Friday, October 23, 2009

What is Evangelicalism?

And How Does It Apply To
The "Christian Nation" Debate

Ok, time to shift gears away from the cluster f*** that was the past couple of posts. Instead, I want to shift the discussion to something I have been thinking a lot about as of late: what is Evangelicalism?

Now, at first glimpse this topic may appear to have nothing to do with this blog. After all, we do not dedicate this blog to discussing particular religious creeds/doctrines all that much. However, in light of some of the discussions we have had over the past 1 1/2 years regarding "Christianity" -- specifically what the definition of Christian orthodoxy is -- I think this might be useful in helping us dissect the arguments behind the "Christian Nation" thesis.

Webster's Dictionary defines "Evangelicalism" as:

1: of, relating to, or being in agreement with the Christian gospel especially as it is presented in the four Gospels
2: protestant
3: emphasizing salvation by faith in the atoning death of Jesus Christ through personal conversion, the authority of Scripture, and the importance of preaching as contrasted with ritual

Personally I take issue with these definitions NOT because I consider myself to be an Evangelical but rather because I am NOT an Evangelical. These definitions could relate to a number of religions that are clearly not unique to only Evangelicals. In addition, the 2nd definition makes the assumption that all Protestants are Evangelicals, and this is simply not true for a number of self-proclaimed Protestants who outright reject the "Evangelical" label.

So here, in my opinion, is a better definition:

A wide-reaching definitional “canopy” that covers a diverse number of Protestant groups.

I realize that this definiton is perhaps too simplistic and much more could go into developing a better definition of Evangelicalism. It's also worth noting that the term has meant different things at different points of American history. For example, during the Great Awakening, Evangelical religion/teaching was understood to mean "revivalistic" religion. Pretty much the same is true of the enthusiastic revivalist preachings that took place in the early years of the 1800s. At the beginning of the 20th century Evangelicalism essentially was seen as a pro-Christian but anti-fundamentalist faith. And in our days -- since roughly the 1970s -- Evangelicalism has come to mean -- at least for some people -- a group of politically conservative Christians who are active on social issues.

Now, it's not my intention to really debate the accuracy of these definitions. After all, they are just labels that were given over the course of history. I do, however, want to look at how Evangelicalism has grown to play such a prominent role in developing the "Christian Nation" thesis that they so vehemently defend.

One interesting way of understanding how and why Evangelicalism was able to interject itself so well into the "Christian Nation" debate -- and in addition was able to cross over so many Christian faiths with opposing views -- is to see modern Evangelicalism as more than just a religious set of beliefs, but as also an ECONOMIC venture. As Dr. Bart Barber states:

I suggest that, for the period from around 1970 through the present day, Evangelicalism is broadly conceivable as a primarily economic term. Evangelicalism is an industry containing Focus on the Family, Compassion International, Contemporary Christian Music, major Christian publishing houses, dating services like Equally Yoked, and myriad other business ventures.


As an economic market, Evangelicalism has done a lot of good. The variety of music, literature, film, and other media available to North American Christians is greater today than in days past largely because of Evangelicalism. For that I am thankful. Also, the likelihood of Christians obtaining justice for the unborn and others in our society is much greater because of the political influence that has come through the consolidation of Christian political influence under the banner of Evangelicalism.

However, Dr. Barber also acknowledges that this recent trend has produced some negative traits as well:

It is in the interest of Evangelicalism to pretend that theological concepts that have been important for thousands of years are no longer important. Because no individual denominational market is big enough to sustain modern Evangelicalism, the movement must de-emphasize denominational distinctives. Yet, with a few notable exceptions, Christians have not tended to divide in the past over minutiae. The nature of salvation, baptism, the Lord's Supper, the Trinity, the church—Evangelicalism must relegate these things to relative unimportance in order for the market to coalesce. So, it emphasizes other things—things that are important themselves—to the exclusion of these "divisive" issues. The measure of a doctrine's importance becomes not its scriptural emphasis or theological gravity, but its ability to unite the core market.

