‘What is an evangelical?’ part 3,947 …

‘What is an evangelical?’ part 3,947 … October 3, 2012

Timothy Dalrymple, who oversees the evangelical channel here at Patheos, takes a couple good swings at the perennial question of who is (and thus who is not) an evangelical.

On Monday Tim asked “When Do You Stop Calling Someone an Evangelical?” It’s a thoughtful and generally constructive discussion of “various attempts to provide a clearer definition of evangelicalism, from the famous Bebbington Quadrilateral to pseudo-creeds like the Lausanne Covenant.” He’s particularly “leery,” he says, of attempts to define evangelicalism according to whatever culture-war issues happen to be prominent at the moment:

While it’s true that evangelicals are generally inclined, for instance, to oppose abortion and support the traditional marriage covenant, there are interpretations and extensions of their fundamental commitments and not fundamental commitments themselves. I’ve heard it before: “I don’t know how someone can be an evangelical and pro-choice.” Well, you’re going to have to trust me here: it can be done. Bebbington shows the way by focusing on essential theological matters.

If you want to reclaim the word “evangelical,” you’ll have to take it back from the people who own it right now. And that means people like Pat Robertson, Tony Perkins, David Barton, Bryan Fischer and Cindy Jacobs.

If “evangelical” is to refer to a part of the church, a part of the Christian community, then it needs to be a category defined or described in theological, not in political, terms. I agree with Tim on this point, although I’m afraid that — in practice — most American evangelicals do not.

Culture-war definitions of “evangelical” seem to be ascendant. We can see this most clearly from the sorts of people who tend to provoke hand-wringing discussions of, well, “when do you stop calling someone an evangelical?” When Jay Bakker fully affirms LGBT Christians in his congregation, we see a rush to rescind his membership in the evangelical tribe. He is quickly rebranded as “post-evangelical” despite not having strayed from any of those “essential theological matters” or having rejected any of the doctrinal affirmations of Lausanne or abandoned any of Bebbington’s four characteristics.

But note that this hasn’t happened with Jay’s dad, the notorious televangelist Jim Bakker. The elder Bakker has, for decades, preached a lurid mixture of wild heterodoxies — from the prosperity gospel to various End Times manias. But since his theological innovations and departures did not clash with the essential partisan culture-war “stances” of socially conservative Republicanism, he has never been rebranded as a “post-evangelical.”

This illuminates the problem Tim Dalrymple discussed in a second post yesterday on “The Future of Evangelicalism Online.” That post reiterates his commitment to a primarily theological understanding of evangelicalism. Undergirding his recommended marketing plan for “evangelicalism online” is a vision of the kind of moderate, theologically cautious, Christianity-Today evangelical perspective that characterized mainstream evangelicalism 20 years ago. He begins by lamenting the dominant public impression of evangelicalism in America:

Evangelicals are neither loved nor respected in the American public square. This is due in part to our enduring and principled commitment to truths and values the rest of mainstream society rejects, and in part to a tendency in media and academia to present a caricature of evangelicalism that elides its virtues and exaggerates its vices.

The problem here is that what Tim identifies as the “vices” of evangelicalism are not simply a caricature. Those vices are embodied in the most visible and vocal representatives of American evangelicalism. For the general public, as well as for “media and academia,” evangelicalism is no longer primarily identified with people like Billy Graham, J.I. Packer, John Stott or N.T. Wright or with institutions like Christianity Today and the National Association of Evangelicals.

Those people and institutions were long ago eclipsed by people like Pat Robertson, James Dobson, Tony Perkins, David Barton, Tim & Beverly LaHaye, Bryan Fischer and Cindy Jacobs.

Are those folks really “evangelicals”? Some would not be if we were to appeal to a primarily theological definition, but they all claim affinity with the term and because their culture-warrior bona fides are unquestionable, no one ever challenges their claim to it the way that such challenges are routinely directed toward people like Jay Bakker or Brian McLaren.

When people like Robertson, Perkins, Barton, Fischer, LaHaye and Jacobs become the most prominent standard-bearers of evangelicalism then we can’t complain that anyone is “exaggerating its vices.” The vices of folks like that really cannot be exaggerated. And that, more than anything else, is why “evangelicals are neither loved nor respected in the American public square.”

Here’s another way to describe the same problem: Broadly speaking, American Protestantism is viewed as divided into two parts — evangelicalism and mainline Protestantism. The broader public perception of evangelicalism, then, is shaped in response to the words and deeds of American Protestants who are not mainliners.

