What I've Been Sayin'

Talk about epistemological uncertainty:

“The term ‘evangelical’ is squishy because people use the term differently,” Green said in an email. “This is not uncommon — think of words like ‘middle class,’ ‘moderate,’ or ‘extreme.'” (Indeed, in one recent survey, 87 percent of Americans saw themselves as some form of “middle class.”)

Consider that a Catholic could easily believe in spreading his or her faith, as Bailey does, or leading a godly life, like Lemieux does. And, indeed, Catholics will sometimes self-identify as “evangelical,” according to Smith. But by many religious or denominational definitions, Catholics are not evangelicals.

Even within the confines of Protestantism, “evangelical” does not always mean evangelical. Members of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America — the largest Lutheran denomination in the U.S. — are mainline protestants, according to Pew’s denominational definition.

To add to the confusion, here’s another wrinkle: Missouri and Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are considered evangelical. (Another curveball: they don’t necessarily go to church in Missouri and Wisconsin.)

Sound familiar?

. . . the assertion that evangelicalism is largely a constructed ideal without any real substance is highly debatable. Part of what makes such a point contested is almost sixty years of publications, organizations, and Protestant leaders from an evangelical perspective, cheerleading for the cause. How can anyone reasonably state that evangelicalism is the creation of certain beholders’ imaginations when magazines such as Christianity Today and Books & Culture, schools such as Wheaton College, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, and Fuller Seminary, and organizations such as the National Association of Evangelicals and the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association not only exist but thrive? If evangelicalism is not the best way to describe these institutions, some may ask, then what is? What is more, if these agencies are evangelical then evangelicalism, ipso facto, must be real; it must stand for a certain strand of Christian faith and practice.

Another factor that makes questioning evangelicalism’s reality difficult is the large number of North Americans who regard themselves as evangelical. In 1976, the so-called “Year of the Evangelical” (another indication of something really there), the Gallup Organization started asking respondents the following question: “would you describe yourself as a ‘born-again’ or evangelical Christian?” The initial response from the 1,000 Americans surveyed was an impressive 34 percent. Since then the annual responses have varied, with 1987 representing the low point (33 percent) and 1998 the high (47 percent). The responses from the 2001 survey yielded a still sturdy figure of 40 percent of Americans who considered themselves to be evangelical. Scholars of American religion, never slow to spot a trend, have picked up on such statistics to churn out a remarkable range of studies devoted to this sizeable segment of the American population. Religious historians, for instance, have charted the fortunes of evangelicalism since its emergence in the eighteenth-century North American British colonies. Meanwhile, sociologists of American religion have documented recent manifestations of evangelical zeal in electoral politics as well as everyday domestic life. So again, readers could well ask, before donating this book to the local public library’s annual book sale, who would be so foolish as to challenge so many signals indicating the existence and vitality of this religious phenomenon called evangelicalism?

Yet, the central claim of Deconstructing Evangelicalism is precisely to question the statistics and scholarship on evangelicalism. The reason is not simply to be perverse or provocative. Good reasons exist for raising questions about whether something like evangelicalism actually exists. In the case of religious observance, evangelical faith and practice have become increasingly porous, so much so that some born-again Christians have left the fold for more historic expressions of the Christian faith, such as Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Anglicanism. At the same time, in the sphere of religious scholarship, evangelicalism has become such a popular category of explanation that it has ceased to be useful. Better reasons, however, may also be offered for looking behind the evangelical facade to see what is really there. As the following chapters attempt to show, evangelicalism has been a religious construction of particular salience during the late twentieth century. The general contractors in building this edifice were the leaders of the 1940s neo-evangelical movement who sought to breathe new life into American Christianity by toning down the cussedness of fundamentalism while also tapping conservative Protestantism’s devotion and faith. Yet, without the subcontractors in this construction effort, the neo-evangelical movement would have frayed and so failed much quicker than it did. The carpenters, plumbers, and painters in the manufacturing of evangelicalism have been the historians, sociologists and pollsters of American religion who applied the religious categories developed by neo-evangelicals to answer the questions their academic peers were asking about Protestantism in the United States. The emergence of evangelicalism as a significant factor in American electoral politics did not hurt these efforts and, in fact, may have functioned as the funding necessary for completing the evangelical edifice. Especially after the election of Ronald Reagan as President in 1980 and the formation of the so-called Religious Right, religious leaders and religion scholars had a much easier time than before convincing skeptical academics, policy wonks, publishers and pundits that evangelicalism was a given of American life, a thriving movement, and therefore important.

Consequently, evangelicalism as the term is used is a construct developed over the last half of the twentieth century. Prior to 1950 the word had not been used the way religious leaders and academics now use it. And even then it was not a coherent set of convictions or practices. For that reason its construction is as novel as it is misleading. This book offers an explanation of why evangelicalism as currently used became a useful category for journalists, scholars and believing Protestants. But it is more than simply an account of a specific word’s usage. It is also an argument about the damage the construction of evangelicalism has done to historic Christianity. As much as the American public thinks of evangelicalism as the “old-time religion,” whether positively or negatively, this expression of Christianity has severed most ties to the ways and beliefs of Christians living in previous eras. For that reason, it needs to be deconstructed.

6 thoughts on “What I've Been Sayin'

  1. But then again, being “Reformed” is a bit squishy also

    Mark Jones—I sometimes worry that their zeal for Confessional fidelity…. The better versions of hypothetical universalism – which differ from the views of Amyraut or Cameron – are practically indistinguishable from certain versions of particular redemption. John Owen was actually the novel theologian when he wrote The Death of Death.


