The Identity Crisis Of Modern “Evangelicalism”

Jul 18th, 2020 | By | Category: Culture & Wordview, Featured Issues

In 1976, Newsweek magazine proclaimed “the year of the evangelical,” with a cover story on being “born again.”  It charted the expanding influence of evangelical churches, which were theologically and politically diverse, and, the article argued, were positioned to have a major impact of the nation’s public morality.  After all, evangelicals were strategically important in the election of Jimmy Carter, a self-professed evangelical who talked of being born again.  Today, few would portray the evangelical movement with such positive qualities.  In fact, in many circles, the term evangelical has acquired pejorative connotations.  What exactly does it mean to be an evangelical in 2020?  What are the doctrinal criteria for this label?  Why do so many in the broader American culture automatically equate evangelicalism with Trump Republicanism?

What do the terms evangelical or evangelicalism mean?  Historically, these terms have had doctrinal or theological content.  Therefore, historian George Marsden writes of evangelicalism as a “conceptual unit that identifies a broader set of groups possessing common traits.”  He specifies five salient beliefs:  “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work reported in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; and 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life.”  British historian David Bebbington similarly characterizes evangelicalism as having four doctrinal characteristics (called the “quadrilateral”):  1. Conversion; 2. The Bible, “the belief that all spiritual truth is to be found in its pages.”  3.  Activism, or the dedication of all believers, especially the laity, to lives of service to God, especially in sharing the message and taking that message far and near; and 4.  “Crucicentrism,” the conviction that Christ’s death on the cross provided atonement for sin and reconciliation between sinful humanity and a holy God.”

In the presidential election of 2016, 81% of white evangelical voters cast ballots for Donald Trump, despite his racially charged and sexually crude behavior.  However, it would be incorrect to say broadly that evangelicals, using the doctrinal elements cited above, voted as a block for Trump.  In 2015, LifeWay Research, in collaboration with the National Association of Evangelicals, carried out an extensive American survey that utilized the doctrinal points of Marsden and Bebbington.  The survey results, to the surprise of few, found 29% of Caucasian Americans affirmed these doctrinal points.  Numbered among those 29% were Protestants from mainline denominations, as well as some Roman Catholics.  But the following results were somewhat stunning:

  • 44% of the nation’s African Americans affirmed the doctrinal points of evangelicalism
  • 30% of Hispanic Americans affirmed the doctrinal points of evangelicalism
  • 17% of Americans of other ethnicities affirmed the doctrinal points of evangelicalism.

Therefore, if evangelicalism is defined as agreeing with the doctrinal positions summarized by Marsden and Bebbington, then there are a large number of non-white evangelicals who did not vote for Donald Trump in 2016.  If Black and Hispanic Protestants, as well as the growing number of Asian American believers, are included as evangelicals, then the percentage of evangelicals who embraced Trump in 2016 was much smaller.

Historian Thomas Kidd of Baylor University, in his book Who is an Evangelical?, argues persuasively that evangelicals cannot be defined by their race, political party, their ecclesiastical history or their religious culture.  As with Marsden and Bebbington, evangelicals must be defined as those who agree with doctrinal truths.  As he surveys the history of evangelicals, he correctly includes large numbers of black Christians, along with growing numbers of Hispanic Pentecostals, all of whom share the same foundational doctrinal positions.  Thus, to be an evangelical in the United States in 2020 with the doctrinal focus affirmed above does not mean that an “evangelical” is a mere subset of the Republican Party.  Evangelicalism is a racially diverse movement defined not by politics but by theological truth and the life-transforming Gospel.

It is clear then that evangelicalism is in the midst of an identity crisis.  Is evangelicalism a 21st century movement that totally identifies with Donald Trump and is thereby experiencing the corrupting effects of political power on the movement?  Or is evangelicalism a movement that identifies with a set of theological propositions (see Marsden and Bebbington), which transcends racial differences, cultural differences and, most importantly, politics?  If 21st century American evangelicals cannot answer the second question affirmatively, then I would plead with them to begin using another label.   They are turning their backs on a movement with a life-transforming, biblically-centered heritage—unified by doctrine, not by a political party.

In conclusion, I want to repeat two thoughts from a few months ago on Issues:

  1. Some Christians think that by marshaling a Christian voting bloc we can establish Christ’s kingdom on earth.  We dare not confuse the external and limited good that political power can achieve with the internal and infinite good that God’s grace produces.  Further, we cannot buy into what the late Chuck Colson called the “political illusion,” the notion that all human problems can be solved by political institutions.  It is idolatrous to believe that, for the Bible declares that the root problem of society is spiritual.  What the Christian seeks through government is justice, not power.  The task of spiritual transformation is for the church, not the state.
  2. The church is the agent of God’s power in the world.  The church is inextricably linked with the death, burial and resurrection of Christ, through which evil was defeated.  Robert Webber writes: “This new view of life belongs to the church because Christ, the head of the church, is inseparably linked with it.  His power over sin, death, and the dominion of the Devil now belongs to the church . . . The church acts in the name of Christ to witness through prayer, preaching, baptism, communion, lifestyle, and other means proclaiming that Satan is now doomed.  The church is a corporate body of people who know Satan as a deceiver and liar.  He has no ultimate power over them and their lives.  Consequently, the church is a threat to Satan.” Satan truly hates the church and seeks to destroy it.  Satan seeks to produce heresy in the church, discord in the church, to re-order the church’s priorities and to get the church to cultivate faith in power, in wealth and in human authorities, not in Christ.  Anything that seeks to get the church off focus becomes a tool of Satan.  For that reason, the church must be vigilant, on guard and dressed with the whole armor of God.   The witness of the church in this age is to expose evil and to be the agent of reconciliation to God.  That is the nature of the Gospel.  That is the nature of being salt and light.  For me personally, that what it means to be an evangelical.

See Thomas S. Kidd, Who is an Evangelical?  The History of a Movement in Crisis and Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, ed., Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, George M. Marsden.

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One Comment to “The Identity Crisis Of Modern “Evangelicalism””

  1. Peter Wiebe says:

    I believe that as a Christ-following Christian, I view what is currently available and when I see what the current Democrats have to offer, and what Trump is offering, I cannot see how God would bless any of my actions in supporting Biden, nor any of the current front running Democrats. If we leave our hatred for Trump aside for the time being and take a serious look at what is available and where the country is headed under the two options, I do believe we’re more likely to receive God’s blessings under Trump than under any of the current Democrat leaders. That’s what needs to be looked at. This is not an endorsement of the things we don’t appreciate about Donald Trump as a role model, but what’s available to us under the two political options. Then, from a Christian perspective, in my opinion, the choice becomes quite clear.