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.

In the 1840s, the Baptists and the Methodists split over the slavery issue.From 1865 onward, African-Americans’ institutional connections to white-led evangelical denominations and ministries has been tenuous. This besmirched racial history is one reason why African-Americans often do not identify as evangelicals even when their doctrines and experiences are solidly evangelical than, and why denominations separated along racial lines.[3]

In the late 1800s, missionary activity surged. However, an embedded message of white superiority often undermined the message of the gospel: the conversion to the tenents of western culture and a response to the gospel was a package deal. Methodist Senator Albert Beveridge said, “Of all our races, God has marked the American people as his chosen nation to finally lead to the regeneration of the world. This is a divine mission.”

From the 1890s to the 1910s, thousands of lynchings occurred, the majority of them targeting southern blacks. African-American leaders contended that white churches shared the blame for this. Walter White of the NAACP wrote, “Evangelical Christian denominations have done much towards creation of the particular fanaticism which finds an outlet in lynching.” This was surely not entirely fair, as many white evangelicals expressed concern. However, they typically lamented the lawlessness of the acts more than the racial hatred behind the response. A Southern Baptist resolution in1906 shows this equivocation about lynching: “Lynching blunts the public conscience, undermines the foundations on which societies stands, and if unchecked will bring on anarchy. But our condemnation is due with equal emphasis and many cases with much greater emphasis against the horrible crimes which caused the lynchings.”[4] Crimes, I might add, which did not need to be proven to a lynch mob.

Unfortunately, some of this evangelical equivocation turned into active endorsement. Some white evangelicals even participated in lynchings, and far too many joined groups such as the KKK. After the 1906 Race Riots, a confederate soldier and governor of Georgia named William Northern, a Southern Baptist leader, helped form a bi-racial union which tried to build a network of Christian anti-lynching activists. But even he assured people that stopping lynching would not undermine white supremacy or lead to racial integration.

Many evangelicals took the criticism to heart. Several black church leaders who attended Moody Bible Institute boosted NAACP campaigns for federal laws against lynching. In 1921, the National Baptist voice publicized the NAACP's attempt to get pastors to take a Sunday to preach on the theme of racial justice (“Justice to the Negro: The test of Christianity in America”), calling America “the archsinner among nations” because of the racial injustice.

While evangelicalism had always stood on a common set of core beliefs; it had also always struggled to figure out appropriate involvement with political and cultural issues. At the turn of the 20th century, evangelicals had far more to say about booze, delivering the mail on Sunday, and liberal theology than they did about lynching and racism.[5]

In the 1930s, a remarkable and unexpected shift occurred: Black Protestants in general began moving solidly out of the Republican Party and into the Democratic Party. From 1932-1936 – just four years – the number of votes for the Republican presidential candidate dropped in half, from 56% to 28%. How did this happen?
  • The impact of Franklin Roosevelt’s (D) New Deal can hardly be overstated[6]; it alone accounts for the 56/28 drop. The Great Depression had devastated the black population economically. The unofficial “last hired, first fired” policy had pushed the black unemployment rate to 50% in 1932 – a rate double and triple that of whites. Roosevelt appointed a lot of African Americans to positions within his administration than his predecessors; he was the first president to appoint an African American as a federal judge; he tripled the number of African Americans working in the federal government; he appointed special advisors for the New Deal known as the Black Cabinet. [7]
  • Harry Truman (D) integrated the armed forces
  • John F. Kennedy's administration (D) is remembered for fighting segregation, thought it more his VP (Johnson) who really had a heart for the Civil Rights movement. He used JFK's death as a rallying point to pass major legislation.
  • Lyndon Johnson (D) helped to pass civil rights bills in 1957[8] (as Democrat Majority Leader), and in 1964 and 1965 as President. 
“My friends, go turn Lincoln’s picture to the wall,” Pittsburgh Courier editor Robert Vann implored African Americans in 1932. “The debt has been paid in full.”[9] By the end of the 1960s, 2/3 of black voters supported Democratic candidates.[10]

