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.”

Maybe this analogy will help.

Think of evangelicalism and its legacy, neo-evangelicalism, as a glacier. Envision the Pentecostal/Right as an evangelical glacial calf breaking off and floating away. It doesn't matter if they stay near or really take off. They are detached from the glacier.

Now imagine that the spotlight that once focused on the glacier has been moved so that it shines on the calf as if it's the glacier -and pretty soon, people believe it's been the central glacier all along. Now, folks on the calf are yelling at the glacier: "Why are you drifting Left?" But it's not. The glacier has never moved.

This crystalized for me in the furor over Christianity Today. How many times have I heard, "Look how far Left it's gone!" No doubt, they had a few editors that genuinely pushed it that way. They've also had editors that pushed it toward the Right. If you peruse their magazine, it's full of a multitude of perspectives, which has always been the case.

It's not CT that has moved. Evangelicalism's ice calves has been breaking loose and drifting Right pretty swiftly in the past four years; like a confused driver at a stoplight when a vehicle next to them moves, they misunderstand whose been moving.

The Kaleidoscope Of Issues

Evangelical statements of concern have reflected a clear pursuit of clarity on cultural and religious issues for decades:
  • National Association of Evangelicals Ecology Resolution (1970) 
  • Chicago Declaration of Evangelical Social Concern (1973) 
  • Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy (1978) 
  • National Association of Evangelicals Resolution on Racism (1991) 
  • For The Health Of The Nation: An Evangelical Call To Civic Responsibility (2004) 
  • Evangelical Declaration Against Torture (2007) 
  • Manhattan Declaration (2009 – life, marriage, and religious freedom) 
  • Evangelical Statement of Principles for Immigration Reform (2012) 
  • Pledge of Solidarity and Call to Action on behalf of Christians and Other Small Religious Communities in Egypt, Iraq and Syria. (2014) 
  • The Ligonier Statement on Christology (2016) 
However, in spite of an abundance of resources to which evangelicals can turn for guidance, modern evangelicalism is very confused about what issues should demand their attention, and what a hierarchy of value looks like, and why.

Look at this list of "hot button" issues that motivate evangelical voters:
  • Abortion 
  • Immigration 
  • Environment 
  • Economy 
  • Marriage/family 
  • Terrorism 
  • War 
  • Religious Freedom 
  • Incarceration/Justice System 
  • Foreign Policy 
  • Gun Rights 
  • Free Speech 
  • Racism 
  • Social Security/welfare 
  • Health care 
  • Education 
  • Poverty 

Which issues are biblically important issues? Which ones are constitutionally important? Do they overlap? Why or why not? If you had to put these in order of importance, what would it look like? Why? How should the balanced weight of these issues guide your vote?

I don't think most evangelicals are asking these questions. I am pretty sure most do not start their research with a) the Bible, b) church history's precedent, and c) the insights from gatekeepers of their church tradition.

Political party talking points and favorite cable news shows tend to function as primary sources of formation. That doesn't make evangelicals unique to our time. It just means that our primary formation has been ceded to the gatekeepers of culture, not the church. Maybe that's how we get polls like this:

Lifeway's research shows that  evangelicals by belief (17 percent) and self-identified evangelicals (18 percent) chose an ability to improve the economy as the most important reason for voting the way they did. That was followed by positions on health care (they are against universal health care) and immigration (they want it restricted and want the border closed more than any other polled group in the United States). Particularly in the stance on immigration, this is a remarkable shift away from the evangelical history in the 20th century of working closely with legal and illegal immigrants.

Christianity Today's summary of the changing moral/political landscape is sobering:

When asked the most important factor in casting their 2016 vote, the top four answers given by evangelicals by belief were the ability to improve the economy (17%), a position on healthcare (11%) or immigration (10%), and the ability to maintain national security (9%). Religious liberty (8%), the Supreme Court (7%), personal character (7%), and abortion (5%) finished behind. 
This breakdown largely remained unchanged when we asked respondents to list any of the factors that influenced their 2016 vote. Once again, the economy (62%), healthcare (55%), national security (51%), and immigration (49%) ranked as the top four factors among evangelicals by belief. While religious liberty came in fifth (45%), only about 1 in 3 evangelicals by belief even listed abortion, the Supreme Court, personal character, or vice presidential pick as one of their influences. 
In other words, evangelicals voted more along Republican values than traditional social conservative values. The fact that abortion and the Supreme Court ranked so low is counter-intuitive to the prevailing narrative that evangelicals are single-issue voters.
Put another way, Republican Party issues were more important than pro-life issues.


I can speculate as well as next person, I suppose. I see four fairly distinct streams of evangelicalism in the United States. These terms/labels are unhelpfully broad and vague but they are the best I have at this point:[4] 

  • Left evangelicalism (Convergence Network; Sojourners): moving toward mainstream/modernist Protestant theology; vote almost entirely Democratic. Tend to be very engaged with and affirmative of the world outside the church. There is no sense of the “us vs. them” mentality of which evangelicalism is often accused. It’s often more along the lines of “us are them” as they embrace the world to which they take the gospel, sometimes to such an extent that the two are indecipherable. 
  • Right evangelicalism (American Council Of Christian Churches; Christian Post/Charisma) conservative political ideology; vote almost entirely Republican.[5] Tend to withdraw from and criticize the world outside the church. Unlike the Left, “us vs. them” is real as they fight “culture wars” with the world to which they take the gospel. 
  • Neo-evangelicalism (National Association of Evangelicals; Christianity Today/World; InterVarsity): reject modernist theology and its worship implications as much as conservative political ideology and its voting demands. Tend to embed themselves in their communities and seek to redemptively serve a broken world around them. The neo-evangelical stance is “us for them” as they serve the world to which they take the gospel. 
  • Black evangelicalism (National Black Evangelical Association; maybe Faithfully Magazine?): Black evangelicals embrace fundamentalist and conservative theology more consistently than do white evangelicals/fundamentalists while being engaged with the world outside the church like neo-evangelicals and voting like Left evangelicals (for Democratic candidates at a rate of close to 75%. [6] ) As an example, see the NBEA President’s recent take on President Trump
I suspect that the current divisive nature of politics is going to widen the space between all of these groups because of what I once heard described as “polar opposite” trajectories.

But that's for my final post.


[1] “A religious identity a mile wide and an inch deep,” according to D.G. Hart in Evangelicals.

[2] Polling is having a credibility crisis. Responses for good firms like Pew Research often do not exceed 10%, when the gold standard is more like 85%. This is not a criticism of polling groups. It’s just getting harder to get a good handle on reality when such a small percentage respond. Odds are good that those who are willing to respond are not necessarily indicative of the overall population.

[3] Fred Clark, “The ‘Weird’ Fringe Is The Biggest Part Of White Evangelicalism,” Evangelicals.

[4] I don't know where to but Pentecostals and Charismatics. They are a subcategory in Christianity, showing up in all kinds of denominations and in the 4 evangelical streams I identify. Right now they seem to be moving more solidly toward the fundamentalist stream as these two groups are connecting in the White House.

[5] Fundamentalists and Pentecostals are finding common ground in the White House, though not in the pews. And oddly enough, while the fundamentalist knock on evangelicals has been that they are too willing to share space with theological outliers, fundamentalists seem to be doing the same thing – who would have thought that Franklin Graham, Robert Jeffres, and Jerry Falwell Jr. would endorse NAR charismatic Paula White's latest book?

[6] The Democratic Party appears to be pushing black voters away by equating the civil rights struggle with LGBTQ rights. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.

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