Has the Time Come to Abandon Evangelicalism?

In light of the ignominious behaviour of leading ‘evangelical’ voices in supporting and standing by Donald Trump, I have a question for my American friends who haven’t compromised on this point. At what point should the self-designation ‘evangelical’ be abandoned? At what point do the liabilities of the term outweigh its potential benefits? At what point does the meaning of a term need to be so hedged with qualifications and distinctions that it ceases to be fit for purpose?

‘Evangelical’ isn’t our shared Christian identity, just a word that we have historically employed to speak about certain particular and contingent expressions of that identity. Despite valiant attempts to maintain a prescriptive meaning to the term, words shift and change in their meanings in the real world and ‘evangelical’ has not been immune to this.

While there has historically been a broad theological consensus on certain issues that could be termed ‘evangelical’, the term has functioned as much as a sociological term as it has as a theological one. The descriptive sociological and more prescriptive theological meanings of the term have been diverging for some time. Viewed differently, the sociological foundations that formerly allowed us to speak meaningfully of a core theological consensus among evangelicals have been crumbling beneath us.

David Bebbington’s definition of evangelicalism in terms of Biblicism, crucicentrism, conversionism, and activism has enjoyed a lot of currency among conservatives within the evangelical movement. Originally a more descriptive definition, it is often now employed in a more prescriptive fashion by many conservatives. Yet a sociological definition of the movement and the term has, I believe, much more merit to it, especially in an American context (‘evangelical’ is more likely to function as a qualifying term—even if only implicitly—in the UK, while it seems more commonly employed as a substantive term in the US).

I have argued the case in more depth before, but evangelicalism’s identity in the US has been inextricably bound up with the movement from a more ecclesial faith to a highly democratized and de-institutionalized faith of the masses. This development was occasioned by the departure of conservative Protestants from the mainline churches (this has not happened to the same extent in the UK and the term evangelical has a slightly different sense here), by the rise of mass media, increased mobility, the intensification of capitalism’s influence upon our social forms, and other such factors.

From the common faith of defined communities within an extended family of specific historical and confessional traditions, under their appointed leaders, it shifted in the direction of a mass movement that finds its centre of gravity in shifting confluences of self-defining religious consumption catered to in large measure by non-ecclesial entities (commonly but questionably referred to as ‘parachurch’). Obviously, these developments are far more pronounced in some quarters than in others (even the ecclesial form of the mainline can be little more than a thin façade nowadays), but almost all have been irrevocably marked by them.

As I wrote in the past:

So how are we then to define evangelical identity? I believe that a definition of evangelical identity must identify the historical roots of the movement – the movements of democratization and deinstitutionalization within Protestantism. It must identify the religious sensibilities and épisteme that form the distinctive driving force of the movement – democracy, egalitarianism, anti-institutionalism, immediacy, religious autonomy and individualism, and individual interpretative authority. It must identify the family resemblances of the movement that have arisen as the governing principles of evangelicalism have acted upon the Protestant tradition. These family resemblances are numerous, including everything from forms of church structure and styles of worship to pious idioms and political allegiances. It must identify the concrete manifestations and organs of the movement: its ‘cultural’ products, its affiliations, its conversations and controversies, agencies, organizations, etc.

The laudable defence of Christian orthodoxy has always sat uneasily upon the shifting sands of the sociological movement of evangelicalism. This defence has also displayed structural cracks resulting from these insecure underpinnings. Even against the desires of those seeking to direct it, the vehicle of the evangelical movement has consistently veered in the direction of democratic populism, a sort of religious consumerism, experientialism, and the breakdown of scriptural authority, as its practical operation becomes overly mediated by individual interpretation and sentiment. Even those committed to Christian orthodoxy are almost invariably deeply affected by these forces (Bebbington’s definition itself bears traces of their influence, as I intimated in this recent post).