Now, I am not saying that the current "Christian Nation" debate is purely motivated by economic forces, nor do I believe that Evangelicalism's #1 goal is to make money as opposed to defending and preaching their beliefs. That would be pure nonsense. However, I do think that Dr. Barber's argument can help us understand how the "Christian Nation" movement has become so large and wide-spread amongst a number of different churches. Movements like the "Moral Majority" and others had to find a way to build bridges with a number of different Christian faiths. So did the modern "Christian Nation" movement.

I don't think there can be any doubt that Christian conservatism has become a very powerful political force in recent years. I think this can be attributed -- at least in part -- to the efforts of modern Evangelicalism to cross theological barriers and build upon common beliefs. I believe that the same can be said of the "Christian Nation" debate. In today's debate over the founders and religion, we can easily see Baptists, Methodists, Presbyterians, non-denominationals, etc. all embracing a common religious and historical heritage. Men like David Barton, D. James Kennedy and others have regularly been guests in Southern Baptists chapels and in Mormon chapels as well. Yet these churches still maintain certain divisions based on theological differences. How then could they argue that the Founders were "Christians?"

It's my argument that despite these differences in theology, Evangelicalism, in general, has helped to shape the way people define "Christianity." Though a Presbyterian may insist on the doctrine of predestination, he/she can still accept the idea of a non-denominational going to heaven, since they share a general concept of Christianity. Is the same standard being given to the founders? I think so. Men like Washington and Jefferson -- Anglican/Episcopalians by birth -- are accepted into the "Christian" fold, despite the obvious differences that exist between the Episcopal Church and the other "Evangelical" churches.

Now, I recognize that small divisions on a few theological issues does not necessarily mean that one Christian denomination condemns the other of heresy. However, it would be silly to simply dismiss these differences entirely. They exist for a reason, which is why we have so many faiths. For the "Christian Nation," this can be a blessing. Perhaps Washington never took communion, never prayed on his knees, adopted a more unitarian tone in his "God talk," and may have even rejected the traditional Christianity of his day, but he was, in a general sense, a Christian. Maybe Ben Franklin had doubts as to Christ's divinity, lived a life of questionable morals, etc. but he was, in this general sense, a Christian. Maybe Patrick Henry and James Madison differed greatly on their understanding and practice of religion, but both men were, in this general sense, Christian men. Maybe Thomas Paine hated priests and pastors and wrote scathing commentaries on religion, but he was, in this general sense, a Christian. In other words, the somewhat hazy definition behind Evangelical Christianity allows a lot of "wiggle room" for the founders. And it also affords the "Christian Nation" apologist plenty of leeway in claiming the founders as Christians.

So I guess my point is this: A large number of Protestant faiths, despite their differences on various theological points, are able to accept the founders as "Christians" thanks in part to the impact that Evangelicalism has had on creating a generalized template for what qualifies a person as a "Christian." Though the founders held to a wide range of beliefs, all are able to qualify for the "Christian" label in some way.

Perhaps this means that the term "Christian Nation" is too generalized and we need something a little more specific?


Brian Tubbs said...

Quick comments, Brad...

1. I think your article correctly observes how modern American evangelicalism, as a cultural and (yes) economic force, has blurred denominational lines AND influenced the "Christian America" debate. David Barton, for example, speaks as an "evangelical Christian" to churches of all denominational stripes. His appeal is wide. Same with Christian music groups, etc.

2. Only the most extreme and ignorant "Christian America" activists would call Thomas Paine, Benjamin Franklin, and/or Thomas Jefferson "Christian" (even in a "general" sense). Not even Barton claims Franklin, Paine, or Jefferson were "Christian."

3. As for your efforts to define evangelicalism, I think you're correct that the PERCEIVED understanding of the term (and movement) has shifted over the generations.

4. I think one of the distinctives of "evangelicals" is that they emphasize conversion (a specific, intentional DECISION to give one's life to Jesus Christ) and then baptism AFTER conversion. This differentiates them from Catholics and several "mainline" Protestant churches, that tend to emphasize baptism (even as an infant), church membership, traditions and rituals, etc.

