Evangelicals in the United States have transitioned from being a collection of souls in search of an identity to an identity in search of its soul.
Many have argued that those associated with the formation of the movement known as Evangelicalism sought to create an identity that distanced them from both Fundamentalism and Liberalism. Vernon Grounds, one of those early leaders in the movement and the long-serving president at Denver Seminary, captured that identity well when he described the school thusly, "Here is no unanchored liberalism — freedom to think without commitment. Here is no encrusted dogmatism — commitment without the freedom to think. Here is vibrant Evangelicalism — freedom to think within the bounds laid down in Scripture."
Trying to occupy a "middle space" that would create some credibility with both the liberal and fundamentalist wings of the Church, yet be separate from those wings, evangelicals forged an identity in those years that was viewed positively by a significant majority in the United States. Those days are gone. Evangelicals wanted to be known as people of passionate faith and intellectual vitality alongside of personal piety and missional engagement, all framed by the authority of the Bible and centered upon the gospel of Jesus Christ. But today, evangelical identity has been diluted with additives and distilled into something far less than it intended to be.
The question of identity may be the single most important factor in determining the future of Evangelicalism in North America. Yet, diversity with the movement makes it difficult to find broad agreement on what it means to call oneself an evangelical. For many, David Bebbington's quadrilateral — biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism — remains helpful in looking at the movement through a theological lens. Others prefer to define it through the institutions, organizations, and publications that claim the label. Still others think the personalities, activities, and events offer a better picture of evangelical identity.
In spite of all the hand-wringing among evangelical academics and leaders over how to define the movement, millions of Americans instinctively and casually use the term to define themselves and their faith communities. Although one wonders how many of those millions could define the terms in Bebbington's quadrilateral with any amount of precision, it seems likely that most of them would allude to the Bible, faith in Jesus Christ, their own conversion, and their desire to live out that faith as common elements in their self-understanding as evangelicals.
In like manner, sociologists, researchers, pollsters, journalists, politicians, and the general public also employ the term freely. But the identity of "evangelicals" and "Evangelicalism" among those who do not identify with the movement seems to hinge on a far different set of attributes than those used by evangelicals themselves. Outside the movement, these terms are used predominately in reference to politics and social ethics. For many, it seems that the meaning of evangelical has been distilled into "political, religious, and social conservative," an identity that may also include associations with terms like fundamentalist, intolerant, bigoted, anti-science, sexist, and judgmental. How ironic that some of the very characteristics that early evangelicals wanted to separate themselves from have become commonly held stereotypes of those identified with the movement.
The disconnect between evangelicals' own understanding of their identity and the broader public's understanding of that identity will plague Evangelicalism into the foreseeable future. How those within the movement choose to respond to the disconnect will help shape that future. For some, it doesn't matter. Their priority is to fight for what is right on every cultural, legal, and social front regardless of how their language and tactics are interpreted by those who disagree. For them, the culture's rejection of traditional Christian values elicits indignation and defiance.
For others, the disconnect is a source of grief. Their priority is to fight for the redemption of the souls of those who misunderstand and demean them by keeping a gospel of mercy and grace at the center of their sense of identity and mission. For them, the broad rejection of traditional Christian values elicits more sorrow than anger and engenders a resolve to find new ways to enter the lives of those with whom they disagree. Unfortunately, indignation is far more easily evoked and sustained than compassion; it also raises more money. In like manner, being right is far less costly than being redemptive. The nagging question for evangelicals is whether it is right to be right if we're not also redemptive.