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.

– – – – – – – – – – – –

* 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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  • When contacted for a response, Bill Nye reportedly said “Eppur si muove.”

  • Yeah. In the 1990s, AAMOF, it was fashionable to bash environmentalists especially in smaller logging towns up here in BC. When there was a strenuous debate over logging in Clayoquot Sound* some news comment columns of the day actually came out with (paraphrased) ” as far as I’m concerned the government can pave the Clayoquot”.

    Re: drinking and tax deductibility

    These days the rules are that at least two people have to partake in the meal and there has to be some proof that the meal was related to business, since the inclusion went down to 50% from 100% of the cost. That said, business owners who hold this up as some kind of “PROOF!!!1111” that the IRS/Revenue Canada are cracking down miss the point that the government is still partially subsidizing an act most of us working stiffs don’t get any money back for doing.

    Raise your hands if you ever got a check from the government reimbursing you for all your meals over the last year.

    * Phonetically pronounced, clah-uh-kwut, roughly speaking. I can’t do a schwa, so the “uh” is my best rendering of an unstressed syllable.

  • Re: drinking parties etc.

    One thing that I am peripherally aware of is that drinking at pubs and bars is still a major component of social interaction in the large industries here in BC that are heavily male-dominated.

  • Mary Kaye

    Drinking can be pretty important in academia.  I teach in two versions of a two-week intensive course (for graduate students, postdoctoral researchers, and junior faculty)–one in the US, one in Europe, but organized by many of the same people.  In both cases the organizers tell the students forthrightly on day 1 that a significant part of the course occurs in the bar after the  last lecture.  That’s the prime time to interact one-on-one with the faculty.

    This drives me crazy.  Not only do I not drink but I am incapable of following conversations in a bar.  I know that some students suffer from this too, and I have tried to arrange alternative social space, but without much success. 

    We also have more or less yearly trouble with the (rather strict) local law at the US venue due to the actions of course members who drink too much.  One year a bunch of participants drunkenly invited themselves to a party on a boat.  When the owner of the boat found out, there was trouble.

    So it startles me to hear that drinking’ s importance has gone *down*, though I can believe it.  (I hadn’t realized how much smoking had decreased in the US–until I went to Europe.  Wow.)

  • Lori

    There were…incidents, such as the time someone threw up in the
    Executive Board Room, but that never dissuaded anyone from having them.

    Whoa. That would not have flown at Big Name. The cynical part of me thinks that this may partially explain the current fortunes of AOL vs Big Name.

    Even so, our parties are still pretty boring, from what I understand.

    I never attended the holiday parties of any of the companies I worked for after Big Name. They were unfun, by design at Company A and out of incredible cheapness at Company B*. I wouldn’t have had any interest in going in any case, but  especially after 5 years of amazing** there just didn’t seem any point.

    *So not kidding. The 1st year I was with the company we made record-breaking profits. The holiday party was held on a Sunday night to take advantage of the lower rates (and the fact that far fewer people will attend), had a cash bar and  reports were that the food was lousy in ways that screamed “cheap”.

    **Also not kidding. The year at the Design Center was good. The year when we basically had all the public space at the Fairmont was It. People who weren’t even there still talk about it. I honestly wouldn’t want to make it a lifestyle even if I could, but the occasional ostentatious display of pure cash can make for a good time. (For the record, unlike some companies the cash for the party wasn’t part of some elaborate con on the part of upper management or anything. IIRC it was a line item in the company report and everything.)

  • Lori


    drinking at pubs and bars is still a major component of social
    interaction in the large industries here in BC that are heavily

    We have that in the US too. Just change “pubs and bars” to “strip clubs”.

    So lovely. /sarcasm

  • friendly reader

    The whole “social drinking whilst getting  periodically plastered” is still very much a part of social life here in Japan (I guess that’s another thing where they’re still stuck in the 1950s…) but I haven’t hit much of it thanks to where I work. When you’ve got people working in a preschool, after school programs, and evening classes, everyone goes home at different hours. But my friends and acquaintances who work in public schools say that Friday is frequently “everyone goes bar-crawling and gets hammered.” And at parties and karaoke nights, yes, my Japanese friends have gotten quite drunk and had to take taxis home.

    And then they wonder why I don’t drink much. The answer, of course, is that I have a very low tolerance for alcohol. Part of the reason is that I’ve always been too cheap to buy a lot of alcohol; I hate beer and what I do like tends to be expensive. Hence drinking is a treat for me, and I’ve never built up a tolerance. The part I don’t tell them, thanks to stigmas here, is that the medication I take massively lowers my alcohol tolerance. I can buzzed on only a little bit of alcohol.