During Freedom Summer’s push to register black Mississippi voters, three of the activists were kidnapped and killed. Two weeks later, Lyndon Johnson (D) signed a Civil Rights Act that made racial discrimination in public venues illegal. A week later, the Republicans nominated Barry Goldwater – who thought the Civil Rights Act was unconstitutional. Goldwater used the language of state’s rights, but segregations knew what he meant, and loved him.[11] Vince Hutchings notes:
"African-Americans heard the message that was intended to be heard. Which was that Goldwater and the Goldwater wing of the Republican Party were opposed not only to the Civil Rights Act, but to the civil rights movement, in large part, as well."[12]
It should come as no surprise, then, that during the 1960s, that 66% Democrat voting bloc move to a full 90%. It has remained relatively close to there ever since.

How did evangelicals and fundamentalists look to a watching world? Well, in 1964 – Freedom Summer, during which three civil rights workers were killed by racists - Bob Jones University gave George Wallace an honorary doctorate. Bob Jones Jr. said of Wallace, “Men who have fought for truth and righteousness have always been slandered, maligned, and misrepresented.” Though Bob Jones was fundamentalist, it didn’t matter. To a watching world, this was also evangelicalism.[13]

But….that’s not the end of the story.

In 1974. a large group of evangelicals from Latin America, Africa, Asia and the United States crafted the Lausanne Covenant, a statement about missions. Interestingly, the delegates split over the extent to which missionary should address social justice and collective sins. Anglo-American representatives expressed skepticism about prioritization; South Americans insisted a gospel that focused only on individual repentance was not the whole gospel.

Carl Henry said that this conference “postponed rather than resolved the conflicts and ambiguities and contemporary evangelicalism over the church's socio-political involvement.” That tension manifests itself in the split today between many African-American and Hispanic leaders who want the church to address racial justice, and white evangelicals who see the social gospel as a distraction from the church's gospel focus.

It’s interesting how this plays out around the world. Molly Worthen notes of evangelicals in the Global South, [14]
“They do not equate ‘social gospel’ with godless socialism. They read scripture through the lense of their own cultural context. According to Orlando Costas, and evangelical theologian born in Puerto Rico, the ‘reality of poverty, powerlessness, and oppression…[provides the context where] the emphasis on the content of the gospel and the teaching of the biblical text rather than on formal questions of authority and philosophical presuppositions behind a particular doctrine of inspiration is freeing evangelical theology…”
(More on the tensions swirling around race in the politics section.)


With the rise of theological liberalism, the evangelical response became synonymous with the word “fundamentalist.” The fundamentalist movement attempted to establish five non-negotiable evangelical doctrines, or fundamentals, in the face of a Christian modernist movement that challenged all five:
  • the inerrancy and perfection of scripture
  • Jesus’ virgin birth
  • Christ ‘s death as payment for sins
  • Christ’s bodily resurrection from the dead
  • the truthfulness of Biblical miracles. 
These fundamentals of the faith united fundamentalists and evangelicals. The beliefs did not pose problems; the expression of these beliefs and the attitudes that accompanied the movement did.

The fundamentalist’s strong stand morphed into a penchant for conflict that very quickly moved beyond the church walls and into the public square – particularly schools - as evolutionary theory invaded the culture in the 1910s.

Many evangelicals weren’t that bothered. Charles Hodge and B.B. Warfield argued that evolution caused problems only when it functioned as a theory regarding the origins of life, because that would remove God from the creative process. J. Gresham Menchan went so far as to say evolution did not contradict scripture.

Fundamentalists (and some evangelicals) were adamant that evolution in all its forms was a terrible idea, That stance emerged on a national stage in what's often called The Scopes Monkey Trial. [15] The Scopes Trial fundamentally changed the American perception of fundamentalism. After the trial, fundamentalism became closely associated with a rejection of science, an embrace of and perhaps even an eagerness for conflict, and an inclination to separate, to create distance between the church and the culture against which it made war.

