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Friday, October 23, 2009

What is Evangelicalism?

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

For anyone that has read my blog at any length, you are aware that one of my favorite topics is the "Christian Nation" debate. In today's pop-culture, everyone from religious leaders to politicians have weighed in on the topic. And while I do not believe that America is "Christian Nation" (such a belief sounds quite anti-Christian in my opinion) I do recognize that many groups do. And of course one of the main groups that advocate such a belief are American Evangelicals. But what exactly is their role? And, perhaps more importantly, what is Evangelicalism? Now, of course most people have a general idea of what Evangelicalism is. The doctrines are easy to find and easy to understand. With that said, I want to dive a little deeper into a different interpretation of Evangelicalism and particularly its role in developing the "Christian Nation" thesis.

At first glimpse, Evangelicalism may appear to have nothing to do with the Christian Nation debate. However, when we realize its massive role in developing a general consensus amongst a variety of different faiths, we can see that Evangelicalism is at the very heart of the debate. And when we understand how Evangelicalism breeds a particular definition of what it means to be "Christian," we can see how so many people are able to accept (albeit incorrectly in my opinion) how the founding fathers were, in their opinion, Evangelical Christians themselves.

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 definition 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 Founding Fathers 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, for these Evangelical apologists, a Christian. Maybe Ben Franklin had doubts as to Christ's divinity, lived a life of questionable morals, etc. but he was, by their definition, a Christian. Maybe Patrick Henry and James Madison differed greatly on their understanding and practice of religion, but both men were, by their definition, Christian men. Maybe Thomas Paine hated priests and pastors and wrote scathing commentaries on religion, but he was, by this definition, a Christian. In other words, the somewhat hazy definition behind Evangelical Christianity allows a lot of "wiggle room" for the founders to be considered Christians. 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? I think so.


Jared A. Farley said...

Well since this is the topic I am suppose to have considerable knowledge in let me take a crack at both of these issues.

First, my favorite definition of what constitutes an evangelical is from British historian David Bebbington (1989). He suggests that historically evangelicals have been those traditional Protestant Christians who adhere to four distinctive theological views and practices: 1) the necessary importance of an ADULT conversion experience (being-born again), 2) a view that the Bible is the "Word of God" and it is invested with ultimate religious authority concerning the Church, 3) the need for missionary work to save souls (evangelicalism), and 4) an emphasis on Jesus' sacrifice on the cross and bodily resurrection from the dead.

I believe the reason why the second dictionary definition simply says protestant is because the term evangelical was first used by German Christians as another word for Protestants (Lutherans). The term is still used in that sense in much of Germany and other parts of central Europe.

Now here's my take on the connection between white evangelicalism and the Christian Nation debate. As Ronald Sider (2004), myself (2006):), and Peter Goodwin Heltzel (2009) have both pointed out, the rise of the evangelical right in the United States was a backlash against two things- the counter-culture and the civil rights movement of the 1960s. White evangelical Protestantism was the dominant cultural standard and enjoyed a de facto privileged position in American society until the 1960s. Suddenly, the standards that community treasured came under attack by the counter-culture and their privileged position (both real and symbolic) was challenged by the civil rights movement. This was especially troublesome for the vast majority of white evangelicals who lived in the rural areas of the South, which they had dominated culturally for many decades. Also, remember that suddenly television was bringing into their homes images and messages that they could no longer control.

What resulted was a defensive reaction against "the Other(s)" in American society. Previously, fights had always been between white Christian Americans with similar values and the "Other" to fear was Communists. Now, most white evangelicals' sense of security and dominance was under attack from within the United States.

The Christian Nation crap started as a way for TRUE AMERICANS to identify themselves with the founding of the country in a further attempt to define those who do not share their faith and cultural values as "the Other"...as outsiders...as un-American.

Notice that most African American evangelicals don't participate in this Christian Nation b.s. because they don't need the psychological comfort in the face of losing their privileged position and cultural dominance in our society.

This also explains why the economic explanation offered by Barber makes sense. Evangelicals love this stuff (and purchase it) because it makes them feel superior and important.

Brad Hart said...

Thanks, Jared. I agree with everything you just said. I actually wrote a paper for my M.A. that put the "Christian Nation" crap into the context of Benedict Anderson's Imagined Communities thesis. During my research I came across a ton of stuff that agrees with what you are saying about this movement being a backlash of sorts during the 60s.

Great point about Black evangelicals. I never thought of that, but an excellent point!

Barb said...

Couldn't you say that evangelicals crosses religious boundaries also? I know a few Baptists that believe in the Christian Nation.

Brad Hart said...

Yes, Barb. That's essentially what I would define Evangelicalism as being. It encompasses Christian faiths of various different sects.