‘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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