Those fighting to maintain a prescriptive definition of evangelicalism are fighting a losing battle. For too long ‘evangelical’ has functioned as an increasingly ineffective shibboleth for Christian orthodoxy. So much effort has been expended upon policing the amorphous boundaries of this term, upon deciding who is in and who is out. When the highly contested and vague designation ‘evangelical’ is our chosen banner, the means by which we identify our tribe, a great many questionable lines will be drawn and dangerous alignments formed. A significant amount of error wriggles unseen beneath the cover of this unwieldy boundary marker. Overturning it and exposing that which it conceals to the light may allow us to form far healthier alliances and engage in far more rigorous criticism of deep error that exists near at hand.

Trump’s candidacy is just the latest and most dramatic revelation of the moral rot at the heart of the evangelical movement. However some might wish to salvage a prescriptive definition of ‘evangelical’, it will sound ever hollower to people who see the deep and shameful compromise of the movement with which they are unavoidably even though unwillingly associated. Besides, as with a vehicle whose rapidly mounting repair costs render it more of a liability than an asset, sentimentally clinging onto a term that is no longer effectively performing its primary functional purpose is deeply imprudent.

I believe that the time has come to abandon evangelicalism and make a determined return to orthodox Protestant Christianity identities and their more ecclesial adumbrations. The sociological vehicle for our pursuit of orthodoxy cannot be a matter of indifference. Even though we should recognize a genuine spiritual affinity with a great many brothers and sisters within the mass movement of evangelicalism, we need to take greater care over how we build. We need to shift the weight of our identity and our labours away from the mass movement and back towards the church and the task of forming a healthy and well-defined public.

At their best, evangelicals are already doing these things, and have been doing them for some time. However, it is important to define ourselves more carefully in the future and to draw key lines more clearly. We are being poorly served by the term ‘evangelical’ and I believe that we must find better forms of self-definition—institutional, terminological, confessional, and otherwise—to replace it.

About Alastair Roberts

Alastair Roberts (PhD, Durham University) writes in the areas of biblical theology and ethics, but frequently trespasses beyond these bounds. He participates in the weekly Mere Fidelity podcast, blogs at Alastair’s Adversaria, and tweets at @zugzwanged.
This entry was posted in Church History, Controversies, Culture, Ethics, Politics, Society, The Church, Theological. Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Has the Time Come to Abandon Evangelicalism?

  1. WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

    I would propose the key problem in American evangelicalism is that it’s fractured along pretty literal party lines. Partisans in the United States have labored to assimilate their religious approach into political alignments more than the other way around, although in polemics there’s no shortage of people who say their political engagement is a reflection of what they consider real spirituality to be. So as an American who still self-identifies as basically evangelical I think the problem is less with evangelicalism as historically defined than the blue state and red state pragmatic jingoism that has prevailed within large swaths of evangelicalism.

    Or perhaps I could float this idea that evangelicalism has preserved the conversionism and activism but has retained it in such a confined political realm obsessed with Anglo-American imperial concerns it no longer has anything more than a pragmatic and utilitarian concern with Biblicism and crucicentrism

    Since I went from attending Mars Hill to becoming a Presbyterian I don’t really contest that moving from a big tent general evangelicalism to a historically informed orthodox Protestant community is advisable. 🙂

  2. Caleb W says:

    What might that redefinition look like practically, especially in terms of parachurch organisations that have an identity that is “evangelical” without particular ecclesial roots? Take the Christian Union model of mission within the university setting, for example – should we stop CUs for church based student ministry? Or what would it mean for Christian publishers, to take another case study?

    I’m very sympathetic to the line of thinking you present, but I want to understand what the practical outworkings would be of “shifting the weight of our identity and our labours away from the mass movement and back towards the church and the task of forming a healthy and well-defined public”.

    • I don’t think that we can be clear exactly what shape it would take. That is a matter of contextual prudence and imagination.