Evangelical gatekeepers tend, partly due to historical habit, to be most vigilant in patrolling the liberal border of their movement. Every Wild Goose Festival prompts a round of fretful discussion as to whether any of these troubling emergent types has strayed too far toward some hazily defined notion of liberalism and should thus henceforth be regarded as a “post-evangelical” — as a mainline wolf in evangelical sheep’s clothing.

But while these gatekeepers have been closely watching every word from the likes of Brian McLaren, they have utterly ignored the ascendance of the hyper-political right-wing machine that has come to replace the old CT-mainstream as the central locus of evangelicalism.

While the old guard was busy conducting a heresy trial for Tony Campolo to keep those liberals in line, the new guard was building a nationwide infrastructure and media empire that would, in short order, make the old guard irrelevant, obscure and all-but invisible to the larger public.

That, I think, is where the greatest challenge for American evangelicalism lies. Tim Dalrymple’s commendable goal of an evangelical community that represents “themselves, their views, and their vision of the Christian life in a manner that’s intellectually compelling, meticulously informed, and suffused with charity and grace” can’t be fully realized without in some way differentiating that community from the Robertson, Perkins, Barton, et. al., crowd who now own the label evangelical.

Right now, they own that word. The only way to reclaim it — to redeem it — is to take it away from them.


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  • What word in turn would you propose Robertson, Perkins, Barton, et. al. be labeled with instead of evangelical?  

  • walden

    “take it from them” —
    Yeah…but do we even want it?

  •  I think the term “assholes” suffice. Its an oldie but goodie.

  •  I do. As a Methodist, I’m a little upset the David Bartons of this world have hijacked a label once associated with the likes of John Wesley.

  • Jay

    Happy people aren’t going to get the word “gay” back, either.  Language drifts.  Let it go.

  • Tricksterson

    Assholes?  Sorry I just had to.

  • Tricksterson

    Damn you Nathanielninja!

  • Random Lurker

     A good question- as a non-religious type, I get the message from outside the club.  It’s not favorable, to put it politely.  If you want the name back, you’re going to have to do a lot of work on it’s image as well.

    Although I think the two processess will be one and the same.

  • See also, the first few dozen comments on this post, arguing whether Rachel Held Evans should be called an evangelical: www.dennyburk.com/christianity-todays-50-women-to-watch/.

  • Magic_Cracker

    How’bout “Devangelical”? No… sounds too much like a Devo cover band who plays in the style of Vangelis.

  • AnonaMiss

    Thank you for linking the Lausanne Covenant; it has helped to clarify to me the difference between Evangelicals and mainline Protestants.

    In the Methodist church in which I was raised – my interpretation of which continues to be a guiding influence in my own morality, though I am no longer a Christian – the impression I got was that evangelism was good not because it benefitted the convert, but because that meant one more Christian who would, by virtue of being a Christian, be moved to make the world a better place. 

    Christianity was correct, and it was always good to believe the correct things, but we didn’t view the unsaved as “I have to save them from Hell!” but rather as “They’ll come around later.” Even if they were dead – they’d all see the truth at the resurrection, and then they’d convert. Their sins could then be cleansed, and so everyone would be saved through Christ. 

    So liberal mainline Protestants, I think, are evangelicals without the arbitrary deadline. Not exactly universalists – at the resurrection people would still have the option to turn away from the obvious truth that Christ was Lord – but believing that the offer of salvation does not expire with the body.

    Mind you, this was never explicitly taught to me – it’s just the feeling I got from the general attitude of the pastors and youth leaders. I think it’s a healthy way to resolve the cognitive dissonance of a Christianity with so many splinters, which yet includes faith-based salvation: you can live in fear that you believe the wrong thing, or you can assume that God’s willing to let you change your mind.

  • Harold Bloom once suggested we resurrect the name “Know-Nothing” and apply it to Wally Criswell and his successors. It sounds about right.

  • To quote the late, great Molly Ivins, sheesh, what an asshole. 

    I am particularly leery of definitions of “evangelical” that focus on political or social positions. 

    Really? Because a day after saying that, Dalrymple goes on to say this:

    …we wish to fashion a better representation of evangelical engagement in public discourse.
    …The center of gravity of the Evangelical Channel presently rests just left of center… it will seek to fortify its offering in …culturally-savvy center-right social commentators.

    You all follow that? The current, “just-left-of-center” Evangelical channel is an inferior representation of evangelical engagement, and needs “center-right social commentators” to be a better representation. But evangelical isn’t defined by social positions!

