Is “Evangelical” the New “Jewish”?

Is “Evangelical” the New “Jewish”? January 19, 2012

In light of last week’s gathering of evangelical leaders, in which they threw their support behind Rick Santorum, David Neff of Christianity Today wrote a sensible essay called, “Why Last Saturday’s Political Conclave of Evangelical Leaders Was Dangerous: Brothers and sisters, we are neither kingmakers nor powerbrokers.” He’s smart to distance himself from that group in Texas — in fact, he admits that he wasn’t invited.

He also cops to being at the center of the group that in 2008 published “An Evangelical Manifesto,” a piece of rhetoric that was meant to unify evangelicals around a few core theological and moral concerns. But the real reason for the Manifesto in that election year was to tell the mainstream media, “We’re not all crazy, right-wing reactionaries.”

Based on the coverage of the Texas conclave, I don’t think the lamestream* media got the message.

I had a similar experience last week. I was on the phone with a journalist who’s writing a story on “younger evangelicals.” But, as she listed her litany of personalities in the article, I stopped her and said, “Those people aren’t really evangelical, at least not culturally speaking. They’re post-evangelical.”

But, of course, that’s Inside Baseball, and it won’t make it in her article.

The thing is, you and I think of “evangelical” primarily as a theological demarcation. That’s why I can be listed in the evangelical portal at Patheos and Jim Wallis can call himself an evangelical on the dustjacket of his latest book. But outside of our circles, “evangelical” is a cultural category — not a theographic, but a psychographic.

It all gets me to wondering if “evangelical” might be more like “Jewish” than it is like “Presbyterian.” That is, “Jewish” is a cultural/ethic referent, not necessarily a confessional one. I know Orthodox Jews, and I know atheistic Jews. But they’re all Jews, and they don’t fight over the word or attempt to excommunicate other Jews (in that way, evangelicals aren’t really like Jews).

My point is, “Jewish” doesn’t really say much of anything about one’s theology; it is, instead, about who is your tribe. And it seems to me that “evangelical” is becoming more and more this way.

I’ve spilled lots of pixels here on


*© Stephen T. Colbert, MFA

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  • Now I’m dying to know what the pixels were spilled on (assuming they weren’t spilled on Colbert, of course).

  • Agreed. Well said.

  • Carla

    I hate to be a nit-picker, but I believe the primary source for “lamestream media” is Palin, Sarah, not Colbert, Stephen T.

  • Kenton

    Sure, I still self-identify as “evangelical” in the tribal, “Jewish” way you describe, even though my theology no longer fits the term.

  • Rick

    I like the tribe thing of what you describe. I had thought of myself, just this morning, as a little “e” evangelical, as opposed to a big “E” Evangelical, the little e corresponding to the meaning of the word, and the big E denoting the political/social entity much as a person might claim to be part of the catholic church without being a Catholic, or looking to Rome.

    Do people still do that? It’s been quite a while since I heard anyone refer to the catholic church. Do you think we do the same thing with church and Church?

  • Good point…it doesn’t say much of anything anymore.

    All the more reason to go “outside the camp” (Heb. 13:13)…

  • Garrett

    Kenton, yup. Me too. Tribally Evangelical. Theologically, not so much.

  • Lock

    Preevet Comrade Tony.

    Last I checked you were in the Progressive Christianity portal. Why are you being asked about evangelical yoots?

    Lately, every time I see you opine on us, you are wrong. You even had to correct yourself lately.

    Long live the glorious November Socialist Revolution!

  • I said before, it’s hopeless to argue about labels, but if you run at the shadow of a stick you’ll never be able to settle down anywhere. Evangelicalism is a deeper historical stream than today’s Dominionists. I say, take back the streets; come, let us argue together.

  • Pingback: John Schmalzbauer answers, "What is an Evangelical?" | The Just Life()