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.
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.