    William Evans—”Many Reformed theologians have sought to protect the gratuity of justification by temporally sequestering it from transformation of life so as to underscore that justification cannot depend upon sanctification … But the result is that justification is abstracted from the ongoing life of faith. Thus it is that a good deal of conservative Reformed theology has been more or less unable to give a coherent account of the Christian life…..Much more satisfactory is the EARLY REFORMED CONCEPTION of the believer’s participation in Christ’s resurrection justification that has been more recently retrieved by Geerhardus Vos, Richard Gaffin, and others…


  2. http://www.amazon.com/Deconstructing-Evangelicalism-Conservative-Protestantism-Graham/dp/B0046LUNOM

    Westminster Theological Seminary’s Hart is a conservative Presbyterian, but he’d rather not be called an “evangelical.”

    That no doubt comes as a great relief to evangelicals. 😉

    In a particularly strong chapter on the methods of pollsters, Hart points out that they have set the bar for qualifying as an “evangelical” so low that they undoubtedly exaggerate Americans’ devotion to traditional Christianity. Hart’s thesis is true as far as it goes, but like some other “deconstructionists” he seems dogmatically unwilling to admit that even imperfect categories can be useful. This book will exhilarate or exasperate readers who have a vested interest in Hart’s conclusions; anyone else will wonder what the fuss is about.–Publisher’s Weekly

    It’s like pornography, you know it when you see it. There are a number of liberal academics who also claim to be evangelicals, but their silence on Christian concerns and monomania in attacking the worst of the Religious Right is…well, anti-evangelical.

    Consider that a Catholic could easily believe in spreading his or her faith, as Bailey does, or leading a godly life, like Lemieux does. And, indeed, Catholics will sometimes self-identify as “evangelical,” according to Smith. But by many religious or denominational definitions, Catholics are not evangelicals.

    True, as J Budziszewski of the University of Texas points out [and Pope Francis has recently indicated], the priority is not to drag the already-baptized across the Tiber, especially in a historically “Protestant nation” like America:

    Q: Has anything surprised you about being Catholic? Have there been any difficult adjustments?

    Budziszewski: There have been many adjustments, but they seem more like an adventure than a difficulty. One thing we’ve found is that it takes much longer to learn Catholic culture than Catholic doctrine. There are so many things that we had misunderstood!

    For example, when we first began to visit Catholic parishes, we had the reaction most Protestants do: They seemed cold. You go in, and no one but the greeter says anything to you. You sit down, and at the end of the service everyone leaves. We concluded from this that parish community doesn’t exist. What we’ve discovered is that this isn’t true. Parish community exists, but it doesn’t manifest itself at the door as it does in Protestant congregations. It manifests itself in the multitude of ongoing ministries. That is where you meet people and form friendships.

    One Sunday after Mass at St. Mary’s Cathedral, our Austin home parish, we found our perspective turning upside-down when a new acquaintance warmly said to us, “I’ve noticed you coming for several months, and I’ve wanted to talk with you so much, but I was afraid of speaking for fear of scaring you away.” I’m absolutely convinced that she was sincere. She plainly wanted us to become part of the community, but we wouldn’t have known it. What might have seemed like chilliness was really an expression of her warmth. It was rather touching, rather amusing, and a little bit bizarre, like finding yourself in a tribe where you express your gratitude for the meal by belching loudly.

    Q: It’s also a different style of welcome, isn’t it? You can come into a parish church and sit in the back anonymously, and you’re free to do that; no one will bother you.

    Budziszewski: That’s right. The idea is, “Take your time. We’re not going to greet you so aggressively that you become alarmed and run away.” You have to appreciate the consideration in that.

    While getting used to these fascinating aspects of Catholic culture, we’ve also been “translating” them for our Protestant friends. Let me tell you about one of our most interesting experiences as translators…


  3. [cont’d]

    The ex-Protestants here like the nice Catholic ladies are frequently asked what they’re doing here at Darryl’s dinner party. It goes something like this…

    While getting used to these fascinating aspects of Catholic culture, we’ve also been “translating” them for our Protestant friends. Let me tell you about one of our most interesting experiences as translators.

    The modern university, you know, is an aggressively agnostic place–operationally atheist, if not theoretically atheist. People of faith often feel isolated on the university campus. This is especially true of graduate students. So for several years my wife and I have hosted a weekly meeting in our home for Christian graduate and professional students in various disciplines. We supply the dinner; they supply the discussion.

    Most of these young people are conservative Evangelicals. When they found that Sandra and I were becoming Catholic, they were stunned, simply floored. They couldn’t believe that we were no longer Christians, but they couldn’t believe that Catholicism was Christian, either.

    Discussion at these dinners is wide open, so they knew that they were free to raise their concerns. For weeks, the only topic they wanted to discuss was their objections to Catholicism. It was a great introduction to Catholic apologetics. We view it as part of our catechesis. To answer all those questions, we had to learn a lot, really fast.

    It was also fun. We saw barriers dissolving and prejudices breaking up. Another interesting result was that the Catholic members of the group, who had always felt outnumbered, found their voice–and grew, unexpectedly, closer to the others…



  4. The day I saw Rachael Held Evans on one of the morning talk shows with the words “evangelical Christian Author” at the bottom of the screen, I knew that if the term ever did have any meaning useful to me, it clearly did not anymore.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.