By the 194os, three distinct streams emerged from evangelicalism:
  • The National Association of Evangelicals (neo-evangelical).
  •  Federal Council of Churches (modernist/liberal evangelical)
  • American Council of Christian Churches (fundamentalist evangelical)

Billy Graham became sort of an evangelical plumb line. Dr. Dockery put it this way: “An evangelical is someone who likes Billy Graham; a liberal is someone who thinks Billy Graham is a fundamentalist; and a fundamentalist is someone who thinks Billy Graham is an apostate.”
Note: It is ridiculously hard to find information about the voting habits of fundamentalists. I’ve yet to find any survey that makes that distinction. “Evangelical” vs. “Mainstream Protestant” is the best I can find. It’s not helpful.

I don't want to ignore the Evangelical Left that emerged after Billy Sunday and resurged in the 60s and 70s (think Jesus Freaks and early evangelical versions of SJWs who fought for suffrage and against war and racism). Almost all of the discussion swirling around them now morphs into “Christian Left,” which I think is a more accurate term, because that’s generally where their trajectory takes them. Many of them end up in political communities like Vote Common Good  and Faith In Public Life  or religious communities like New Evangelical Partnership or the Convergence Network 

As ex-evangelical Brian McLaren says, “Getting edged out of Evangelicalism is not the worst thing that can happen to a person. In fact, anyone who cares about the planet, the poor, peace, and the dignity of all people (regardless of race, health, gender, nationality, religion, etc.) should be getting in trouble with the Evangelical gatekeepers these days.”

So, yes, there is a Left – there has to be – but so many end up following the McLarens of the world to the Convergences of the world that their impact seems to be pushing the already frayed edges of the evangelical Left a little further as they move on.

And honestly, the organizations to which I linked had VERY little to say about all four parts the evangelical quadrilateral. Usually the focus is one: activism.


The NAE created some distance between fundamentalists and evangelicals, but there was probably a greater distance between Pentecostals and cessationists (who believe the “gifts of the Holy Spirit,” like speaking in tongues, had ended with the early church). Fundamentalist churches have disfellowshipped congregations with Pentecostal leanings. In some ways, this rift harkens back to the confessional/revivalist conflict.

I'm not sure there is any correlation, but after the Scopes Trial the Pentecostal movement surged, especially among Latinos and African-Americans. The Pentecostal movement became associated with, among others, Aimee Semple McPherson. She was a big fan of American patriotism,[16] an increasingly favorite theme of many Pentecostals and evangelicals.[17]

The relatively recent rise of global Pentecostalism can hardly be overstated. It is the fastest growing denomination among Protestants. The Church of God in Christ went from 425,000 members in 1965 to 6.5 million members in 63 countries today. The Assemblies of God went from 572,000 members in 1965 to 3.2 million in the US alone in 2015.

Globally, Pentecostal evangelicalism is sweeping the world. This is sure to change evangelicalism in the United States as more and more countries begin sending missionaries and church planters to us, and as Christian immigrants coming from these countries continue to change the church landscape as well. (the percentage of international refugees and legal immigrants who are Christian is around 60%; according to Pew Research, 83% of illegal immigrants from Central and South America are Christian).


Around 1945, evangelicals started working to focus more on the life of the intellect. This mattered to early Founders such as Jonathan Edwards, but it had been sidelined by the Methodists in the 1700s[19] and in some ways rejected as a response to modernism’s love of academia.[20]

Carl F. H. Henry became a key figure in this new movement. He exhorting them to learn about and take a stand against “social evil such as aggressive warfare, racial hatred and intolerance, the liquor traffic, and exploitation of labor.” He saw the evangelical task as primarily about the preaching of the Gospel but inevitably resulting in offering redemptive solutions for both the individual and society.

He became the founding editor of Christianity Today, the magazine of record for non-Pentecostal evangelicals. Christianity Today had been started by Billy Graham, who hoped to give evangelicalism theological respectability.[21] If you want to use current magazines as a marker for the divergence within Protestantism/evangelicalism, the spectrum would look something like this (moving from theologically and politically liberal to conservative)
  • Sojourners (evangelical Left)
  • Christianity Today/ Relevant/World/Salvo (neo-evangelical center)
  • The Christian Post/Charisma (evangelical Right)

Currently, the Gospel Coalition is probably a good place to get an idea of how neo-evangelicalism intends to work. Just as a reminder that fundamentalism and evangelicalism are not the same thing, the fundamentalist American Council of Christian Churches has an opinion about the Gospel Coalition. They aren’t theological friends. 