    Also, were German Lutherans the only wets? What about the Scandinavians and Finns? Did they cave to pressure? Can I get some German Lutheran pride out of the fact that we told Prohibitions to go suck an egg?

  • If I may be cynical- recruitment potential. Just about everybody drinks occasionally or knows somebody who does. ‘Drinking is a sin’ translates to pinning the label of sinner on somebody to potential convert knows. Where as ‘Queerness is a sin’ has a much lower chance of being personally applicable, and comes with the bonus of feeling smugly self-righteous for resisting a sin that never appealed to them in the first place.  

    That only applies if the person condemning the sin does not know a person important to them who is affected by all that anti-gay condemnation.  As more people are “out”, the more obvious this becomes, and the more relaxed social attitudes toward homosexuality get.  Of course, for those who still hold onto condemnation of gays, that only further undermines them, which is why they seem so eager to push for petty symbolic gestures that have no practical effect other than to “send a message” to gay people.  

    Sadly for these clowns, the genie cannot be put back in the bottle (or closet as the case may be,) and their fight to do so is a hopeless one.  

  • I really didn’t enjoy the one AOL party I went to.  There were just SO many people there – I believe there were 10,000 or more –  and while it was in a very large convention space, it was difficult to find a place to sit, and everywhere you went there was loud music that made conversation virtually impossible.

    The worst part* (from my perspective) was that I was supposed to be there by a specific time to meet up with my team at a specified location, but I was delayed by my date, so I missed the meet up, and never managed to find any of my friends or co-workers in the mass of people, so while I was there with a smoking hot date, I never actually got to be seen with her by anyone who knew me.  The one time I briefly encountered someone I knew, she was in the restroom.

    I mean, I actually liked her as a person (until I figured out that she was just using me), and the most important thing to me was just having the pleasure of her company, but, you know, there’s no harm in getting a little ego boost from having your friends see you with a beautiful woman on your arm…

    As for drinking in academia, when I worked at a private college, whenever we had a meeting of the Board of Trustees, we always had to have the receptions and banquets off-campus, as the campus itself was dry, and not having booze just wasn’t an option…

    *Okay, the worst part was probably when my date got an angry phone call from her boyfriend.  I guess I’m pretty slow on the uptake sometimes (or perhaps just too optimistic for my own good), but it took me a long time to figure out that the whole thing – pretty much right from her initial flirtation with me – was just her using me as a way to get an invitation to one of the fabulous parties she’d heard so much about.

  • LectorElise

     That is my hope. I’m hoping, over the next fifty years, as climate change, gay rights, and the anti-anti-feminism backlash continue to be more and more prominent, big four style evangelists will find their bases shrinking back until they’re only a feature in hyper-conservative enclaves.
    Girl can dream, anyway.

  • Trixie_Belden

    This drives me crazy. Not only do I not drink but I am incapable of following conversations in a bar.

    So it’s not just me!  I’ve always been mystified, whenever I go to a crowded bar, and I look around and I see people conversing with apparent relaxation and enjoyment.  I think I have pretty decent hearing – I’ve never damaged it with a lot of loud noise, etc. – but I find when I’m in a crowded bar the room noise overwhelms me, and I can’t usually hear the person I’m trying to talk to very well.  Then when I’m trying to reply, my normal tone of voice won’t be heard, so I have to try pitch my voice in an awkward way as I try to speak more loudly without coming right out and shouting.  By the end of the evening, my throat always feels the strain.

  • Lori


    I’ve always been too cheap to buy a lot of alcohol; I hate beer and what I do like tends to be expensive.

    Me too. I drank a bit in high school, but by the time I could legally buy alcohol my drinking was mostly behind me. I hate the cheap stuff and there were almost always other things I’d rather buy than the expensive stuff.

  • P J Evans

     I like beer, actually, although I’ve never been much for drinking (my consumption was on the order of six drinks a year), but the medication I’m on now requires that I not drink at all.

  • Kubricks_Rube

    “What about the Scandinavians and Finns?”

    Sorry: “Prohibition was demanded by the “dries” – primarily pietistic Protestant denominations, especially the Methodists, Northern Baptists, Southern Baptists,New School Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, Congregationalists, Quakers and Scandinavian Lutherans. They identified saloons as politically corrupt and drinking as a personal sin.”

