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Evangelicals, We Definitely (Don’t) Know What They Are

We know that about one fourth of Americans say they’re evangelicals. We don’t know what that means. Maybe they don’t either. But we’re sure it’s important, whatever it is.

This last week or so featured a number of lively pieces about American evangelicals. Read individually and together, they raise questions about the relationship between personal and group identity. All of us craft our sense of self partly in terms of how we relate to others. We understand ourselves as belonging to certain groups, opposed to others, and apathetic to many more. This understanding helps us form our personal narrative and make sense of the social world. But like many of the popular narratives in television or film, our plot often falters under closer inspection. It does its job for the time being, delivering an exciting experience, but it doesn’t hold up for repeat viewing. That’s ok, though, we only live once.

The problem presents itself because many of the groups we use to form our identity aren’t official organizations with mission statements and membership lists. As such, our personal narratives are fuzzy on the details of group membership and group characteristics. Even if I use the same term that other people do, do we really mean the same thing by it, and do we actually recognize each other as fellow members?

Thomas Kidd started things off in his Vox article with a provocative title: “Roy Moore and the confused identity of today’s ‘evangelical’ voter.” Abstracting from the Roy Moore case itself, Kidd believes that the way the term evangelical is being used in public discourse is deeply problematic. Kidd is opposed to letting people self-identify religiously, or at least opposed to taking them seriously when do: “I suspect that large numbers of these people who identify as ‘evangelicals’ are really just whites who watch Fox News and who consider themselves religious.”

This is a very strange thing to say. Most historians and practitioners of social science do not go around telling people that they aren’t the religion they say they are. The usual practice is to take a non-normative approach, meaning that the observer notes but does not judge how people label themselves. What we look for is a kind of mutual accreditation: people belong to group X more or less because they say they do and other people who say they do agree.

What alternative is there? Kidd opts instead for evangelicalism’s “historic meaning,” which he finds in the famous Bebbington quadrilateral of biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism. Aha, now we know what an evangelical is! Except we don’t, because that’s not what historians do and not how history works, and I can’t believe I have to write this about a historian as solid as Thomas Kidd. Bebbington gave a description, not a definition, of a group at a particular point in time. But it is the group itself, not the description, that has logical priority. If the group “people who say they are evangelicals and other people recognize them as such” has changed characteristics over time, then the description needs to be updated. Kidd complains that the term evangelical has been diluted, but the harsher reality is that it is the people themselves who have grown thin.

Even though I disagree with aspects of how Kidd framed his piece, I still find several parts of it quite valuable. First and foremost, the changes Kidd notes are in fact historically significant. What does it mean that someone can in all sincerity call himself or herself an evangelical and not attend church and not demonstrate significant engagement with their faith? I agree with Kidd that evangelicalism began to combat precisely such nominalism, but we need to be fair here. The evangelicals claimed that there must have been some kind of intrinsic failure within Catholicism and Protestant Orthodoxy that let this kind of nominalism flourish. If that’s so, history has revealed that evangelicalism was not immune to the same fault. The cure was ineffective. We learn about evangelicalism not by insisting on its homogeneity but by recognizing the diversity of cultural forms it can take.

I am sympathetic, though, to two points Kidd makes. First, the media tends to take politics as the important metanarrative, the real story, and thus to interpret every kind of group in relation to politics. This is a caricature of reality, and perhaps it is a special kind of insult to a religion like evangelicalism that claims to transcend (but not bypass) politics. I can almost hear Kidd yelling, “Why can’t you ever be interested in us for the things that we care about; why can’t you see us as anything other than a voting bloc to be coopted!” If this is indeed the secret cry of Kidd’s heart, it’s one I share. The media can be dehumanizing toward its subjects even while being ostensibly fair. You can read all day about a group of people without ever really knowing them, without ever being forced to think about them except within the framework you had already prepared.

Second, if it’s true that the evangelicals most supportive of political bad behavior and paradoxically most attracted to tribal dog-whistles are in fact the ones only nominally committed to the church, the role of the church in public affairs needs some re-examining. It may not be the case that what evangelicals believe and what evangelical leaders teach are the same thing. That, not so coincidentally, is the subject of our next piece.

Ross Douthat knows how to ask a pointed question: “Is There an Evangelical Crisis?” Basically, for the last year or so, various writers have said over and over again how Trump and the nativist movement are going to fracture evangelicalism. Evangelicals are being put in impossible situations, they said, we’ll have a crisis of credibility. Now, hand-wringing is an official sacrament in the evangelical church, so it’s hard to know whether these kinds of articles represent an actual cultural shift or just the newest topic for the old worry complex. Douthat counters this trend by correctly pointing out that evangelicalism is the only major form of American Christianity to remain demographically stable over the last few years. So who is actually in crisis?

The leaders, it would seem. Douthat refers to the intellectual, literary class as the “evangelical penumbra” (a penumbra is that sliver of light still visible on the outer ring of an eclipse). They’re the most visible, but they may not be all that representative of the majority. It’s as if in the last year many Christian opinion-makers realized they weren’t actually making opinions. They were the establishment in an age in which the establishment is bad. When the evangelical literati express concern for their group, their real concern is or should be on their own status within the group. The fragmentation of evangelicalism may be be the divide between its intellectuals and everyone else.

This possibility brings us back to Kidd’s article. How do we know which is the real evangelicalism? Good journalistic practices involve interviewing an influential, representative person to get their take on an issue. What if all the sorts of people we’re used to interviewing—the pastors, professors, and think tank leaders—suddenly aren’t that influential or representative anymore? How can scholars makes sense of a truly mass phenomenon that operates without a clear center or a clear agenda? What can we make of millions of people who thinks it’s very important to be an evangelical, but who don’t know or care what that is?

Our two final pieces address one way evangelicals try to define themselves, by contrasting themselves to fundamentalists. I don’t have much commentary on this. I’ll just post first this article from the Washington Post contrasting the Creation Museum and the Museum of the Bible. It’s interesting. But far more interesting is this twitter thread by David Congdon unpacking how the article uncritically perpetuates a common evangelical theme: fundamentalist as scapegoat.

I think the take-away here is not to be too quick to think you understand a person just because you recognize a label for them. Even when that person is yourself.

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