Meanwhile, 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 – I mean, how did Paul White and Robert Jeffress get so closely connected?

This fundamentalist/Pentecostal coalition is likely what pundits refer to when talking about “the evangelical vote” for Republicans in general and Trump in particular. Neo-evangelicals are far more divided in their political allegiances, because they (once again) share space with more issues than do fundamentalists: instead of just abortion and marriage, they include war, poverty, racism, health care, creation care…

I wonder if the fundamentalist/Pentecostal coalition united around politics will separate from neo-evangelicalism as a political (and maybe even ecclesiastical) movement. Meanwhile, in popular parlance, the word "evangelical" applies to them all.



 [1] He also converted and inspired key African-American evangelical leaders, including Olaudah Equiano and Phillis Wheatley – thus highlighting the inconsistent tension.

[2] This is a terrible misapplication of the book of Philemon, a source often quoted in defense of this position.

[3] The Church of God in Christ rose to prominence as the nation's largest black-led Pentecostal denomination; Assemblies of God became largely populated by white Pentecostals.

[4] Ida Wells called out D.L. Moody for downplaying the issue of lynching. Wells wrote, “American Christians are too busy saving the souls of white Christians from burning in Hell Fire to save the lives of black ones from present burning and fires kindled by white Christians.”

[5] In all fairness, this happened at a time in history when no group addressed issues of racial violence consistently well.

[6] “Party Realignment And The New Deal.”

[7] “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans.”

[8] Eisenhower (R) signed it into law, but two other factors worked against Eisenhower. First, the bill only covered federal elections, not state and local. That would be fixed by Kennedy and Johnson. Second, MLK publicly expressed disappointment over Eisenhower’s lack of support denouncing segregationist violence in the South.

[9] “Last Hired, First Fired: How the Great Depression Affected African Americans.”

[10] This is not to suggest the Democratic Party had a clean racial track record. See “Wallace, George.”

[11] Racist “dog whistles” have not left politics to this day. Watch the deeply unsettling documentary 13th(Netflix) If you aren’t familiar with “dog whistles,” go here.

[12] “Why Did Black Voters Flee The Republican Party In The 1960s?”

[13] The same thing happened at the Scopes Monkey Trial.

[14] “Defining Evangelicalism: Questions That Complement The Quadrilateral,” Evangelicals.

[15] Interesting side note: William Jenning Bryan did not hold to a little literal reading of the days of creation. He thought the Earth was very old.

[16] “Christianity and patriotism go hand-in-hand. What must be loyal to Christ, the Savior, and one must be loyal to this country which is a Christian Republic, as the laws of our country and its jurisprudence are based upon the scriptures.”

[17] Not all Pentecostals were excited about this, as Charles Parham once compared patriotism to the god Moloch.

[18] The mid-1940s saw the first use of “neo-evangelical,” a term coined by Harold Ockenga to distinguish evangelicals from fundamentalists.

[19] The work habits of Methodist preachers was legendary. 90-100 hours a week was expected of Wesleyen ministers. Learning became a “disposable luxury” as the focused moved to actually preaching rather than studying and preparing to preach. (David Bebbington, “The Nature Of Evangelical Reform,” Evangelicals)

[20] Doug Sweeney notes that the study of evangelical history often splits into two prevailing models around this time: Reformed (which focuses on the elite “cultural cream” of intellectual and institutional leaders) and Holiness (the people’s movement; the grass roots experience). – “The Essential Evangelical Dialect,” Evangelicals

[21] Christianity Today has vacillated between fundamentalist combativeness in the seventies and evangelical liberalism in the 2000s and 2010s, though it’s recent trend is more moderate.

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