If Not Evangelical, What?

The emergence of evangelicalism as a political lobby may have also spelled the demise of this particular faith because it diverted born-again Protestants attention from spiritual to temporal realities.

Today the term evangelical in the USA means (supposedly) conservative in politics, and hence “Votes Republican.” This definition is not going away. The political folks have won. Let the political evangelicals have the term. Everyone else walk away. Call yourself something else. Perhaps Christian will come back in vogue.

 

The idea of abandoning evangelicalism is not new.

Low Tide

How is it that a religious movement, begun in the decade after World War II, that appears to be running out of gas, caught on at exactly the same time with people who would normally rank as some of the most skeptical and irreligious? One obvious answer is politics. Evangelicalism came to national attention when believers claiming that identity entered the drama (stage right, of course) of electoral politics. That occurrence gave academics who study religion in the United States lots of material to analyze. The emergence of evangelicalism as a political lobby may have also spelled the demise of this particular faith because it diverted born-again Protestants attention from spiritual to temporal realities. The last claim is clearly contested and involves questions about the nature of Christianity and a believer’s social duties. Still, the simultaneity of dissatisfaction among people in the pew (and some in the pulpit) with evangelicalism and born-again Christianity’s value as a tool of scholarly analysis is striking. It is a coincidence that invites reflection on the way Protestant leaders and academics have used the evangelical label. First, it was a concept that first less belligerent fundamentalists constructed to fashion an alternative to the mainline churches (read: liberal Protestantism), and second scholars eventually adopted it as a way to account for greater nuance within American Protestantism. As a construction, however, post-World War II evangelicalism has always been little more than an abstraction. It lacked the specificity of institutional life where card carrying members pay dues and live with the threat of certain sanctions. Evangelicalism has no post office box. There is no there there.

Abstractions have their usefulness, however. Over the last six decades of the twentieth century evangelicalism proved its resourcefulness primarily as a category that signified numerical mass and therefore influence. For born-again Protestants evangelicalism provided a sense of belonging to a movement much larger than the local congregation or even the national denomination. Evangelical Protestantism represented the whole spectrum of conservative Protestants who would not bow to the memoranda coming out of the National Council of Churches. It also stood for the faith of regular Americans, mainstream ones — in today’s vernacular, Red America in contrast to the mainline’s Blue America. As such, evangelicalism gave vigor to Protestants who lacked the Protestant establishment’s considerable clout. It also motivated those Protestants who identified with the movement to band together and recover the United States’ religious heritage. These were stimulants that obviously Lutheranism, Anglicanism, Presbyterianism or Pentecostalism, for instance, could not provide. Denominational labels left Protestants divided. The abstraction evangelicalism promised unity and more — unity for action.  Continue reading…