Who Is an “Evangelical” and Who Gets to Decide?

Who Is an “Evangelical” and Who Gets to Decide? November 18, 2018

Who Is an “Evangelical” and Who Gets to Decide?

This question (or two) has been discussed almost to death over my adult lifetime among evangelicals. Many years ago I began to attend a then relatively new “society” of evangelical scholars that met annually. I remember three annual meetings during which panelists and members of the audience talked about who is an evangelical and who gets to decide. No consensus emerged. It was frustrating. In the last moment of the third (and last) session (the society was going to move on to other topics the next year) there was a definite feeling of failure in the room. Then a non-evangelical Lutheran theologian who has studied evangelicals a lot and even published one major book about evangelicalism stood up at the back of the room and said “I suggest that an evangelical is anyone who loves Billy Graham.” The whole room broke out in applause. Of course, I don’t believe everyone in the room necessarily agreed, but finally someone had said something meaningful TOWARD some kind of possible consensus. I think what he meant was that fundamentalists (then) didn’t like Billy Graham and liberal Christians didn’t like Billy Graham and the vast majority of people who called themselves “evangelical Christians” then (1980s) loved Billy Graham.

*Note to would-be commenters: Here, as always, I speak only for myself. This is not a discussion board; if you write a comment address it to me. If you are not an evangelical Christian, ask a question. No one should attempt to misuse my blog to promote their own opinions or agendas. The goal here is civil conversation. I will not approve comments that do not contribute to that.*

I recently participated in a symposium celebrating the 100th birthday of Billy Graham. There was at least a general agreement that he was a towering and influential figure in world evangelicalism in the second half of the 20th century.

Also recently I attended a symposium where several scholars (both on a panel and in the audience during the Q&A time after the panelists delivered their presentations) discussed “Who Is an Evangelical and Who Gets to Decide?” Another round of a conversation that has been going on for many, many years.

Most of the panelists were relatively young and all were non-white (as “white” is usually understood not as color but as dominant culture). Some were women. There was a great deal of complaining that “evangelicalism” has been and is still largely being defined by white men. That needs to change, we were told.

Sitting in the audience of a scholarly society I once led felt very strange. The finger was being pointed at me—as a culprit. Not directly; my name was never mentioned. But I knew who they meant—evangelicals like me.

I won’t even attempt to summarize the many fine points the speakers (and audience members) made. It was a two hour long session. There was much talk of “intersectionality.” I kept waiting for some suggestion about the meaning of “evangelical Christianity,” but the focus of the conversation seemed to be deconstructing the “power structures” (composed almost exclusively of white men) that have excluded “voices from the margins” from the conversations about the meaning of evangelicalism.

At least one, but I think two, of the speakers very specifically stated that LGBTQ people need to be included in any conversation about the meaning of “evangelical.” THAT would NEVER have been said in such a gathering of evangelicals—scholarly or otherwise—in the 1980s (for example). I do recall much talk about including African-Americans and women and other people of color (and non-Americans!).

But at this symposium it seemed (I may be wrong) that the speakers and many audience members simply took for granted that NOW LGBTQ people MUST be included as equal partners in the ongoing conversation about the meaning of “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 the session was wrapping up and about to be adjourned one man in the audience stood up and expressed my thoughts exactly. Only HE seemed to mean it in a positive way. (I can’t be sure.) He said that PERHAPS it will have to be the case from now on that ANYONE who claims to be an evangelical IS an evangelical.

I want to ask the panelists and others who agree with them how that is to be avoided. The reason I ask is because, at least to my way of thinking (I confess to being a dinosaur) that would mean “evangelical” has no meaning.

I am willing for the traditional meaning(s) of “evangelical” to change, but I am uncomfortable with 1) totally discarding all the work that has already been done in that conversation because it was carried on mostly by white, heterosexual males (in America), and 2) totally atomizing “evangelical” to the point that I/we simply have to accept as valid anyone’s claim to be evangelical.

I am remembering, for example, a conversation I had with a Unitarian theologian in the 1980s. He insisted to me that he is an evangelical. I’m not talking about a Pentecostal unitarian (Oneness); this man was a professor at a Unitarian-Universalist Seminary in Chicago.

On what grounds, exactly, should I have thought (if not said) “No, you can’t be an evangelical?” THAT was what we white, heterosexual male evangelical theologians were trying to discover and AT LEAST we offered some answers. We didn’t come to adequate consensus, but we didn’t leave “evangelical” meaningless. We were and are more than happy to include in THAT conversation (about doctrines and spiritual experiences) women, people of color, women of color (intersectionality!), people who have experienced poverty and are part of America’s “underclass,” etc., etc. BUT NOT Unitarians.

I was once a member and even a leader of a theological society that included Unitarians and members of the Jewish faith. But that was just a “place” for religious scholars interested in theology to get together and talk. It never had any intention of having any theological-spiritual identity. It was just about as diverse as can be—at least religiously. Had a Muslim or a Wiccan or a Mormon wanted to join, we would have been delighted!

But surely, hopefully, “evangelicalism” is not like that. At the symposium I did not hear any expressions of appreciation for the work already done, however faulty, on defining evangelicalism by evangelical scholars like myself. I had to wonder if all of that work is now believed to have been worse than useless—oppressive ONLY because conducted almost exclusively by white, heterosexual men.

*Again—to would-be commenters: Don’t expect me to approve your comment if it is hostile, misrepresents anything I said here (or elsewhere), uncivil, or simply does not contribute to this conversation (that I am initiating with this post). Critical responses are welcome if they are civil, calm, on topic, and etc.*


Browse Our Archives