Evangelical Christianity is a notoriously nebulous thing. The term is necessary — this strain of Protestant Christianity exists in the world and affects the world, so we need to be able to refer to it as something and to distinguish it from other somethings. But the thing itself is amorphous and slippery, constantly changing.
Religious historians were among the first to attempt to clarify who and what we mean when we talk about “evangelical” Christians and evangelical Christianity. For them, this was not a matter of doctrinal defense — of steadfastly defending some “evangelical” orthodoxy against heretics. Nor did it have anything to do with attempting to consolidate power in some religious fiefdom competing for market share in the hurly-burly, attention-donor-media-driven informal ecclesiology of American evangelicalism. They were just trying to write about American history, which required them to consider the role played by American religion, which required them to consider the role played by evangelical Christians, which required them to clarify who that was and what that meant.
Oddly, a consensus of sort eventually coalesced around a four-part definition articulated by a British historian, David Bebbington. Bebbington’s “quadrilateral” seemed to capture more or less the frustratingly hard-to-define character and outlines of this spiritual tradition (or strain, or stream, or “mood,” or … even describing the category of this category proves difficult). Bebbington approached the task almost like a psychiatrist updating an entry in the next edition of the DSM — An individual may be diagnosed as suffering from evangelicalism if they display these four symptoms. It wasn’t intended to be a definitive definition, but it worked well enough for other historians looking for a quick way to say, “This is roughly the kind of Christians we’re talking about.”
The four parts of Bebbington’s sketch, for the record: Conversionism, activism, biblicism, crucicentrism.
This “Bebbington quadrilateral” wound up being embraced by a whole generation of religious historians and even by many evangelical Christians themselves who’d previously had an uncomfortably difficult time answering the question, “What is an evangelical?” The link there is to a page answering that question from the website of the National Association of Evangelicals. Bebbington’s definition allowed the NAE to move past the no-longer-up-to-date definition that first led these evangelicals to associate back in the 1940s — which was, more or less, that an evangelical was a fundamentalist who no longer wished to be identified as a fundamentalist.
And it seemed more winsome than the description of “evangelical” that rose to prominence in the 1950s and ’60s, which was that evangelicals were white Christians who didn’t care for the way mainline Protestant denominations seemed to be getting soft on segregation because of all the Communists in the Federal Council of Churches.
So we arrived at this strange situation in which a form of American religion was being defined even by its adherents by a British historian. Bebbington introduced his quadrilateral in a 1989 book called Evangelicalism in Modern Britain: A History From the 1730s to the 1980s. Britain, please note, is not America. And it’s no longer the 1980s.
Those are two big problems for anyone attempting to employ Bebbington’s framework as a lens for understanding American evangelicalism in the 21st century. We can’t ignore the very large differences between British history and American history from 1730-1980. British evangelical Christianity has a great deal in common with its American counterpart, but it’s also very different in many substantial ways — partly because of those very different histories. And the 1980s are an impossible stopping point for any understanding of American evangelicalism, because the 1980s were a time when American evangelicalism was radically and utterly transformed into something new.
That transformation involved evangelical Christians becoming a key voting bloc — an influential, partisan constituency that seemed to have played a vital role in the political ascendency of Republican leaders like Ronald Reagan, Newt Gingrich, George W. Bush, Dennis Hastert, etc. This political significance meant that studying and discussing American evangelical Christians was no longer merely the business of religious historians. Now there was a second class of professionals who desperately needed some way of defining and distinguishing evangelical Christians: Pollsters.
This was even trickier for pollsters than it had earlier proved to be for the historians. It seemed that many of the people who would seem to belong in the category of “evangelical Christian” weren’t eager to self-identify as such. Sometimes this was caginess, but more often it was simply that this wasn’t the terminology that many evangelical Christians had previously used for themselves. So pollsters began trying to come up with other ways of framing the question. “Are you a born-again Christian?” they’d ask, with less-than-precise results. Or they’d try to come at the identification through other questions about church-attendance or Bible-reading or some other Bebbington-ish quality. Those attempts were semi-useful, but also potentially misleading as these are the sorts of things that people tend to over-report to pollsters.
The starting point, then, is wickedly difficult. Pollsters are trying — quickly and accurately — to determine whether or not respondents belong to a slippery, difficult-to-define category that many such respondents might not consider themselves to belong in. I have great respect for the difficulty of that task and admire the determination and ingenuity of those attempting it.
There’s another problem here. Many of the best pollsters lack a deep understanding of the subtle outlines of the thing they’re trying to measure. It’s hard enough to quantify evangelicalism when you basically, if vaguely, grasp what it is, but it’s almost impossible to do so if you’re otherwise unable to tell a Pentecostal from a Presbyterian. So it would seem like the pollsters best-qualified to tackle this tricky business would be those with a first-hand, native-born understanding of what American evangelical Christianity is really like — knowledge that comes from living it on the inside.
But there’s a little problem with that, and a big problem with that. The little problem, as we’ve already mentioned, is that evangelical Christians themselves aren’t usually any better able to limn the outlines of their category than anyone else — hence the NAE turning to a British scholar of religious history to describe for them who they are. As the old joke says, if you want to know what water is like, don’t ask a fish.
The big problem, though, is a doozy. Part of the character of evangelical Christianity is that it is contentious and disputed. Bebbington didn’t include this in his quadrilateral, but it has been true ever since at least the Reformation, and it greatly intensified throughout the 20th century. Evangelicalism is, among other things, a category of people who are perpetually arguing over which among them does and does not legitimately belong in that category. The definition of “evangelical” provided by any given evangelical, therefore, tends to be fraught. Evangelicals have a hard time measuring their group without taking the opportunity to declare that others aren’t measuring up and don’t legitimately belong with the rest.
So even though we have some very skilled evangelical pollsters and data-crunchers, and even though they’ve done some laudable work trying to refine their measurements and metrics, these folks also tend to be bound up and beholden to the very same evangelical institutions involved in the tradition’s never-ending disputes over legitimacy. When those institutions seek a head-count of evangelicals or a measure of evangelical opinions, they’re almost always also seeking to count others out.
All of the above is in response to this article by Ed Stetzer, a skilled data-cruncher for the Southern Baptist LifeWay Research. Stetzer lays out a case for a more inclusive, religious and Bebbington-ish measure of evangelical Christianity. That’s a laudable goal and it’s something desperately needed by pollsters, historians and political scientists — as well as by evangelical churches themselves.
But this isn’t it. I call shenanigans. The four-part evangelical criteria outlined here on behalf of LifeWay and the National Association of Evangelicals is notable for its theological departures from Bebbington’s foursome (these changes are not positive, or theologically defensible). But it’s even more notable for the fact that this is not a definition of the category of evangelical that has ever been honored, in practice, by the Southern Baptists or the NAE. It includes millions of Christians that they have otherwise — emphatically — renounced as not legitimately belonging in the category. And it fails to acknowledge the actual standards these groups actually, ferociously, employ for themselves to determine who really does or doesn’t count as an evangelical.
This attempted redefinition really is, in part, an attempt by folks like Stetzer to get a better, more accurate picture of that nebulous thing we refer to with the words “evangelical Christianity.” Kudos for that.
But that effort has been subsumed and eclipsed by the larger point of this exercise, which seems to be an attempt to defend the evangelical brand-name from the damage done to it over decades of unthinking, obsequious partisanship and utter subservience to the Republican Party.