      For instance, in the case of CUs, there are clear problems with the detachment of many CUs from the life of the church and with the manner in which immature young Christians are thrust into positions of great spiritual influence over their impressionable peers. There clearly is a need for the eldership role of local churches to be exercised here. Denominations have university ministries in various contexts (e.g. RUF in the US). A movement towards such a ministry be helpful. Interdenominational and interchurch ministries would also be possible, although these would be different from independent and non-denominational groups. In the case of Christian publishers, forming closer ties with churches or denominations would be a worthwhile change. Greater theological accountability is needed in a number of cases.

      All of this has obvious relevance to my own work on various levels. For instance, Mere Fidelity is listened to by thousands of people every week, having an audience larger than 99% of churches. However, it isn’t really accountable to any church, although all of the cast is on some level or other. This probably isn’t ideal.

    • A Pilgrim says:

      Considering over a third of evangelicals attend non-denominational churches, this realignment would be fairly drastic, I would think. That isn’t to say it isn’t needed; I’m in nigh complete agreement that our current circumstances are unacceptable.

  3. The Man Who Was . . . says:

    This is a rather silly article. 1. Trump isn’t especially bad, certainly not when compared with previous Evangelical supported Republican politicians. 2. We already knew that the Evangelicals, like Jerry Falwell, Jr., who really went all in for Trump were severely lacking.

    Bottom line: this will not lead to the abandoning of Evangelical identity.

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  5. Caleb,

    Those are some good practical questions. For the most part, I think CUs are already in a good position, at least from my experience of them. They emphasise the importance of joining and being involved in a local church and even run “Church searches” for new students. They build connections with local churches and have their pastors give talks on campus. They also encourage local churches to pray for them and where possible to send people to assist with events run during mission weeks.

    The main line of change which I think would be needed in terms of the CU movement would be a shift from an “evangelical” identity to a more broad “conservative protestant” identity. For instance, the UCCF doctrinal basis could in the sections on the Holy Spirit focus less on the individual and more on the Church as a whole (which is exactly what the creeds do). Being intentional about including Anglo-Catholics, Lutherans and other non-evangelical conservative Protestants as guest speakers would also be a very positive move.

    A similar line of thinking could apply to the evangelical alliance and other gospel partnership organisations. Instead of evangelical, they would consider themselves protestant. They would continue to have a valuable role in facilitating relationships between various denominations. Unless we think that inter-denominational relations should be completely unstructured and unmediated, which would be an absurd position.

  6. It’s intriguing to read these kinds of articles from an Antipodean vantage point. In my day-to-day life, “evangelical” is not used much outside of Christian circles. When talking to non-Christian people, “Christian” is the most common term, and the denomination is referenced when asking which church I attend. The term, “Christian”, is problematic in the media – even I cringed when a Christian minister identified himself as such before singing on Australia’s Got Talent – but on a personal level, there is little negative reaction – not much of a positive one either :).

    And yet, I have experienced very negative reactions in years past.

    My question is, why get rid of a problematic term? Unless you think the whole concept of evangelicalism is wrong, which I think you might be leaning heavily toward. Terminology goes through phases, including the word “Christian”. It may just fade away, as it seems to be doing where I live, or it may have a helpful resurgence. Do we really need to actively disengage from it? If we did, are we in danger of disowning not just ideas and positions, but people, too, who still identify with the label? I don’t believe our embarassment is any sort of reason to disassociate with those who embarass us.

    • WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

      Alistair not Alastair, I’m inclined to agree that dropping the term “evangelical” isn’t really justified. Political scuffles and “culture war” polarities have lent a meaning to “evangelical” that is not, strictly speaking, all that historically accurate–which is to say that evangelicalism being stereotyped as a right-wing/reactionary political movement is not necessarily a reliable guide to the history of evangelicalism as a whole. My own impression has been that if Americans drop their respective modes of red-state and blue-state jingoism that has been passed off as Christian belief that’s more important than jettisoning the term “evangelical”. It would also help if American evangelicals remembered that Christianity is actually global, not just vaguely Anglo-American.

