What Is “Evangelicalism” Again? Another Twist in the Knotty Conversation
Over the past years I have been involved in numerous conversations about “evangelicalism.” I’ve done my best to contribute constructively to these conversations and have gained some notoriety for it. I’ve written books and chapters and articles and spoken at many public gatherings. I’ve blogged about the subject many times here.
I thought I’d heard it all—until recently when I was surprised by a scholarly idea about evangelicalism that absolutely floored me. I fear I over reacted and I must apologize to those (not named here) who were on the receiving end of my outrage.
Here is my bitter complaint. The conversation about what constitutes evangelicalism is being dominated by what I call “bean counters” by which I mean (somewhat idiosyncratically) people who decide about movements and ideologies and people who belong to categories by counting people who fit a preconceived model or who just confess to being members or adherents but don’t necessarily show any real signs of that. The emphasis is on quantity rather than quality.
*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*
In this case, my “bean counters” are not accountants or bureaucrats but sociologists who have no real understanding of historical theology and who tend to determine who is and who isn’t truly evangelical by somewhat eccentric ideas dreamed up by themselves (or their academic mentors).
So I can only explain my complaint by giving an example—the latest and newest one that really stretches it to the limit—even the breaking point (in my humble opinion).
Two very fine Christian scholars, sociologists both, were expressing opinions about what “evangelicalism” is. They agreed, surprisingly, shockingly, that it is an ethnicity—specifically Scotch-Irish. My head spun around; I got dizzy and almost fell off my chair. An ethnicity? Scotch-Irish? Was I hearing correctly?
Then they proceeded to describe the characteristics of this imagined Scotch-Irish evangelical identity which they clearly see as constituting the core essence of evangelicalism.
To them it’s a certain kind of masculinity with certain rituals and habits and customs that are not very, well, politically correct. (My term, not theirs, but I believe that is what they were intending.) In fact, they are distinctly old-fashioned and out of touch with contemporary culture. And they are what make Donald Trump attractive to evangelicals; he is one of them in terms of this “ethnicity.”
Again, my word, not the scholars’, but in one word, “brutish.”
This illustrates for me something I am dimly aware of but truly astonished by—insofar as it exists beyond two scholars (and I think it does). That something is a tendency to demean evangelicalism itself by defining it by Donald Trump and even his worst characteristics.
I approach the project of defining and describing evangelicalism historically and theologically. To me, evangelicalism is not defined by the characteristics of those Americans who claim to be “born again.”
Evangelicalism is a worldwide phenomenon; it is not unique to America. Evangelicalism has been around for a very long time, at least since the Evangelical Awakenings in Europe in the early 17th century and in Great Britain and North American in the early 18th century. It is Protestant Christian orthodoxy on fire—experiential and not only doctrinal.
Evangelical Christianity’s Western (British and North American) prototypes are Jonathan Edwards and John Wesley. One needs to throw in George Whitefield and all those orthodox Protestant revivalists who followed in their train—right up to Billy Graham.
But probably this evangelical spirituality has caught on more completely among African-Americans and others of African descent and culture than any other ethnicity. They may not call themselves evangelical, but in terms of the historical-theological-spiritual sense they are evangelicals.
I will offer an awkward and imperfect illustration of how this can be that I think will make sense to most of my readers. Many Southern Baptists would never call themselves “evangelical” (because it sounds like a “yankee word”) and yet they are clearly evangelical in the historical-theological-spiritual sense.
In my experience, African-American, Caribbean and African Christians are more consistently and commonly evangelical in this historical-theological-spiritual sense than any other ethnic group. It is difficult to find an African-American or African or Caribbean-based church that isn’t evangelical and unashamed of it (except they probably don’t use that label).
All one has to do is visit these churches to see it. The Great Awakenings sunk deep into the “bones” of African-Americans, Caribbeans, and African Christians. But one can find this ethos all around the world. To link it inextricably to Scotch-Irish folks and Trump supporters is to do serious violence to it and to break all historical-theological reason.
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