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Why I care about evangelicalism

Why I care about evangelicalism August 2, 2010

Some students and readers have asked me why I expend energy and waste time trying to define evangelicalism; why not just give up the term “evangelical” and let the conservatives, fundamentalists and Religious Right people own it?  After all, so I’m told, it’s too late to rescue it.  “Evangelical” and “evangelicalism” are now so identified in the popular mind with right-wing conservativism in both theology and politics that they can’t be salvaged.  I’m urged to just let them go.

So what’s my response to that?  Why do I bother trying to correct the wide spread misconceptions about evangelicalism?  Why don’t I just give up these terms and, as one of my students suggested, just call myself “Christian” and leave it at that?

My initial response is that “Christian” is just as essentially contested as “evangelical.”  Saying “I’m a Christian” doesn’t say very much in our pluralistic Christianity.  The inevitable question will be “What kind of Christian are you?”  For most of my life (certainly all of my adult life) my first answer to that question is “I’m an evangelical Christian.”  That is so much a part of my identity that I can’t simply give it up.  What else would I say?

Okay, I could and sometimes do say “I’m a Baptist Christian.”  The problem there, of course, is that there are about 57 varieties of Baptists in the U.S. alone!  And “Baptist” is also an essentially contested concept.  And in some parts of the U.S., anyway, it is a label that immediately raises images of extreme fundamentalism, divisiveness, legalism and, of course, the Religious Right.

I find the label “evangelical” impossible to shed.  And I’m not alone.  Millions of people in America and around the world use this term to describe their particular brand of Christianity.  Numerous Christian organizations identify with it.  In my opinion, much of the debate about the “boundaries of evangelicalism” or “evangelical boundaries” has to do with exercising influence over those institutions.

I’m not content simply to allow ultra-conservatives to take control of a label that is so important to college administrators and publishers and leaders of multi-denominational and trans-denominational organizations.  They need to know that evangelicalism has historically been much broader and more inclusive than some of the louder voices claiming to speak for all evangelicals would allow.

Call me Don Quixote, if you will, but I’m not prepared to give up the fight for these terms that are so much a part of my Christian heritage and identity.  If I were going to do that, I might as well also give up on “Baptist” and even “Christian.”

Having said all that, I have to admit that these days (and for the past three decades or so–at least since the 1976 publication of The Battle for the Bible) there seem to be two evangelicalisms in North America.  One emphasizes woodenly literal biblical interpretation, conservative social and political agendas, rigid dogmatism and retrieval of some “Golden Age” of evangelicalism to the exclusion of all new ways of thinking.  The other emphasizes a more open hermeneutic that recognizes cultural conditioning in Scripture, a more progressive approach to social and political issues, a more flexible approach to doctrine and an openness to new ways of thinking in theology. 

Adherents of the first type of evangelicalism accuse representatives of the second of “unfettered theological experimentation” and worshiping the “goddess of novelty.”  From where I sit those are pretty ridiculous claims when made against progressives within evangelical ranks.  Adherents of the second type of evangelicalism accuse representatives of the first of dead traditionalism and even separatistic fundamentalism.  While I think there’s some truth to those claims (when made about some, not all, conservative evangelicals) most conservative evangelical theologians and leaders have not fallen back that far.

Both sides need to be charitable toward the other.  But I worry that this division may be irreparable.  We may need to start talking about “Evangelicalism 1” and “Evangelicalism 2.”  I have myself labeled them “traditionalists” and “reformists” and used the label “postconservative evangelical” for myself and some other representatives of the “2” camp within American evangelicalism.

So what is the practical importance of this debate over evangelicalism?  As I said before, it is a battle for the hearts and minds of administrators who have the power to exclude people: presidents of colleges, universities and seminaries, publishers and editors of periodicals and publishing houses, leaders of trans-denominational mission and fellowship organizations. 

I am not interested in excluding anyone from the evangelical movement, but I am interested in and committed to keeping it a dynamic movement open to diverse opinions and viewpoints.  How diverse? is, of course, the pressing question.  But it’s not a question with which I am particularly obsessed.  Others seem to be.  There’s a sense in which I say (paraphrasing the Supreme Court justice talking about pornography): “I know an evangelical when I meet one.”  All authentic evangelicals are God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving Christians.  All are committed to the four hallmarks or themes proposed by Noll and Bebbington (referred to in an earlier post) and to my fifth one: basic respect for the Great Tradition of Christian orthodoxy carved out in the early church and during the Reformation.

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