What Exactly is an Evangelical?
A Feature Review of
Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be
Mark Noll, David Bebbington, and George Mardsen, Eds.
Paperback: Eerdmans, 2019.
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Reviewed by Jeanne Torrence Finley
Up front I confess that I read this book as a progressive clergywoman baffled by the reported 81% “evangelical support” of Donald Trump in the 2016 election and beyond. I came to Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be with the questions that the subtitle proposes to answer: What are the differences between the evangelicals who voted for Trump and the ones who didn’t? What happened in the history of this movement that results in such wildly different understandings of Christian faith and practice, all described under the umbrella term evangelicalism?
The book didn’t disappoint. I discovered that many evangelicals ask the same kinds of questions and that there are no simple answers. I was left with a deep appreciation for the complexity of the issues, for the writers represented in this extensive anthology, and especially for the creative curation of editors Mark A. Noll, David W. Bebbington, and George Mardsen. These three globally respected historians bring their vast scholarship to address “the contemporary American controversies posing the greatest difficulties for a coherent, factual, and responsible understanding of ‘evangelicalism’” (1).
In the introduction co-editor Mark A. Noll, Research Professor of History at Regent College who previously taught at the University of Notre Dame, identifies three crises related to the word “evangelical.” The most obvious is the support that a huge majority of white U.S. evangelical Christians give to Donald Trump. When Daniel Deitrich’s “Hymn for the 81%” went viral in January, only a small percentage of followers of American politics failed to recognize its subject matter by its title alone. While not denying that support, Noll points out that pollsters usually identify evangelicals as those who say they were born again. Then he asks this question: “ . . . if significant numbers of African Americans have been born again and have been voting for Democrats–in even higher proportions and over a longer period of time than white evangelicals have voted for Republicans–how can anyone speak responsibly about “evangelical support” for Donald Trump?” (3).
Part 1, covering over half of the four–part book, deals with “The History of ‘Evangelical History” and leads off with co-editor George Marsden’s introduction to his 1984 Evangelicalism and Modern America. Marsden, professor emeritus of history at the University of Notre Dame, calls evangelicalism as a “conceptual unity” defined by its emphasis on five beliefs: “1) the Reformation doctrine of the final authority of Scripture; 2) the real, historical character of God’s saving work recorded in Scripture; 3) eternal salvation only through personal trust in Christ; 4) the importance of evangelism and missions; 5) the importance of a spiritually transformed life” (22-23).
Co-editor David Bebbington, Professor of History at the University of Stirling in Scotland and currently a visiting professor at Baylor University, has also articulated another widely used characterization of evangelicalism which is less theological and more descriptive than Marsden’s. He describes a “quadrilateral of priorities that is the basis of Evangelicalism” [a term capitalized in the U.K.]: “conversionism, the belief that lives need to be changed; activism, the expression of the gospel in effort; biblicism, a particular regard for the Bible; and what may be called crucicentrism, a stress on the sacrifice of Christ on the cross” (34).
The rest of Part 1 contains essays reflecting on the meaning of evangelicalism, the difficulties in defining it, and debates evoked by Mardsen’s and Bebbington’s descriptions of its characteristics. All of the writers in Part 1 focus on the long, rich, and complex history of evangelicalism.
The essays in Part 2 attempt to explain the origins and growth of evangelical support for Trump. The titles themselves are intriguing: “A Strange Love? Or: How White Evangelicals Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Donald” (Michael S. Hamilton); “Donald Trump and Militant Evangelical Masculinity “ (Kristin Kobes Du Mez); “The ‘Weird’ Fringe Is the Biggest Part of White Evangelicalism” (Fred Clark). Part 3 contains 5 essays that assess the meaning of evangelicalism today. Thomas Kidd asks whether the term is redeemable. Timothy Kelly reflects on whether evangelicalism can survive Donald Trump and says, “The movement may abandon, or at least demote, the prominence of the name, yet be more committed to its theology and historic impulses than ever” (255).
One of the most provocative essays in Part 3 is Molly Worthen’s “Idols of the Trump Era.” For it she interviewed Kaitlyn Schiess, a student at Dallas Theological Seminary and author of The Liturgy of Politics: Spiritual Formation for the Sake of Our Neighbor to be released later this year . Schiess describes a new ritual that has taken the place of Sunday worship and Bible studies–nightly viewing of conservative cable news. Worthen quotes Schiess: “The reason Fox News is so formative is that it’s this repetitive, almost ritualistic thing the people do every night. It forms in them particular fears and desires, an idea of America” (257). Worthen, intrigued by Schiess’ ideas, writes, “When I sought out conservative and progressive critics of white evangelical politics and asked them how to best understand it, this was their answer: pay attention to worship, both inside and outside of church, because the church is not doing its job. Humans thrive on ritual and collective acts of devotion. And the way we worship has political consequences” (257-58).
In his essay “To Be or Not to Be an Evangelical” Brian Stiller contends that the word evangelical has been “disfigured by political pundits, muddied by protestors from the left and right, and brought into dishonor by self-proclaimed spokespeople who excuse inappropriate behavior and language as the necessary price for political power. The center has shifted, and many Evangelicals now wonder where they fit” (273). Then he examines the term’s global nature, the way it defines “a major, self-conscious stream of Protestantism,” its roots and history, and the polarization with the U.S. and concludes that he will keep it because it will outlive the current controversy. However, he rejects the term’s baggage: “To impose this first world debate on hundreds of millions of Christians world-wide would be worse than a mistake; it would be a new form of first world intellectual colonialism” (277).
In Part 4 the editors reflect on how evangelical history might inform current American debates, George Marsden offers a global perspective on American evangelicalism, and David Bebbington reflects on the political history of British evangelicals. In the concluding essay Mark Noll writes, “In the United States, it may be the case that the ‘e-words’ should be put to rest for a season because of their excessive entanglement with national political controversy. But even where ‘evangelicals’ and evangelicalism’ lose their cogency in one location, it does not mean that the words are irrelevant for those with the world in view.”
To reflect on and appreciate this book is to live in the tension between the historical perspectives of Noll, Bebbington, and Marsden and the immediacy of the political / religious controversies in the U.S. I found myself wanting to skip over some of the historical essays to the ones about the current situation. At times I wished that the editors had found a way to integrate the historical with the contemporary. On the other hand, this tension is embedded in the nature of anthologies, and this one offers the equivalent of a college course on evangelicalism past and present. For those who seek to understand who evangelicals “have been, are now, and could be,” this book is an excellent place to start.
Jeanne Torrence Finley
Jeanne Torrence Finley has been a regular contributor to FaithLink, a weekly United Methodist curriculum on current affairs, and to Ministry Matters. The author of Three Simple Rules for Christian Living, she has been a campus minister, pastor, and college English teacher. Currently she is writing a book with Noel Paul Stookey—the “Paul” of Peter, Paul, and Mary— about his faith journey, solo music, and social activism. Connect with her on her website and blog, Tell It Slant
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