The perpetually unsettled identity of evangelicalism

The perpetually unsettled identity of evangelicalism January 12, 2016

Last week we discussed how “A Ted Cruz win could further Bartonize ‘mainstream’ white evangelicalism,” and why that has me worried for my friends (virtual and otherwise) who work at evangelical institutions.

Specifically, I talked about two terrific bloggers — Messiah College history professor John Fea and Grove City College psych prof Warren Throckmorton. Both have been outspoken critics of theocratic pseudo-historian David Barton and the strain of right-wing Christian nationalism he promotes. At the moment, Barton is still mainly regarded as a far-right figure promoting fringe ideas.* But he’s also now running the super-PAC supporting Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination.

(Creative Commons photo by Erik Drost)
The Quicken Loans Synod in July will determine orthodox theology and doctrine for America’s white evangelicals for the next four years. The event is also sometimes called the Republican National Convention. (Creative Commons photo by Erik Drost)

Thus my worry: If Cruz wins the GOP nomination, Barton will have to be affirmed by the Republican mainstream — and thus by the white evangelical mainstream. Once Barton ceases to be a “controversial” figure on the fringes of the evangelical tribe, his critics will likely be pushed out to those fringes and be branded “controversial” themselves.

This is the problem with white evangelical identity: It’s contingent on partisan political calculations beyond its own control. What is or is not acceptable for the white evangelical mainstream changes based on the shifting winds of the current Republican enthusiasm or Fox News’ outrage of the week.

Both Dr. Fea and Dr. Throckmorton responded to my post with good-natured, amused and amusing posts of their own. “I Appreciate Your Concern (I Really Do), But I Think I Will Be OK,” Fea wrote. “Thanks But I Think John Fea and I Are in Good Shape,” Throckmorton added.

And I would guess that they’re both probably right about that. They have the benefit of working for institutions — Messiah and Grove City — with settled identities rooted in denomination, confession and tradition. Messiah is officially nondenominational now (I think), but it retains a character and identity shaped by its origins as a Brethren in Christ school. I’m not sure how “official” Grove City’s relationship to the Presbyterian Church still is, but while it now draws students and faculty from a wider spectrum of religious traditions, it also retains that distinctly Prebyterian character and identity.

And that makes both Messiah and Grove City safer places to teach than a generically “evangelical” institution like Wheaton. They are anchored in traditions — Anabaptist and Reformed, respectively. They are, therefore, schools that belong to schools of thought. They have a theological framework that goes beyond an ad hoc set of propositions listed as a Statement of Faith. They know who they are. Their identity is settled.

That’s not the case with generically “evangelical” institutions. Their identity is perpetually unsettled. It is as fluid and anchorless as the identity of evangelicalism itself.

Thus we see evangelical institutions like Wheaton constantly reasserting their identity to keep up with the ever-evolving, ever-shifting winds of whatever it is that constitutes the current evangelical zeitgeist.

That makes such institutions a tricky place to be during an election year because, as Dave Gushee says, the “evangelical” identity of such places is constantly being revised to align with the partisan conservative views of its large financial backers:

So Wheaton is essentially saying this: Tenure will not protect you if you too visibly offend the conservative political views of our constituency. Whatever conservative politics looks like right now, that also is mandatory for faculty. The same is true in many other evangelical universities.

The key words there are “right now.” Right now, conservative politics are in flux. Where they will wind up come the Republican Convention this summer is anyone’s guess. Issues previously unpoliticized seem on the verge of becoming items of partisan dogma. As recently as eight years ago, Republicans were allowed to acknowledge that carbon traps heat in the atmosphere. By 2012, that fact had been anathematized. In 2000, torture wasn’t a partisan issue. Today it is.

And so, “right now,” we have no way of knowing what other positions or principles might soon be forbidden or required. Contraception? Vaccination? Fluoridation? No one can be sure.

My sense is that most “mainstream” white evangelicals are earnestly hoping that the Republican nomination eventually goes to someone like Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio — someone they perceive to be less extreme and less volatile than Donald Trump or Ted Cruz. But this preference for a supposedly more “moderate” Republican nominee doesn’t reflect a principled moderation. It is, rather, a weird acknowledgement of their submission. They’re not so much saying, “I would prefer to vote for Marco Rubio rather than to vote for Donald Trump,” as they are saying, “Since my religious beliefs and my understanding of scripture are about to be redefined for me by a politician, I am hoping that politician will turn out to be Marco Rubio rather than Donald Trump.”

They’re reasonable people, after all. They don’t want to wind up, a year from now, having to tell you that Jonas Salk was history’s greatest monster. They don’t want to face the prospect of disciplining professors for donating to Church World Service. But it’s not up to them. Their identity is not in their own hands. And, right now, they’re still waiting for someone else to tell them who they are.

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* Barton is a fixture in Christian radio and he’s regularly promoted by Charisma magazine and its website, While the circulation of Charisma dwarfs that of Christianity Today, the latter is still regarded as the more respectable and representative voice of “mainstream” white evangelicalism. Thus as long as Barton is only revered by Charisma and not by CT, he can be identified as a “fringe” character. He may be influential among tens of millions of American evangelicals, but not among the tens of thousands who read Christianity Today, so he remains inconsequential. That’s the theory, at least.

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