So What, Then, Is “American Evangelicalism?”

So What, Then, Is “American Evangelicalism?” February 1, 2016

So What, Then, Is “American Evangelicalism?”

One segment of American society, including both secular and religious people, including some people I consider “evangelicals” in my sense of the term, regard “American evangelicalism” as a far right-wing political movement if not a “hate group.” They base this on a combination of two factors. First, many leading spokespersons for far-right wing American politics call themselves “evangelicals.” This has been going on since fundamentalists Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson established movements within American evangelicalism to promote conservative social and political causes. This began in the late 1970s. I remember it well. I was not alone among evangelicals shocked when Jerry Falwell, a noted fundamentalist critic of Billy Graham, began calling himself “evangelical.” Then, the national secular media, including notably Phil Donahue (talk show host) and Larry King (also a talk show host) began inviting Jerry Falwell onto their television shows to speak for “American evangelicals.” Many of we American non-fundamentalist evangelicals spoke up as best we could against permitting him and his ilk to represent us all. But the bandwagon rolled on and, we felt, over us.

Today, I am told, it is “too late” to rescue the label “evangelical” from this popular perception that it designates a combined ultra-conservative religious belief system (what used to be known as “fundamentalism”) and ultra-conservative “Christian” political ideology (close to what I knew as a teenager as the ideology of the John Birch Society). (As a teenager I worked for a leader of the John Birch Society in the Upper Midwest and was subject to many long “conversations” and literature about his and their beliefs.)

Another segment of American society, including numerous Protestant Christians, still identify as “evangelical” without in any way identifying with or participating in the so-called “Religious Right” or fundamentalist theology. They, we, do not combine ultra-conservative politics with our non-fundamentalist but relatively conservative Christian faith. They, we, keep our social and political beliefs and values informed by but separate from our devotion and worship. That is to say, we recognize that a person can be a devout Christian (“God-fearing, Bible-believing, Jesus-loving”) and have very different social and political beliefs from others like us. That is to say, we do not connect our Christian faith inextricably to any political ideology or movement. We accept diversity, even pluralism, of social-political beliefs within “American evangelicalism” (to say nothing of other religious identities).

Sociologists of religion have studied “American evangelicals,” using spirituality and theology as their definition, and found that they/we are extremely diverse when it comes to political views and party-affiliation. Leading journalists such as Jonathan Merritt have pointed this out with little effect on media pundits and talking heads who have largely come, mistakenly, to identify “American evangelicalism” as a monolithic political bloc.

Leading scholars, historians, sociologists and theologians, of “American evangelicalism” have identified it as a spiritual-theological movement. They include: Randall Balmer, George Marsden, Mark Noll, David Bebbington, Joel Carpenter, and many more. Christianity Today, the leading evangelical magazine, has strictly avoided identifying “American evangelicals” with any political ideology, party or movement. Across the United States one can easily identify influential evangelical organizations and institutions that do not, in any way, identify themselves formally or informally with any political party, ideology or movement. They include the colleges and universities of the Christian College Consortium and most in the Coalition of Christian Colleges and Universities. They include world relief organization such as World Relief and World Vision. They include seminaries that identify as evangelical including arguably the largest seminary in the United States—Fuller Theological Seminary. They include influential publishers such as Zondervan, Eerdmans, InterVarsity Press, Baker, and others. They include para-church organizations such as Youth for Christ, the National Association of Evangelicals (approximately fifty Protestant denominations!), the Evangelical Theological Society and InterVarsity Christian Fellowship.

So, what makes an individual, church or organization “evangelical?” Like many useful and even unavoidable labels this one is “essentially contested.” Definitions range from extremely loose (e.g., “like Billy Graham”) to extremely tight and narrow (e.g., belief in the inerrancy of the Bible). The debate over “evangelical identity” will never end with total agreement. But we cannot simply allow the media talking heads and their writers to define it! Nor can we allow self-appointed spokesmen for a certain segment of self-identified evangelicals to speak for all. According to the scholars who have studied “American evangelicalism” it is a spiritual-theological identity and ethos (hardly a “movement”) rooted in the Protestant Reformation, the Pietist movement (which some have called the “Second Reformation”), revivalism (First and Second Great Awakenings), and the early (pre-1925) fundamentalist reaction against liberal Protestantism. In post-WW2 American context nobody has stamped “American evangelicalism” more personally and spiritually-theologically than Billy Graham.