    There is not now a single venue that attracts compelling commentary from young, conservative evangelical public intellectuals.

    There is also not presently a successful unicorn stable operating in reality, for  the same root cause: this thing sought after does not, in fact, exist. 
    There is compelling commentary from young evangelical public intellectuals. It is not conservative though.
    There is commentary from young, conservative evangelical public intellectuals. It is not compelling though. 

    It is mildly painful to see the reasoning at work: “with a roster of bloggers that balances to just-left-of-center, we have built a network of 1.2 million page-views with no budget. We will now abandon that  strategy, and spend money in order to promote more conservative views,  ???, then profit!”

  • LoneWolf343

     How about douchebags?

  • Launcifer

    Eh, I’d be tempted to let the blighters keep “evangelical” myself. Think of a word they won’t want to corrupt and use that instead. I reckon “pleasant”, “merciful” and “compassionate” might all be on the list.

  • Green Eggs and Ham

    I am not really convinced of there was an Old Guard that got overthrown by a New Guard.  Robertson did run from the Republican presidential nomination quite some time ago.  Jerry Falwell fits politically with this merry band of misanthropes.  James Dobson isn’t a new kid on the block.    They’ve all been warning for forever of the calamities that will befall the US should people vote Democrat. 

    If you mean that they now almost exclusively focus on the public political process, whereas, Billy Graham’s political influence as much more publicly, but not privately, muted, then I take your point.

  • The_L1985


  • Mary Kaye

    Isn’t it very weird, Fred, to be agreeing with Dalrymple about “evangelical” needing to be framed theologically rather than politically–when Dalrymple is presumably the person, or one of the people, who determined that your own blog is not “evangelical” enough to be part of the evangelical Patheos channel?

    I don’t understand the Patheos politics, I admit, but it seems to me that the article you cite is almost purely tactical.  This practice is hurting “the cause” so let’s tone it down.  But the cause itself remains innately political, as is dead clear from the other articles the cited one links to–which are mostly advice to Romney on how to win the election, and to evangelicals on how to help Romney win the election.  And it’s hard to see Romney as *theologically* closer to evangelicals than Obama, isn’t it?

  • Lori

    Timothy Dalrymple gets minus about a thousand points for use of the phrase “the traditional marriage covenant”, which is a totally ridiculous thing to say. If Dalrymple was higher profile I’d say that he should be expecting a letter from Chris Kluwe any day now.

    Related: Chris Kluwe’s interview with OUT is now online. Terry Prachett is one of his favorite authors and he totally did the shirtless pics without getting all weird about dudes looking at him. I have developed a serious fondness for this guy, even though everyone knows kickers are odd :)


  • More seriously:

    Moralists? Soterologists?

  • It’s so frustrating, because it shouldn’t even be an issue. How has this become an issue? How do people not see that these are Pharasitical Parasites on the name “Christian,” who need to, as I said in a blog post this morning, “grow some humility balls?”

  • Honestly, I feel like the word Christian itself has been tainted, much less the word Evangelical.

  •  Agreed. I said almost exactly that about “Christian” in my sermon this past Sunday. Not that it’s a new idea or that I came up with it or anything. But redefining words is necessary. Or else, as was previously suggested, just give up on the word.

    Though I grew up in an American Baptist church (like Fred!) that I know understand was evangelical, I have no desire to be associated with the term and thus no desire to fight for it. “Christian” on the other hand…that one I’d like to cleanse and keep.

  • The term for folks like Robertson et. al. is “fundamentalist.” This is an importantly different term than “evangelical.” The latter is historically broad and admitting of a great deal of diversity, as well as an irenic and charitable posture towards those who disagree (while remaining united around core “first-tier” theological doctrines like Christ’s saving life, death, and resurrection, and a high view of scriptural authority that may *or may not* be described by the word “inerrancy”). The current faculty of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in Deerfield, IL is a good example of a broadly evangelical collection of Christians.

  • Eamon Knight

    So: what exactly *is* the definition of “evangelical”? I knew 30 years ago when I still was one (see eg. list in previous comment by Rory Tyer). But last I heard Fred doesn’t believe in Hell (which raises the question of what one is being saved *from*), but rather insistently identifies as an evangelical.

    I should make clear that I ask mostly out of curiosity. Being a current and firmly convinced atheist, intra-Christian fights over nomenclature have little practical relevance to me ;-).

  • So: what exactly *is* the definition of “evangelical”? 