    Wikipedia doesn’t mention Finnish Americans, but Finland enacted prohibition for almost the same period as the US- 1919 to 1932. Sweden, Iceland and Norway too, give or take the start and end times. Beer was prohibited in Iceland until 1989!

  • They were opposed by the “wets” – primarily liturgical Protestants (Episcopalians, German Lutherans) and Roman Catholics, who denounced the idea that the government should define morality.

    Doesn’t surprise me at all. Historically, American Catholics have been alarmed by any legislation serving a religious morality in America for the simple reason that it wasn’t their morality that was likely to be served by it. America’s had a strong anti-Catholic current since pre-colonial days, which has frequently erupted into outright prejudice and occasional violence.

    It’s kind of weird in consequence of this for me to conceive of theocracy in  America being spearheaded by the likes of Romney and Santorum. Those trying to push religion into the law have hitherto been awfully hostile to both of their religions, and one would think they’d have cultural memory of the fact that the American religious right is really not their friend.

  • mud man

    “Sure they are. That’s how groups work. They’re made up of individuals. Political parties are not The Borg.”
    Not??? The whole point of a “party” is to assemble a coalition: that is, I will support your position whether or not I agree with it in order to get your support for my position. 

    Generally, a whole system will have properties that emerge from the properties of its parts but are not evident in them. A society is more than a mob of individuals. Ecology is more than Chemistry. Beethoven’s Fifth is more than a bunch of notes. 

  • I never drank in my youth, it is only when in my very late twenties that I even developed a taste for spirits.  These days, I enjoy the occasional cocktail or beer, but my average rate is maybe a drink or two every week.  Usually just a little here or there to relax my muscles as I do some painting.  

  • Lori


    it took me a long time to figure out that the whole thing – pretty much
    right from her initial flirtation with me – was just her using me as a
    way to get an invitation to one of the fabulous parties she’d heard so
    much about.

    I know that it was a long time ago, but I am still seriously indignant on your behalf. What is wrong some people? That is such a total asshole thing to do.

  • Lori


    Beer was prohibited in Iceland until 1989!

    I find that very surprising. “No beer” and “eating rotted shark” are not phrases you expect to go together.

  • Lori


    I will support your position whether or not I agree with it in order to get your support for my position.   

    Those positions are still held by individuals and individuals can and do have things they aren’t willing to trade away. The modern GOP is about as uniform as a political party gets when it comes to it’s votes in Congress, but even they don’t all agree on things. That’s why there are arguments about RINOs and why there’s some (highly amusing) in-fighting going on these days between various factions.

    Generally, a whole system will have properties that emerge from the
    properties of its parts but are not evident in them. A society is more
    than a mob of individuals. Ecology is more than Chemistry. Beethoven’s
    Fifth is more than a bunch of notes. 

    Yes, the whole is generally more (or sometimes less) than the sum of it’s parts. The parts don’t disappear though. The notes in Beethoven’s Fifth don’t have agency. They didn’t organize themselves into music and they can’t jump off the staff and join some other piece if they decide the Fifth just isn’t working for them. People can.

  • Tricksterson

    Well yeah, everyone knows that the light of the moon comes from the natural radioctivity of the cheese from which it is composed.

  • Tricksterson

    If you had to (publicly at least) act as morally confined as the avrage middle classer in the Fifties, you’d drink a lot too.

  • Tricksterson

    One reason I proposed a new mascot is that I haven’t seen a lot of the boobies lately.  They’ve been laying down on the job lately.

    On the other hand, maybe they could work out a timeshare

  • seniorcit

     I didn’t drink wine until I was in my 40s, and now frequently enjoy a glass with dinner.

    My teenage years were in the 1950’s and were accompanied by a whole list of verboten activities:  drinking, smoking, movies, dancing (a vertical expression of a horizontal desire), Elvis music (jungle drums!!), bleached hair, dangling earrings,  low-cut dresses,  movie magazines, belief in evolution, studying science at a secular institution, asking too many questions.  Approved activities were church twice on Sundays (three times if you counted Sunday School), prayer meeting on Wednesdays, daily devotions, vocal prayer before meals even in restaurants, carrying your Bible to school on top of your book pile, attending youth group activities and’/or ISCF and Youth For Christ, witnessing, occasional street meetings, conducting the service at the local mission, teaching Sunday School or VBS, counselling at a Christian summer camp.  Sex education was non-existent, there were occasional pregnancies and early marriages, and lots of late evenings spent “parking” on dark, dead end streets.  When I look around at the people I grew up with I’m amazed at the number of divorces and the those who are no longer involved in a church or who have wandered on to join strange cult-like groups. 