Scholars of “American evangelicalism” tend to identify it as a relatively theologically conservative (theologically non-liberal) form of Protestantism that emphasizes: the Bible as the written Word of God, authoritative for Christian faith and life, conversion to Christ by conscious repentance and faith as crucial to a mature and authentic Christian existence, Christ’s atoning death on the cross as the only means of salvation (reconciliation with God), and some vision and measure of activism to transform the world in light of the vision of the Kingdom of God. The latter point of the “Bebbington-Noll quadrilateral” is probably the most diverse among “American evangelicals.” Some see that as including concrete political involvement and some see it as only witness and charity.

Obviously, this includes millions of American people—including many who have no particular interest in politics and some who are actively involved in “left wing” social and political causes.

An analogy to the problem of the contemporary misuse, even distortion, of “American evangelicalism” (and why I and many others won’t give up the identity in spite of popular misconceptions of it) is the Reformed identity. Anyone who has his or her ear close to the ground of popular Christianity in America knows that the label “Reformed” is being co-opted by hard core Calvinists who are also fundamentalists. A large youth-oriented movement called the “Young, Restless, Reformed Movement” has swept across college and university campuses and given rise to numerous new groups—churches, even denominations, para-church organizations, etc.—that call themselves “Reformed.” Slowly but surely “Reformed”—a Protestant identity going back to the Reformation itself—is being identified in the popular mind (even Time magazine fell into this) with “five point Calvinism” combined with belief in “complementarianism” (Christian females should submit to males in the home and in the church) and “biblical inerrancy.” This more than irks and irritates Reformed theologians and church leaders who are not five point Calvinists, complementarians, or biblical inerrantists. “Reformed” is a spiritual-theological identity not tied to “five point Calvinism” and certainly not tied to complementarianism or belief in biblical inerrancy.

To those who tell me I should give up calling myself “evangelical” because I’m not part of the “Religious Right” and not a fundamentalist theologically I ask “Do you believe historically Reformed churches, denominations, institutions ought to give up their Reformed identity just because most people have come to equate that with the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement of five point Calvinism largely made up of people with no Reformed ecclesiology or spiritual-theological ethos?” “Would you say, for example, to a person who teaches or studies at Western Theological Seminary—a leading historically Reformed seminary in Michigan—that he or she ought to surrender the label ‘Reformed’ just because most people have come to think of it as identical with the fundamentalism of the Young, Restless, Reformed Movement?”

I could go on and ask the same about the identity and label “Baptist.” In large swaths of the United States, especially the Upper Midwest, Northeast and West Coast, “Baptist” is widely thought of—in the popular mind and in the press—as nearly identical with fundamentalism and even right-wing religiously informed politics. And, indeed, many, perhaps most, Baptist churches in large urban areas of those parts of the country have given up using the label “Baptist” even as they remain Baptist in faith and practice. However, across the South especially, and in the “border states,” “Baptist” remains a strong if diverse identity. Moderate Baptists struggle to maintain their Baptist identity—pointing back to Baptist history—in the face of the rising tide of Baptist fundamentalism and the popular image of Baptists as religious extremists. To moderate Baptists who lump all “American evangelicals” together as a political hate group I say: “Look to your own ‘house’.”

I have been an evangelical Christian—in the sense delineated above—all my life and am not willing to 1) be lumped together with evangelicals who are really also fundamentalists on a right-wing political binge, or 2) surrender my evangelical identity because of them and the media’s mindless cooperation with them (in narrowing the label “evangelical” down to them).

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