Thursday, January 30, 2020

The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: Part Five - The Trajectory Of Evangelicalism

Part Four: Identifying And Clarifying Modern Evangelicalism


My wife and I attended a marriage conference in which the speakers talked about “polar opposite” trajectories. One spouse is strict with the kids, the other lax. The strict spouse doubles down to make up for the lax spouse…who also doubles down to offset the increasingly controlling other spouse. This trajectory in polar opposite directions never ends well. A ditch becomes a chasm over time.

I think the same thing is happening in evangelicalism, and it’s currently centered around politics more than theology.

Evangelicals have been united for 30 years on two key issues: abortion[1] and religious freedom.[2] Since Supreme Court justices will make the final call on these issues, that’s usually presented as the current foundational evangelical voting trifecta: defunding abortion and maybe overturning Roe; religious freedom; and electing a President who will nominate sympathetic Supreme Court justices.

It’s all the other ones that are moving us further and further apart.

Monday, January 27, 2020

The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: Part Four - Identifying And Clarifying Modern Evangelicalism

Honestly, I didn't expect to write this much about evangelicalism. The more I'm writing, the more I'm realizing what I didn't know, and how what I now know is... confusing.

This series of posts is my attempt to organize the inside of my head. I don't know if it resonates with you or not. I hope it does.

I think I have one final part after this one - but I thought that after my last post, so we will see.

Part One: Evangelical History In A Quadrilateral Nutshell

Part Two: Quadrilateral"isms" - Racism, Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, and Neo-evangelicalism.

Part Three: Evangelicalism And Politics


Identifying and clarifying modern evangelicalism is difficult for a number of reasons.

The Lack Of Shared Belief

A 2017 LifeWay research report noted that many who identify as evangelical don't hold traditional evangelical beliefs.[1] Many self-identified evangelicals rarely go to church. As long as anyone can claim the term without adhering to at least the minimal standards of identification, it’s going skew polls. When Christianity Today and Gallop did a poll in the late 1970s about self-identified evangelicals, so many respondents did not accept evangelical attributes that the survey had to cut their estimate of evangelicals in America from 34% to 18%[2].

The Self-applied Label

A surprising number of Catholics and even Eastern Orthodox Christians identified themselves as evangelical, even though that's supposed to refer to a subset of Protestants. Is an evangelical Catholic vote an evangelical vote or a Catholic vote? Which part has more influence in the booth?

The Leadership/Laity Gap

There is a gap between how evangelical leadership and evangelical congregants think about the intersection of faith and politics. 83 percent of evangelical leaders do not believe evangelicals in America should be identified with the person and policies of the current president. You don’t hear this kind of sentiment expressed by the average ‘evangelical’ voter you see interviewed on TV.

The Changing Gatekeepers

Leadership in evangelicalism has always been a reflection of whoever gets the most attention or is taken the most seriously. In recent years, mainstream institutions have ceded leadership to the evangelical/industrial complex of televangelists and megachurch pastors. Donald Trump’s evangelical advisory council - with Paula White, the Copelands, and other CBN/TBN/NOW celebrities - exemplifies this. Now, says Robert Jones of the Public Religion Research Institute, this “weird slice of the evangelical world” has gained so much power that “they are the [evangelical] world.”[3] The institutions that once guided and stabilized evangelicalism - CT, Wheaton, the NEA - are a “vanguard without an army.”

Thursday, January 23, 2020

The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: Part Three -Evangelicalism and Politics

Evangelicals have always been drawn to the halls of political power, even when that has meant partnering with strange allies. This has led to governmental influence, but it has also corroded what Roger Williams called the “separation between the garden of the church in the wilderness of the world.”

Part One: Evangelical History In A Quadrilateral Nutshell

Part Two: Quadrilateral"isms" (Racism, Fundamentalism, Pentecostalism, Neo-Evangelicalism)


A major turning point for American evangelicals came in 1951 when Billy Graham urged Dwight Eisenhower to run for president. Eisenhower had grown up in a Christian family (he was named after Dwight Moody). He had no particular religious commitment, but he felt that the Judeo-Christian tradition was essential to the health of the American republic. Graham liked Eisenhower's strong anti-communist views,[1] and Eisenhower invited Graham to help him inject spirituality into his speeches.
Eisenhower and Graham became the modern architects of an American Civil religion that combined spirituality and patriotism. This trend accelerated during the 1980s, when many evangelicals began to conflate political power and access to Republican leaders with the advancement of God's Kingdom.[2]

In 1979, Paul Weyrich, a Catholic Republican who founded the Heritage Foundation, convinced Jerry Falwell that there was a “moral majority” of Americans who still believed in the Judeo-Christian principles of the Ten Commandments. Whoever organized these people could secure political power through the Republican party in the name of traditional morality.

This had been simmering for a while. Republicans and Democrats both shared an anti-communism fervor during the Korean and Vietnam Wars, but for evangelicals, fear of communism and nuclear war took on an apocalyptic cast and fueled interest in End Times theology.[3] An evangelicalism once skeptical of the of the military found a new admiration for men in uniform. Those fighting for Communism must conversely be fighting for Christians values, right?[4](This support would only increase post-9/11. The enemy was different, but the fight was the same.)