    I was wondering the same thing. I read the links much the same way a Martian first landing on Earth might: as an outsider with no context. So let me offer up what I think are the necessary (but not necessarily sufficient)  components. 

    1.) The Protestant Bible is the Word of God, and as such, is the final word on subjects. It may be interpreted differently by different persons, but any non-traditional interpretation may be dismissed unless it is well argued and well supported.

    2.) While the entire Bible is important, the teachings of Jesus (the Gospels) are the most important, and of those teachings, the death and resurrection of Jesus are the most important. 

    3.) Salvation is achieved through a personal acceptance of the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross.  This is the “good news” of Evangelism: Jesus died for your sins so you don’t have to. 

    4.) While much of the bible can be viewed as non-literal, the death, resurrection, and eventual Second Coming of Jesus are factual, literal events. 

    5.) Evangelicals have a duty to spread the “good news”. Charity and social work are tools to reach out to others and evangelize them. 

    I think those are the five fundamental distinctions that set boundaries for Evangelism. You have to spread the good news using outreach. You have to believe that Jesus rose from the dead, literally, and will return at some unknown future time. You have to believe in Jesus for your salvation*. You have to believe in the Bible as Truth, with emphasis on the Gospels. 

    *You’re free to accept that others might be saved through works, or through other means, but as an Evangelical, your source of salvation is Jesus, Jesus, and nothing but Jesus. 

  • This is due in part to our enduring and principled commitment to truths and values the rest of mainstream society rejects

    What a load of bullshit.

    What “enduring and principled commitment to truths”? What “truths”? What’s “mainstream society” anyway? Those are the two choices, Evangelical or “mainstream society”? That’s news to this feminist who writes about sex on the internet.

  • It is mildly painful to see the reasoning at work

    It’s more than mildly painful to me.

    Fred’s gonna get shafted. I’ve seen it happen again and again and again with this kind of setup. Some big website offers flowers and unicorns and gold at the end of rainbows to draw bloggers in. Then they yank everything away to reveal the flowers are deadly nightshade, the unicorns are weird men in suits, and the gold is painted lead. It doesn’t matter whether the big website’s about religion or politics or sex or makeup or gossip or cats. It happens every single time.

  • Sgt. Pepper’s Bleeding Heart

    Timothy Dalrymple alleges:

    The center of gravity of the Evangelical Channel presently rests just left of center.

    I can’t decide whether to soil myself laughing at the ridiculousness of that statement, admire Tim’s audacity for being so openly ignorant, or fume with frustration at the malignment of the actual left of centre.

  • AnonaMiss

    Speaking of the channels – there’s a Catholic channel, an Evangelical channel, a Progressive Christian channel, and a Mormon channel. Where the fuck do mainline protestants fit in there? Episcopalians, Methodists, Lutherans – unless the bloggers are of a progressive political bent, they have no place here. (Arguably Lutherans and Methodists could be covered by broad interpretations of ‘Evangelical’, but Episcopalians?) And what of the Orthodox churches, the Coptics, the Gnostics?

    Fuck you, Patheos.

  • The Guest That Posts

    Fred, I wish that the public face of evangelical  belief was more like you and less like the aforementioned liars.

    I don’t want you to have to fight a losing battle on this.

  • Fred, I need your help. I’m trying to redefine freaking evangelicalism and rescue it from its myriad heresies and idolatries, but nobody pays any attention to me unless you or Rachel Held Evans or Scot McKnight give me a boost. Here are several examples of a “progressive” evangelical take on some social issues:

    1) Theology of Capitalism: Entrepreneurs vs. Money-Changers — http://www.huffingtonpost.com/morgan-guyton/theology-of-capitalism-entrepreneurs-and-money-changers_b_1930772.html

    2) Pulpit Freedom Sunday vs. World Communion Sunday

    3) How trying to win debates isn’t Christian

    4) The conflation of two fears (which explains why fundamentalism is so insidious)

    5) Why it’s abominable to say that kids in AP classes who are on Medicaid are victims of a “culture of dependency”

    Please lend your platform again to a rock who’s tired of crying out in the middle of the desert where nobody is listening.

  • Michelle

    Fundies is the term that applies here, I think.

  • Eh, I’d be tempted to let the blighters keep “evangelical” myself. Think of a word they won’t want to corrupt and use that instead. I reckon “pleasant”, “merciful” and “compassionate” might all be on the list.

    Keep in mind that these are people fed a steady media diet of bellicose personalities who turned “Liberal” into a dirty word to them.  I would not put it past them to turn any kind of positive word into a negative label.