Anonymous said...

Baptism after conversion should not be considered a hallmark of evangelicalism. There are plenty of Christian individuals from denominations and churches that practice pedobaptism that would consider themselves evangelicals. I believe that Mark Noll and David Bebbington have provided the standard (and most useful) definition of evangelicalism. They argue that evangelicals are defined by an emphasis on the authority of Scripture, the necessity of personal conversion, the centrality of Christ's death on the cross, and the importance of an active life of following Jesus. These categories are broad, but evangelicalism is a broad movement that defies easy definition.

Daniel said...

I agree with Brian that conversion is probably the key word. Actually, I think that 3rd Webster's definition does pretty well although I would slip the divinity of Jesus into the definition. That still leaves it pretty broad.

But I don't think the Evangelical-style big tent encompasses Jefferson, Franklin, or Paine. To get those, you need a definition that relies largely on self-definition as a Christian. Since "Christianity" has had many forms through the millenia, this may not be a bad starting point, but it sure doesn't let anyone say this person was a Christian so I can claim them for my favorite flavor of Christianity.

Brad Hart said...

I agree that classifying Franklin, Jefferson and Paine as Christians is a tough juggling act to perform. The reason I mentioned them in the context I did is because some still do make the link. The may been poorly informed, but they make that link...probably out of simple ignorance.

Tom Van Dyke said...

No prob, BH. I'll continue to submit that 1) "Christian" means the Bible comes from God in some fashion---not made up by man.

2) Jesus was more than just a man, more than just the greatest moral teacher of all time---that he came from God, not as just another prophet, but something unique.

That's my socio-historical definition of "Christianity." Theological definitions will differ, of course. Theologians---and churchmen--- make their living at that game.

Perhaps even one or some of them are right! God only knows.

Only God knows...

As for defining "evangelicalism" as a commercial enterprise, Dr. Bart Barber is at least somewhat correct in his definition, as he limits it post-1970.

But churches and congregations rise and fall around charismatic figures in America back since the Founding era, based on emotional responses to the Gospel, that life isn't a one-way ticket to shit.

So-called [hehe] evangelicals like Robert Schuller and now Joel Osteen get plenty of crap from more doctrinal Protestants, since the "prosperity Gospel" seems to take first place over Jesus, god, salvation, etc.

When these folks die, be it Aimee Semple McPherson, Billy Graham, and I expect the late D. James Kennedy, and in the foreseeable future, Dr. James Dobson, their congregations scatter to the winds. And even Jonathan Edwards hisself got fired by his congregation, even before he made his way to the grave.

Ever see "Elmer Gantry"?

That's my core point, and I thought of it when Jim Bakker fell from grace with his sex scandal.

Yes, the preacher was flawed---feet of clay. But did that mean his congregation, those old ladies who sent him their money, never found the Bible, never found Jesus?

I dunno, but I don't discount the possibility. "Evangelicalism," at its core, literally means to preach the Gospel, to give the Good News to all men. After that, as in the parable of the mustard seed, it's out of man's hands, eh?

Anonymous said...

Please read the Age of Reason if you are having trouble figuring out that Thomas Paine was not a Christian in any sense of the word.


Brad Hart said...

For the last time, I KNOW Thomas Paine was NOT a Christian. Read what I said. I was referring to how many "Christian Nation" supporters (who maybe don't have the grasp of history they need for this argument) are able to call him a Christian.

But yes, to confirm your point, Paine was not a Christian.

King of Ireland said...


You seem to take a lot of crap from people but I do appreciate your posts. In many ways I am an evangelical in some sense but see where you are coming from and agree with you.

I am trying to tell Frazer how this crap comes off but he will not listen and most will not. Keep up the good work. Your post on Columbus was on the mark as far a central to this debate. I do not always agree with you but do respect your point of view.

Brad Hart said...

I appreciate that, King. Yeah, this blog is sort of getting a little sour as of late. Just FYI, I did create my own personal blog (everything I post here I also put over there with some other stuff as well.