      • cal says:

        I think it goes deeper than red/blue state jingoism, but to the kind of anxious nationalism that has marked American history from the beginning. Whether it’s the enslavement of Africans and its subsequent abolition, Indian extermination, trying to carve out a domain in the Americas viz. the Monroe Doctrine, the various approaches to European/Asia immigration/assimilation, international Imperialism to impress or overcome European empires, or the Cold War global defender mentality, among many others, Americans have an unstable identity. The Red/Blue divide is only a reflection of this. Where an identity is unstable or constantly contested/conflicted, this breeds overcompensation and anxiety.

        There’s a reason why American flag culture is reminiscent of Fascists or Totalitarian regimes, where a need to pledge and affirm loyalty is constantly in the air. Christianity enters this toxic mix and has only become an element of the disease. To stop the red/blue division is, in a sense, to reject a sense of Americanness. I’d say this is the prime neuroticism bred into those who live in this society, and is a corruption that gospel must overcome. But we’ll be shitty patriots for it.

      • WenatcheeTheHatchet says:

        cal, from October 9, 2016
        “… To stop the red/blue division is, in a sense, to reject a sense of Americanness. I’d say this is the prime neuroticism bred into those who live in this society, and is a corruption that gospel must overcome. But we’ll be shitty patriots for it.”

        Well, yes, I guess when you put it that way I’d say that rejecting the red/blue versions of American civic religion is to reject a sense of Americanness. Where the gospel of Jesus Christ is at stake patriotism is not a live option but a gruesomely false alternative. I think it’s a testament to how deluded the red and blue civic religions are that self-identified Christians in each regard themselves as the true guardians of the flame when what they are protecting is not Christianity but a particular strain of American patriotism. I agree the disease goes deeper than the red/blue divide, but thanks to the way our election cycles work people who are firmly red or blue tend to think it’s just the other side that manifests the problems when, at the risk of making another analogy, they’re possibly like the Pharisees and Sadducees. Christ has words that rebuke both teams.

  7. cal says:

    Conservative Protestant is itself equally problematic, due to it highlighting, essentially, two contrary positions rather than any robust positive statement (i.e. Conservative, not Liberal; Protestant, not Catholic). It lacks any kind of dynamism and depends on the adiaphoral treatment of ecclesiology, which is, and has proved to be, highly problematic. Also, it’s the adoption of a party, not necessarily belonging to an actual social entity. There is no Protestant Conservative Church (though Church bodies might be described as either Protestant and/or Conservative). I don’t think that’s a helpful source of unity, it’s just trying to police the fences. Because it will require the same mentality of the original Fundamentalists (not meant pejoratively, but historically) laying down a set of principles that intend to include but become seemingly arbitrary and exclusive.

    We have to ask ourselves why do we need the title? Christian has scriptural and traditional weight that affirms a core identity, Evangelical has contested origins and is a factional nomenclature. I don’t think it’s helpful or necessary and it’s evolved from being a moniker of an inner-ecclesial faction into a mask to cover the erasure of serious ecclesiology from many Protestants. So, if Alastair’s advice was followed, this might unmask the reality of American Christianity, which is becoming more and more apparent with the demographic rise of the Nones.

    I think the rise of the Nones will pan this out through our life time. Evangelicalism’s adiaphoral or incoherent ecclesiology will eventually evaporate as certain threads continue to unwind. The reason for “going to Church” continues to dwindle as the Zeitgeist moves on. Christianity in America has had a bizarre kind of Erastian relationship with the Nation-State, but through the market and not establishment. I think many American Christians are not much different than the stereotype of the rural Roman Catholic parish that has read the Bible and prays to Padre Pio and the fraudulent fingerbone of St. Paul before calling upon the name of Christ. This is both doom and gloom, but also a hope for the Church in the United States to detach from this idolatrous mentality.

