The ‘Big Four’ markers of the evangelical tribe

The ‘Big Four’ markers of the evangelical tribe May 5, 2012

Not all of the Big Four carry equal weight.

I’ve commended Jonathan Dudley’s excellent book, Broken Words, for his frank and insightful assessment of the four tribal markers that characterize the boundaries of American evangelicalism: abortion, homosexuality, evolution and environmentalism. Opposition to all four of those constitutes evangelical tribal identity.

Such opposition need not be active or particularly outspoken. What’s important is the “stance” of opposition, to use the lingo of the tribe. That “stance” must be “firm.”* When someone takes a “firm stance” against any of the Big Four, they solidify their identity as a member of the tribe in good standing. When the firmness of one’s stance against any of these four is in question, so too is one’s status, identity and membership in the tribe.

As with much of what passes for American evangelical theology, the sense seems to be that what matters most is intellectual assent to a propositional assertion. One needs to be able to give the proper answer when asked the question, but it’s perfectly acceptable to spend most of one’s time on other activities.

The Rev. Billy Graham, for example, spent most of his long career as an evangelist conducting old-school revival meetings. He didn’t spend his time or energy railing against the Big Four. That wasn’t his thing. But, like all American evangelicals, even evangelists and revival preachers are required to check in from time to time to reaffirm the firmness of their stance against the Big Four and thus the validity of their membership in the tribe.

“What’s the password?” the sentinels of the tribe will occasionally demand and, familiar with the ritual, the evangelists will supply the proper responses — confirming the firmness of their stance against abortion, homosexuality, evolution and environmentalism. To do otherwise would call into question their legitimacy within the tribe, which they fear would distract and detract from their larger work.

I suspect that Billy Graham’s current spasm of partisan activism on behalf of North Carolina’s recklessly cruel Amendment One is, for him, another instance of this ritual confirmation of the firmness of his stance. (A response likely orchestrated and exploited by his political hack son, Franklin, who has long sought to turn the family business into a more aggressively partisan operation.)

The interesting thing about Billy Graham is that he’s 93 years old, which makes him far older than the particular culture-war issues of the current Big Four tribal markers.

When I first went to work for an evangelical parachurch agency, the Big Four was still only the Big Three. But back when Graham first began his ministry, it was only the Big One. Opposition to evolution was an important tribal marker for evangelicals in the 1950s, but the evangelical movement as a whole was far less tribalistic at that time (or, at least, their tribalism was less political in nature) and the other three pieces of the Big Four didn’t yet have any particular significance for most evangelicals.

In the 1950s, gay rights and environmentalism hadn’t yet arisen to prominence in the national conversation. They weren’t yet on the radar for most evangelicals or for most Americans. If you could hop in Marty McFly’s DeLorean and travel back to 1955 to interview prominent evangelicals, they’d have been surprised to be asked about such topics. If pressed, they would likely have expressed vague opposition to gay rights and vague support for environmentalism, but those weren’t really matters they’d given much thought.

Those 1950s evangelicals would have been slightly better prepared to discuss the question of legal abortion. That wasn’t yet any sort of priority for them, but it was already something they generally favored.

(Yes, favored. This was partly due to 1950s-era anti-Catholicism among evangelicals, but the prevailing opinion among evangelicals mostly favored legal abortion up through the 1960s and 1970s. The complete reversal of this “stance” didn’t really take hold until after the 1980 election.)

So back when Billy Graham was just starting out, the boundaries of the tribe weren’t policed and enforced as fiercely as they are today. There were other tribal markers — no drinking, no dancing, etc. — but only one of today’s Big Four was then in place: opposition to evolution. That’s the oldest of the Big Four — the only one that traces back to the last time when the culture wars were as prominent and heated as they’ve become in recent decades.**

But if evolution is the oldest of the Big Four, it is also probably the weakest. Categorical opposition to evolution is not as mandatory as categorical opposition to abortion and homosexuality. A firm stance against evolution verifies one’s status within the tribe, but the lack of such a firm stance doesn’t necessarily require one’s expulsion.

Answers in Genesis, Ken Ham’s institution promoting young-earth creationism, is more on the fringes of the evangelical tribe than, for example, Wheaton College, the respected evangelical school near Chicago. Yet it’s something of an open secret that the science departments at mainstream evangelical schools like Wheaton teach evolution as scientific fact. Polls show that a majority of evangelical clergy still deny the science of evolution, but most evangelical academics — including theologians, biblical scholars and journalists — do not share their ignorance. Those academics nearly all accept evolution as true — albeit somewhat cagily, always cognizant of who might be listening or looking over their shoulder.

People like anti-evolutionist Southern Baptist Cardinal Al Mohler are now more the exception than the rule within evangelicalism. Mohler regularly denounces other evangelicals he regards as “soft” on evolution, and he purged most such faculty in his takeover of Southern Seminary. But those faculty all landed on their feet elsewhere, embraced and accepted at other evangelical institutions.

Consider two recent books: Peter Enns’ The Evolution of Adam: What the Bible Does and Doesn’t Say About Human Origins and John Walton’s The Lost World of Genesis One: Ancient Cosmology and the Origins Debate. Neither book is compatible with a “firm stance” against evolution. Those books may get their authors classified as officially “controversial,” but neither Enns nor Walton was summarily expelled from the tribe, reclassified as “post-evangelical” the way Jay Bakker was for embracing LGBT people as his brothers and sisters. The evangelical publishers of those books (Brazos Press and IVP, respectively) haven’t experienced any sort of backlash for publishing them — certainly not the sort of vehement denunciations and calls for retractions that would have followed if they had instead published books advocating for gay rights or abortion rights.

The other weak tribal marker among the Big Four is anti-environmentalism. This is the newest of the bunch, taking hold only in the wake of the 2000 election (in the 1980s, evangelicals liked Al Gore).

It is possible to retain one’s membership in the evangelical tribe without taking a firm stance against environmentalism. It is even somewhat possible — although, of course, “controversial” — to retain membership in the tribe while embracing and advocating for environmentalism.

Their classification as controversial limits the appeal and influence these evangelical environmentalists might otherwise have. They have sometimes tried to counter that by striking a troubling bargain that has tended to reinforce the underlying, corrosive problem of tribalism.

But that, I’m afraid, is a larger, separate, topic and thus one I’ll have to save for a future discussion.

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* Yes, this “firm stance” lingo invites a host of double entendres. Feel free, but try not to let it undermine an opportunity for genuine communication. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to bite my lip when some earnest evangelical has guilelessly asked me, “What’s your stance on homosexuality?”

** In the great fundamentalist-modernist culture wars of the 1920s, evangelicals suffered one huge defeat and suffered one even larger victory. The defeat — over the teaching of evolution — forced evangelicals to retreat and regroup. But the bigger blow to evangelical culture warriors turned out to be their apparent success: Prohibition. It seems nothing is more devastating for culture warriors than a decisive triumph.


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