Evangelical Has Lost Its Meaning

A term that once described a vital tradition within the Christian faith now means something else entirely.

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Once a month or so Tommy Kidd and I get together for lunch at our favorite taco joint. Over the carnitas and barbacoa and guacamole we catch up on how our writing projects are going, and perhaps gossip a bit about what’s happening at Baylor University, where we both work. And more often than not, we end up talking about our complicated relationship with American evangelical Christianity. Because the future of that movement, which is our movement, matters to us—and, we think, matters to America.

Tommy is a Southern Baptist; I’m an Episcopalian, in the Anglican tradition descending from the Church of England. Very different things, one might think, and in some ways one would be right. Where Tommy’s Church has a praise band, mine has organ music; the central event on Sunday morning at his church is the sermon, while at mine it’s the Eucharist. And yet both of our traditions are closely connected, if in different ways, to evangelicalism.

The Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant denomination in America, is generally, if not universally, evangelical: Just look at the uses of the term evangelical on the denomination’s website. There aren’t very many evangelicals in the Episcopal Church anymore—there aren’t many Episcopalians anymore—but most of the founders of modern evangelicalism, in the 18th century, were priests of the Church of England, and some of the more recent figures who are dearest to today’s evangelicals are also Anglican (most famously, C. S. Lewis).

And that’s one of the most important points to grasp about evangelicalism: It’s not a denomination. It’s not even a single tradition. It is, rather, a complex and fluid movement dedicated to the renewal of Christianity, largely among Protestants, though its efforts have occasionally reached into Catholicism. Its focus is on preaching the euangelion, a New Testament Greek word meaning “good news” or “good message.” The specific contours of that message are often debated: While most scholars of the movement hold to the Bebbington quadrilateral, some think a more complete picture is given by the Larsen pentagon. Those debates can get rather scholastic.

So if you need something a little pithier, here’s the definition that Kidd offers in his new book: “Evangelicals are born-again Protestants who cherish the Bible as the Word of God and who emphasize a personal relationship with Jesus Christ through the Holy Spirit.” It would be difficult to do much better in a single sentence.

That said, the state of evangelicalism in America today is such that a single sentence can’t capture much of the complexity. Thus the full title of Kidd’s book: Who Is an Evangelical? The History of a Movement in Crisis. And Kidd believes, as do I, that the language of “crisis” is appropriate: As he comments late in his book, “The 2016 presidential election would become the most shattering experience for evangelicals since the Scopes Trial.”

Kidd begins his book with a concise but assured history of the evangelical movement, from its origins in 18th-century England through the 20th century. The Scopes trial—especially as reported by H. L. Mencken’s outraged mockery of William Jennings Bryan’s insistence that Darwinian theory and Christianity are incompatible—established evangelicals in the American public mind as ignorant yahoos who could safely be ignored. (That Mencken had great respect for more thoughtful evangelicals, including the conservative Presbyterian J. Gresham Machen, went unnoticed. It’s instructive to contrast Mencken’s obituary of Bryan with his obituary of Machen.) This general dismissal by journalists and intellectuals lasted until the rise of the self-declared evangelical Jimmy Carter, which led to Time magazine declaring 1976 The Year of the Evangelical.

But this is where the strangest, and perhaps the most consequential, chapter in the history of American evangelicalism began. For in the 1980 election the newly confident evangelical movement, in its self-understanding as the Moral Majority, supported not its co-religionist Jimmy Carter but the divorced former Hollywood actor Ronald Reagan. And that inaugurated the affiliation of white American evangelicals with the Republican Party that has lasted to this day. As Kidd explains:

Forming the Moral Majority freed [Falwell] from tax regulations against direct political advocacy by churches. Unlike [Billy] Graham, Falwell did not begin by seeking access to the top levels of power. Instead, he sought to mobilize fundamentalists and evangelicals to change the occupants of political offices. He told Christians that it was sinful not to vote. Asking pastors to hold voter registration drives, Falwell told them that they needed to get people “saved, baptized, and registered” to vote. The agenda of the Republican evangelical insiders was born.

The precise contours of what happened to evangelicals during the Carter administration are still hotly debated by historians. Certainly abortion rights—which Carter supported and Reagan did not—played a major role, even though that was a recent priority for evangelicals. More generally, the social conservatism of many evangelicals, especially in the South, made them feel less and less at home with the comparatively progressive sexual and racial politics of the Democratic Party. And the fact that Reagan could speak openly of God—in the ’60s, well after his divorce and remarriage, he had had some kind of religious awakening, and became a regular attender of Bel Air Presbyterian Church in Los Angeles—sweetened the pill.

But it seems to me that of all the traits that attracted evangelicals to Reagan, perhaps the most important was his sunny and fervent patriotism. Already white American evangelicals had a tendency to associate Christianity closely with the American experiment, and to think of their country as a “Christian nation” or, at the very least, actuated by “Judeo-Christian values.” But as the decades passed and American church leaders in almost all denominations became less interested in traditional Christian doctrines and more interested in what some scholars have come to call moralistic therapeutic deism, a larger and larger proportion of white evangelicals became what Pew Research calls “God-and-Country Believers.” These folks, almost all of whom are white, may not attend church often or at all, and they may not be interested in, or even aware of, the beliefs that have typically characterized evangelical Christians, but they know this much: They believe in God, and they believe in America, and they love Donald Trump because he speaks blunt Truth to culturally elite Power, and when asked by pollsters whether they are evangelicals, they say yes.

By now, God-and-Country Believers are so accustomed to voting Republican—and to being disdained or mocked by Democrats—that few of them can remember doing anything else. And God-and-Country Believers are what most Americans, whether religious or not, now think that evangelicals are.

Tommy Kidd and I, musing on these matters over our tacos, may well lament all this. We may note the strangeness of allowing a centuries-old movement to be defined by people who don’t know that the movement is centuries old; and we may note, as Kidd repeatedly points out in his book, that there are many millions of non-white evangelicals in America, and not very many of them voted for Donald Trump. So we now have a peculiar situation in which people who don’t know what the term evangelical historically connotes and who massively distrust one another—God-and-Country moralistic therapeutic deists on the one hand, and a press that simply doesn’t get religion on the other—have combined to take the term away from those of us who know and care about its history.

Thus Kidd:

Why do respondents with marginal evangelical characteristics say that they are, in fact, evangelicals? Presumably some intuitively understand “evangelical” as an ethnic, cultural, and political designation rather than a theological or devotional one. Some critics of evangelicals might say they’re right: to such observers, “evangelical” carries as much racial and political freight as theological significance.

This transformation of evangelical from a theological position to a “racial and political” one is not just bad for serious Christians; it’s also a prime driver of the increasing hostility of liberals to religion in almost any form. Those who have insisted on yoking (a very vague notion of) God and (a very specific account of) country may soon find themselves dispossessed of both.

Just before the past presidential election, I argued that the proper response to those who have stolen our religious identity is to “steal it back.” But since then, I have come to doubt whether that’s possible. This strange and inadvertent conspiracy of Trump supporters and journalists may have put an end to a useful term that once described a vital tradition in the Christian faith. The question of who is and who is not an evangelical should matter to everyone concerned with American politics and the American social order; it matters especially to those who wonder how we got here. But it might not matter much longer.