Republicans cultivated evangelical support by presenting themselves as tough on communism. Communism was anti-God, anti-American, anti-family, and anti-God given rights.[5] Nixon made this a defining issue. The spiritualization of anti-communism helped to make the privately profane Nixon, a lapsed Quaker, a favorite of white evangelicals.[6] (Nixon was already preferable to Kennedy because of enduring Protestant hostility toward Catholics.) Billy Graham, the NAE, and the SBC all preferred Nixon over Kennedy.[7]

Sunday, January 19, 2020

The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: Part Two - Quadrilateral"isms"

If you’ve not read Part One, you should. It’s long, but it give context to the following installments. 

Four “isms” have deeply impacted evangelicalism as we experience it today. Some are bad; some are good; some just are. All of them have been formative. I will try do draw them together in Part Three. For now, I offer them as separate pieces in the evangelical kaleidoscope. 



The failure to address racial issues well has been a long-standing and pervasive problem in American history, and evangelicalism has not been exempt.

The strain of evangelicalism that most closely aligns with modern evangelicalism developed the Midlands and the North initially, where people believed that salvation manifested redemptive movements in the community, not just the individual. However, in spite of this belief in communal justice as an expression of personal salvation, the struggle over race and inequality plagued evangelicalism from the beginning.
  • Jonathan Edwards owned household slaves. Though he was critical of the abuses in the slave trade, he never came to believe that slavery was wrong. 
  • George Whitefield actually bought a South Carolina Plantation and became a slave owner before seeking to legalize slavery in Georgia. In fact, he became a leading pro-slavery voice instrumental in getting slavery legalized in Georgia in 1751.[1]
White evangelicals sat in churches and revival tents with their black slaves. They believed God offered salvation of all souls, but too often they believed this would simply make slaves better slaves.[2] Not all evangelicals felt this way - generally speaking, the further North one moved, the more evangelicals defended the rights and freedom of slaves. Prior to the Civil War, the vast majority of white Southern evangelicals were pro-slavery, or at least saw it as a political issue rather than a church issue.

Saturday, January 18, 2020

The Evangelical Kaleidoscope: Part One - Evangelical History In A Quadrilateral Nutshell

I've always been an evangelical - maybe even a fundamentalist? - but I've recently realized I need to spend some time gaining a better understanding of the terminology in which I was immersed and by which I identify my Christian faith. I credit at least four developments for this new interest:
  • fielding dozens of queries like this from my non-religious friends: "Help me understand why 81% of evangelicals voted for Donald Trump." On the other hand, I also heard from a lot of evangelicals, "Why would you not?" Those two comments are worlds apart, and yet somehow they both resonate. 
  • reading Colin Woodard’s American Nations: A History Of The Eleven Rival Regional Cultures Of North America, a fascinating book on the regional cultures that shaped North America, and the influence that has had on politics, religion, and the intersection of the two. [1]
  • listening to The Holy Post’s podcast about evangelicalism vs. fundamentalism after Christianity Today’s editorial about Trump’s impeachment blew up the Christian internet. 
  • a brewing sense that Inigo Montoya’s insight is relevant in connection to the use of the word ‘evangelical’ by myself and others: “I do not think that word means what you think it means.” 
So, I picked up Thomas Kidd’s Who Is An Evangelical?[2]and Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, And Could Be (edited and partially written by three of the big historical hitters in the discussion - Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Marsden), and started digging through evangelical/fundamentalist articles, websites and organizations online. What follows is not a definitive overview by any means, but hopefully it will serve to provoke your thoughts as it has mine.

I’ll give away my conclusion: “evangelical” is, I’m afraid, no longer a helpful word.[3] It is simply too imprecise to describe the current forms of Christianity fragmented together in what Timothy Smith has called an evangelical kaleidoscope.

George Marsden offers a partial list of what that evangelical kaleidoscope looks like today: 
  • Black and White evangelicals (read "Democrats and Republicans." More on this in a later post) 
  • Calvinists and Arminians 
  • Pentecostals/Holiness and Separatist Fundamentalists (who don't care for Pentecostals) 
  • Pacifist Churches (such as Mennonites) and Baptists (who are not pacifists) 
  • Southern Baptists (are they really, evangelical, though?) 
  • Missouri Synod Lutherans and Reformed church (confessional heritage) and Methodists (Pietist heritage) 
Saying “I am an evangelical” is like saying, “I like fast food.” That’s interesting, but not terribly informative. What kind of fast food? What counts as “fast food” anyway? You mean Paneras, Boston Market and Culvers are the same kind of restaurant as Dairy Queen and McDonalds?[4] Pizza Hut is considered fast good but has a salad bar. Does "liking fast food" mean you eat out twice a week or just a few times a year?

Those are the kind of follow-up questions one must ask concerning evangelicalism: What kind of evangelical? Are you sure you know what it means? Should all those who claim to be evangelical be on the same list? Do they actually attend an evangelical church and do evangelical things on a regular basis?

So...let's look at this kaleidoscope.