  • GDwarf

    Re: Prohibition: Like many things, it had lots of causes. It started out as a mainly left-wing movement to try and improve the lives of the poor and women, supposedly, because they/their husbands would just drink away all their money and get in trouble. Obviously they couldn’t/wouldn’t stay dry of their own volition, so the more enlightened upper-class would have to step in and keep them safe for their own good. Or that’s how it was sold, anyways.

    There was also lots of racism (“Drunk n*****s will rape your wives” was essentially how it was sold in the south. Plus, most of the big breweries were German while spirits were mainly distilled by Jewish companies), lots of lies about the dangers of alcohol that were taught in schools for decades before-hand, and lots of other factors (For example: The strongest prohibition advocates were Suffrage groups, and once the movement gained a bit of momentum you ended up with “Wet dries”; Politicians that drank but that were willing to be pro-prohibition to court votes. And, as always, you got state’s rights and all that nonsense tangled up in it).

  • Jenora Feuer

    Actually, having good hearing might actually work against you… being able to pick up enough of the background conversational noise that you can start to parse language sounds out of it could interfere with the normal language parsing.  That said, I often have the same issue of picking out one conversation from a crowd.

    As for drinking, I’m not a heavy drinker either.  Part of it is my parents: both that neither of them were significant drinkers, but also because neither of them treated alcohol as something mysterious that I was never to touch.  My father introduced me to hard cider (B.C. Growers) back when I was in my early teens, though I could only have small amounts.  Thus demystified, alcohol did not come at me with the ‘you are now at University and can drink as much as you want!’ aspect.  Though the main issue is just that I really hate not being in control of myself.

    My average alcohol intake is about one drink per month, and half of that is when I’m visiting family.  The company where I work normally gives one free drink at the annual business bashes, and everything alcoholic after that you pay for yourself.  Of course, the fact that three of the department I work in (including my group’s manager) are Muslim and don’t drink at all also rather limits the number of people actively trying to get hammered.

    On the other hand, the one time I went to a business meeting in Japan, some of the people there were quite obviously having trouble walking straight, much less giving speeches, well before the night was over…

  • Jay

    I’ve had the idea for a while that societies tend to have tension between their centers and their edges.

    By the “edge” of a society, I mean the regions and classes that are exposed to elements of other societies.  Large cities, political capitals, and universities tend to be edge areas.  Trade, immigration, travel, and diplomacy tend to give residents of those areas a cosmopolitan outlook.  Edge residents (edgers?) know members of other cultures and other religions, and understand that there are people in the world who do not share their cultural beliefs and values, but nevertheless get along in life as well as anyone else.  In contemporary America, this outlook would largely be called “liberal”.

    In the center of the society, there are few elements of other cultures (except for those cultures that have been subjugated and whose viewpoints can be safely ignored).  The beliefs and values of the society are taken for granted, and any insult to them is considered outrageous.  In contemporary America, the outlook of the center is usually called “conservative”.

    As a general rule, edge members of one culture are well-equipped to deal with edge members of other cultures, but center members of different cultures are not.  For example, the State Department and the Saudi monarchy are both edge members of their own cultures, and can deal with each other easily.  Center members of the same cultures, such as evangelical conservatives and Taliban, probably won’t get along.

    Speaking a foreign language other than Spanish fluently is a very “edgy” trait.  Knowing many people with distinctly foreign points of view (Muslims, Chinese who consider the Party favorably, people whose marriages were arranged by their parents) is also very “edgy”.

    Generally, members of the edge of a society consider the center members to be backward and unworldly.  Generally, members of the center of a society consider edge members to be weakened by foreign influence; the social narratives, conventions, and values that the center members hold dear are taken far less seriously on the edge.

    The value of this idea, to me, is to understand that something similar happens in every society.  Other countries have their centers and their edges, and anyone who talks to us is probably very “edgy”. 

  • Guest

    “What’s your stance on homosexuality?”

    I hope your response is, “I’m flattered, but I’m married.”

  • it took me a long time to figure out that the whole thing – pretty much 
    right from her initial flirtation with me – was just her using me as a 
    way to get an invitation to one of the fabulous parties she’d heard so 
    much about.I know that it was a long time ago, but I am still seriously indignant on your behalf. What is wrong some people? That is such a total asshole thing to do.
    Meh… if his main reason for inviting her was to get the “ego boost” of being seen with a beautiful woman on his arm, I’d say he was using her just as much.  Just less successfully.