Distinguishing between a Movement and Its Ethos

Distinguishing between a Movement and Its Ethos November 11, 2020

Distinguishing between a Movement and Its Ethos

People ask me how I can still call myself “evangelical” in light of the fact that about eighty percent of white American evangelicals say they support Donald Trump (who is still, as I write this, president of the United States). Many of my progressive evangelical friends and acquaintances threw off the label during the last four years (2016-2020).

My answers have been simple and I do not understand why people don’t understand them.

First, notice that now even the media are say “white American evangelicals” when referring to the eighty percent who say they voted for Trump twice. How many American evangelicals are not white? Many. Who knows how many? Why ignore them when deciding what “evangelical” means?

Second, why define an entire affinity group by one affinity that is rather tangential to its essence if part of that essence at all?

Third, what is the “essence” of evangelical Christianity? Well, its best historians have agreed that it is not political but religious and contains four defining elements: biblicism, conversionism, crucicentrism, and activism (the famous “Bebbington Quadrilateral” with which evangelical historian Mark Noll has agreed).

Fourth, evangelical Christianity is a world wide phenomenon, not unique to America. When I call myself “evangelical” I am identifying myself with a world wide religious phenomenon, not an American one per se.

Fifth, when I call myself “evangelical” I am not talking about membership in some organization or even movement. So far as I can tell the “evangelical movement” is dead and gone. I am talking about my identification with a particular ethos that defined that movement but lives on beyond its demise. And it pre-dated that movement’s rise.

The distinction between a movement and an ethos is all-important but little understood.

*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.*

A movement is a not-yet organized group of people (no membership as such) who share a particular affinity passionately. Normally, as a movement, they associate with each other via some kind of media—whether “in person” or “in print” or “online.” They recognize each other when they meet and converse. They share a sub-language. (For example, evangelical Christians have always shared language about an experience called being “born again”—however exactly expressed.) A movement is defined by the shared affinity and by its prototypes—founders, movers and shakers, leading spokespersons to whom the movement’s affiliates look for leadership-as-representation.

The post-fundamentalist, post-WW2 evangelical movement found its shared affinity in being fundamentalist and revivalist (Christian) in a non-fundamentalist and non-revivalist way. It coalesced around Billy Graham and his various projects and organizations and around the National Association of Evangelicals (in America). The movement had no borders; a movement that has borders is no longer a movement but an organization. By definition a true movement cannot have borders. But it was a “centered-set category” defined by the affinity and by certain prototypes.

According to historian George Marsden this evangelical movement died out in the 1970s. And yet Time declared 1976 “The Year of the Evangelical.” Looking back on the movement I participated in and affiliated myself with, I would say its strongest days were from about 1955 until about 1975 when it began to fragment.

Now, looking back, I see that the evangelical movement is gone; it is dead. It no longer exists as a distinct movement. It has broken into pieces and the pieces no longer recognize a shared affinity or celebrate it together.

Now, however, I absolutely insist that the movement had an ethos that predated its beginnings as a movement and that still exists when the movement is gone. The ethos is almost indistinguishable from the affinity, but it is more ethereal. The evangelical ethos arose especially among European Protestant Christians in the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. It is sometimes called “the Pietist Awakening” within Lutheranism that had echoes also among Presbyterians and Puritans. There were even some Catholics and Anabaptists who shared the ethos!

What was and is the evangelical ethos? It is the ideal of immediacy of communion with God beginning with a conversion experience and continuing throughout Christian life in transforming experience of the presence of God. This ethos is inextricably tied to traditional Protestant belief in the primacy of Scripture (authority for belief and practice) and in salvation (including sanctification) as undeserved and unearned gift of God’s grace received by faith. Throughout much of the twentieth century this ethos was expressed by means of the phrase “personal relationship with God” but it meant non-sacramentally and non-sacerdotally—immediately through faith, prayer, worship, and witness.

This “evangelical ethos” was and is expressed through songs, devotional books, sermons, “tracts,” prayer groups, individual prayer, and above all through language about friendship with Jesus—fellowship divine… But all of that within the over riding belief in and hope of total transformation of life in communion with God.

The evangelical ethos lives on beyond the evangelical movement’s demise.

When I call myself an “evangelical Christian” I mean I identify myself with this extremely meaningful (to me) evangelical ethos; it is my religious identity and it would be no matter what my political posture might be. It is independent of politics.

*Note to commenters: This blog is not a discussion board; please respond with a question or comment only to me. If you do not share my evangelical Christian perspective (very broadly defined), feel free to ask a question for clarification, but know that this is not a space for debating incommensurate perspectives/worldviews. In any case, know that there is no guarantee that your question or comment will be posted by the moderator or answered by the writer. If you hope for your question or comment to appear here and be answered or responded to, make sure it is civil, respectful, and “on topic.” Do not comment if you have not read the entire post and do not misrepresent what it says. Keep any comment (including questions) to minimal length; do not post essays, sermons or testimonies here. Do not post links to internet sites here. This is a space for expressions of the blogger’s (or guest writers’) opinions and constructive dialogue among evangelical Christians (very broadly defined).

Browse Our Archives