I’m an evangelical (I think I am) surrounded by former and might-be evangelicals. An enduring question for at least some of us is whether we still think of ourselves as evangelicals — what is gained and lost in doing so. And that question is actually two questions disguised as one: whether we indeed aspire to be evangelicals and, if so, whether the label retains any utility in describing however it is that we like to think of ourselves.
Anyone interested in the American religious scene will know that “evangelical” is a disputed category and that it is likely to remain so for the foreseeable future. In fact, it is almost certain to remain a disputed category long after it remains a coherent category. To invoke “evangelical” is to speak of at least three phenomena or some combination thereof:
- a contemporary subculture
- a historical movement
- a kind of churchmanship.
There is no answering the “evangelical question” apart from such distinctions or something like them.
In its most pedestrian use, evangelicalism is a phenomenon of American culture, a populist religious subculture having a certain moral, social, and political ethos. Its influences and influencers are, like its “membership,” unofficial and informal; its leadership is self-appointed or anointed by market forces. It is a networked subculture that holds an incomprehensibly wide variety of religious commitments in a remarkable kinship. To be sure, those religious commitments are not incidental to the movement’s identity, and both the kinship and the diversity are on display in the members’ obligation to criticize and admonish one another, precisely because they intuit that they are “together members of one body.” Albert Mohler and Rachel Held Evans worry about each other, but evangelicals do not lose sleep over the World Council of Churches or the Ecumenical Patriarch. This profound subcultural affinity defies explanation, but is not less real for that. It is how news outlets can refer to “evangelical voters” as though evangelicals vote en bloc, because, well, if we choose to define the entity this way, they sort of do.
If this is evangelicalism, it is fairly easy to answer if I am or wish I were an evangelical. The answer is “not really.” No, I don’t have much of an affinity for subcultural evangelicalism. It’s not the kind of music I listen to. My car radio is not preset to K-LOVE. When I want to hear music that all sounds the same, I listen to Vivaldi. Mark Driscoll’s fall from grace (?) didn’t make me sad (or happy), and I haven’t read Rob Bell’s latest book, or his earliest, or any of the ones in between, if there are some. It does not occur to me to criticize Joel Osteen (though I marvel at his appeal), but neither do I tune in to the Gospel Coalition or other kindred Young, Reformed, and Restless outlets (settle down, boys!). I don’t think there is anything in Family Christian (formerly Book-)Stores that I would buy (I tried once five years ago and came up empty, but I confess that it warms my heart to see men carrying Bibles in zipper covers into church … not that I could do it myself). I don’t care for the ubiquitous kitsch and sentimentality of the spirituality of subcultural evangelicalism, the insincere patina of sincerity, the unceasing earnestness and the needless anxiety it underwrites. And politically, the more identified with the evangelical movement a candidate is, the more mystified I find myself. So when I say, as sometimes I do, that I am an evangelical, this is not what I mean, although it may well be what people hear.
Before evangelicalism was the mainstream cultural phenomenon it has become, it was something more specific. North American evangelicalism is a post-fundamentalist coalition that subtly differentiated itself from the movement that launched it, even while sharing an almost complete theological homogeneity with it. While still affirming The Fundamentals, whence fundamentalism derived its name, evangelicals would eschew the natural impulse for ecclesial and cultural separatism and would gingerly walk back from fundamentalism’s bent toward obscurantism. This evangelicalism would function as a living remonstrance to a theologically compliant mainline Protestantism at the height of its cultural powers but at an ebb in its theological discernment.
This post-WWII development was aided and embodied by the flourishing of cooperative inter-denominational parachurch organizations and institutions — youth and campus ministries, denominationally unattached (or loosely attached) colleges and seminaries, ascendant book publishers and periodicals such as Eternity and Christianity Today. Perhaps above all it was Billy Graham as a public figure whose cooperative and populist approach to evangelism, along with his political neutrality, would become the movement’s face and touchstone. (Despairing of a workable definition for “evangelical,” more than a few times historians of American religion have suggested that “people who like Billy Graham” might be the most reliable criterion.)
If this is evangelicalism and if it is to some degree distinguishable from the subculture it spawned, then I think I might sign on. Well, in fact I don’t need to sign on, being a card-carrying member since birth, having been made suspect only recently by the company I keep. It could be argued that the flourishing of this evangelicalism is the defining American religious happening of our lifetimes. If the twentieth century did not turn out quite to be the Christian Century (oops), in North America it turned out to be the Evangelical century, not that this hadn’t happened before. Spurred by Graham’s irrepressible but winsome zeal, chastened by Harold Ockenga and Carl Henry’s “uneasy conscience,” and fine-tuned by John Stott’s equanimity, this movement had legs, especially when it chose for itself its better magisterium.
To be sure, something more than theology accounts for the tectonic ecclesial shifts of the last half-century — the extraordinary ascent of evangelicals and Pentecostals and the precipitous decline of the mainline — but the wisdom of evangelicalism’s more sagacious architects is vindicated by her children. Even for all of its many flaws and lampoonable foibles, evangelicalism is arguably the best thing to happen to Christianity in that same era, not to say the best thing that could have happened.
But if I am invited to identify with that movement, it is not so simple. It is not clear that the movement just described exists any more — as a movement, that is. It could be argued that it is a victim of its own success, that evangelicalism is now the North American mainline church, and that at the height of its powers it is ebbing in discernment and in the process of spending down its real capital. Whether the authentic genius of evangelicalism lay in its revivalism (the saving of souls) or in its Reformation zeal (the saving of solas), there are abundant signs that populism ultimately triumphed over pietism. The disciplined heart religion so easily devolves into sentimentality, evangelistic zeal to cynical technique. And although most of its institutions survive and many continue to flourish, if evangelicalism was once hard to define, it is now impossible. You can’t join this club even if you want to. You can affiliate with some part of it; there just isn’t an it. There is a parable in Franklin’s succession to the Graham legacy.
But from yet another vantage, evangelicalism is descriptive of a family of theologies and a churchmanship. Here, for a Catholic Anglican, is where things get sticky, because “evangelical” has been, and to some extent remains, the primary theological alternative to Catholic. There remains a disconcertingly stubborn instinct in this proud “both/and” Anglican theological sensibility to use “evangelical” and “Catholic” as though zero sum counterparts. Somehow Catholic cred is at stake should one be tainted by biblicism or (the horror) personal evangelism or other tacky things. And “evangelical” is too easily confused for or reduced to liturgical subtractions or allergies to things Roman, even when Rome can lay no specific claim to them and the magisterial Reformers had no objection with them. To be sure, the disjunction has deep and proud historical roots, but too often it is simply a kind of kneejerk laziness, and the bifurcation is a luxury we can no longer afford — if we ever could.
Of course, I don’t pretend that there are no tensions between these churchmanships. I only think that the really valid conflicts are relatively few once each of the ecclesial counterparts is relieved of its duty as foil. Meanwhile, the evangelical movement — for all of its theological sola-hyperbole (sometimes less is just less), for all of its faux primitivism, for all of its subcultural kitsch and grating hype — still sits on vivifying gifts that could be all of ours should we welcome them or should we become reacquainted with the part of that inheritance that cannot be outgrown.
So am I an evangelical? Yes. With God as my helper.
The featured image is a poster from the Beggerstaff Brothers (1893-1899). It is licensed under Creative Commons.