (no names were mentioned that I heard) is not even considered a changeable platform but something to be discarded and forgotten except as a relic of a past evangelicalism dominated by white, heterosexual men.

As frustrating as this situation may be, Olson does not seem to marvel at the ongoing appeal of evangelicalism to those “on the margins.” One might think that those who associate evangelicalism with white male heterosexuals and don’t like the company involved in being evangelical — that these people would opt for another form of Christianity. After all, in addition to the historic communions of Rome and the Eastern Orthodox churches, Protestantism has by some estimate over 30,000 denominations. And if none of those expressions of Christianity suit the progressive or social justice minded, why not make up your own version of Christianity? It is a free country, after all.

Yet, the biggest critics of evangelicalism still want to be evangelical. Why?

Once upon a time, the reason might have been political. Being evangelical meant that you belonged to a voting bloc that gained you some attention from the major parties and the presidential nominees. But since for most critics, the EIGHTY-ONE PERCENT!!! who voted for Trump is reason to complain about the whiteness and straightness of evangelicalism, you certainly don’t remain evangelical for the political advantages.

So the problem remains. Lots of people who fault evangelicalism for its racism, nationalism, misogyny, and general meanness still want to be evangelical.

It is a phenomenon that rivals the current discussions among Roman Catholics and the sex scandal of whether or when to leave. At least for Roman Catholics, leaving the church has all sorts of historical significance. Rome represents a tradition, allegedly, that goes back to Peter and Jesus in Matthew 16. Do progressive evangelicals possibly risk anything on that order of magnitude? If you leave evangelicalism you refuse a version of Protestantism that goes back to George Whitefield?

What could ever be the problem with that? Whitefield was a straight white man who owned slaves, after all.

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