    I think you’re approach is the right way, but it’s ugly. We believe in Capitalism over Catholicity, and ecclesial identities function as markets to sell you a brand (whether liberal or conservative politics, tradition or rock-and-roll praise teams, whatever niche suits your mood). As long as America is America, this will continue to exist, it’s in our DNA. I don’t know how to act within this, there’s not much of an ecclesial tradition to grab hold of or turn towards.


  8. Cal,
    How are you doing? I think, for the sake of safeguarding some kind of unity in mission, having a shared identity of some form would be helpful. But maybe a truly ecumenical endeavour would be even better. This would not be for the sake of sidelining ecclesiology, but for the sake of the gospel.

    • cal says:

      I understand the point, but I want to know why we need a mediating term between “Christian” and our particular ecclesial identity. That’s what would need justification and I’m not sure “Conservative Protestant” lacks sufficient warrant. And I also believe that ecclesiology is part of the gospel.

      And I’ve been alright, ups and downs. You should come by my blog or send me an email!

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  11. Melchizidek says:

    Do you really find it utterly impossible to vote for Trump as a Christian?

    As an Evangelical, I confess, I completely do not understand the supposed grave difficulty.
    It’s a very easy vote for me considering my alternative.

    For most conservative Christians, the decisive issue is going to abortion.
    Ex hypothesi, if you regard say, 350,000 state sanctioned murders a year to be a problem, and Trump presents a possible solution to this problem…well, I hope it’s not too difficult to see that there’s a lot you’d be willing to compromise on.

    There’s also the complete collapse of the anti-war left in America since Obama took office. We now have Democratic candidates who want to invade country after country and stir up conflicts with nuclear powers.

    Trump also being an instinctual, commonsense American sort, supports cultural Christianity, and instinctively defends Christian religious liberty. Dems will in due timel strip the churches and Christian colleges of their tax-exempt status, and force us to violate our conscience in all manner of ways.

    IYes, as an Evangelical, it’s really not a difficult decision at all to support Trump.

    • I can understand why someone would vote for Trump if they are considering the choice of presidential candidates as a prudential choice between the shape that the divine judgment upon America will take (cf. 2 Samuel 24:13). But I cannot see any genuine case to be made for Trump as a good president.

    • cal says:

      Even if one accepts your premises on the good of cultural Christianity, tax-exempt status for churches etc. I have to ask:

      Because the Reagan years were so good on all the promises made to the Moral Majority? Because he appointed judges that protected the unborn? All that instinctual, common-sense American sensibility made us the country that movies like Scarface, Wall Street, and American Psycho can rightly parody. When I travel down south I see billboards for 1800-JESUS-SAVES and strip clubs/sex-toy shops. That’s the heart-beat, I think.

      American deserves Donald Trump, the churches here are the harem of Babylon.

      • Christine (@Quinnjones2C) says:

        Hi Cal,
        ‘America deserves Donald Trump’ – his campaign is certainly highlighting divisions that already exist amongst US social conservatives, and the cracks are showing. I just hope that some good will come from this fraught situation. I just read this tweet from Andrew Wilson: ‘ Robert Jenson on Ezekiel: ” It was because he loved Jerusalem and never ceased to love her that he sent Nebuchadnezzar to destroy her.” ‘ I am not yet sure what I think about this altogether, but I will certainly be praying about it and reflecting on it.

        I have also been thinking this morning about the parable of the wheat and the tares and especially this : ‘Let both grow together until the harvest and at the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ” First gather together the tares and bind them into bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn.” ‘ Knowing that we can safely leave the judgement to God gives me peace. I also have a fear of the Lord and I pray for discernment about the ‘tares’ ( and hopefully also ‘wheat’ !) in my own heart.

        In the meantime US citizens are having to decide how to vote, and it is an anguished decision for many. You are in my prayers.

        I live in the UK. In addition to my concern about the US I am also concerned about the potential global ramifications of the election of the next POTUS, including the implications of this for the UK.
        The peace of the Lord be with you.

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